Venice Below the Surface

Venice Below the Surface

Venice is unlike any other city in the world. Made up of 118 islands, with 180 canals and 400 bridges, all the best action here is never a meter or two away from the water’s surface.

The city’s many boats—gondolas, polizia speedboats, garbage collection barges, water taxis, public “bus” ferries, Federal Express delivery boats—rush through the canals like blood cells in the city’s arteries. Once the grandest of Italian Maritime Republics, Venice grew in influence and prosperity thanks to the cunning skill and talents of its gondoliers. They could outrun any enemy in the difficult waters of the lagoon, despite tides and currents. They helped shape one of the Mediterranean’s most significant commercial and military powers with an extensive fleet of ships that controlled trade throughout much of the Middle Ages.

There is no better way to see the city than by gondola; prices for tourists usually range from 100–120 euros for an hour of boating. But once you reach your destination neighborhood, your feet will take you where you want to go.

What follows is a guide to the best-kept secrets of three aspects of life here: dining, wining and gondoliering. We’ll focus on “classic” Venice, where the finest restaurants and wine bars are found, and “hidden” Venice for a glimpse of ­­how the city’s residents live and insights into the fascinating culture of the gondolier.

Classic Venice: ­Santa Croce, San Polo and San Marco

Venice is divided into six sestieri, or neighborhoods, and the three most traveled are Santa Croce, San Polo and San Marco. (If you follow the yellow signposts from the train station or Piazzale Roma to Rialto and San Marco, you are walking through these three sestieri.) The path takes you past Venice’s commercial hub at the Rialto Bridge with its colorful storefronts and luxury shopping, to the city’s political heart at San Marco and the Doge’s Palace.

Rialto is also home to the city’s main fish and vegetable market located in Campo della Pescaria behind Campo S. Giacomo, also home to a high concentration of bacari and cicchetterie. These two terms refer to traditional Venetian eateries that serve simple, cold dishes and a chilled glass of wine starting at 8 a.m. until the late afternoon.

The most traditional bacaro, first opened in 1462, is Cantina Do Mori at San Polo 429, Calle dei Do Mori. Copper pots hang from the ceiling and spirited barmen deliver excellent fried sardines and finger-sized snacks with sauces and cheese. The wine recommendation here is spento, a dry white wine made from the same grapes as Prosecco but without the bubbles. A second excellent bacaro choice is Antico Dolo at Ruga Rialto 778. A third option is All’Arco at San Polo 436 Rialto, where a cheerful daytime crowd enjoys a good wine selection with Proseccos as well as reds and whites from the nearby Friuli region.

Just a few streets back at Santa Croce, Calle della Regina 2262, Osteria Vecio Fritolin is a sophisticated restaurant with a full kitchen specializing in Venetian foods. But perhaps the number one restaurant is Da Fiore at San Polo, Calle del Scaleter, 2202. Husband and wife team Mara and Maurizio Martin stress simplicity and a “kilometer-zero” food philosophy. Maurizio’s best dishes are made from local Venetian ingredients: insalata di arance con rossetti scottati (salad with orange and newborn fish larvae); castraure (or violet artichoke buds from the island of Sant’Erasmo); and moeche di Burano fritte con polenta (soft shell baby crabs from Burano with cornmeal). If you book in warm months, make sure to ask for the romantic table for two situated on a tiny canal-facing balcony.

Hidden Venice: Dorsoduro

For a truly “off the beaten track” feel of the city, head to the Dorsoduro Sestiere; it lies between the Canal Grande and the much larger shipping lane known as Canale della Giudecca. This is where you will see life as it is lived by Venetian families—shopping for fish and vegetables, taking the kids to school, walking their dogs.

Al Bottegon (also known as Cantine del Vino Schiavi) at Dorsoduro 992, San Trovaso, is run by Alessandra De Respinis and her sons. This creative chef puts a new spin on Venetian finger foods: ricotta with black currants; pumpkin cream with robiola and parmigiano cheese; and tuna tartare topped with bitter cacao powder.

In the neighborhood surrounding Campo Santa Margherita, there is another morning fish market here and the rims of this large square are lined with outdoor cafés and family-run restaurants.

Dorsoduro is also the neighborhood where you can visit shops and artisans dedicated to the art of the gondola. The woodshop of Saverio Pastor at Dorsoduro 341, San Gregorio is one of three remèri still active in Venice today. The gondola shipyard of Antico Squero San Trovaso at Dorsoduro 1097 is the place where gondolas are constructed and repaired. It takes Lorenzo Della Toffola and his team about one year to build a single boat. You can try your luck to see if you are invited into the squeri, but don’t count on it. The world of the gondola is something of a closed society.

But Venice, like all of Italy, welcomes visitors with open arms and twin kisses. The exploration never ends. 

Understanding the Gondola

Everything about the gondolier—from what he wears to where he can pick up clients—is dictated by the strict code of conduct that is applied to this professional guild. There are some 425 licensed gondoliers operating in Venice today and obtaining this permit requires rigorous schooling, exams—the gondolier is tested in boating skills, foreign languages and Venetian history—and apprenticeships. Fate also plays a role; professions related to the gondola are generally passed down from father to son and one can obtain a new license only if a previous gondolier dies or retires.

Gondolas are approximately 36 feet long and four feet wide and the ferro, or steel ornament at the front of the boat, helps to counterbalance the gondolier’s weight. The vessels are crafted from up to eight different types of wood (fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, larch, lime and mahogany) and include 280 individual pieces. One side of the iconic boat is longer than the other. This asymmetric architecture is meant to offset the natural pull of the oar, or forcola. The rower uses a forward stroke on the left side of the boat but continues forward in a straight line.

Carved from a quarter trunk of walnut, the forcola is what makes the gondola unlike any other boat in existence. This singular piece of boating engineering allows the gondolier to make all maneuvers with a single oar while allowing him (almost always him) to look forward at all times. It was invented and evolved in Venice because the canals are so thin, narrow and difficult to manage.

The forcola is like a gearshift and engine starter in one. Depending on the soft grooves of the wood and where the gondolier places his oar, he can start or stop the boat, accelerate or decrease speed, turn left or right, and even shift into reverse. 

6 Veneto Hotels for Every Budget

There are hundreds of lodging options in Venice. In addition to hotels, there are apartment rentals and bed-and-breakfasts. For more hotel and dining recommendations, as well as information on sights and events in Venice, visit the English language site of the tourism office.

Ca’ Arco Antico 1451 San Polo (Rialto)
A budget guest house, or bed-and-breakfast. Utterly charming. 

Centurion Palace Dorsoduro, 173
Moderately priced, distinctive, showpiece design, overlooking St. Mark’s Basin at the mouth of the Grand ­Canal.

Hotel Danieli Riva degli Schiavoni 4196
Excellent location on Riva degli Schiavoni, with easy access to Piazza San Marco. Expensive. 

Hotel Saturnia S. Marco , 2398 
Restored historic building, fine restaurant, with prices to match, La Caravella.

Oltre Il Giardino Fondamenta Contarini 2542
Small hotel, a bit out of the way and quieter, but moderately priced.

Palazzo Stern Hotel Dorsoduro, 2792
Quiet neighborhood, but a stroll away from St. Mark’s and the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Moderately priced. 


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Published on August 12, 2013