On our first visit to Venice, Robert and I had visited St. Mark’s and the Pantheon, ridden in a gondola, and admired the Bridge of Sighs. We had been captivated by the people, the scenery, and the food, and had vowed to return.
On this, our second trip to vibrant Venice, we settled into our hotel near the Campo Santa Margherita. On our first full day in the city, we had followed the audio tour of the Doges Palace, admired the luscious Titians and Tintorettos, and absorbed a thousand years of Italian culture. Now we were ready to experience some of the city’s “hidden treasures.”
Setting out from our hotel on day two, we discovered a cute pastry café, Pasticceria Tonolo, and stopped for cappuccino. We quickly found ourselves in a lively conversation with the friendly staff and other patrons, all of whom had suggestions for which of the scrumptious-looking pastries we should try. I’m partial to anything with apricots and had to try a croissant filled with apricot jam.
Taking the suggestion of Paolo and Catherine, who were sitting at the next table, we then took a vaporetto (water taxi) to the Rialto market. The daily life of Venice seems to center here, where local chefs rub shoulders with housewives carrying bulging string bags as they select the choicest fruits, vegetables and fish fresh from the Adriatic. It’s extremely picturesque, fragrant, and a riot of market sounds — sellers and buyers bargaining loudly in Italian, delivery carts rumbling behind warning cries of “watch your feet!” and vendors eagerly calling out the many attractions of their market stalls, which groan under the weight of colorful produce. We bought two kinds of olives, a crusty loaf of bread, and some pears to ward off middle-of-the-night hunger back in our hotel room.
Having filled our eyes with local delicacies, we realized that we were hungry, so we walked just around the corner from the market to Cantina Do Mori. In spite of its location near the Rialto Bridge, this historic wine bar (bàcari) is frequented by locals, who come for the cicchetti (a tapas-like light portion; try the “Folpetti” with celery) and ombretta (aperitif). There are no seats, so we found ourselves enjoying our flavorful snacks in the midst of a group of older Italian men. Using rapid-fire Italian and a smattering of English along with hand gestures and our map, these friendly Venetians told us that we should take a boat ride up the Brenta River to view the villas, palaces, and gardens of Palladio. They also recommended a day trip to Murano to see the hand-blown-glass shops and studios. Everywhere we’ve traveled, we’ve found the locals to be a wonderful and generous source of suggestions, eager to share with us the parts of their homeland they love the most.
With the rich flavors of our lunch still lingering in our mouths, we continued to wander through the streets, admiring the architecture, the quaint campi (little squares) where children were playing, and the window boxes spilling over with red, yellow and purple flowers. As we walked, the aroma of fresh bread or the sound of an aria or the chattering of voices would drift from windows thrown open to the fresh air.
Without having a specific destination, we eventually found ourselves at a gondola yard (squero) on the Canale della Fondamente Nuove. We learned that there are only two squeri left in Venice and this one was bustling with activity. Although we arrived too late for the tour, our concierge later told us that the tour is well worth the hour it takes and the 25-euro admission.
We walked around and looked at the gondolas and struck up a conversation with Antonio, a retired gondolier who claimed to have once transported Princess Grace through the canals of Venice.
After our visit with Tony and the gondolas, we headed back toward St. Mark’s Square to make a return visit to the Basilica. On the way, we stopped at the Hotel Saturnia to make a reservation at the Ristorante La Caravella, which had been highly recommended by our travel consultant, who had been there two years ago, and again by a professor of ancient European art whom we had met earlier at the Rialto market.
Finding that we were suddenly more interested in a siesta than in the Basilica, we returned to our hotel in the late afternoon and snoozed until early evening. Refreshed and, amazingly, hungry again, we arrived at the restaurant and were seated outdoors in the private courtyard. The interior is paneled in wood like an old sailing vessel, the atmosphere is very romantic, the food and wine sensational, and the service discreet and gracious. Robert ordered the risotto with scampi, a house specialty, and I ordered fresh sea bass prepared with pine nuts and basil. Heavenly!
After our full day of walking (and eating!), not even La Caravella’s espresso could keep us awake. We slept soundly and awoke to another day of exploration. Before we left Venice, we took our new friends’ suggestions and made very enjoyable day trips into the dramatic Dolomites, to the villas of Palladio, and along to the glassmaking studios of Murano, always taking time to stroll, get a little lost, and sample the flavors of genuine local cuisine.