the storyteller

“Excuse me, could you tell me the way to St Mark’s Square?” I’ve answered this question many times, and always with a simple “Straight on!” In Venice all roads lead to Piazza San Marco, the ultimate destination, the goal you must reach so you can say you’ve really visited the City of Bridges. My advice is to make your way there without keeping one eye on the clock, and lose yourself among palaces and unknown campi, leaving room for pleasant surprises. Forget about rushing around, and ticking off all the sights.

When you cross the Ponte della Libertà bridge, which separates the island from the mainland, you’re not visiting a theme park, nor is this a city lamenting its glorious past. Although it’s invaded by millions of tourists every year, Venice’s soul can still enchant, envelop and capture those who know how to look and listen.

One thing that still surprises me after so many years is seeing people visiting the Casa delle Girandole, behind Campo San Rocco, just ten minutes from Santa Lucia Station. Until the early 2000s, the façade of this house was decorated with hundreds of handmade wooden windmills, suns, stars and moons crafted by the gentleman who lived there. His name was Donato Zangrossi and, as Giada Carraro tells us in her book “La Casa delle Girandole”, he was a poet and astronomer in love with the stars and the wonder of creation.

Sadly, the windmills fell into disrepair following the disappearance of their craftsman, but many visitors still come here with the hope of seeing them again and reliving the memories of a discovery that often happened by chance, along the way to San Marco or Rialto. This is symbolic of the connection that Venice instils in its more sensitive visitors. Once you’ve discovered its authentic and secret sides, it’s impossible to forget them. Every corner is full of them. All you need is to know how to look, and how to stand still.

View from the Tramontin Gondola boatyard, Venezia
View from the Tramontin Gondola boatyard
Marisa Convento the impiraressa’s jewellery shop in Calle della Mandola
Marisa Convento the impiraressa’s jewellery shop in Calle della Mandola
Tramontin gondola construction yard, Dorsoduro district, Venezia
Tramontin gondola construction yard, Dorsoduro district

Lingering at Campo San Rocco is always a good choice. Here you’ll find the Scuola Grande, artist Jacopo Tintoretto’s personal gallery – a visit is a veritable feast for the eyes. The walls and ceilings of the two-storey Scuola, built between 1516 and 1560, house the entire collection of teleri (large-scale storytelling canvases) painted by Tintoretto between 1564 and 1587. The artist’s extraordinary paintings cover the walls of all the rooms and, on the second floor, the ceilings too.

If music is more your sort of thing, take a moment on leaving the Scuola Grande to sit on its steps and listen to a street musician singing Neapolitan songs interspersed with serenades in the Venetian dialect. The tenor is Giuseppe Corsi, a retired railway worker who lives in Verona but takes the train to Venice most days to sing in the superb acoustics of the square. In a few short minutes, his voice will carry you away to an open-air theatre.

Before continuing your stroll, be aware that in Venice there are no streets, but “calli” (alleys), and no squares, but “campi” (fields). There’s one square: St Mark’s Square, and the only street is “Via Garibaldi”. With eyes full of Tintoretto, and Giuseppe’s song in your ears, sit back and enjoy a coffee or an aperitif in Campo Santa Margherita, where university students go to meet each other. The Campo is surrounded by bars, and the only problem you’ll have is too much choice. Spend some time sitting outside and enjoy watching the toing and froing of locals, and children playing. This is one of the few campi in Venice where you’ll see children playing football and hide-and-seek, riding their bikes or roller-blading. Sometimes they lay a blanket on the floor, on the masegni (the trachyte paving slabs that make up the typical Venetian flooring) and improvise second-hand book and toy markets.

A gondola being built in the Tramontin boatyard

Leaving Campo Santa Margherita behind, energised after a good aperitif, continue in the direction of the Accademia delle Belle Arti art academy, and from there on to San Marco. First, stop by Calle Lunga San Barnaba, which takes its name from the nearby campo. Here you can take a pleasant break at the Tè Fujiyama tea room, with its beautiful courtyard garden, or visit Giuseppe Siciliano’s Caos Art Gallery to see the current exhibition. Don’t miss out on the workshop of painter Luana Segato, known in the art world as “Luse“, who’ll welcome you from among easels, brushes and oil paints, and where you can see works created in collaboration with other Venetian craftsmen and women.

After immersing yourself in the daily life of Venice, I have another diversion for you. Before heading towards the Accademia, just after crossing the Ponte delle Maravegie bridge, turn right and walk down the street that takes you to the Zattere waterfront promenade. Stop and enjoy a glass of wine at “Al Squero” tavern, opposite the famous “Squero di San Trovaso“, the old boatyard that first opened in the seventeenth century, where gondolas and wooden boats are still built and repaired today.

Cross the Ponte dell’Accademia bridge and you’ll arrive in Campo Santo Stefano. You’re now approaching Piazza San Marco and the Ponte di Rialto. Are you ready to discover something different? There’s really nothing better than arriving at your destination with the curiosity of someone who wants to know the stories behind each door, plaque and window.

Venetian aperitif
Al Squero tavern
Al Squero, San Trovaso. Venezia 2017
Squero di San Trovaso boatyard seen from Al Squero tavern, Dorsoduro district

Along the way, your feet will take you to a whole host of campi and calli and you can learn their names by looking up at the nizioleti, the city’s traditional street signs. The word nizioleto means “sheet” in Venetian dialect: the signs and street names are written in black on rectangular white backgrounds, reminiscent of small bed sheets.

Venice’s entire history can be recounted by these nizioleti: the names of its calli and campi recall ancient trades, the activities that once took place here, and the real stories and legends of the city. You’ll find some strange, bizarre and curious names.

Ponte Rialto. Venezia
Ponte di Rialto
San Marco. Venezia 2017
San Marco

On your journey of discovery, don’t miss out on Calle della Mandola, where you’ll find Marisa Convento and her jeweller’s shop. Here you’ll learn what it means to be an impiraressa, an artisan specialised in working with tiny pearls, the typical glass beads made in the furnaces of Murano, transforming them into jewellery and charming creations.

In the Cannaregio district, in Calle dell’Oca, pay a visit to Piero Dri, a young astronomer who became a remer, crafting oars and rowlocks for gondolas and boats. So popular are the traditional Venetian rowlocks, that many consider them works of modern art. They’ve even been displayed in international museums and exhibitions, including the MoMA in New York. But they serve a function too: they’re the elegant and sinuous wooden pivot on which an oar rests and moves. Piero Dri is known as the “Forcolaio Matto” (the “Mad Rowlock Maker”). You could certainly call him a bit mad. His love for his city, for the magical waters and for the ancient crafts that make Venice unique led him to change his career path from one day to the next, without thinking twice and without looking back. All with the passion of someone who really wants to make beauty for the common good.

After this itinerary, you’ll start to feel like an expert traveller in Venice, but to make sure you get to meet its most authentic soul you can rely on tours organised by local guides. One great example are the environmental tours run by SlowVenice, which for more than thirty years have accompanied visitors on their discovery of the historic centre and the lagoon. From April to September, every Thursday afternoon, you can join a tour off-the-beaten track of mass tourism, in the heart of the Sestiere di Castello neighbourhood.

di Silvia Zanardi

Campo Santa Margherita

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