Get to know Venice by strolling along the canals.
“It is by living there from day to day that you feel the fullness of her charm; that you invite her exquisite influence to sink into your spirit,” wrote Henry James.
For today’s casual tourist, who typically spends a few days in Venice, the highlights too often include battling crowds to and around St. Mark’s Square, very expensive cappuccinos, and a very very expensive ride in a gondola. (The boatman’s crooning is extra.)
Last spring I spent five weeks on the storied island, studying Italian at a small academy. And though my speaking skills were only mildly improved, my heart was fortified by grandeur and beauty at every turn.
Best of all, I got to discover coveted strolls through less-traveled avenues in this haunting city of stones and vapors.
But which stroll to recommend? You can explore the working underbelly of the city; the lives of the boatmen, the produce vendors. Or concentrate on great dining or shopping. There are walks that reach into neighborhoods, or highlight Venice’s art or history.
Well, here is a stroll that includes the best that Venice has to offer and still manages to sail under the tourist radar. Here is back-street Venice; a walk—or passeggiata—between two churches that takes in bits of history, legend, and art; and a taste of Venice’s lesser-known cafés and shops. Cover it briskly in half an hour, or gently savor it in a day. Up to you.
The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is our starting point.
“The Frari” sits in the northwestern heart of the city in the Campo dei Frari (square of the Franciscan friars). A massive 14th-century basilica, it houses riches by Titian and Bellini and the only Donatello sculpture in Venice—a tender wood carving of John the Baptist. It also is a magnet for every visitor to Venice.
I found special delight in the Frari’s less-heralded neighbor, the 16th-century guild or Scuola di San Rocco (St. Roch or Rocco was protector saint against the plague then ravaging Europe). The paintings that adorn this meeting house, like so many aspects of Venice, tell a story: On completion of the structure, a competition was held to select an artist for the interior. Among five painters to enter was a particularly ambitious Jacopo Tintoretto, who, rather than comply with the rules for submission, simply whipped out a finished painting and had it fixed into an oval in the ceiling. The San Rocco brothers could hardly turn him down when he announced it was a gift to the ceiling.
Follow the Calle Tintoretto around the back of the scuola, and cross the footbridge to Campo San Pantalon and what looks like an unfinished church. But peek inside: Here 17th-century artist Giovanni Antonio Fumiani created an astonishing trompe-l’oeil ceiling made up of 40 canvasses. Creation of this work, which depicts scenes from the life of Saint Pantaleone, took 24 years and is rumored to have culminated in the artist’s fatal fall from the scaffolding. Truth or legend, he lies buried beneath his soaring angels and allegories.
Outside, cross the canal to enter Campo Santa Margherita—a large, cheerful piazza with a Latin Quarter feel. Skip the big touristy cafés and instead grab an outdoor table at a local haunt: La Bifora, farther down the square. Sip an espresso forte or try the Venetian Spritz (Prosecco with a splash of Aperol or Campari), munch from fish and salume platters, and steep in the hectic scene of chattering students, colorful fruit and fish vendors, and black-scarved nonne chasing their unruly grandchildren around the square.
Amid the hubbub is also the unassuming shop of Guerrino Lovato, finest of the lavish maskmakers that dot the city. Film directors Kubrick and Zeffirelli have found their way to his little storefront.
Beyond Lovato’s, you’ll approach the Ponte dei Pugni, or Bridge of Fisticuffs. To many an outsider, this little footbridge is just a route to lunch. But Pugni has its backstory, too. For centuries, two neighboring factions vied for the rights to the bridge, which spanned their boundaries. Early combatants were clad in armor and wielded spears. Later, they brought only their fists. The enemies’ exhibitions, which included tossing one another into the water, drew crowds—until one skirmish in 1705 proved particularly deadly, putting an end to the matches. Today, you can see footprints stamped on the ponte, in fond remembrance of a bygone and more muscular Venice.
Swing left and past the fruttivendolo, or produce man, cross Campiello Barbaro, and go under one bridge and over the next. To your right along the canal are little art shops and bars. A beloved neighborhood haunt is Al Bottegon, which specializes in a very local brand of hors d’oeuvre the Venetians call cicchetti. You stand at the bar, survey platters piled high with skewered seafood and other delights, and point. When you are done eating, they add up the number of toothpicks to calculate the cost of your meal.
The owner, a wine collector, is always on hand to counsel you about his local wine selection. Don’t be afraid to drink, amici—remember, you never have to drive home in Venice.
And if you still have room for a little something sweet, sample the pistachio gelato next door at Gelateria Squero. There are many fancy purveyors of this Italian favorite, but tiny and modest Squero is a secret and beloved spot to Venetians.
Also beloved are the gondolas, although tourists mostly see them ferrying camera-wielding passengers from out of town. Wander down the dock to view one of the city’s three ancient gondola yards, or scueri. Most picturesque of the trio, Squero San Trovaso is named for the adjacent church. This squero was built by craftsmen from the Dolomite Mountains near Austria in the 17th century, when over 10,000 elegant gondolas roamed the lagoon (there remain around 350 today), and it reflects a Tyrolean style at odds with the stone and plaster of Venice. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to witness the repair or even the construction of a boat, board by bended board, by the gondolier himself. (The first Venetian woman gondolier received her license in August 2010.)
The last leg of the walk begins behind nearby Taverna San Trovaso. It leads first to the Gallerie dell’Accademia, a treasure trove of Medieval and Renaissance art, half of it pulled from church walls and unframed, most of it unprotected by the usual ropes or buzzing sensors. Here you can view the little jewel-like paintings of Canaletto, only to emerge from the gallery and encounter 21st-century views of canals and palazzi looking much as they did 900 years before.
Round the museum and head down the Calle Nuova S. Agnese, where a river of boutiques guides you to Campo San Vio and the unusual shop of Marina and Susanna Sent, two sisters steeped in their family’s glassmaking traditions. Bucking the ostentation of the Murano style, the Sents’ designs are minimalist and sculptural. Here you’ll find jewelry, and even corsets and dresses made of glass. I marveled at a strand of blown glass baubles held together by nearly invisible threads.
From here, the path soon opens upon a delightful tiny square, Campiello (little campo) Barbaro. This verdant postage-stamp plaza offers charming shops and a rear view of Palazzo Dario, or Ca’ Dario, the 15th-century crooked palace on the Grand Canal that Venetians believe to be cursed. Word is that many of the palace’s owners, up to recent ones (including Kit Lambert, manager of the English band The Who), died under cruel or unusual circumstances, though not necessarily while in the palazzo.
Now, facing Ca’ Dario, we travel along Calle Bastion and arrive finally at the little wood bridge to the mighty Santa Maria della Salute Basilica, our destination church and the end of the line—in fact, very nearly the tip of the island. (The very tip is the old customs point, La Punta della Dogana, which centuries ago controlled access to a thriving mercantile Venice. It is today, not surprisingly, a contemporary art museum.)
Feast your eyes on the impressive church, known as the Salute. It was conceived in 1630 as a gesture of thanks to the Madonna for restoring health to the city after the devastating plague. The great snail-like ornaments ringing the structure are actually buttresses designed to support the massive weight of the dome—an original and ingenious concept. Every year on November 21, thousands of candle-carrying pilgrims flock to the basilica to pay homage to the Virgin.
And that, i miei amici, brings us to the end of our Venetian passeggiata, which if nothing else may serve as inspiration to find and explore other less-trodden paths of Venice. For that, all you really need to do is wander. And get lost. Mamma mia, getting lost is Venice’s gift to every traveler.