January 2015 was not the best time to visit Venice. Cold winds and lashing freezing rain from the sea can create acqua alta, levels of water high enough for the municipality to erect raised sidewalks across Piazza St. Marco, and to force pedestrians to pull on knee-high rubber boots. So instead we saved the airfare and signed up for six weeks of classes on the art and architecture of Venice given by an art historian through McIntosh Gallery at Western University. There were more compensations than dry feet. We started off with several hours of illustrated history. This city, a miracle of gold, crystal and marble, rose out of the mud, sand, and clay in the lagoons off
the Adriatic Sea following the barbarian sweep through Northern Italy in the sixth century.
Fishermen, fowlers, and salt-gatherers built wood and wattle huts in the marshlands, then established early trading routes to become the first merchants of Venice.
This immersion course brought memories of our three previous trips to Venice back to life. The first was in 1965, a two-day stop as part of a European bus tour. Our hotel was on the mainland, in the city of Mestre, five miles across a causeway from the historical centre of Venice. That evening, we got our first glimpse of a Venetian night. Small coloured lights shimmered on the canals, as black gondolas powered by white and blue striped gondolieri passed our vaporetto (water bus). Crystal chandeliers twinkled from the Gothic arches of stately palazzos. A gaily-lit wedding flotilla skimmed over the dark waters. Golden mosaics glittered from St. Marco’s arches. Violinists wandered like ghostly troubadours.
The next morning, inside the Byzantine cathedral, we were awed by the undulations in the wavy marble floor. Venezia was sinking! Eighteen months later Venice suffered the worst flood in its history. In November 1966 torrential rains raised the level of the canals by six feet.
On our second visit, April 1969, part of a trip in a VW van, we returned to camp near Mestre. On the drive over the same causeway two skylines were distinguishable. On one side, countless iron funnels spewed out black smoke. On the other lay the tenth-century treasures of the Venetian Republic: a stately campanile, several golden Byzantine domes and a sea of red-tiled roofs. Industrialization is hastening this medieval jewel, in its precarious lagoon setting, into its watery grave. But after your first ride along the Grand Canal on a vaporetto, the magic of Venice dispels even the harshness of our century.
Since we had been living in the van for seven months, it was a relief to spend most of our days in what Napoleon called “The most beautiful livingroom in Europe,” St. Marco’s Piazza.
Two historic cafés, Florian’s and Quadri’s, face each other under the elegant arches of this square. Each has an outdoor orchestra to woo the customers over. Yes, it is costly, but you sit for an hour in a ballroom setting, with the great votive Church of Santa Maria della Salute across the water and the golden mosaics of the Basilica on your right as waiters bring white china pots of coffee or glasses of Campari Soda on silver trays. Worth every lire.
Venice is dotted with snug two-person bars, tucked into dead end streets, where working men go for a cichetti, a snack of toasted crostini smeared with baccala, creamed cod, accompanied by a small glass of ombra, white wine at a very small price. The few days we stayed we practically lived by snacking on grilled squid, scampi, octopus and deep fried vegetables in these little bars.
Third time lucky. In 1999 we rented a gracious apartment with a newly-renovated kitchen in the Campo St Paulo, within walking distance of the best market in Italy. Others may compete on the basis of a broader choice of product; none can compare with the beauty, theatricality and historical significance of this market under the arcades near the Rialto Bridge.
A chink of light through the heavy draperies woke us at 5:30, the right time to watch the market come to life. The flower seller sets her pail of pink almond blossoms under the Gothic arches beside the still-empty pescheria, while vendors ready the flat tin trays of crushed ice to receive the bounty from the Adriatic. Barques unload boxes of squid, their black ink holding promise of the ravioli loved by Venetians. Whole tuna glitter like wet slate, swordfish brandish their spikes. Now the fishermen start to arrive at the docks to unload boats berthed two or three deep, handing in relay boxes of red mullets, shimmering silver sardines, placid soles. Mussels, clams, crabs, and giant prawns are tossed in sacks to porters who bustle them directly to the waiting iced trays. We settled on six scallops nestled on their shells, pink roes attached. The fishmonger told us to wash, grill and serve only with salt. Basta.
In the Erberia, trays of potted rosemary, sage, chives and bay sat in rows under swags of peppers and ropes of garlic. When I exclaimed “Bella!”, I was rewarded with a gift of fresh parsley. Stalls laden with red radicchio, white asparagus spears and arugula leaves were artfully arranged to resemble the Italian flag. The clever Venetians have contrived to harvest vegetables from the sea by converting islands such as Sant’ Erasmo into market gardens. The brisker the selling, the louder the vendors sang to one another. At the end of the day, as the sun set over our terrace, we opened a chilled Prosecco and savoured large scampi, sautéed in oil and garlic, serenaded by an orchestra of gondolieri who favoured us with blown kisses.
Ann McColl Lindsay is a London-based writer and an inveterate world traveler, with her painter/photographer husband David Lindsay.