The Floating City: A Weekend in Venice (Part 1)
After an early start and a neck-breaking sleep on the plane over, I was standing at the dock waiting for the ferry. Late February felt more like mid-December as the wind and rain buffeted the poor souls that morning. When the boat finally came I could barely feel my toes anymore, and only warm company kept the blood flowing. Company took the form of a worker for UNESCO called Melissa, who was more than happy to show me around a few places whilst I was there. We planned to meet later that evening, whilst I got settled into my room or the long weekend.
My first impressions of Venice were slightly skewed by the freezing temperature and desperate need to get inside, so I admit I rather rushed through the introduction. After finding the little studio next to an anonymous church (one of so very many), I was able to warm up enough to feel hungry, and so I ventured out for the first time in search of Venetian cuisine.
What I did find by wandering aimlessly turned out to be the perfect introduction to Venetian culture, both from a culinary and human perspective. The food was delicious, especially the antipasti. One sausage, Sopressa Veneta, was wonderfully soft and the highlight of the meal. The place itself was so small that four small tables were enough to fill the place out and warrant the staff having to squeeze past us, and tread on my coat. Not that I’m bitter about it or anything.
The chef/owner sang loudly from the kitchen as he stirred in sauces and shopped up vegetables, spilling out into front of house occasionally to talk with customers, place a friendly hand on their shoulder, and cackle at his own jokes. It was a nice breath of fresh air to see someone so happy to be doing their job, so genuinely happy. Melissa joined me as I was finishing up, and after offering to show me around a bit more of the city, I took her up on it and we left.
Melissa showed me some of her favourite places in Venice; she’d been visiting here for a few years at this point, but never more than a few months at a time. Still, this had given her ample time to discover the nuances of the Floating City which, for better or worse, turned out to be mostly wine bars. In fact, bar one takeaway fish shop that gave you a paper cone of shellfish, they were all wine bars.
The first of these also turned out to be the oldest in Venice, a place called Cantina do Mori. It’s the oldest bacaro (traditional wine bar) in Venice. ‘It opened in 1462,’ I was told. Ombra (meaning shade/ shadow in Italian), and so-called for the man who used to push the barrels in the shade of the buildings to stop them heating up, is what is said when asking for a small glass of wine. So, I was instructed to ask for ‘une ombra vino rosso, per favour,’ although the bartender was gracious enough to understand what I meant when I went wrong. Baccala (salted cod served, for me, on a piece of polenta) was also fun to taste, and rather reminded me of a fishcake filling. In any case, the fish was fine, but the polenta was dull, so we left.
After several drunken missteps, Melissa succeeded in showing me to San Marco. She asked me why I thought tables were stacked up just off the square. When I failed to guess why, she informed me that they’re for people to walk on when the square floods. It seems a very sensible idea to me, but I was unfortunately unable to experience it first-hand whilst I was there. She told me a bit about the mosaics on the outside of the basilica, how real gold was used on the oldest surviving image, before we sat on the lagoon-side and listened to the rolling waves lap against the gondolas. The stone steps were cold and damp, and they disappeared into an inky blackness, but it was a marvellously private moment.
Afterwards, we continued to wander back to the flat. Melissa rather fancied me, I think. She kept asking me to sit down next to her and looked at me when she thought I wasn’t aware. Perhaps that’s why she continued to take me past all her favourite ‘hidden’ spots and gave some trivia on the Bridge of Sighs (so-called because prisoners would have one last, brief look of Venice before their execution, and sigh in reflection of all that was, is, and could have been). It was a truly beautiful place to become lost in, though. I have never felt calmer knowing not where I am, or where I need to go. All the streets we visited that night were silent; naught but puddle-splashes accompanied our conversation, until at last I made it home again. Melissa was keen to come in. I was tired and, to put it bluntly, not interested, so I said goodnight and went upstairs to bed. My friend was already asleep, so I made up the sofa bed, and let myself slip away. So ended Thursday.