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
A long time ago, in happy-go-lucky, freewheeling times, I lived in Venice. It wasn’t a long-term thing; just a summer internship over the course of a few months, but it was long enough for me to fall head over my Supergas in love with the place. When I returned to London, there remained some Venetian experiences on my Bucket List that would have to wait for subsequent visits. Quite unbelievably, if you think about my passion for food and drink, one such missed undertaking was to drink a Bellini at the erstwhile Hemingway haunt of Harry’s Bar.
As a student intern, my salary just about covered rent and food, but didn’t quite stretch to evenings, let alone just one drink at this eponymous venue, with the enduring reputation of being horrifically expensive. In the interest of keeping some Lira (yes, these were pre-Euro days) in the bank, I avoided it like the plague.
Some years later, I returned to Venice to introduce Monsieur to this grand city of canals. It was winter. For different reasons, I didn’t have a lot of dosh at the time, so, yet again, for reasons of economy, Harry’s Bar didn’t happen. Then, on my birthday this year, my dear French husband surprised me with tickets to Venice and boy, did he ever score brownie points. This time I was determined not to leave without sipping on a Harry’s Bar Bellini, all sixteen extortionate Euros of it.
Before we could even begin to factor Harry’s Bar into our trip, Monsieur and I found ourselves thirsty in Dorsoduro. We’d just about reached the white-domed magnificence of Santa Maria della Salute when we peeped through a gate to find a new hotel: the lush Centurion Palace.
Walking through the courtyard, we were surprised to find its elegant tables and seating areas empty at what was most certainly cocktail hour. Across the airy lobby we spotted a small terrace giving directly onto the Grand Canal. There were only a few tables, but all were free, so we sat and ordered a pair of Bellinis to celebrate our arrival in La Serenissima. It might not have been Harry’s Bar, but the view was hard to beat. Resting our feet we lazily watched the Venetian world pass us by on boats. Even the occasional scream of Vigili del Fuoco or Polizia sirens (also on boats) couldn’t bother us; this was bliss.
The Bellinis arrived after a suitable amount of time, which I must say I found comforting as it showed that our drinks hadn’t been poured out of a ready-mix cocktail bottle. One sip alone verified this. There was at least one whole fresh white peach involved per glass, blitzed with a healthy dose of gently bubbling prosecco. Ah, yes, we had lucked out in our impromptu cocktail stop and were now relaxing, the finest of godly nectars (I swear this is not hyperbole) slipping with ease down thirsty throats. What’s more, the generosity of measure and syrupy nature of the drink meant we could take time to smell the roses (or canals) before heading off across town to our dinner destination.
A while later, as we churned up the Grand Canal on a vaporetto, I snapped the terrace where we’d so enjoyed our first Bellinis of the trip. Sadly, this pic doesn’t do it justice.
The atmosphere was fit for bottling. Gondolas swaying in one direction:
Salute and San Marco beckoning from the other:
A crane in the background kept us firmly grounded in the current century, but it’s hard not to daydream when confronted by fairy tale palaces rising from the water:
In summary, the Centurion Palace would be hard to beat for a Bellini on the go. The drinks are fabulous, the vistas magnificent and the nibbles original and moreish (curry cracker, anyone?). If you’re a keen boatspotter, this is the terrace at which to imbibe.
A Bellini costs €15.00 here. Expensive, yes, but not quite as hefty as that establishment across the way where its forefather was conceived by a certain Signor Cipriani. All I can say is that if you feel like dropping €15.00 for one drink and a nibble or two, go no further; it’s money well-invested in a memory that will last a lifetime. As for Harry’s Bar? That’s a whole post of it’s own, but it had a lot to live up to after Bellinis at the Centurion. Suffice to say that I’ll never forget our evening there, for all the right reasons.
The easiest way to find the Centurion Palace: Take a vaporetto to the Salute stop. Get off and turn right immediately, heading away from the church. You’ll pass through an arch. A zigzag later will find the Centurion’s gate on your right hand side (Grand Canal side). Alternatively, if you’re made of moola, just whistle for a water taxi and they’ll drop you right next to the terrace I’ve been lauding above.
Once upon a time in Venice, I was a museum intern, and once upon that long time ago I fell in love with this dreamy little metropolis of canals and palaces and chilled glasses of sgroppini and steaming plates of fresh spaghetti alle vongole. How can one not fall for a place where you wake to the sound of church bells, where angelic music wafts out of buildings as you pass by or where art is everywhere, even in the paving stones? When I left, I thought I’d be back within a year, but real life got in the way so I wasn’t back for the longest time. It would take me more than a decade to return, but when I did, it was with a man we’ll call Monsieur.
Bar da Gino
I felt a little nervous as we wended our way along the Dorsoduro calli to the Guggenheim Collection where I’d once dressed and undressed the artworks, told visitors “Please don’t touch!” in umpteen different languages and giggled at the Marino Marini with the unmissable erection. Along the way I showed Monsieur the cafe where I’d seen Woody Allen when he was filming ‘Everybody Says I Love You’, and pointed out the bank where interns cashed their monthly stipend cheques, becoming millionaires for a day because the Italian currency was still lira back then and because we hadn’t yet paid our rents. Then, there it was: Bar da Gino, the witness to many pre-, post- and during work snacks. This was where Kim bought her morning coffee, where I’d hum and ha over which tramezzini sandwich to have for lunch or groan if my lunch break was late and they’d all been sold. It was also where we’d take empty water bottles to be filled with table wine for a couple of thousand lira (roughly 80 pence) a time, and we’re not talking small bottles here. Across the way, the tabacchi where I used to buy stamps and phone cards and Baci chocolates wrapped in love messages was still there, and further along, near the Anglican Church there was the Aladdin’s Cave grocery store, filled with pyramids of Ritz cracker boxes, Cipster potato snacks and Kinder Sorpresa eggs, just as it always was. A jumble of happy memories returned with a rush as if I’d only left Venice yesterday.
The Guggenheim Collection lives in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, a squat white palace of one tier only, slightly reminiscent of a half-eaten wedding cake as it looks out at the Grand Canal. For many years it was the home of art collector heiress, Peggy Guggenheim, whose patronage of many of the great artists of the early twentieth century helped build one of the best collections of art from that era. In her lifetime Peggy was a character, to say the least. She had two children with her first husband, Laurence Vail, before divorcing with Olympian acrimony and going on to marry surrealist painter, Max Ernst. That marriage wasn’t destined to last, however, besides which Peggy had affairs with almost every man she ever took a liking to, including Jackson Pollock and the husband of her daughter, Pegeen. Pegeen died young, nurturing the rumour that she’d taken her own life as a result of her mother’s inability to steer clear of her son-in-law. Others say she died mysteriously. Either way, Pegeen’s story is sad. Regarding her mother, whether or not she was the most faithful or amiable of characters as far as people were concerned, she certainly enjoyed her Tibetan terriers, calling them her ‘babies’ and as their respective doggie lives ended, Peggy had each successive dog under interred beneath the paving stones at the back of the Palazzo, before being buried there herself.
Peggy and ‘babies’ in her own, private gondola
As I led Monsieur through the new entrance to the Collection, it was already dark outside and the bright lights of the tickets area made us squint. We bought our tickets and an up-to-date guide, casting a glance at the Guardaroba or wardrobe area. The Guardaroba intern’s face showed misery, pure and simple. In spite of the new entrance and other developments in the gallery’s layout, Guardaroba had obviously not changed that much since I was there. On wet days it used to fill up with umbrellas, dripping backpacks and coats within minutes of opening. Tempers would fray because once the area had reached capacity, we couldn’t take any more belongings from visitors, yet we also couldn’t admit them with bulky day packs or shopping. Arguments were inevitable. Today, Guardaroba certainly looked busy, thanks to the rain outside, but I thought I’d ask anyway. Our coats were drenched through. But before I even opened my mouth to speak, the intern pre-empted my question:
“We’re full already,” he said, with a voice so flat that he might just have been more miserable than he looked.
That settled, we’d just have to try hard not to drip all over the artworks.
To the side of the garden is the gate by Clare Falkenstein that used to be the entrance point for all visitors to the Collection and my way both into and out of work. Made especially for Peggy Guggenheim in 1961, it’s a big, rectangular web of blackened metal, with orbs of glass in different colours appearing at intervals within the web. Then, in the freezing drizzle, we scuttled through the garden and up the stairs into the Palazzo proper. There was the Calder mobile, just where I’d left it, dangling from the ceiling in front of the doors opening onto the terrace. Then we wandered through the room filled with splashy Jackson Pollocks before visiting the old Barchessa, or boat house, which now houses visiting exhibitions. It was crowded down there. We didn’t have much patience for our fellow visitors today, elbowing their way as they were into viewing positions, where they’d take forever ruminating over some technique or muse or artistic attribute, thereby blocking the flow of visitors (including us) behind them. Back in the main palazzo, we found it less oppressive. The fabulous Calder bedhead was still on display in Peggy’s former bedroom and the dressing room was still a shrine to Pegeen and her naive paintings of gondoliers and palazzi. In the past, I’d stare hard at these splashy artworks, trying to imagine Pegeen’s life. The paintings, so bright and child-like, indicate innocence and positivity. Discovering her husband’s affair with her mother must have devastated that part of her personality.
In another room, we considered the use of light in the Magritte canvas of a lit lamppost at dusk, and the whacky imagination present in Max Ernst’s paintings, before stepping through the doors onto the slippery terrace for wicked photos with the Marino Marini bronze of a naked rider with a rather noticeable erection. “People kept pulling it off and it was misplaced,” I explained to Monsieur, “so Peggy finally had the rider’s member soldered on.” From the way he looked at me, I’m sure Monsieur wonders where on earth my next comment is going to come from.
The Marino Marini sculpture, Angel of the City (1948)
Back inside we saw the cubists on display, including works by Picasso and Braques, before braving the garden yet again. We had to. There’s no other way of reaching the New Wing, a separate building at the rear of the property. En route, I showed Monsieur where Peggy lies with her thirteen Tibetan Terrier ‘babies’, and patted Jean Arp’s bronze called ‘Fruit Amphora’, which has always reminded me of a flipperless seal pup.
Shaking off the fresh splattering of rain, I looked hard at New Wing. It had changed completely. Now much larger than when I’d been in residence, it houses a cafe/ restaurant, sizeable boutique and a large exhibition space where a fantastic array of photography was being shown during our visit. But Monsieur and I had places to go and Venetians to meet so back to the ticket counter we went to ask the interns’ advice. “We’re staying on the Fondamenta Nuove,” I explained, “and we’d love to find a good restaurant near there that’s not touristy and not too expensive.” This is just the sort of question that Guggenheim interns love, so we soon had recommendations flying at us. “What about that place near Tre Archi?” proffered one, “oh, yeah. D’you think it’s still open?” asked another. “Sure it is. I was just there the other night.” “Mmm hmmm, you’ll love this place.” Everyone was in agreement, drawing maps and scribbling directions for us on the back of a museum leaflet. “It’s walking distance to your hotel, locals love it, it’s off the beaten track so not that many tourists even find it, and the food’s great.” We were sold. We visit an art collection for the culture and leave with a restaurant recommendation. Well, you can’t get much more Italian than that.
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