A bridge too far
Part 4 of a 2007 Italian travelogue
by Thor Iverson
There are five ways to cross the Grand Canal. The most utilitarian is via vaporetto; public transportation, no matter how romantic the environs, is still public transportation…crowded, noisy, perhaps even a little smelly. The most interesting, though technically it, too, is a form of public transportation, is aboard a traghetto (on which more later).
And then there are the three bridges. The most famous, the Rialto, is so overrun and cluttered with commerce and people that any charm it might once have had is very nearly gone (though it should be noted that many people say that about Venice itself). The least famous, the Scalzi, is as uninteresting as its location. But the third, the Accademia, is elegant, somewhat peaceful, and – as the bridge closest to the Piazza San Marco – fairly useful.
Of course, bridges are also a means to an end, and in our case that end is the similarly-named Gallerie dell’Accademia. On our previous visit to Venice, we’d skipped all the museums, something we intend to correct on this visit. Unfortunately, large portions of the gallery are closed for restoration, or cleaning, or perhaps just the usual arbitrary reasons opaque to the non-Venetian…but in any case, while what we see is quite impressive, the visit is quite a bit shorter than anticipated.
Rafts of pizza
And so, we’re off in search of lunch on the early side of midday. We hope this will guarantee us a seat at some of the smaller establishments, but in fact it turns out that every nearby location from my list of recommendations is closed, either for lunch or for the day. We settle for an anonymous pizza on an anonymous terrace on the beautiful Zattere, where the warm sun, blue sky, and twinkling water combine to rather magical effect. And I get a slight sunburn. The pizza’s not bad, either.
After lunch, we skip a re-crossing of the Accademia in favor of the only gondola ride we’ll take on this or any other trip, the inexpensive and oh-so-quaint direct line across the canal in a two-poled traghetto. If they ran more often, I’d take them day and night, just because they’re such cheap fun.
Resurrections & miracles
And then, another memory takes over. On my last visit, on a late afternoon stroll through the less-traveled byways of San Marco, I’d been stopped by wall of construction. A smelly one, too, as the nearby canals had been emptied of water, leaving their centuries of accumulation open to the air. At the time, I didn’t make the obvious connection between major Venetian events and the reconstruction (and I was trying to avoid looking at my map)…but of course, in hindsight, it could only have been the reconstruction work on La Fenice, one of the great jewels (and jewel boxes) of opera.
But now, on this visit, The Phoenix is reborn. And so we absolutely must take a look. It turns out that it’s as easy as buying a ticket and grabbing an audio guide, and as difficult as being there the one day all week that it’s actually open for visits…which, thankfully, is today.
The interior is as beautiful as its reputation, with one of the most breathtaking chandeliers I’ve ever seen, though I can appreciate the complaints of those who believe it to be edging right up to the border of decorative caricature. The only disappointment is the audio guide, which spends far too long on opera, and a comparatively paltry amount of time on the building itself; at one point, a list of operas and their local premieres feels like a parody of one of those biblical “begat”-fests, and we end up skipping ahead to the next section, hoping we haven’t missed anything important.
The canal behind La Fenice is peaceful and still, but pretty much all of the rest of San Marco is in its full and daily tourist throb, so we escape to the much quieter and more “local”-feeling Cannaregio. It’s both amazing and a shame how few people actually come here in their mad rush to “check off” the city’s major sights. But it’s also in places like this and the somewhat ritzier Dorsoduro that the true melancholy of Venice is laid bare; the Cannaregio, especially, seems suffused with sadness and a sense of loss.
We visit a few relatively quiet sites – the rather tiny, embracing, and somewhat disappointing (except for the exterior) Santa Maria dei Miracoli, and the oppressive, incredibly ornate, and massively unwelcoming Gesuiti – before wandering to the mostly unattractive Fondamente Nuove, part of Venice’s northern quay, where the only nice view is that of the cemetery island of San Michele. I admit some brief amusement at the gas station/convenience store perched at one end of the quay, looking for all the world like it should be on any random country roadside, though no car has ever come within a kilometer.
And then, like yesterday, we just walk…strolling the long, arced streets of the sestiere with the natives, and settling on a bench in the peaceful, broad expanse of the Campo Ghetto Nuovo. This might be our favorite square in Venice; it’s full of families that aren’t carrying guidebooks, it feels alive (in contrast to so much else), and there are even a few trees. Greenery is at a premium in Venice, and though one never misses the roar of the Italian roads, eventually one does start to miss nature.
As we sit, the sun sets and the air starts to cool. We’ve discussed getting a drink somewhere, but the pure relaxation of just sitting proves too appealing, and so it’s only the increasing chill that moves us to rise. Finally, with dinnertime approaching, we set off through bustling market streets (again seemingly devoid of anyone without a Venetian mailing address, or at least a kitchen in which to cook the various comestibles they’re toting) and cross the aforementioned Scalzi bridge. Here, we meet head-on the challenge of navigating Venice’s most incomprehensibly twisty sestiere, Santa Croce.
Almost immediately, we’re forced into a construction detour. It pushes us farther and farther away from our intended destination, and at the end of it, despite frequent consultations of a fairly detailed map, I’m hopelessly lost. There’s a moody, slightly sinister feel to these ancient alleys, which are darker and more closed-in than almost any others in the city. It’s not that any part of Venice is actively unsafe, but between the hallucinogenic non-geometry of the tiny streets, myriad bridges to nowhere, mysterious black-water canals, spooky echoes from overhanging buildings, and a general lack of any sort of helpful lighting, it’s easy to get a little jittery…especially without a clear idea of where one is going.
Eventually, we’re forced to follow signs to a traghetto stop on the Grand Canal, from which we can identify our position and backtrack to our destination. It feels like a defeat, and coupled with earlier periods of tension and confusion, it puts us in a slightly disconnected mood for dinner.
I start with an incredible vegetable torte lush with creamy fonduta, followed by a rustic but brilliant veal terrine. Theresa’s first course, selected from a short and focused list of primi, is a plate of tagliatelle with pumpkin and spicy pecorino that somehow seems Sicilian, and is a little bit dull; my tagliatelle with gorgonzola and pistachio is much more exciting, and better as well.
My second course, however, is a disaster: leathery pork with limp cipollini onions, both grossly overcooked. Theresa’s osso bucco is similarly overcooked (and you have to work to do that), with its marrow desiccated down to a gristly thread, and served over plain, undercooked rice. A side of leeks (at least, I think they’re leeks; knowing Italy’s agricultural bounty, they could well be something entirely different) and pumpkin in a cheese-based sauce seems more French than Italian, and isn’t at all what I’m in the mood for (though this is my fault, not the restaurant’s; it is tasty).
The service is good, but no more than that (it’s a busy place, with limited staff), and our waiter handles the linguistic transitions between nearby tables with ease. The Venetians have such a facility for language, though I suppose said facility is necessary when your entire existence is based on tourism. And as for the wine list? It’s pretty lousy, and note above the comments on storage conditions (I don’t get to see where they keep the whites). My bottle is deliberately selected because it’s on one of the lowest shelves, and thus less likely to have been subjected to the worst abuses of heat.
Muri-Gries 2005 Lagrein (Alto Adige) – A baby. Very aromatic, resembling a pinot in its structure but something more akin to a cru Beaujolais/syrah blend in taste. Finely-grained and highly adaptable with food despite an initial austerity. Ultimately, quite pleasant.
Nonino Friuli Sauvignon Blanc Grappa (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Obvious, boisterous fruit, good balance, and nice to drink. But it’s far less interesting than grappa from many other grapes, at least from this producer. A parallel to many wines made from the same grape? Maybe.
We take the vaporetto back to our apartment, and are immediately reminded that there’s just something extra-special about nighttime rides on the Grand Canal. Theresa, having held back her praise of the city, becomes enthralled all over again. It’s a love I’ve never lost.
Copyright © Thor Iverson