Venice sounds like a dream. A city with no cars, only boats. Where the buildings are founded on wooden piles. A city with 400 bridges crossing the canals. Venice is the world’s most romantic city. Even Italians come here on honeymoon.
– Are you surprised? You are in an ancient city
But the start of our stay is bumpy. From Piazzale Roma we take the vaporetti, the busboat, towards our rented apartment. It does not go all the way and we have to walk the last three stops. The distance is not the problem in Venice, it is the bridges which all consist of steps. With three suitcases and a stroller we arrive at the apartment with aching backs and arms.
Laura from the italian-speaking part of Switzerland shows us the apartment. There are less than 60,000 inhabitants in Venice, most of them live in small apartments. The smell of mold overwhelms me in the hall. There is hardly tap water in the kitchen. The apartment is old and cramped. The place lacks the comfort I am used to, but what did I expect in a city founded on water 400 A.D.?
The sea and the city
The cramped apartment unveils another side when I open the window. Down below, the riello, a small canal winds its way with boats passing by. Venice is built on the lagoon, a floating city and marvel of engineering, founded by millions of poles. In neighbouring Croatia, several deforested islands testify to the building of Venice. After a while these wooden poles stuck in the mud, petrify.
Venice is situated within one of the biggests wetlands in Europe. The 550 km² lagoon, Laguna Veneta, is home to no more than 118 islands. One of them Lido, is an 18 kilometre long sandbar and home to the Venice film festival. Another island is Murano, known for its glassmaking, and then there is the little island of Cimitero, devoted to the dead. Further away lies Chioggia, where people still live off fishing.
First taste of coffee
Little Venice was once a maritime power, gaining an empire at its height that included northern Italian cities like Verona and Bergamo, the islands of Cyprus and Crete, to Beirut and Alexandria in the Middle East. The status as maritime power controlling trade routes blessed Venice with exotic commodities. Hence the first Europeans to drink coffee and establish a coffee-house in 1645, were Venetians.
Most cities have old buildings. What is remarkable about Venice is how the whole city, with its boundaries and waterways, is preserved. This is due to the water. The water in Venice is both a blessing and a course. The historical authenticity is strengthened by the lack of cars in the streets. In the streets and narrow alleys, trucks and garbage trucks, are replaced by manual labour, men with small hand carts, cleverly designed to climb the steps of the bridges. Venice is the city of pedestrians and muscle strength.
Quiet time in the sestiere
Venice consists of five sestiere, districts. We live east in the sestiere of Castello. This is where you find the biggest park in Venice and the highest number of bridges. More importantly, the further east you get in Castello, the character turns more residential where residents outnumber tourists.
Before arriving, we have heard bad rumours about Venice. Bad food, expensive and extremely crowded. And yes, the areas around Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge are crammed and expensive. Taking the gondola is expensive. But if you follow the path of the locals, having a cicheti at a bacari, or eating lunch at the osteria, Venice is not a particularly expensive city. If you really want to experience a different Venice, winter is the time to go there – or wander the streets in the morning. Allow yourself to go for a walk on such a morning to the biggest market in Venice, the Rialto mercato.
Frutta e verdure at the Rialto Market
Next to the city’s oldest bridge, the towering Rialto bridge, lies the market. Arrive when it opens at seven o’clock to escape the crowds and get a look behind the scene. The fruit and vegetables arriving in small boats along the Grande Canal, the merchants who carefully sort their fruit, layer them in towers and finish by spraying them with water. The lady with the cigarette in her mouth, arranging the bananas or the man putting the artichoke hearts in a water bath.
At one of the stalls, the scent is unmistakable of forest strawberries, fragoline di bosco. At another stall I find Italian grapes, uva, and white peach, pesca bianca. They play perfectly together in an Italian fruit salat, macedonia di frutta. At the other end of the market lies the fish market. Venice is a small city, but its fish market tells the story of how important seafood is to the Venetians. The fish market and the venetians’ penchant for seafood is the topic of my next blog story.
Macedonia di frutta
Macedonia di frutta is the name of fruit salad in Italy, often made with sugar and a splash of lemon, or even limoncello. The sugar syrup makes the fruit shiny and luscious.
a handful forest strawberries
a punnet strawberries
3 white peaches
juice of 1/4 lemon
2–3 tbsp sugar
Wash and chop the fruit. Stir the sugar and lemon juice and dress the salad right before serving. (I wait until right before, because the lemon juice will almost cause the strawberries to boil, like ceviche).
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