An Insider's Guide To Venice Reveals Meditative Moments In One Of The Wold's Most Visited Cities

06/05/2015 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

By Paolo Apice
Photo credits: ©Courtesy City of Venice.

One of the most visited cities in the world is changing before our eyes, swallowing up quarters and rethinking its dry land. If you're visiting Expo in Milan, it's also a great opportunity to visit nearby Venice and discover some of the city's unsuspected sides.

The Cathedral and Bell tower of San Marco.

Discovering Venice
Decadent. Expensive. With little soul. And crowded. With tourists, obviously. These are the mixed blessings of the Venetians, if not of the tourists themselves, who in 2015, between Expo and Biennale, will number 30 million. There will be so many tourists, in fact, that the more than 500 tourist facilities on offer won’t be able to cope with demand. Described in this way, Venice is a stressful boat to board. On the contrary, it can be a relaxing surprise.

Gondole in the laguna.

Often the traveler looks for hidden, extraordinary places. In reality, the Serenissima should be savored day by day -- nose in the air. For example, “There are in Venice three magical hidden places: one in Calle dell’Amor degli Amici, a second near to Ponte delle Maravegie, the third in Calle dei Marrani, near to San Geremia Ghetto Vecchio. When Venetians are tired of the authorities, they go in these three secret places and, opening the doors to be found at the end of those courtyards, they go forever in beautiful places and in other stories.” And so ends Favola di Venezia, the 25th of the adventures written by Hugo Pratt.

Venetian Ghetto.

Among these beautiful places, even non-believers recognize the salvation of the churches. They're perfect for those moments in which you don’t know what you want and you need time with your thoughts. “And, damn, in silence. Increasingly more difficult today,” Hemingway loved to say, bewitched by the lagoon.

In meditative moments it would be enough to enter into the monumental space of the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory, in Campo Santo Stefano. You can close your eyes and listen to the sound of the musical instruments coming from the rehearsal rooms. It's a feeling straight from a film.

Rialto Bridge.

At only five minutes walking distance from the station you arrive in the Cannaregio district, which is, like Castello, one of the most “red” districts: popular and populous. On crowded days, at a short walk from the Ponte delle Guglie, like a charm, you'll find tranquillity. When Venetian ladies arrange to meet here, they specify “In front of Glamour” -- a clothing shop that has become a reference point even for tourists. Yes, in Venice directions always make a reference to a business. To ask for the Ponte San Giovanni Grisostomo doesn’t say much. But to ask for the Ponte dei Giocattoli (as a result of the craft that was practised there), says everything. It’s better to conform.

Walking along Cannaregio, passing through the Jewish ghetto, you can go along the sidewalk of the Ormesini and the Misericordia. There are lots of small bars to have an aperitif at or to stop and have a chat. If you stay here, in the morning go for breakfast to Pitteri, in Strada Nuova. Deborah and Barbara know everyone by name and the regulars will already be listening to Radio Venezia. Leaving, give a small offering to Ciccio Marea, the most photographed tramp in the world, who in the summer stretches out on the ground to sunbathe.

Next, take a ferry to Santa Sofia and a gondola to get to Rialto. In one of the most famous markets on the planet, the seagulls put on a show, fluttering around the fish stalls. As an alternative to a gondola, take the water bus from Cà d’Oro to Rialto Mercato: the journey is interesting when the boat is full. You can hear the Venetians swearing -- they want it for themselves, with no tourists. The monologues on the comedy duo Carlo and Giorgio, the references to the site “,” and the remarks on local habits and customs are all educational.

Ca' Foscari.

Skipping the main route from Rialto to San Marco, and setting off in the direction of the Biennale, you arrive in Via Garibaldi: the gateway to the Castello district. Around you washing is hung everywhere. Mothers with their hair dyed improbable colors chase shouting children who often answer to Maicol, Chevin… Bars and restaurants of a dubious appearance sport fake formica, East German style. In the distance a flea market floats on the boats.

Very often whoever goes to the Biennale believes that this is all a part of it, a display. But also in Piazza San Marco there is something new to discover. At the entrance to the church, among the attendants, is Lauro. In his life he has done other things. He was one of the last teachers of the art of Venetian jewelry-making. Then one day he saw the Virgin Mary. Just like that, his life changed. You can tell him about your wish to visit the San Francesco in the Desert convent. In that case, wake up at dawn, for the life of the Franciscan brothers begins early. With a mentioned donation and polite requests, it’s even possible to spend a night in one of their small cells. It's a mystical experience to then return to Venice, walking by night and only hearing one’s own footsteps. Return to the stench of the low tide, a calle sconta, the fish risotto in the La Madonna restaurant, to the Rialto bridge, and dinners with Tony at the Trattoria Storica, close to the Jesuits.

Aerial view of La Giudecca island.

Now we understand that in the last 20 years, the Serenissima has changed drastically. Irrespective of what people may say, it's for the better. Silently, while extra large cruise ships and hotels with too many stars were making a racket, Venice became an enormous, singular historical center. Once upon a time, and not too long ago, the city had its suburbs in the lagoon (completely different to those on dry land, with their factories, refineries and dormitory towns). Some -- Castello, the Baia del Re, Santa Marta, the island of Giudecca -- were crowded and common, while others were in the shade of the real center, like Piazza San Marco, Rialto… “Long-neglected, poor, these areas 'on the edge' have returned to center stage thanks to urban renewal programs that recuperate buildings and spaces previously used for other things,” explains Francesco Bortoluzzi, the head of the municipality. (He, together with Michele Casarin and others, including Stefano Boeri, Massimiliano Fuksas, Aldo Cibic and Vittorio Gregotti, is contributing to an essay that will be published by Marsilio towards the end of June, dedicated to the urban transformation of the city.)

Palazzo Ducale.

Two Cities And Water
Milan and Venice are united by Expo thanks to water and a large space in the shelter of the science technology park Vega at Porto Marghera. “Waters 2015 is the Venetian equivalent of Expo Milan, organized by Expo Venice,” explains Giuseppe Matiazzo, CEO of the organization. “Exhibitions, conventions, tasting sessions, public events, international initiatives for companies and research (amongst which the series of conventions on Planet Water): Expo offers six months to look at the relationship between water and environment, food, science, industry, society and free time.

Then there is “Oltrexpo,” which offers tourism, culture, a carefully selected welcome.” The area stretches over 50,000 square meters, overlooking the water and the car parks; the structure, by Michele De Lucchi, who designed Pavilion Zero at Expo Milan, has a display area of 14,000 square meters and will stay after Expo finishes as a site for trade fairs. And finally, there are the projects of Expo to Venice for discovering the lagoon off the beaten track -- from Isole in Rete (in one fell swoop, the minor islands and the vegetable gardens of the Serenissima), to the tour of the Canottieri Cannaregio to grapple with Venetian rowing.


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