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Rude Travel: Venice – Lost And Found

There is now a tourist Venice, full of crowds of sightseers, and a real Venice, zealously guarded by Venetians, most of whom loathe tourists. Vir Sanghvi writes.

brunch Updated: Apr 14, 2012 19:35 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Hindustan times,VIr Sanghvi,ht Brunch

No matter how often you have been there before, no matter how many photos you have seen, no matter how many movies set in the city you have watched (The Tourist with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp is merely the latest in a long line), nothing quite prepares you for your first sight of Venice as the city comes into view from the lagoon.

Yes, it is beautiful – but then, a lot of Italy is very beautiful. What makes Venice special is that it is entirely theatrical, a city built by generations of production designers all seeking to impress. Part of the theatricality is the sense of timelessness. Venice is one of the few cities in the world to still be largely as it was five centuries ago. New construction is not allowed. Even to put up a sign on a building, you need to get special permission from the city council.

Nor are Venetians obsessed with seeming clean or new: many buildings show their age with fading paint and crumbling walls, giving Venice its fabled combination of beauty and decay. As you wander through the narrow streets you can imagine Antonio, Portia and the rest walking down the same lanes; the Rialto that Shylock talks about is still there and it is still much the same as it was when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice.

Then, there is the strange combination of land and water. Venice was founded over 1,500 years ago by early settlers fleeing from Attila the Hun. They took shelter in marshy areas made up of scores of tiny islands. Because the land was so swamp-like, they were only able to build houses on stilts, sinking wooden poles into the bottom of the lagoon and balancing their homes on these poles.

More than any other major city in the world, Venice is built on water. You can’t walk for more than a few minutes without having to cross a canal and boats are the only method of transportation – all cars are banned in Venice.

At first you think the city looks different only because of the canals and waterways. But when you think about it, another reason becomes apparent: there are few trees or green spaces in Venice. It is an entirely urban landscape, created by history’s greatest theatrical designers and architects.

Unlike many other Italian cities where there was an aristocratic tradition with kings and courts, Venice was created by merchants and traders. It had no king and called itself a republic. It was ruled – from time to time – by a Doge who was elected by Venetians and who worked to advance the city’s commercial interests. The ethos was set by the merchants who sought to impress, who worshipped wealth and ostentation and had a particular fondness for ornamentation.

One of many: The Tourist with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp is merely the latest in a long line of movies set in Venice"

In that sense, Venice was the world’s first bania republic.

Nearly all of Venice’s grandest buildings and public spaces were designed for effect and intended to impress. The landmark St Mark’s Basilica was built because Venice felt that it deserved a saint of its own. When none could be found, Venetians stole the remains of St Mark from Alexandria, reburied them in Venice and built a church in the saint’s honour. Years later, when a Venetian fleet sacked Constantinople, Venetians stole gold, artifacts and precious stones from that city and used them to renovate St Mark’s Basilica to stunning effect.

The great palazzos on the Grand Canal which feature in most postcards of Venice were built by merchants eager to show off their wealth. But, because these were traders, business came first: the ground floor of each palazzo was used as a warehouse-cum-office so that deals could be struck on the spot.

These days there are only 65,000 native Venetians but the city gets upwards of 20 million tourists a year

In those days (till the 16th century) Venice was Europe’s Gateway to the East. (Marco Polo was a Venetian). The influence of Byzantium, then the greatest kingdom in the world, can be seen in the domes and the ornate architecture of the city, lending Venice a character that is neither particularly Italian nor especially Eastern but entirely Venetian.

After Vasco da Gama discovered the sea-route to India however, Venice ceased to be the Gateway to the East. (The land route took longer and was much more dangerous than the sea route that da Gama used). But it re-invented itself as a trading centre within Europe, using Jewish expertise (the term ‘ghetto’ comes from the Jewish quarter of Venice) while emphasising its tradition of art and music (Titian, Canaletto, Vivaldi, Bellini etc.) and selling itself as the pleasure capital of the world. (Casanova was Venetian and the city’s bordellos were globally renowned).

Ever since the English discovered Venice three centuries ago as the first stop on the grand tour of Europe, the city has undergone yet another re-invention: as the tourist capital of the world. These days there are only 65,000 native Venetians but the city gets upwards of 20 million tourists a year.

This means that there is now a tourist Venice, full of crowds of sightseers with cameras and a real Venice, zealously guarded by Venetians, most of whom loathe tourists while recognising that the city’s economy depends on tourism.

In rewind mode: For the perfume preview, Chanel took over the Palazzo Contarini Polignac, and stuffed it with memories of Coco Chanel’s time in Venice

It means also that everything in Venice is outrageously expensive, that you have a greater chance of being ripped off here than in any other part of Europe, and that you will eat very badly while paying through the nose because most restaurants cater to tourists, and don’t really give a damn about the quality of food.

It is the ambition of every discerning visitor to Venice to get past Tourist Venice with its camera-carrying hordes and to discover the Venice of locals. This is a doomed enterprise because Venetians have no real interest in befriending travellers. And besides, local Venice is hard to find. In London, for instance, once you get past the West End with its throngs of foreigners, you will find real Londoners. But local Venice exists cheek by jowl with tourist Venice. You turn into a side street, cross a bridge, walk for three minutes and suddenly the whole environment has changed. There are no tourists in half pants, no shops selling so-called Venetian masks (all made in China these days) or restaurants offering Menu Turisticos.

The trick, of course, is knowing which sidestreet to step into, which bridge to cross and how to avoid the tourist traps. The trouble is that this is a trick that few visitors ever master. Instead, most of us end up in a middle ground: places that cater to some Venetians but are mainly favoured by a more upmarket kind of tourist.

It does not help that you can’t really go to Venice and not do the touristy things. You have to see the spectacular interiors of St Mark’s Basilica. You must have a coffee or a drink at Caffe Florian which, despite its popularity with tourists, is still the second oldest café in the world and an important part of Venice’s history. (The city’s most celebrated and elegant bordello was located one floor above Florian). And if you have any interest in food and drink, you need to pop into Harry’s Bar where both the Bellini and Beef Carpaccio were invented.

I spent four days in Venice last week, two as a guest of Chanel (for the launch of a still-secret fragrance which I am writing about for Another Magazine!) and two on my own in an effort to get out of tourist Venice; one of those seemingly doomed efforts I’ve made on each of my four visits to the city with only limited success each time.

In great taste: For reasons of convenience, we had lunch on two days on the terrace of the Danieli. The view was spectacular and the food, very good

I stayed at the Danieli, one of the world’s great hotels (and the location for some of the scenes in The Tourist). Because Venice has strict zoning laws, the Danieli has only been able to expand by taking over adjoining buildings. So the main hotel (where the lobby is located and which features in all the photos) is a 14th century building that was once the residence of the Doge’s family. But the Danieli also includes two other palazzos on either side which are slightly more recent (i.e the 16th or 17th century) but are fully merged with the first original building so that once you are inside, you lose track of which building you are actually in.

The Danieli is, arguably, Venice’s most famous hotel (though I imagine the Cipriani and the Gritti Palace would make the same claim) and the key to its appeal is the location. It adjoins the Doge’s Palace, is a three-minute walk from St Mark’s and makes the most of the amazing views of the lagoon that you get from the windows, terraces and balconies. (If you saw The Tourist, then be warned: the scene where Johnny Depp jumps on the roof on the hotel was shot elsewhere; the Danieli is not next to the Rialto!)

Chanel did its best to show us Famous Venice without letting the trip encroach on Tourist Venice. So when we did go to Caffé Florian we were seated in a private room. When we went to St Mark’s Basilica, Chanel blocked the entire church and organised a private organ recital. Then, a guide took us to the parts of the church that tourists never see, pointing out the gold screens studded with emeralds and sapphires looted from Constantinople.

Chanel also chose local restaurants whenever possible. Obviously we ended up having lunch on the terrace of the Danieli on both days for reasons of convenience but the view was so spectacular and the food so good (apparently the chef worked at the old Casa Medici at the Delhi Taj decades ago) that nobody minded. We ate dinner one night at the Osteria Santa Marina, one of Venice’s better restaurants (great seafood antipasti) which is highly regarded by many locals.

For the perfume preview itself, Chanel took over the Palazzo Contarini Polignac, an old palace now owned by a French family and stuffed it with memories of Coco Chanel’s time in Venice.

The big deal, however, was the small (30 people) gala dinner at another historic palace, the Palazzo Albrizzi. Apparently the Albrizzi family still lives in this glittering palace with its grand paintings and its ornate ceilings so photography was forbidden. But I’ve rarely eaten in a more spectacular location, with hundreds of candles illuminating the dining room and chefs struggling to invent canapés, each of which was more elaborate then the last: hollowed-out eggs stuffed with caviar, macaroons with foie gras centres, potatoes with more caviar, tiny portions of fish and chips on skewers etc. I am sure the Albrizzis love living in the palazzo but I doubt if they’ve eaten as well as we did that night.

My two days on my own were more relaxed. A few years ago, a local Venetian had taken me to a restaurant that actively

discouraged tourists. A sign on the door said “No Pizza. No Lasagna. No Menu Turistico.” And everybody in the restaurant spoke Italian and seemed to be regulars. Nobody even bothered to look at the menu. The owner told them what fresh fish had come in that morning and guests chose their dinner according to his recommendations.

I was determined to track the restaurant down, which was difficult because I did not even remember the name. But after describing it to two or three local Venetians, I decided that it was probably the Antiche Carampane on the Rio Terra Delle Carampane.

I took a vaporetto (Venice’s water bus) to a nearby stop and then blundered around for ten minutes asking for directions till I finally stumbled on the restaurant. It was as I remembered it (same rude anti-tourist sign on the door). But though nearly every table was packed with Venetians speaking in the local dialect and kissing each other (it was that sort of local restaurant, full of regulars), there was also a nice couple from Milano who explained to me, in their broken English, that friends had recommended the restaurant. And as I was leaving, a family of Americans arrived, guide book in hand. So obviously, it is now less obscure than it seemed to be when I first went.

The amuse bouche was a paper cornet filled with the small sweet local shrimp fried whole. (Delicious!). Then came a course of the most amazing baby scallops I have ever tried, grilled on the shell so that they tasted of the charcoal they were cooked in and then gently softened with a buttery sauce. (The Milanese couple took one look at my plate and ordered a portion for themselves as an extra course!) My main course was a fresh John Dory buried under an avalanche of clams. Overall, it was the best meal I had in Venice.

The following day I went to Acqua Pazza, a restaurant at the edge of tourist Venice (not far from the Opera house) which makes its anti-tourist stand clear by refusing to print an English menu. The food was fine (home made spaghetti with a whole lobster, fish baked in a potato crust etc.) but the standout features were a) the amazing aubergine and tomato bruschetta that went out free to every guest; b) the small beaker of limoncello (a liqueur-like drink made with fresh lemons) that was also given free with the coffee and c) the terrific location with tables out in the open on the edge of a square.

Some wandering tourists did stumble in. They gave them pizzas, did not offer them the full menu and there was no question of free bruschetta or limoncello. I guess that made their policy clear enough! (How did I avoid the tourist treatment? Simple. I got a local to book me in).

One of the better meals I had was at the Hotel Regina and Europa. This is also a combination of three separate palazzos facing the Grand Canal which is run by Westin. (But they have not been able to put up a Westin sign on the Grand Canal because the city council will not let them!) It is a historic property with a great location, quieter than the Danieli (and slightly cheaper, I would imagine – but then, everything is cheaper than the Danieli), and very nice rooms. For my money, it’s the best hotel to stay in if you go to Venice and you are willing to splash out on accommodation without re-mortgaging your house.

I had dinner on a table by the lagoon on a full moon night. As the water splashed against the gondolas tied to the wall of the hotel, I ate outstanding porcini raviolo and perfectly juicy beef tagliata. It is – almost by definition – Tourist Venice. But I have to say I enjoyed it.

There are two must-dos in Venice these days. The first is cichette. These are small snacks that have always been served at bacarras or Venetian bars but have suddenly acquired a trendy status after a man called Russell Norman opened a series of bacarras in London (Polpo, Polpetto and Spuntino).

I’m sure that there are great bacarras in Venice but sadly both the places the concierge at the Danieli sent me to were a little touristy. At least one of them, the Bancogiro, had the advantage of history – the bar is built on the location of the world’s first international bank (the transfer of money between global banks was a Venetian invention). Cichetti can take many forms but the two most common are bits of bread with things (ham, octopus etc.) placed on them (like open sandwiches) and fried meat balls made with pork, chicken etc.

Both baccarras were fine. Plus, I ate out in the open, near the Rialto on the banks of a canal which sure as hell beats Russell Norman’s Soho locations. But I couldn’t help feeling that I had missed the point. Perhaps I will find better bacarras with more interesting food, the next time.

The other must do in Venice is Harry’s Bar. Few bars have the kind of reputation that Harry’s does. Founded by an Italian called Cipriani with money loaned to him by an American. (the ‘Harry’ of the name), it is the place where the Bellini (prosecco and peach juice) was invented. And the bar also invented carpaccio, now one of the most famous Italian dishes in the world. (The Ciprianis have built a global restaurant empire around the Harry’s Bar menu though there is a running feud with the Cipriani hotel which is now owned by Orient Express).

Though Harry’s serves meals (when the upstairs section is also available), it stays open all day, serving coffee and drinks to masses of tourists. It is an extraordinarily unimpressive room, rather like the bar on an ageing mid-market cruise ship or the bar at some fading club in an Indian hill station.

But each day, it is jampacked with tourists who order the Bellinis, small tumblers of peach pulp (frozen, I guess, at this time of year) mixed with a sparkling wine of no great distinction for around 17 euro a glass, a price that represents a triumph of branding over quality.

Each time I go (and I like to drop in to see if the place is still thriving), I discover that it is full of bemused English speakers who keep looking around and asking each other “Is this really Harry’s Bar? Are you sure that we’ve come to the right place?”

The success of Harry’s Bar and its hugely expensive Bellinis seems to me to sum up what Tourist Venice is about. It is a bania republic where everything is theatrical and where the reputation is enough to make outsiders pay through their noses – and not mind too much.

But there is also the other Venice, the Venice of history, of art, of decadence, of tradition, of beauty, of elegance and of romance.

And that is the Venice that keeps drawing me back. One day I guess I’ll finally make the jump to the real Venice that only Venetians know.

From HT Brunch, April 15

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First Published: Apr 14, 2012 18:42 IST