‘Venice’, the Belgian points out with aphoristic pleasure ‘was built in defiance’. He’s right, of course. This extraordinary, floating miracle surfaced from the ingenuity and expediency of a people who refused to serve masters other than their own. Hence the imaginative and successful fiscal and political systems which have not only lasted, but travelled; after all, the Venetians invented income tax. Most brilliant really, a city state, with every function of its success built on wooden foundations, now petrified, slumped in the mud. And above those salty piles, grandiose and exuberant palaces, capacious basilicas, sturdy factories, homes, hotels float on the lagoon.
I find it hard to put my finger on the city or its people. Not quite Italian or Slavic, there is rude mixture of genetic throwback which makes the Venetians fiery and hot-blooded and saturnine and big faced. These resourceful, mercantile amphibians rule their intriguing and mysterious city with contempt and indifference to outsiders.
We arrived to acqua alta, when the water rises, bubbling up through slots in the paving stones, the result of unusually high tides. Wooden walkways are erected along which one can traverse the main routes around the city. But no sooner swamped, than the water has subsided and once again you can disappear in the labyrinth of streets and passages.
Which is how you find anything here – get lost. Directions from the street are mostly unhelpful – ‘diretti’ (straight on) being the most common. Which is effectively impossible. So to find anything to eat, you need a guide. A local. I telephoned ahead and carefully noted down a set of obscure and imaginative directions.
Added to this, I had been warned that if we wanted to eat well, we’d have to pay for it. And it’s true that despite my laughable ‘look’ at the menus of the Danieli and the Cipriani, the city’s most famous hotels, they far exceeded even my levels of extravagance. Much to the Belgian’s relief. But equally I was determined to avoid the withering looks and contempt of waiters serving menus turisticos and wanted something the locals would eat. The insider knowledge.
‘Head into Campo del Ghetto Nuovo and turn left over a little bridge, walking up the fondamente until you see a wooden cross. Opposite is a place with a green blind and curtain in the window. It’s popular with the workers. Go after one, when it is quiet’. We did and it was. We simply asked for the menu of the day and were served, zuppa di faglioli e pasta, frittata with sausage, and spezzatino di manzo, a beef stew with potatoes. Accompanied by the local Merlot and rounded off with lumps of parmesan.
From the Rialto market fat aubergines loll among the cavolo nero, and unashamedly naked fennel bulbs moon at me as we pass by on the vaporetto. The stalls are awash in crustaceans and seafood, so fishy tastes are ubiquitous across the city. Though not always in obvious ways. They salt sardines here, not unlike anchovies. After an ogle through the Accademia where the great masters nod nobly from the walls, you can find lunch at the Taverna San Trovaso. Here bigoli co le sardele salae is an unappealingly grey dish of pasta with salted sardines and onions. But it has all the translucent intensity of the lagoon and is a mainstay. Risotto or spaghetti cooked in squid ink is another. The Belgian licked every last morsel from his langoustine linguine and I polished off melanzane al funghetto, and lobster with tarragon sauce. We were happy.
My feeling is that in Venice you need to seek out dishes, rather than places. From the window at Tre Spiedi (come out of Campo Apostoli towards Rialto, turn left through little square, left again), I spotted a zucchini con scampi with sage and we sated on local Cabernet Franc. A wine which is normally the small third of Bordeaux but has butch enough rosy tannins on its own. My guide also recommends Da Bepi near the Giorgioni cinema and for the explorer, a restaurant on the island of Tortello. Go find. And let me know.