I’ve mentioned before on this blog that Italy and I are in a complicated relationship.
It goes back 9 years when I was an immature college kid who may have been majoring in art history but was actually spending more time minoring in boys and alcohol. Now take that kid away from the United States for the first time and plant them to study in a place where they can legally drink and you wind up with that American.
Well, I was that American for an entire summer in Italy. The one who partied every night, showed up hungover to whichever museum the teachers were calling a classroom that day, and was too scared of not knowing the language to venture out alone.
Nostalgia slightly tinged with regret most accurately describes the feeling I get when reflecting back on that Italian summer. Nostalgia because even my alcohol-addled brain could appreciate the country’s sheer beauty. Regret because my memories are a never-ending barrage of wine, pizza, hot boys, and more tourist traps than any one human can take.
I did Italy all wrong. I was young and careless but I can’t lay the full blame on my 19 year old self. My immaturity was just a passing stage that most traveler’s go through. A stepping stone in each traveler’s evolution process. Eventually I grew up and my travel practices evolved with me. Nowadays my travels are much less about getting drunk with other Americans and more about interacting with locals and partaking in cultural experiences around the world.
So when I received the opportunity to travel to Venice a few weeks ago, I jumped at the chance for an Italy do-over.
I wasn’t a complete stranger to Venice. I had made it there during that long ago summer and could remember being, well…unimpressed. The crowds, the smells, the heat, and the endless amounts of pigeons were all contributing factors that made it the least memorable of all the cities I had visited in Italy.
The biggest disappointment of all? It felt fake – like I was in a fabricated attraction at Disney World’s EPCOT. Sure it was beautiful (when you could find an area of solitude – which normally only happened pre-dawn) but there was just something synthetic about gondolas filled with camera-touting tourist, the canal-side restaurants offering pizza over the typical Northern Italian specialties of risotto or polenta, the endless designer stores no true Venetians could ever afford, and the over-packed sites with queues that went on for hours.
Because of this, I knew returning would be challenging but I was also aware that I’d have two distinct advantages on my side this time around. The first being that I’d be visiting in the middle of December – a time when the cold replaces the mobs – and the second being that I now had 9 years of travel experience under the proverbial belt to learn from.
With that in mind, I went in search of Venetian culture in an increasingly unVenetian Venice.
On Finding Venetian Culture
Stripping a city of its layers in hopes of finding the cultural core within is no easy feat even in the most favorable of circumstances – a category Venice finds itself excluded from due to the increasing difficultly that comes with trying to get to know the city.
The reasoning behind this? Its surprising lack of Venetians.
With a population hovering around 260,000, less than 55,000 are Venetian. It’s a problem decades in the making thanks to the rising upkeep costs of crumbling apartments, wealthy foreigners buying up what little real estate is available, and local food establishments touting ‘tourist’ pricing. The majority of the working-class are forced to commute in from surrounding towns or islands and younger generations head off to university never to return – leaving the Venice as we know it with an aging population that some predict will leave the city nearly Venetian-less by the year 2030.
Tucking these somber facts into the recesses of my mind, I went to seek out the remaining remnants of a once thriving society. Exploring a place where local culture doesn’t lie screaming at you from the top of its lungs forces you to delve into the subtle, everyday scenes around you.
Look close enough and you’ll find that it’s the little things in this city wherein the true culture lies.
The Interior Lanes and Alleyways
Even those who live under a rock are familiar with Venice’s renowned network of canals that’re responsible for its designation as the City of Water.
Yet its the slender alleyways of the less-wandered interior that hold the true character of the city.
It’s where you’ll find hidden courtyards, rustic apartments with laundry billowing beneath the windows, and local proprietors pushing their provision-laden carts before unloading them at the back entrances of shops. The alleys and lanes know neither rhyme nor reason as they maddeningly entangle with one another. Getting lost in them is both a frustrating experience and a rewarding one.
I experienced both ends of the spectrum one night. It was around 4 in the morning when no matter how many different routes I took, I somehow kept finding myself back in the same tiny square with nary a soul around to ask for directions. 45 minutes (and no closer to anything familiar) later, I started questioning why I ever let myself become so reliant on my iPhone’s GPS – for no amount of will power would magically make the battery become undead.
My frustration had me teetering on the thin line between screaming and crying when I saw three Venetians behind the window of a bakery kneading mounds of dough. I none-too-lightly tapped on the window and caught the confusion in their eyes as they first glanced at me before turning to one another. In silent accord, they must have agreed to find out why I was so urgently vying for their attention as not a word was spoken between them when one of the trio moved forward to unlock the door.
I was met with blank stares when I told them how immeasurably lost I was. I remember at the time being baffled when they didn’t understand me for I thought everyone in Venice spoke English. “Rialto? Rialto?,” I repeated over and over as I knew if I made it back to the famous bridge, then I could find my way to the hotel.
The man who had unlocked the door stepped out of the shop and gave the universal hand signal for come with me. We walked in companionable silence for a while before he started speaking to me in the typical Venetian dialect. I couldn’t understand what he was saying but I acted as if I did and answered back in my native English. He laughed and I smiled and we continued on for the 25 minute walk to the Rialto Bridge. With a final “adìo” and a chaste kiss on both my cheeks, we parted ways.
Sometimes the simple memories are the sweetest kind.
Local Food and Drink
The interior of Venice holds more than just delicately gorgeous architecture and early morning glimpses of working class life. It’s also occupied by the finest local restaurants and bars in the city. They’re often hidden just an alley or two away from the main tourist sites but tend to be passed over in favor of the overpriced and mediocre restaurants lining the canals.
If there’s nothing else you do in Venice, swapping out the canal views for an authentic Venetian dining experience is a must. The true Venetian osteria will ordinarily be ‘no-frills’ with a brightly lit interior showcasing plain white table-clothes, wooden chairs, and a hodgepodge of framed images covering the walls. They won’t have people standing on the street beckoning you to step inside or tout menus of the day with pizza and pasta listed as specialties.
Instead they’ll serve fresh seafood plucked from the local markets. Half the time you don’t even need your menus as the waiter will bombard you with suggestions before saying, “Fish? Yes, I cook for you this one” as he presents the nicest looking raw, whole fish you’ve ever seen. Other Venetian and Northern Italian specialties include risotto, polenta, and sarde in saor (a type of marinated sardine).
For a great traditional experience, dine at the Trattoria alla Madonna which is tucked off to the side just down the way from the Grand Canal.
As for the alcohol you ask?
Venice is not a late night party destination which can be attributed to its lack of a younger population, but that doesn’t mean the Venetians don’t enjoy indulging in a drink or two.
Much like its restaurants, the local bars remain concealed in the interior alleys. For a more Venetian scene, skip the over-touristy crowds at Harry’s – the home of the original Bellini – and try Bacarando instead. Housing a dining room upstairs and a hip bar downstairs, Bacarando in the Corte Dell-Orso is where you’ll find locals sipping on spritzes (a must try local aperitif made with prosecco), good wine, and strong cocktails.
For a Venetian digestif, the locals favor their sgroppinos – a lemon sorbet blended with prosecco and vodka.
The Water and Surrounding Islands
Venice is a water town so it goes without saying that you haven’t seen Venice until you’ve crossed over its waters onboard a boat. While this is pretty much the first thing you’ll do given the fact that a water taxi provides the easiest way to get to Venice from the airport, venturing out to the surrounding islands is well worth it.
Lido is a laid back, modest community in the lagoon where many Venetians who commute and work in the city reside but the two most popular islands are those of Murano and Burano. While both touristy in their own right, they still afford a less-crowded alternative to the city center and are easily accessible via motor boat or ferry. Murano is famous for its Venetian glass-blowing techniques while Burano is known for its colorful buildings and its intricate lacemaking.
Local slices of life can be found in Burano’s local trattoria Da Romano, which serves arguably the world’s best seafood risotto. I honestly can’t tell you that Da Romano is an undiscovered gem but I promise it’ll be a dining experience you’ll never forget. It’s always teeming with locals and the owner waltzes around the room checking in on her regular customers as well as saying ciao to those just passing through.
Call it a fate of timing, but my lengthy lunch there this past December led to an unforgettable afternoon as a nearby table of gondoliers broke into song as our congenial waiter brought us dish after dish of local delicacies. Old friends were laughing loudly, rounds of sgroppinos were being passed around, the chef brought my friends and I to his homey (totally un-industrialized) kitchen to watch him put the finishing touches on our risotto, and we became the unintentional attendees of the annual Gondola Awards Ceremony. An experience so special that it deserves an entire blog post of its own.
Venetian culture may no longer be obvious on the outside, but it’s still there, discretely brimming beneath the surface. Pay careful attention to the details and you’ll find it in the nooks and crannies of its interior or in the smile of the waiter who left the sgroppinos off your bill. It’s seen in the wee hours of dawn in a baker’s kindness or in the proud voices of the off-duty gondoliers who break out into song just for the hell of it.
Venice isn’t a destination that you should only visit now because it may one day sink below the rising waters, but rather a place to capture a glimpse of a culture that may someday completely disappear.
Have you ever found culture in unexpected places? Let me know in the comments below!
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Taking on the classic “round-the-world” route, the next Travel Dispatch journey kicks off Nov 15 as I travel east to west, looping the globe over a period of 12 months with $25,000. Now’s your chance to get in on it from the very beginning!