Vaporettos and Bellinis
On my first morning in the fabled city that floats on water, I wake up early, nudged by dormant excitement. Glass of succa d’ arancia (orange juice) in hand, I go to the terrace of my apartment and this is what I behold. A couple sunbathing in the nude in their private enclosed garden just below me. They look at me looking at them but make no attempt to cover up. No moral police here, just lovers.
But I mustn’t let my voyeur inclinations stop me from other discoveries. Like the ceremonies that are to take place in the world’s second most famous square. My Roman friend Massimo Vanini who for two decades has introduced me to his country’s manifold charms, takes me for my first vaporetto ride. A swift 15-minute water taxi ride later, we are at Piazza San Marco – bustling, heaving with tourists of every nationality under the sun.
It’s Italy’s National Day and every kind of uniform is proudly present. Army, Navy, Air Force, National Security. You name it, they are out in full regalia, chests emblazoned with medals and ribbons, brandishing swords, twirling rifles. Surrounded by VIPs and other dignitaries, the Mayor of Venice addresses the assembled, the invited and the tourists. Like all government functionaries, he too is distinguished by his remarkable inability to smile.
Last year, 51 million tourists visited this city that has no roads. Only canals. Some impossibly narrow piccolo and grande bridges connecting slices of land that comprise the various islands collectively knows as Venice. These islands could be called quartieri (quartier in French) as in other Italian cities. But in Venice they are called sestrieri.
In the absence of roads, narrow boats of all lengths perform quotidian functions. Boats collect garbage, keeping this tourist-swamped city spick and span. It’s the boats in which police patrol the city and in which the fire brigade – vigili del fuoco – keep vigil. It’s the boats that ferry electricians, plumbers, masons, carpenters, couriers, postmen. For the citizens and tourists, there is of course, the vaporetto, Venice’s bus on water.
Every morning I buy a daily vaporetto pass for 14 Euro. It allows me non-stop travel for 12 hours. Every day, for eight glorious days, jumping on and off at vaporetto stops (which appear every five minutes), I explore the hidden secrets of the various islands, lagoons, basins and valleys that collectively make up Venice. And I compile my own list of attractions.
Caffe Quadri, Lavena and the really ancient Florian Franco Ottoviani are the three most fun bars. You will stumble on them around San Marco Square. Just sip your drink of choice and people-watch. Add a fourth one to your list: on Guideca Island with a stunning view of main Venice, stands Harry’s Dolci, run by the owner of Harry’s Bar. I visit this legendary bar too, just round the corner from St Marco’s, but a peek inside reveals loud American voices, so I beat a hasty retreat. But not without chuckling at the sign pasted outside which reads: ‘In an effort to make the American victims of sub-prime loans happier, we are happy to offer a 20 per cent discount on all items of our menu to help you recover faster!’
Food can be reduced to soggy pasta and stodgy pizzas in tourist traps. But in the Jewish sestiere of Cannaregio, where I am staying in the gorgeous Lisa Serpelloni’s terrace apartment, the convoluted canal streets are full of small restaurants where only the locals eat. A couple even have Michelin stars, with matching prices. Marinated crayfish in lime. Codfish salad with soy sprouts and zucchini flowers. Tagliolini with lobster and snow peas. Risotto with scampi and cougette flowers. Grilled duck breast with Swiss chard….
For Americans, the Gritti Palace is the city’s most famous hotel. For Europeans and Arabs, it’s the Danieli. Its also Italy’s most expensive. Being one of the world’s rarefied hotels, it’s even got its own vaporetto stop. Alight at San Zacccaria Danieli, to admire the world’s most poetic bridge, aptly named the Bridge of Sighs, Ponte Dei Sospiri. Sigh you will, on learning the origin of the name.
Take another admiring look before strolling into the Danieli, which actually consists of three separate palaces that are cleverly interconnected from inside. These heritage hotels are refurbishing to cater to the demands of the newly wealthy. A swimming pool inside the Danieli’s hallowed precincts, (oh will the spirits of princesses past shudder?), is being planned along with a wellness spa. The management has resisted installing television sets. The three hotels are still running at over 95 per cent capacity. Sophisticated Arabs inhabit suites with high ceilings, never leave the hotel and speak Bollywood Hindi in the hotel’s capacious lobby. And moi, with my friends, spends two hours on the newly renovated rooftop restaurant, sipping a Bellini or three.
Below me, one of the world’s most expensive views sweep the expanse of the San Marco basin. Behind me, the setting sun is setting homes and villas on delicate fire, going from vivid rouge of rose flowers to the delicate pink of rosé wine. Earthen-coloured roof tiles cover these homes painted in ochre, emerald, demure blue. Swallows swooping in their hundreds, twittering, singing, swinging on their crazy trajectories, weaving in and out of the antennae that sprout like metal mushrooms over homes.
Later, with the elegant Francesca Forni, I will dine at the Gritti Palace Hotel’s Michelin-starred waterfront restaurant, fulfilling a promise I made to a friend 22 years ago. Francesca’s Venetian anecdotes will enhance the evening, and she will wave to the one and only lady gondolier in all of Venice who will glide past into the fading, alluring sunset. I will ask for linguini al frutti di mare in sepia nero – pasta cooked in black octopus ink served with seafood. I still have another four days left in this city, poetically described as a mistress who creates a lot of memories and only asks for nothing more than your undivided attention.