Goal: Don’t Leave the Lagoon

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I had passed the place a number of times, it being on my walk to the language class I took a few years ago. Da LeLe, the little bacarò wine bar, couldn’t hold its patrons in its 4 x 4 interior, so they always spilled out onto the fondamenta and the campo at Tolentino. I always felt like I didn’t belong there, like I couldn’t just walk in and order an ombra, a little wine, because it looked like a place only the initiated would know. So I always passed it by.

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Piero in his favorite city

 

But now I was invited to join my friend Piero Bellini there. Piero is a native Venetian, one who never has wanted to leave his lagoon city. In fact, in his chapter for First Spritz Is Free: Confessions of Venice Addicts, he writes,

“My first goal has always been to not leave the lagoon. At the end of high school (Liceo Classico “Marco Polo,” difficult to imagine something more Venetian…) when I had to choose which University to enroll in, I almost automatically applied to Ca’ Foscari, Economia e Commercio, here in Venice, avoiding Medicine, Law, Engineering etc., … for which I would have had to go to the nearby town of Padua. At the end of my university studies in 1984, I had received interesting job offers, for example at Fiat in Turin, but I preferred more simply to be content with a job at the local Cassa di Risparmio (savings bank), and not to detach myself from my beloved city. When I was looking for a house, it would have been easier and cheaper to move to Mestre, on the “mainland,” though still the City of Venice. With my wife Lorenza we preferred to initially live in a smaller house that needed to be restored, but in the historic center. Lorenza, in fact, thinks like me. She is also Venetian and so, too, logically, our son Oscar. My deeply Venetian choice may seem very conservative. Actually I love traveling, also because I know where I want to come back to: here to my lagoon! And anyway there is the whole world (lately becoming more exaggerated!) that comes to visit us.

I’ve known Piero for so many years now that I’ve forgotten when we met. Painter and musician Tony Green, who knows Piero because they sometimes make jazz music together, introduced us, and now I see Piero every time I return to his city. He always sends me tidbits to feed my addiction: the view from the church tower of the Frari; a picture of snow atop a cistern in an empty campo; Santas rowing Venetian style; even sandcastles at the island of Iesolo. So of course I invited him to contributed to First Spritz. He shares three anecdotes from his family’s business, the Hotel Bisanzio near the Riva degli Schiavoni, its name all glittery gold above its doors. In anecdotes lie the microcosm of Venetian life, and thus, its heart.

 

So for under three euros, Piero and I enjoyed our ombre of red wine and a plate of salami, pecorino cheese, and thumb-sized breadsticks. Now I’ve been initiated into Da LeLe. And now I know I’ll go back.

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At the Bacareto, you can find a cure for all that ails you

You can download the ebook of First Spritz Is Freefor free! Click here, and if you find that you’re inspired to protect Venice’s unique culture, the contributors encourage donations to Save Venice, Venice in Peril, or Comitato No Grandi Navi.

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Strings of Lights

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Always strings of lights. Blue and green and yellow and red and orange. They announce the sagra before you even cross the bridge into San Pietro in Castello–or San Piero, as it’s said in dialect.

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Lorenzo, Giorgia, and Federica cross the bridge before us as we walk towards San Pietro

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The church tower of San Pietro as we approach the island

This was the biggest sagra I had been to yet. Numerous tents shaded countless picnic tables where people already gathered with their food and friends. B and I wasted no time getting a couple piadini, those sandwiches that remind me of the Italian version of a Mexican quesadilla, ours filled with mozzarella and fresh tomato slices. In line to pay, a little good stood next to us, clutching the string to her inflated white unicorn with the rainbow horn, the balloon as big as her.

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This looks like the same guy who sells blinky things at the San Giacomo dell’Orio sagra

Lorenzo grabbed three beers for himself, Federica, and Giorgia to start on while they waited in the other food line for mixed fry-fry and polenta, which would end up taking nearly two hours to arrive. By then B and I had found a table, finished our piadini, and saved seats for the others while they waited.

While the stage San Giovanni in Bragora was a decent size, as well as the usual ones at San Giacomo dell’Orio and Malamocco, this sagra at San Pietro was supersized, with a canopy, stacks of speakers, and a full light show. Through the crowds and between the tents we could see Vocal Skyline singing while gesturing along with their lyrics. Later we went closer to check them out and I thought of past episodes of Glee.

But as usual, I always love checking out the mercatino, the little marketplace of homemade jams, discarded books, knitting, and the Murano glass pieces that aunty has cleaned out of her cupboard to raise money for charity. I asked B, “Do you still have the lopsided little milk pitcher you bought at Mazzorbo a couple years ago?”

“Yes, of course! I still love it!” she said, her face breaking into a smile. I still have the gondola-shaped penknife, the black costume jewelry necklace, the lion-shaped doorplate. I’m a sucker for these tchotchkes, though I didn’t actually find something to buy at San Pietro.

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The full moon was rising over the rooftops, brightening the few clouds, and silvering the canal below the bridge we crossed. I would miss the next three nights of this sagra, but at least I got to party with the San Pietro neighborhood.

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“Venice, My Muse:” An Interview with Louise Pullen

The blogosphere is an engaging place. I had no idea that when I started blogging, I would meet so many fascinating people. And the way I meet them is equally fascinating. This month’s “Venice, My Muse” interview features Louise Pullen, whom I met through another WordPress blogger, Mr. Drink Wine Today. (What a great name, right?) Louise, as you’ll read, is an expert on that great Venetophile John Ruskin, so she brings a unique perspective to today’s interview. Here’s her introduction to herself:

I am Curator of the Collection of the Guild of St. George (Ruskin Collection) at Sheffield. John Ruskin was passionate about the art and architecture of gothic and early renaissance Venice, and also the preservation of its ancient buildings (you can find a monument to him at the Hotel Calcina, overlooking the Giudecca). As such I spend a lot of time looking at images of Venice at work and have over- enjoyed various research trips to the city itself and a few holidays too. My own interest in the city and the Veneto region began further back at University when I studied the architecture of Andrea Palladio. Ruskin, though, would be turning in his grave at that thought as he loathed Palladio’s work.

How has Venice seduced you?

Probably the same way as most people. Its ancient atmosphere and quaintness is utterly seducing, and its architecture is astounding. There is beauty to be found everywhere you look. I think I’m probably a bit of a trial to my husband when he comes on trips with me as I’m likely to eulogize over some brickwork rather than find the restaurant or bar we were heading for. I make no apologies though. It’s a city to be respected rather than rushed through.

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One of Carpaccio’s dragons 

What do you never fail to do in Venice?

1) Say “hello” to Vittorio Carpaccio’s dogs and demon in the Scuola San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, and to a century’s-old carved rat on the Calle del Traghetto near San Felice.

2) Try some new routes. I’m lucky to have a good sense of direction so I take a different street when I can. Even if it takes a few extra minutes to get to my destination, I see something wonderful each time. And on a similar subject, I never, if I can help it, follow the ubiquitous yellow signs to “Rialto,” “San Marco,” etc. You can never really go far wrong by just heading in a similar direction.

3) If there looks like there’ll be a nice sunset, I’ll walk down the Riva degli Schiavoni towards the Arsenale to watch the sky and water turn a fiery pink over the back of the Island of San Giorgio, or better still get the water bus over to San Giorgio to watch the sunset over Santa Maria della Salute (check the bus timetable though if you are going to do that!). I wait till the city’s lights pop on before I head back to eat, or pack up a picnic to eat while I’m watching. I have a favourite bollard to sit on for this.

What is your Venice soundtrack?

You can’t escape the sound of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played by ticket-sellers across the city, but for me the Four Seasons gets a bit stale if you hear it everywhere–how about something else by Vivaldi?–or branch out and listen to an adopted son of Venice–Monteverdi. Gorgeous.

 

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Nearly lost bits of architectural beauty

Walk or take a boat?

Definitely walk. It’s nice to take a scenic trip down the canals, and that should be on everyone’s itinerary (in daytime and after dark), but for me you see so much more when you walk and take a slower pace. The water frontages may have been the focal point for the architects and owners of the buildings, but you’ll get a better sense of Venice from the backstreets and catching distant glimpses of sparkling water, someone’s laundry strung out over a small canal, or a canary in a window.

Which church or campo best epitomizes you? Please explain.

I don’t know if it epitomizes me as such, but I love the Corte Seconda del Milion. It’s small and usually quiet, and as a corte it’s more an opening from a sotoportego than somewhere to sit to while away some time, but it has some absolutely exquisite Byzantine carving at its entrance and on its buildings. There’s also a lesson in window styles to be found. It’s well worth some study.

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Which is your favorite Venetian festival and why?

I have a fondness for the Regata Storica. It coincided with arriving in Venice for my honeymoon. Despite the fact all the canals were off-limits to public transport and we had to lug our suitcases through the crowds on a very hot day, there was a passionate and excitable buzz about the city that gave it an atmosphere that I’ve not come across since. More colorful than ever, too.

Spritz or Bellini?

Depends on my mood, the quality of the peaches and the weather, so both. I wouldn’t say no to the Prosecco on its own either.

What do you always tell friends to do when they visit the city?

Firstly get off the beaten track–don’t just see the sites. Go to Cannaregio and Dorsoduro and look at architecture there. It’s far less crowded and just as beautiful.

Secondly, it sounds a bit odd for this blog, but get off the main island. Spend time on the colorful Burano and then take the boat over to Torcello. It’s so peaceful after the crowds, and its history and the Basilica is completely beguiling (look out for leopards in the mosaics and monkeys and peacocks in the carving).

Thirdly, take a bus to the mainland and visit one of Palladio’s villas–try the Malcontenta near the city, or take the train to Vicenza and visit the Villa Rotunda (and the town itself–especially the Teatro Olimpico). Plenty of other villas are open to the public too, if you are up for an adventure. Those villas are the counterpart to the grand palazzi you see on the canals, where the great and the good went to escape when the city got too much. You’ll get a real sense of Venice’s citizens during the period of the Venetian Republic’s greatest power.

If you could have dinner with any Venetian, living or dead, who would it be and why? What would dinner be?

I suppose I should say I’d like to have met Ruskin (as an adopted Venetian) on one of his study tours–it would make my job much easier–but really I would love to have met Carpaccio. His paintings, though religious in theory, are full of details and faces and are really a study of people and places. I think he must have had both a sense of humor and great empathy, too.

Dinner isn’t so much a particular dish, as a particular restaurant a few minutes’ walk from the Accademia. I’m not going to say its name because it’s tiny and it’s difficult enough to get a seat there without advertising it further.

Casanova: genius or cad?

Definitely a bit of both, but I’m no expert on him. Anyone who finds happiness as a librarian, though, has my vote.

What would you do with $30,000 U.S. to spend in Venice?

Try and get Salviati to make me some Martini glasses I saw in their showroom (and just about affordable) years back. It’s a design they’ve stopped doing, and I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t buy them. I’d also go to Signor Blum on the Campo San Barnaba and buy a whole rio of his colourful puzzle palazzi. Maybe some proper lace from Burano if I’ve got any money left. I’d just make sure I was giving money to Venice’s artisans rather than for imported tourist tat.

If money were no object, which palazzo would you buy?

The Palazzo Contarini della Porta di Ferro at Santa Giustina. It’s a bit off the beaten track and pretty unassuming on the exterior (and most of the interior these days), though it does have some nice carving over the inland door. When you go in, though, it has a gorgeous courtyard–with a carved staircase leading to the piano nobile, some old carved doorways, and a pretty little garden. It’s currently a guesthouse, but overall it’s a dilapidated but very beautiful gem and I’d love to give it a bit of glory again.

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The Palazzo Contarini della Porta di Ferro

Which gelato flavor are you?

Can I just say my favorite again? One thing I like to do of an evening is to go to Gelato Fantasy on Calle dei Fabbri, get a tub of chocolate and pistachio (no bright green food-colouring!) and wander back to St. Mark’s Square to listen to the bands.

How can readers learn more about you and your creative pursuits? 

Find out more about the Ruskin Collection at www.museums-sheffield.org.uk. Rather than recommending my own writing, can I suggest Lionello Puppi’s The Stones of Venice. It describes my love of Venetian architecture in photo form.

Sarah Quill’s photographs of Venetian buildings are also beautiful and are accompanied by some of Ruskin’s comments on the architecture in “Ruskin’s Venice–The Stones Revisited.”

 

 

 

 

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Frecce Tricolori

The Frecce Tricolori is an aerobatics display team that flies out of the Veneto region. They zipped over Venice, and I caught these shots from Campo Manin.

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Regatta Report: SS Giovanni e Paolo

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Boats line up near Murano for the start of the race

The sun was shining, the waves were choppy, and the boats were colorful. B, my indefatigable regatta partner every summer, joined me again for the boat races at SS Giovanni e Paolo on Sunday, June 24. We had been out all day exploring the northern lagoon and saw the pupperini lining up near Murano, where the race commences. These are boats smaller and flatter than gondolas, and today rowed by a team of two men.

We arrived to Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo in time to see the other set of racers, the giovani or young men, lining up in the canal. They nosed their racing gondolas in facing the church, looking like a rainbow as they waited for the priest to bless their boats. They all wore white pants and shirts, with either a sash at their waist or headband that matched their boat color.

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A rainbow of gondolas

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The parish priest readies to bless the boats

I overheard nearby conversation: “Look at that one in the tight pants.” “Yes, maybe he’ll fall in the water.” “I wonder if his pants restrict his racing speed?” Isn’t it awful how women are always objectifying men, focusing only on their bodies instead of recognizing their other talents?

 

We walked back up to Fondamente Nove to watch the race. They came from Murano, past the cemetery island of San Michele to Fondamente Nove, east to the Arsenale, and doubling back to finish at the hospital at the Rio dei Mendicanti. A little table was set up there, with the frame and piece of wire running vertically down it for the judge to decide who crossed the line first. Inexplicably, the race announcer sat at a table back in the campo, getting race updates over his headphones and announcing the racers’ status over the loudspeaker. The stage was set up there, along with the flags for the winners.

Most of the folks watching the race were gathered on the Ponte dei Mendicanti. I heard a lot of Venetian being spoken. It seemed to be families and friends of the racers, primarily. A guy came around and handed us programs, and I recognized some of the names of families who have racers: Busetto, Vianello, Vignotto. I saw a family name belonging to my friends, brothers who are gondoliers, and wondered if the teenage son might be racing that day. (Turns out, whoever he was, he was the alternate and didn’t race anyway.)

After enough time had elapsed that B and her sister Laura and I had had our gelato, here came the racers striving towards the finish. For the men’s pupperini race, first place went to Guglielmo Marzi and Mauro Cecilieti in the viola boat, second to Alberto Busetto and Ennio Busetto in bianco, and third to Giacomo Marangon and Riccardo Caenazzo in rosa. At least I think that’s accurate—I get caught up in taking pictures of the racers raising their oars overhead in victory as we all yell “Bravo!”

Near me, a white-haired man in yellow slacks waved his cane at the winners. “Bravo, Mauro! Bravo!” he yelled. B and I wanted to follow Papa to see father and son reunite at the campo when Mauro disembarked.

But there was still the gondola race of the giovani. The rainbow had earlier headed to the starting line at Murano, and a little later we watched them striving across the water between the bricole wooden pilings and veer towards the western edge of Fondamente Nove. A flotilla of motorboats followed along, full of families cheering and police or coast guard keeping order and directing the vaporetti to to stay out of the way. Soon they passed us, left to right, and disappeared towards the Arsenale. As we waited, a young woman came up and began asking questions of me and the older man in the blue shirt next to me. I did my best to translate. Turns out this loquacious and amicable man is a rowing teacher and had taught most of these young racers. I felt proud just standing next to him—who knows why, as I had nothing to do with any of it, but I was basking in the tradition and culture that permeated the moment.

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Verde passing us as he heads towards the Arsenale

After making a U-turn at the Arsenale, finally here they came towards the finish line. Matteo Zaniol in verde was far in front and won easily, with Nicoló Trabuio in celeste taking second and Mattia Vignotto in marron in third.

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Family and friends all around us cheered, but none quite so loud as the proud father next to me. He waved and called to his son. Then as celeste slid his boat under our bridge, he looked up and said, “Ciao, Papà” with a sweet smile.

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First Spritz Is Free Is LAUNCHED!

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Cover design by Iris Loredana

I’m thrilled to announce that the new ebook First Spritz Is Free: Confessions of Venice Addicts, is done and yours for free! Click on the title to get the link to Smashwords, where you can choose your ebook format.

First Spritz Is Free is a collection of essays by Venice lovers–Venetophiles–about our love for this watery city. We share our childhood memories, our favorite locations, food that sparks a memory, a special night, historical figures, and all the many ways that Venice entrances us.

You can freely share this link with others–give the book away to everyone you know! It’s free–my goals are to share our love of Venice with others, and to spread the word about not only this book but also the other creative pursuits of the 35 contributors. They have a wide range of talents, from writers to artists, photographers, musicians, tour guides, foodies, researchers, librarians, even a gondolier! Check out details on the website.
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Some of the contributors, meeting up in Venice

In the next couple weeks I’ll make the book available on Create Space for anyone who wants a paper copy.
Thank you to all the contributors for sharing their stories and their love for Venice! We hope you will enjoy this offering.
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Bragging About Bragora

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Okay, bragging implies that I accomplished something that I can crow about. Of course, I did nothing at all to create the sagra at Campo San Giovanni in Bragora, but isn’t this title a nice sounding pun?

Anyway, you maybe read about my head exploding, but I failed to tell you about the other lovely things at this festival. A sagra is like a neighborhood festival, where the people in the community come together, usually around food and entertainment, and often to raise some funds for those in need in their community. I’m usually in Venice in July and attend the sagra at San Giacomo dell’Orio, but this year I’m here for the one in Bragora.

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The campo is full of people, mostly locals

Local ceramics artists put up a tent and sold their wares. I spoke with one of the artists who told me about her work–clay mixed with stone so it is very strong. “See,  you can do like this,” she said, as she whacked a bowl against the table. “It will not break because of the stone.” I bought two wee bowls, confident that they could survive the trip home in my luggage.

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To the side of the campo, a man had set up a puppet theater and spread rug on the stones for children to sit on. I didn’t see any puppets yet, but he was deep in storytelling mode. Behind us, a few boys had a soccer game going.

A stage had been set up, with acts listed for each night. When I first went by on Saturday afternoon, not much else was happening yet. So I went around the corner and had a chocolate eclair at the pastry shop Alla Bragora. Oh my. I’m feeding my addiction for these pastries.

But I returned Sunday night and caught the last two songs by a group of guitarists and singers. Then came the singer / storyteller performance that I already wrote about. I loved the community feeling–there was a table of someone selling books, a local artist selling jewelry, and a group presenting information about local wines.

A woman sold a delicious apple torta that had some other flavor I couldn’t place. “Apricot,” she said, though she looked to another woman for confirmation. My friend and I bought little plastic cups of wine for a euro, which they poured from traditional ceramic pitchers.

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I love this town.

 

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