IT IS said that Venice is sinking because of rising sea levels. Walking around the city, it seems in more imminent danger of sinking under the weight of its 25m annual visitors. With a permanent population of just 56,000, the city is given over to tourism.
A victim of its own popularity, Venice can feel overrun. Crowds file through museums exhibiting the great Renaissance painters — Veronese, Titian, Bellini and Tintoretto. They push and shove onto the vaporettos (water buses), where they are charged far higher fares than the locals. They eat in overpriced restaurants that churn out pizza, pasta, fish, chicken, steak as per the patter of the men employed to lure tourists into rows of identical eateries.
Those seeking a more authentic experience of La Serenissima (the serene city) need to explore the narrow calle and alleyways in neighbourhoods that are more residential than filled with “sights”. As for eating, some of the most satisfying food is served in small restaurants or osterie where there are no laminated menus translated into umpteen languages with accompanying photographs.
Just a few streets away from the crowds and pigeons on St Mark’s Square is one of Venice’s best restaurants. Alle Testiere has been serving seafood for over 20 years. Seating only 24 diners, the restaurant occupies a small room with lace curtains hanging at the windows, as is traditional in Venice. The restaurant is renowned for its fish — even the pumpkin ravioli is served with a red tuna ragout.
Grilled razor clams, gnocchi with monkfish cheeks and scallops with shredded leek, orange and sundried tomato were just the starters. Prawns came with an Asian touch of ginger and coriander. Sea bream in lemon butter was adorned with capers and black olives. A platter of grilled fish and crustaceans was served simply with a good slug of a grassy olive oil. The ingredients were left to sing for themselves.
But converting the bill into rands might send South Africans in search of spiritual support. There are few better places to seek solace than the perfectly formed church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli. It lacks the Baroque splendour of the Salute Basilica, the mosaics of St Mark’s or the artistic riches of the Madonna dell’Orto with its plethora of Tintorettos. Yet it is one of the most beautiful churches in a city so rich in ecclesiastical splendour.
Situated near the Rialto bridge in the neighbourhood of Cannaregio, the Miracoli church is decorated with remarkable marble panelling which lends it a decidedly contemporary feel. Light floats in from high windows illuminating balustrades exquisitely carved with leaves, plants and figures. The crucifixes, set into the walls, are made from round marble discs. The interior looks so modern that it is hard to believe that the church was built in the 1480s. It is a peaceful retreat from the tourist-laden streets outside and well worth seeking out.
Venice is synonymous with its Biennale, which draws hundreds of thousands of art lovers to explore what is new in contemporary art. Many of Venice’s galleries are located in buildings that rival the art for beauty. The Punta Della Dogana is situated in a previously disused customs house at the edge of the Dorsoduro neighbourhood, with a magnificent view over to St Mark’s Square and Isola Maggiori. The interior has been transformed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and exhibits some of the collection of François Pinault, a French businessman who owns one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary art. The internal space is stunning — all wooden beams, brick and glass — and the views over the city alone are worth the entrance fee.
Leaving the gallery, walk along the waterfront of the Zattere. Find a pavement bar, grab a seat alongside the water and order a Spritz. Much loved by Venetians, this bright orange aperitif is a mix of Aperol or Campari with white wine and sparkling water. Sitting in the sun, watching the boats go by, might just be the most authentically Venetian moment of the holiday.
Nearby is the Cantine del Vino già Schiavi, a bacaro (wine bar) with one of the largest assortments of cichetti in town. These small bar snacks sell for €2 apiece. Along with an ombra (a small glass of wine) for €1, this is one of the cheapest ways to enjoy traditional Venetian cuisine. Alongside the canal, next to a bridge, the setting is picturesque. Across the waterway you can watch gondolas being repaired while snacking on thin slices of baguette with a choice of 25 different toppings. Try ricotta with pumpkin, baccalà (salt cod) mousse or shrimp with artichoke and truffle. Paired with a glass of prosecco as a mid-morning pit stop, this is la dolce vita, Venetian style.
Close by in one direction lies the Accademia museum filled with a magnificent array of Renaissance art. In the other is the Peggy Guggenheim museum for modern art. The visitor is spoilt for choice as Venice provides a feast for the eye as well as the stomach.
When in need of a sweet treat, stop in at one of several ice cream outlets called Grom, a company from Turin. Here we found our favourite gelato. The coffee flavour tasted like an iced espresso, the fig was deeply fruity, while the dark chocolate was sumptuously rich.
Critics of Venice have complained that it has become like Disneyland, a city stuck in the past, catering now for the needs of its vast tourist population. Yet Venice has a magical beauty that draws the visitor back to its shores.
In the evenings the vaporettos are less crowded. Take a trip up the Grand Canal to gaze at the palazzi that line this majestic waterway. Best of all, walk the streets as this is a city that is both picturesque and photogenic.
The changing light and colour of the water, the gondolas plying their trade, the ochre palette of the buildings; unlike Disneyland, this is all real and steeped in history. It is uplifting, exhilarating and life enhancing.