Free Weekend? Explore Venice (or how to eat and drink well in the backstreets)

Stephen Emms goes in search of the best bacari, the tiny hidden wine bars that serve up cicheti and spritz

An atmospheric backstreet. Photograph: Stephen Emms
An atmospheric canal. Photographs by Stephen Emms

By the time we left Venice we’d experienced all weathers. Bright sunshine bouncing of the Grand Canal, gloop-grey skies, biting winds, and finally, incessant rain (so much so that St Mark’s Square flooded, and the wooden platforms came out).

Like most visitors, perhaps, I hoped at least try to uncover something of the “real” city. I’d been once before, over a decade ago, whizzing round the tourist sites, fuelled by bellinis and overpriced tourist set menus.

But London’s current Polpo-inspired passion for cicheti (little Venetian bite-size snacks) made me want to return to explore the cheap backstreet bacari, the wine bars and cafes frequented by locals. And throw in a few contemporary art galleries while we were at it.

San Giorgio campanile. Photograph: Stephen Emms
San Giorgio campanile.

The best way to the city from Marco Polo airport is the vaporetto, or water bus. Take the ‘blue’ line to St Mark’s Square; not exactly cheap – 27 euro for a return trip per person – but a hell of a lot less than the 110 euros demanded by the water taxis.

Once at sea, the bump and crash of the lagoon requires stronger sea legs than you might expect. It makes a dozen stops from Murano to central Venice, taking a leisurely hour and a half.

We were staying on Giudecca Island which overlooks the St Mark’s Square basin. Giudecca was once the city’s industrial suburb, where vaporetti were made, along with an asphalt factory, flour mill and distillery; in the renaissance, wealthy aristocrats built their villas there.

View of the Bauer Palladio, a former convent, from its garden. Photograph: Stephen Emms
View of the Bauer Palladio, a former convent, from its garden.

We dismounted on the dock beside our hotel, the Bauer Palladio, an imposing former convent with striking cupolas, designed in the second half of the 16th century by then world-renowned architect Andrea Palladio. Before its conversion to a hotel and spa it had been, quite unbelievably, left abandoned for over hundred years.

Our room was a mezzanine with huge windows right on the water, the pleasant splish-splash of the tide audible morning and night, as if we were actually afloat. It’s a spacious place: gardens, spa, cloistered corridors, a courtyard that would be gorgeous in the summer, and a vast living room with fireplace that more than sufficed once the cold night had set in.

Sunset from the jetty on Giudecca. Photograph: Stephen Emms
Sunset from the jetty on Giudecca.

Blissfully, the sun blazed as we perched with that first Campari spritz outside a little bar next to the hotel, admiring the industrial view to one side and the classical city across the water, the sound of distant bells tolling. As it set the sky turned cerise, while boats of all shapes and sizes glided along, their ripples splashing over the harbour edge.

Some predictably touristy stuff

Colonnade on St Mark's Square. Photograph: Stephen Emms
Colonnade on St Mark’s Square.

Before losing ourselves along backstreets and tiny canals in our bacari hunt, we battled the camera-wielding brigade a) drinking spritz (made from either Campari or Aperol, white wine and soda) at Caffe Florian, the famous cafe in the colonnade on St Mark’s Square, b) at the Accademia gallery, with its paintings from Carpaccio, Giorgione, Bellini, and Tintoretto and c) atop San Giorgio campanile, which boasts the best views over the city.

Even in March, the boutique-lined streets around San Marco were choked with pedestrians – although it was only when we left Venice that we came to the pleasant realization that we hadn’t heard a car for three days.

The Grand Canal. Photograph: Stephen Emms
The Grand Canal.

Our recommendations

Just walk, and walk; the tourists soon fall away. It’s advisable to cross the bridge into Rialto, arguably the heart of the city, as soon as possible. Its vast and buzzy market, patronised by real Venetians, in particular the Campo della Pescaria, is alive with stalls of colourful vegetables – and fish.

Cuttlefish in Rialto market. Photograph: Stephen Emms
Cuttlefish in Rialto market.

And don’t miss Campo San Polo, the largest square after San Marco, Campo San Toma, with its bustling Saturday antiques and junk stalls, and the Dorsoduro district: Campo San Margherita is its heart, the antithesis of St Mark’s Square and almost entirely a space for locals to socialize.

Crowds on raised platforms queue for the Basilica. Photograph: Stephen Emms
Crowds on raised platforms queue for the Basilica.

On our last morning, the weather had turned. We leant out of the window of our second hotel, the tiny Galleria, mesmerized by slanting rain, and the rise and fall of umbrellas over the Accademia bridge. Industrial boats chugged by, grim-faced men in waterproofs at the helm. The Grand Canal bubbled and swirled. As we dragged our cases across St Mark’s Square the downpour quickly flooded pavements. Well-adapted locals, all clad in wellies and wielding mammoth umbrellas, hurried to their workplaces – and by the time we were on the vaporetto to the airport we could hear the siren sounding for acqua alta.

Next: Let’s eat. So take our Saturday afternoon bacari crawl.

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