The love affair so many travellers have had with Venice began in earnest in the age of the grand tour – a continental romp reserved for the 19th century English upper-crust. Yet even then Ruskin, the Englishman and self appointed arbiter of all things indefatigably Venetian, lamented the onslaught. In his weighty tome The Stones Of Venice, he wrote: “The Venice of fiction and drama is a thing of yesterday, a stage dream which the first ray of light must dissipate into dust”.
Those words, written in 1853, can resonate today more than ever. The stage dream never included a human tide of 60,000 day-trippers! But like the Adriatic tide, the day-trippers withdraw from the City too. And as the shadows lengthen and the boat traffic on the Grand Canal slows, the Venetian dream seems once again within reach. Twilight creates illusions of wealth and promise, and of a City in the prime of its youth and vitality.
One by one, the bars, trattoria and restaurtante of Venice flicker into life. Choosing a place to eat has never been difficult – most of them positively ooze character and charm, but finding one with excellent food can be something of a challenge.
For all its beauty, Venice has never been acknowledged as a gastronomic icon in the way Paris or Lyon has. Of course seafood plays an important part in every meal, but its preparation can be under-whelming – even in the most expensive restaurants. That said, CruiseOyster have a handful of favourites that we return to time and again, and not surprisingly they’re usually chock-full of locals!
One, Trattoria Al Ponte del Megio, is just off Campo San Giacomo dell’ Orio, about fifteen minutes walk from the Rialto markets. As the name suggests, it faces a bridge over a quite canal. Trattoria Al Ponte is an unpretentious place run by a local family. The décor is simple but unmistakably Venetian, and the menu consists almost exclusively of fish purchased daily from the Rialto. We can’t resist their traditional Venetian pickled sardines for entree, or their signature dish – a seafood plater with scampi, clams, octopus, and sea creatures from the Lagoon you’ll have never seen before.
Trattoria all’ Antica Sacrestia near San Zacaria is another favourite. Run by the Calliandro family, it embodies all the ideals of Venetian charm. Pictures crowd every wall, and the low-beamed ceiling gives the place a warm and cosy feel. Again, seafood is the specialty of the house, and you’ll see most of it on display when you come through the front door. Tables are all close together, so you’re bound to strike up an interesting conversation with your neighbours. On one occasion a CruiseOyster reviewer met a tall, tanned Californian woman who seemed vaguely familiar. She was recreating ‘the grand tour’ with her teenage daughters. Only as the night wore on did she reveal she was an actress in the 1990’s TV drama “Law And Order”! Trattoria all’ Antica Sacrestia is open seasonally.
The age of the grand tour in the late 1700’s was a time of unbridled prosperity for Venice as it embraced the role of pleasure capital of Europe – Casanova and all. Its bars and saloons became the stuff of legend, and the Venetian dream flourished.
Some of these bars remain today, and after a great meal at Trattoria all’ Antica Sacrestia we often amble around the corner to the famed Danieli Hotel for a nightcap. It is a gob-smackingly beautiful place. Originally the Danieli was a palace owned by the noble Dandolo family, but in 1822 it was taken over by a Swiss named Joseph da Neil who created the hotel. The bar is in cloisters at the far end of a vast atrium lounge. Tapestries cover the floors and period Venetian furnishings fill the dimly lit romantic corners. Silver haired barmen in crisp white suits are at your service, and if you return on any more than a few occasions they’re sure to remember your favourite drink.
The famed Griti Palace on the Grand Canal is another great place to see in the wee small hours. The bar has a distinct aristocratic feeling – surrounded by frosted glass panels and filled with antique furnishings in soft tones of pink and crimson. The old-world service gives it a real charm. If you’re there in the warmer months, be sure to ask for a table on the terrace from where you can watch the Gondolas glide by on the Canal.
The remarkable nineteenth century scholar and excentric English ex-pat John Addington Symonds, wrote of Venice: “When you are in Venice it is like being in a dream, and when you dream about Venice it is like being awake”. Stepping out into the cool damp air after a night of indulgence is surely a part of that dream. To us at CruiseOyster the Venetian dream is a vivid as ever. So stay a night, or two or more, and start dreaming.