My New Best Friend on the other side of The Pond is Adam Zettler of MetroMarks. He’s recently launched a regular feature called My Favourite City on the MetroMarks website, where you can find all sorts of insider info about an ever-growing number of cities around the world. They kicked off My Favourite City with a post about Toronto, Zettler’s hometown, and this week they’ve given me some space to rave about Venice, Italy. If you click on the link below, you’ll find out my top three must dos in Venice, my favourite restaurant for both memorable views AND food, as well as other reasons why I find this city so special. Most importantly, perhaps, are my tips on how to enjoy Venice without falling into the typical tourist traps.
Click here to read My Favourite City – Venice.
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To sign off, here are a few photos of Venice from earlier this year:
Casanova and his latest squeeze, spotted near Frari
A trio of palazzi
View of St Mark’s Square from the bell tower at San Giorgio Maggiore
It’s hard to conceive of a Venice without Harry’s Bar. Opened in 1931 by former hotel barman, Giuseppe Cipriani, it’s found a stone’s throw away from St Mark’s Square, looking directly out at the beginnings of the Grand Canal. Calle Vallaresso, at the water’s end of which Harry’s Bar sits, is lined with designer stores, the likes of which are guarded by bouncers with earpieces, yet the location wasn’t always so exclusive. Once upon a time the Bar was part of an old rope warehouse – humble beginnings for what would become an internationally renowned destination watering hole, for both locals and visitors to Venice alike.
The Harry that donated his name to the bar was a young alcoholic, who’d been despatched by his family to Venice to sober up. He fell on hard times when his accompanying aunt abandoned him at the Hotel Europa, where he was a guest and Giuseppe Cipriani was barman. Cipriani loaned the guest some money, uncertain that he’d ever see it again. Some time later, Harry Pickering returned to Venice, repaid the loan and added an extra sum with which he encouraged Cipriani to open his own bar.
Harry’s Bar is known for inventing the Bellini cocktail and carpaccio of beef, as much as for its patrons; everyone who’s anyone in Venice will visit at least once and the list of famous names that have sought refreshment here is impressive. I, however, have been a little slow off the mark when it comes to darkening the Harry’s Bar doorstep. In spite of having visited the city multiple times over the years, at one point even working there, it was not until this year that I managed to make the pilgrimage to the bar where Ernest Hemingway was once a regular.
Unless you’re teetotal or underage, it’s de rigueur to order the bar’s invention, the Bellini cocktail, when you first go to Harry’s. Named for Giovanni Bellini, one of the city’s great artists, it’s a tasty blend of fresh peach purée and prosecco which, when combined, create a particular shade of pale orange which the painter favoured. I already knew from online reviews that the current rate of extortion for imbibing this particular cocktail at this particular bar would be €16.00 per glass. That’s a heck of a lot of dosh for one drink, especially when plenty of folk are vocal about how small the Harry’s Bar measures are, but in the end I relented. Having a Bellini at Harry’s has been on my Bucket List for so long that I figured it was time to take the financial plunge and cross it off.
And so, at cocktail hour, weary from a day pounding across Ruskin’s stones, Monsieur and I found our way to Harry’s Bar. This took a bit of doing because we walked straight past it several times, so unpretentious is the entrance. Once inside, we found a room simply decorated in Art Deco style, very little altered, I imagine, from the day the bar opened back in 1931. A waiter in smart white smock and black trousers seated us at a tiny table across from the bar. We ordered a pair of Bellinis and sat back to people-watch.
We’d arrived just after 4 in the afternoon, so luckily beat the traffic. A few minutes later and there wouldn’t have been room for us, such was the steady stream of tourists pouring through the door, mouths agape as they drank in the first impressions of the place. Given all the fuss about Harry’s Bar, it really is quite unexpectedly simple in design. Perhaps we expected lashings of gilt and brocade where Charlie Chaplin and Aristotle Onassis once sipped their evening refreshments? Venice certainly does excel at fussy. And yet, when you sit back and start to absorb the atmosphere, it’s obvious that this is an establishment that’s secure in itself and has confidence enough not to seek to impress like a Flash Harry on the make. Even better, for fans of 1930s interiors and traditional service, it’s like walking into a charming time warp.
Our Bellinis arrived in short water glasses, a small bowl of whole, green olives in tow. Having thoroughly enjoyed our Bellinis at the Centurion Palace Hotel terrace on arrival in Venice, Monsieur and I were interested to see how the original stacked up against the new kid on the block. And now, at the risk of incurring the wrath of Harry’s Bar die hard regulars, I must be honest: it was disappointing.
The Centurion Bellini was intensely peachy with a delightful fizz. It tasted as if the peach had been grown in the Garden of Eden and had fallen gently off the tree into a padded basket that very morning. Sadly, the Harry’s Bar Bellini lacked that fresh fruit quality. I’m not saying that they didn’t use fresh peaches; I trust they did. It’s just that, even if the peach content had been fresh, this Bellini still managed to taste like a blend of bottled Paga juice and prosecco. Perhaps it’s because of the excessive demand of visitors like us that their signature drink has lost its fizz. I’d suspect that’s the case. It’s just a shame that we didn’t find the Centurion Bellini within the Harry’s Bar atmosphere. We were certainly fortunate to have experienced both, but my advice to anyone intending to pay homage at Harry’s Bar - don’t order the Bellini here. Ask for one of their other traditional cocktails: a Manhattan or a Martini. Given the way those Harry’s boys shake and stir, I’m sure you’ll get the real deal and it should be better for not being produced for the masses who come here seeking to drink THE Bellini.
Would I return to Harry’s Bar? Definitely, but only when I’m cashed up and not for their blessed Bellini. I hear good things about their set menu lunches and might be tempted in that direction… Perhaps with a Sidecar apéritif.
Where would I go for a Bellini in Venice? The Centurion Palace Hotel. Ask for a terrace table. Fantastic views. AND the Bellini is a whole Euro cheaper.
Plus points: history, time-warp atmosphere, tradition, décor, free olives.
Minus points: costly, tourist haunt, the Bellini, apparently you’re not allowed to take photos but I did and no one stopped me! Woops.
How to find Harry’s Bar: stand at the end of St Mark’s Square looking out at the lagoon. Turn right. Follow the water’s edge as it leads to the Grand Canal, keeping the large white church of Santa Maria della Salute on your left. Just after the Square, there’s a small bridge. Cross it. The path will lead you into a calle on the right (Calle Vallaresso). Harry’s Bar is right on the right-hand corner of that calle.
Monsieur and I slumbered long, that first night in Venice. In fact, we somehow slept through our alarms before finally falling out of bed at an embarrassing 11am. That was stupid. Now we’d have to move fast to make up the time.
Our lateness didn’t escape the attention of the hotel receptionist. A man exuding Italian confidence, with the wickedest of smiles, called us ‘early birds’ as we dropped off our key before braving the rain outside. Beyond the Fondamenta, the lagoon was grey with mist, punctuated only by the smudge of terracotta brick walls on the cemetery island. We puddled along beside the water to the Fondamenta dei Mendicanti, turning away from the lagoon to begin our day’s exploration. In spite of the unwelcoming weather, the exhilaration of being in Venice again made me want to skip across the slippery stones singing O Sole Mio, but Monsieur would have pushed me into the lagoon to drown my dulcet (?) tones and it was already quite wet enough.
Across the canal from us stood boat houses, where gondolas sat on the Venetian version of terra firma, wearing bright, acrylic raincoats as they awaited maintenance. All around us, Palazzi climbed with centuries-old pride out of the water and a rare garden glistened green in the grey. Then, near the hospital, I pointed at a Venetian ambulance boat. “Everything happens in boats here,” I told Monsieur, “there are boats for each of the emergency services, WITH sirens, hearse-boats for funerals; even DHL and Fed Ex deliver by boat.”
By the time we reached the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, we were sodden. Even Monsieur’s rucksack squelched with the wet. We were in dire need of refuge from the rain so in we went, our damp footsteps joining the snail-like trail of others who’d had the same idea. This church is something different in a city where decoration is frequently ornate-gone-mad; Santi Giovanni e Paolo has a simple red brick structure, its high ceiling dwarfing all visitors. Pondering this, my phone made an irreverent buzz. It was a text message from a friend back in London: “Let’s meet for coffee?” I quickly switched it off, remembering that when I’d lived here years before, I only ever used one mobile phone and it was a complete brick belonging to the museum where I worked. These days, that example of telephonic apparatus would be an exhibit in its own right.
Meanwhile, the scent of old church candles and the smoke of censers permeated the chill air inside the church. We ambled about, looking at the altars and paintings. Stopping to light a candle for the Madonna della Pace (Madonna of Peace) we took a last look at the Bellini altar before venturing back into the damp outdoors.
The piazza bordering Santi Giovanni e Paolo is usually pleasant, with its giant equestrian statue and surrounding pastel houses. Today it was subdued, with a group of bedraggled tourists huddled over their guides by the statue boarded up for restoration. We scurried across to the blue and white sign pointing towards San Marco and persevered in the downpour.
The tourist mecca of San Marco was a long zig-zag away on such an unpleasant day. To warm up we ducked into a strange café en route. I call it strange because of its décor. The stained stucco ceiling looked like cappuccino froth peaks hanging upside down, a tad too low for true comfort. We sat dripping amongst the dusty plastic poinsettias and Chinese lanterns and one particularly large Chinese porcelain vase. The resident aquarium was so green with algae that you had to fear for the longevity of the poor fish inside but the icing on the cake in this establishment was the bill; a double espresso and a cappuccino set us back an astronomical 8 Euros 40. Mind you, we were the only customers at the time and the disinterested waiter had to earn his living in the off-season somehow. That’s Venice for you.
We then darted back and forth across bridges until the reassuring sight of the campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore could be seen in proximity. In summer this walk is a breeze, but with the damp of the lagoon seeping into your bones, it’s a challenge. To distract us there were suddenly many more shops than we’d been passing, now mostly filled with garish masks and other tourist tat, by which I confess to being fascinated. In keeping with the more visible commerce was the number of people in the area, which continued to swell as we approached the Riva degli Schiavoni, the lagoon-side yellow brick road leading to St Mark’s Square.
No longer sheltered from the cold by huddles of buildings, the exposure of walking along the Riva was enough to send us in search of an interior - any interior in which to warm ourselves. I thought this might be a good time to visit the Basilica of San Marco and was excited by the thought of not having dripping eyebrows for a while, but Monsieur was hungry and, as any caring woman knows, when men are hungry it’s best to feed them as quickly as possible or they will make us pay. So off we set across an eerily-deserted St Mark’s Square in search of lunch where even the pigeons had disappeared in protest against the weather.
I steered our party of two past restaurants advertising meals in five languages, ignoring the casual bars with their trays of tremezzini as we headed along the chic Calle Lunga lined with designer boutiques. We crossed the wooden Accademia Bridge, following a path behind the gallery to the Taverna San Trovaso. This had been my favourite place to eat when I was an intern, being dangerously located between my apartment and the museum. The family who own and run the Taverna became friends of the interns, the sons joining us for evening drinks after their mid-week football matches on the mainland. Fabio and Alessandro were still there, looking comfortingly similar to the way they were more than a decade ago. Alessandro, tall and bespectacled, had barely changed, while Fabio, who poked his head out of the kitchen door repeatedly until he was sure it was me sitting in his dining area, had a plumper face and slightly receding hair at the temples. He bounded over to our table to greet us in such a warm fashion that it we forgot the gloom outside, and the ensuing conversation must have sounded quite wrong because Fabio doesn’t speak English, my Italian isn’t great and Monsieur doesn’t speak Italian so the language was more than a little mixed up.
Fabio disappeared to take care of his other patrons when our food arrived. I had ordered the in-house specialty of seppie neri with polenta, whilst Monsieur refuelled with an old favourite – scaloppine al limone. Thoroughly enjoying this lunch at an old Venetian haunt, I smiled at Monsieur. He looked me straight in the eye and said “I love you, darling, even when you have black teeth.” So if you ever make it to Venice with a loved one, avoid anything with squid ink. What it’s capable of doing to your teeth is far from impressive.