Things to see and do - Venice
Unmissable tourist sites
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The city today
The city today
To describe the countless faces of Venice and ignore the particular personality of the citizens who live here would present a misleading picture of the city: it would sustain the unfortunate, commonly held view of the place as a museum to which a cursory visit is made. To refute this, stroll down to Campo della Pescaria, linger in a bar in Campo San Luca over a glass of wine, or idle away on a bench in Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio to eavesdrop on a nearby conversation. Shopping around Sant’Elena will provide a glimpse of the living spirit of Venice. The best impressions of Venice are gleaned away from the obvious tourist areas.
Venetians can be unpredictable characters, both charming and astute (a quality sharpened by an age-old affinity for business), with a tendency to appear effusively genial in Italian and yet suspiciously distant in their native dialect.
The City’s split personality
Every visitor must formulate his or her own opinion of Venice: it may be a highly personal response to the unique atmosphere of this enchanting city; it may be one tainted by bad weather, high prices and at the height of summer a particular stretch of a canal can sometimes smell unpleasant – but it is not common and should not deter a single visitor. To stereotype the flavour of Venice would be detrimental to the magic of the place.
Just outside the tourist mainstream, a local resident is often ready to regale visitors with tales while the long-serving employee at a magnificent palazzo will enjoy sharing its enthralling history with whoever gives him the chance; the parish priest, in his sacristy, is happy to unlock secret doors to hidden treasures in his custody. Theirs is “the” Venetian personality too complex to be defined but too colourful to be ignored.
Historically, at least, the Venetian is born with a positive outlook on life that is maintained by an imperturbable nature in which emotional involvement is tempered by a certain indifference to anything that lies beyond the lagoon. This has led them to a noticeably predisposed state of tolerance, an innate quality acquired from a knowledge of different peoples distilled over the centuries. The blend of an almost Anglo-Saxon aplombwith boundless and all-embracing curiosity renders this personality even more fascinating.
Yet perhaps the attribute that most readily springs to mind is the pleasure the Venetian derives from gossiping, a pastime that delights all the more given the subtle sense of humourwith which all Venetians are naturally and happily endowed, regardless of age, intellect or social class.
Jocular chatter is always conducted in dialect to allow quips and puns to sparkle and scintillate to full effect. It fills the bars and cafés, the shops and markets, but most of all the streets and squares, exchanged in passing or during a pause, which the Venetians take pleasure in granting themselves at every opportunity. Unlike citizens of other cities, Venetians are wholly sociable creatures, revelling in the advantages of sharing their environment with like-minded people who draw the calm and philosophical conclusion that only the truly essential priorities of life are worth worrying about, thus regarding the inconveniences of existence as relative. With a clear conscience and light heart, Venetians walk with a purposeful stride: it is clear when they are on their way somewhere, moving at a sustained speed, whether empty handed or earnestly pushing awkward carts up and over the bridges, heralded by a sprightly “Atansion!” from behind.
It is rare to meet an ill-intentioned Venetian, partly because the very structure of the city impedes criminal designs: where would you escape to?
Yet all is far from happy in this magnificent theme park of a city. The average age of Venetians is around 45, way older than most Italian cities, and over one third of the population is over 60. Unless they are employed directly in tourism there is little reason for youngsters to stay. Property is horribly expensive, damp and difficult to maintain and commuting against the tide of visitors coming the other way each day is a nightmare.
The living breath of Venice is its dialect. Accents have been used to facilitate pronunciation.
Baùta: a carnival mask comprising a black hood and a lace shawl
Brìcola: wooden pole used for mooring boats or, if roped to others, to delineate navigable channels
Ciàcola: gossip or chatter
Fèlze: the gondola awning set up in winter to protect the main seat
Ocio!: Look out!
Ostreghèta!: Good heavens!
Pantegàna: a large rat
Putèo: a child
Tòco/tochetìn: a piece/little piece
Eating and drinking
Bacalà mantecà: boiled salt-cod, mixed with oil, garlic and parsley
Bàcaro: a Venetian bistro, usually crowded from early morning
Baìcoli: typical dry, flat, cutlet-shaped sweet biscuits
Bìgoi: wholemeal spaghetti, generally served in salsa with a lightly fried mixture of anchovies and onions
Bussolài buranèi: an S- or ring-shaped biscuit from Burano
Càpe sànte: scallops
Cichèto: Venetian tidbit (salt-cod, marinated sardine or a meatball) that accompanies a glass of wine
Frìtole: carnival pancakes made with raisins and pine nuts
Lugànega: a long thin sausage
Ombra, ombrèta: the traditional and much respected glass of wine taken standing at a bar
Prosecci: dry sparkling wine
Rìsi e bìsi: rice and peas traditionally eaten during the Feast of St Mark
Sàrde in saòr: fried sardines, with a sweet-and-sour sauce of onions, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins
Sgropìn: lemon sorbet of vodka and prosecco , served usually after fish
Sprìz (Spritz): famous Venetian aperitif: white wine with a dash of bitters and soda water
Stracaganàse: dried chestnuts, literally translated as “jaw-acher”
Sopprèssa: fresh salami
Tiramisù: famous dessert made of biscuits soaked in coffee, layered with full-fat mascarpone cream cheese blended with egg and sugar, powdered with bitter cocoa
Altàna: a wooden roof-terrace or veranda
Assassini: a canal or street name alluding to where a murderer might have sought refuge
Beccarìe: butchers who have lent their name to streets, squares, bridges
Calli: from the Latin callis , most streets in Venice bear this name (variations: calli larghe , callette and calleselle )
Campiello: a little campo or square
Campo: Venetian for a square; the only piazza in Venice is Piazza San Marco
Fiubèra: buckle sellers who have lent their name to streets or vaulted arcades where they once set up shop
Fondamenta: a road which runs parallel to a rio or canal
Fòntego: a warehouse where foreign merchants lodged
Fornèr: a common name identifying where the local bread ovens were
Frezzerìa: commercial zone around St Mark’s that was once the site of an arrow factory
Lista: the stretch of street in front of an ambassador’s residence; diplomatic immunity is indicated by its white stone
Luganeghèr: grocery store
Megio: millet; alludes to grain (millet or wheat) warehouses storing supplies for times of hardship
Milìon: the nickname of Marco Polo’s family, who lived over the Milion courtyard behind San Giovanni Grisostomo; also the title of the adventurer’s travel experiences
Paradiso: this name given to a street or bridge refers to the lamps that were used on Good Friday to light the area of Santa Maria Formosa
Parrocchia: literally meaning “parish”, this locality around a church serves as a subdivision of a sestiere
Pescarìa: a fish market
Piazzetta: little squares: the two in Venice are Piazzetta dei Leoncini and Piazzetta San Marco
Piovàn: common in Venetian topography; relating to a priest
Piscina: place where there used to be a pool or sheet of water
Pistòr: the baker who kneaded dough
Ponte: the 400 or so bridges in Venice are marked by this name
Ramo: a side street
Rialto: from the Latin rivoaltus , a word that indicates the islands from which the city originated
Rio terà: a street formed by a land-filled canal
Ruga: from the French rue , a synonym for street, usually one devoted to a commercial activity
Salizzarda: from the word salizo or paving stone; denotes a paved street
San Stae: the Venetian contraction of San Eustachio – St Eustace
San Stin: another Venetian contraction of San Stefanino
San Zan Degolà: refers to San Giovanni Decollato – the beheaded John the Baptist
Scaletèr: a doughnut seller, from the word scaleta , a doughnut with marks like a flight of steps
Sestieri: the six divisions of Venice: Cannaregio: from the Latin cannarecium or canaleclum , a marshy area where cane grows; Castello: alluding, perhaps, to the Roman fortification at Olivolo; Dorsoduro: includes the Giudecca and is named after the type of hill on which it developed; San Marco, San Polo and Santa Croce
Sottopòrtego: a vaulted passageway running perpendicular to the building’s façade on the ground floor; at one time lined with shops
Squèro: a shipyard where gondolas are built and repaired
Tette: slang for breasts, applied toa bridge or street where bare-breasted women of easy virtue used to lean out of windows
Zattere: the long fondamenta that extends to the Giudecca Canal, recalling the zattere or wood-laden rafts which used to stop there
Venetian words in the English language
Arsenal: a store for military equipment
Carpaccio: an appetizer of thinly sliced raw beef
Ghetto: a socially restricted slum
Gondola: a type of boat, télécabine, or truck
Harlequin: a comic character/ buffoon/diamond pattern
Lagoon: an area of shallow water blocked off from the sea by sandy dunes
Lido: a fashionable beach resort/ public open-air swimming pool
Regatta: a boat race
Food and Wine
Venice has traded with the world since the dawn of time; throughout its history the city has therefore been cosmopolitan in every sense of the word. A thousand different ethnic types have crowded the streets and squares just as they have populated the pictures of Titian and Veronese. They have added colour to the Venetian scene, idiom and dialect to the vernacular language and, above all, exotic spice to the indigenous cultural and culinary traditions. The perfumes and fragrances exchanged in Venice have been blended and refined through time with more homely scents and flavours. Nothing has been lost. Only now the multicoloured multitude of merchants has been replaced with crowds of tourists, and so the alchemy continues.
Social history has also played its part: besides the gastronomic refinement inherited from an aristocratic past, solid peasant cooking still underpins many local dishes, even if the poorest have long since been enhanced by every sort of ingredient the mainland can provide before returning as a regional speciality.
Tourism has nurtured a demand for restaurants that alternate between luxurious and anonymous “tourist” catering, but the age-old rhythm of the city and the convivial habits of its citizens still survive and flourish: un ombra di vin (literally, a wine taken in the shade) accompanied by a cichetto (a tapas-like morsel) or three, consumed in a bacaro, are life’s daily small luxuries for the locals.
Cichetti (the plural of cichetto) comprise all kinds of foods from sliced fried vegetables to delicious garlic meatballs ( polpette ), squid, salt-cod and prawns to mini pizzas and bruschettas.
Note that when ordering a glass of wine “un ombra” will bring forth a glass of the house white. If you want red, you must ask for a rosso.
Venetians are especially proud of their seafood. A traditional plate of antipasto offers a chance to relish a wonderful selection of local shellfish including caparozzoli (clams), cozze (mussels) peòci (mussels), bòvoli (sea snails) and canòce (shrimps), as well as granseole and gransipori (crab).
As a primo or starter, bìgoi in salsa (thick, coarse spaghetti served with lightly fried onions and anchovies) is one of the most popular first courses, (beware that after this you may be too full to eat any more!). In Northern Italy rice is more popular than pasta so you can expect to see many types of risotto on the menu. These are made with meat and/or fresh vegetables ( primavera ), grown locally in market gardens, or with fish, or ‘in tecia’ – with cuttlefish.
Fish from the Adriatic is often served grilled, accompanied, in spring, by castraùre (young fried artichokes). Eels ( anguilla , or bisàto in dialect), are not so common and are served either broiled or poached.
One common ingredient is vinegar. It is used in all kinds of ways, but notably for pickling and preparing sarde in saòr , a delicious sweet-and-sour sardine dish.
One to try, if only for its novelty value is seppie al nero , cuttlefish in its own ink. This rather odd, rich-tasting dish is always served with spongy yellow polenta which gradually becomes darker as it soaks up the ink!
Another truly typical dish is bacalà mantecato , salt-cod beaten to a smooth cream with oil, garlic and parsley and served with polenta. It is often served as a cichetto, on bread or perhaps a cracker.
One of the most traditional secondi or main courses is fegato alla veneziana , (calf’s liver and onions), a combination created in Venice but now popular everywhere. The defining factor for Venetians, however, is how thinly the meat is cut, and the long gentle cooking it undergoes.
However no meat is as thinly cut as another Venetian invention, carpaccio , slices of cured beef served cold with mayonnaise or mustard sauce. It is said that it was invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice, where it was first served to the countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo in 1950 who, on doctor’s orders, had requested raw meat. It was said to be named carpaccio by Giuseppe Cipriani, the bar’s owner at the time, after the great Venetian painter because the colours of the dish are said to have reminded Cipriani of his paintings!
Another way of eating veal is vitello tonnato – veal in a tuna sauce. This strange surf and turf concoction is always served cold.
For flavoursome country cooking, try panàda veneziana , a wholesome soup made with bread, garlic, oil, bay leaf and Parmesan cheese, or pastissàda , a concoction of green vegetables, cheese, sausage, pasta or polenta bound together traditionally to use up leftovers.
Zuppa di Pesce is another wholesome and hearty left-over soup, of fish.
Pasta e fagioli is a delicious thick northern Italian pasta and white bean soup.
For dessert, try the famous tiramisu, another Venetian invention combining chocolate, coffee, cream, sweet marscapone cheese and brandy. Pannacotta – literally, cooked cream, is a delicious, if sometimes rich, dessert with a texture very similar to crème caramel, It is usually served with wild berries, or perhaps a caramel or chocolate sauce.
Another very Venetian custom is to serve baìcoli biscuits which should be dunked in drinking chocolate or dessert wine; other kinds of biscuits and sweets are bussolài , moulded into ring or “S” shapes, called essi buranèi ; or the Veneziana , a kind of brioche covered with chopped almonds and sugar. For Carnival, other seasonal goodies replace typical Shrove Tuesday pancakes: frìtole are made from a dough flavoured with raisins and pine nuts. Pìnsa , a biscuit flavoured with fennel seeds, raisins, dried figs and candied peel, is a speciality baked at Epiphany.
The most common drink in Venice (and the Veneto), after un ombra , is a spritz , which is a white wine with a dash of bitters and soda water. If you order a spritz you should specify com Campari or (more normally) com Aperol. The former is much more alcoholic than the latter.
Venice‘s most famous cocktail is the Bellini , one-quarter measure of peach juice to three of prosecco , a dry Italian sparkling white wine; the Tiziano , made with a special strawberry-flavoured grape juice; the Mimosa , a blend of tangerine and orange juices; the Rossini , with strawberry juice added. Ernest Hemingway was a frequent visitor to Harry’s Bar , where he would order his own special cocktail, the Montgomery , named after the famous general. It was made with one measure of vermouth to 15 measures of gin and is served only by that particular establishment.
Much more palatable to less hardened drinkers is a glass of prosecco , the Veneto‘s very own sparkling wine, which is light and very refreshing.
The most commonly found table wines are from the nearby regions of Soave (white), Bardolino and Valpolicella (both red) and Friuli (red and white).