Hubert Burda Media

SAVOURING LA SERENISSIMA

With three months of the Biennale to go, there's time to gorge on international art in Venice. But save time for the city's other treasures.

SAVOURING LA SERENISSIMA

THE NATURE OF TIDES is a popular topic of conversation when you’re seated around the bars that line the back streets of Venice. Historically, the ebb and flow of the Adriatic has always ensured that the locals keep one eye on the weather charts – or these days the television – because as that

sea goes, so too do their fortunes. But Venetians long ago learned to adapt to such conditions, and while they love to talk about what’s going on out there on the water, they treat any high tides they encounter with simply a shrug and a smile.
 
What Venetians are only recently having to deal with, however, is something even more baffling – the whims of the tides of humanity who choose Venice as a estination. And that’s why you’ll see the barmen here shake their heads in bewilderment each evening, not long after darkness falls, as tourists in their thousands troop past all at once, heading either to the cheaper hotels a drive or train ride just out of town, or to the massive cruise ships that shadow the city from their moorings by the Piazzale Roma.
 
Rising prices across the board in Venice have not only meant that the city’s population has dropped by more than half over the last three decades, it also means that the majority of visitors to town these days are day-trippers. But the city’s loss is the smart visitor’s gain, and for those wanting to experience La Serenissima for the first time, or even for those who have long ago fallen prey to her charms, the trick is to hang around until after the sun sets, when you can escape the crowds that slow rogress to a shuffle while the sun is beating down.
 
The Gritti Palace is a place to indulge yourself. The 21-suite hotel, which reopened in 2013 and was sold for around US$113 million earlier this year, sits on the Grand Canal, opposite the Grand Lagoon and looking across to Santa Maria della Salute church. Guests have included Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham and even Peggy Guggenheim, before she set up residence almost opposite at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, and its sprawling rooftop terrace allows you to soak in the city as the sun goes down and the streets buzz below.
 
If you really want to feel as if the city is your own, the Cannaregio district is a place most visitors to Venice bypass completely on their way from the railway station to Rialto Bridge. More fool them. It has a unique history – once being home to the world’s first Jewish ghetto – and features quiet little bars (the name 10 Metri Quadrati explains itself) and cafes that are never crowded. You can sit outside under the moonlight and listen to music wafting over the Canale di Cannaregio before retreating into the likes of the boutique Carnival Palace, completely refurbished in 2012 and with rooms right over the canal. You’ll likely be edged fromslumber by the gentle chug of boats heading to the Rialto market with fresh produce or the morning catch.
 
Dignity returns to Piazza San Marco once the lights come on and the hordes have gone home. Always the beating heart of Venice – it was here, after all, that the great traveller Marco Polo made his return in 1295 to display wonders such as the first compasses and paper seen in Europe, as well as spices and gemstones – even the hosting of the 56th Biennale this year has not seen the square crowded at night. Sitting under the stars, you can’t help but be transported back in time. And so you can easily find entry – for dinner, cocktails or just coffee and cake – at either Caffè Quadri or Caffè Florian, fabulous spots for soaking up the atmosphere of the city, as its citizens have done since the two places first opened doors in the 1700s.
 
People come to Caffè Florian for its pastries and its desserts, like the Gianduia and pistachio parfait, while Caffè Quadri boasts a Michelinstarred menu upstairs but offers a devilish treat downstairs in its mirrored coffee rooms. Here, if you position yourself right, nothing and no one can escape your prying eyes, as you sip your caffè macchiato and tuck into Quadri’s famed baked ice cream that features a meringue atop amaretto mousse and almonds. Harry’s Bar is around the corner from St Mark’s and a place every visitor wants to go, but you need instead to seek out the Metropole Hotel for pre-dinner cocktails – or even a break during a sunny afternoon – as the garden section of its Oriental Bar is shady and quiet, and the place to tuck into a Venetian spritz or two. The hotel has been favoured by the rich and the famous over the centuries – composer Antonio Vivaldi was supposedly inspired by its setting, while the peace and quiet apparently gave Sigmund Freud pause for thought – but no one minds if you drop by for a drink or for a plate of snacks, or cicchetti, another of Venice’s specialities.
 
For dinner, follow the chefs – groups of them head to Enoiteca Mascareta every night when their own shifts finish. Owner Mauro Lorenzo is something of a celebrity and loves playing up to his crowd. His restaurant is small, hidden away from the main thoroughfares down Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, and tables can most nights be hard to book, or grab if you decide to chance your luck and just turn up unannounced. But it’s definitely worth the effort, or the wait. The locals will tell you the wine list here is the best in town but Lorenzo is famed equally for the way he presents the produce plucked from the local waters, specifically the sweet and sour sardines (sarde in saor) and the puréed cod (baccalàmantecato) for which Venice is famous. Tuck in, because once Lorenzo starts stalking the room with an open bottle, anything can happen.
 
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