Last weekend I made good on a promise I made to myself 25 years ago, sitting alone on the steps of Santa Maria della Salute as my semester abroad in Venice ended. Those four and a half months in Venice remain one of the few things I did in college that was worth a damn, a fact I already had an inkling of that long-ago morning. The tourist hordes had thinned, leaving me alone to my woolgathering. This, I thought, is the time of year to be in La Serenissima.
Fast forward twenty-five years as I prepare to leave Berlin for California at the end of the year. Scanning my psyche for any potential regrets after my departure, the only thing that registered was not taking advantage of my proximity to Venice to make a return trip before I go. I booked my flights immediately.
The Alitalia flight landed in drizzle at Marco Polo airport. I made my way to the airport dock to await the Alilaguna blue line—a boat bus—into the city. It’s a leisurely route, stopping in at Murano before making its way down the calf-side of the Venice boot, around the heel and down the toe before heading out to the Lido, then back to San Marco and the mouth of the Grand Canal before finally snaking around to the shin and my stop along the southern promenade of the Zattere. My hotel, an art deco gem called Ca’Pisani, was just a five-minute walk north.
The light was already starting to go, and so I dropped my backpack and headed out into the streets to feel my way to the Rialto Bridge. I had read about a shop nearby selling le Furlane, velvet slippers once worn by gondoliers, that I thought would make nice Christmas presents. Crossing the Accademia Bridge, I recalled my first journey into this part of the city on my very first day in Venice, when my classmates and I had stopped for a picture at the foot of a statue of a winged lion. Later this route became synonymous in my head with a Saturday afternoon outing with another classmate, ostensibly to find ingredients for a Mexican dinner but with several stops for beer and an ear piercing on the Rialto Bridge along the way. Muscle memory took over and I was sure-footed as I made my way through a sequence of corridors and campi that widened and narrowed as if at the whim of a drunken accordion player.
Having completed my shopping “chore,” I reversed course for my old stomping ground of Fondamenta Nani, a canal-side calle that’s just around the corner from the hotel. Here I stopped into Cantine del Vino già Schiavi, a wine shop and cicchetti bar, for a glass of Prosecco and a couple of slices of baguette topped with raw shrimp and smoked swordfish (price tag: €5.50).
There are no tables here, no place to cordon yourself off and make a pseudo-private space. Instead you must jostle with your fellow man to place your order and stake your spot either at the bar or along the rear wall lined with shelves of wine. It is a microcosm of the city itself where the lack of cars creates a communal life of pedestrians that’s disappeared in many cities and suburbs today. As Tiziano Scarpa wrote in his charming cultural guide, Venice is a Fish, here is a place “where privacy doesn’t exist. You are constantly meeting people, you greet them seven times a day, you go on talking as you part, until you’re twenty metres away from each other, raising your voice as you disappear into the crowd.” I may have come to Venice on my own, but it’s not a place where I feel alone.
For dinner, I walked the few steps to Taverna San Trovaso, the restaurant that was a special treat in my student days. Several of my classmates had affairs with waiters here—I was far too prudish for such things, thus I always paid for my gnocchi ai quattro formaggi—and I couldn’t help examining my gray-haired server for a hint of recognition. I had a table in the far corner from where I could survey the crowd as it gently but surely filled the dining room: a German couple, a local family, a beautiful young woman reluctant to remove her sunglasses or cashmere beanie, who seemed to be known to the staff and was dining with an equally glamorous middle-aged woman.
On Saturday morning, there was more rain. I did a quick tour of the nearby neighborhood where I had lived in college, including a visit to Santa Maria della Salute, near “the point,” where the Grand Canal opens into the lagoon. The wind was at war with my umbrella, and I stepped inside the central apse of the church for a moment’s reprieve. Outside on the steps I had noticed a beggar on his knees, unprotected from the elements with an upturned baseball cap in front of him. His position on the spot of my 25-year-old reverie seemed symbolic and, on my way out, I gave him some coins. Later that afternoon we would cross paths on the other side of the Accademia, proving again that it’s hard to be alone in Venice.
The early morning pilgrimage over, I headed back towards the Rialto to spend the remainder of the morning discovering something new, Museo Fortuny, on the site of Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei. I had been led to it via a series of serendipitous connections made over the course of the year: a rainy day visit to Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’ Cotswold home, that had sparked an interest in his work and art, followed by an excerpt from A.S. Byatt’s book, Peacock and Vine, introducing me to Mario Fortuny, a Spanish designer, painter and architect who had much in common with Morris.
As I paid for my ticket, I was disappointed to learn that a contemporary exhibit was on display—I had been expecting to see Fortuny’s workshop—but that disappointment turned to delight as I ascended to the darkened second floor of the palazzo. Here contemporary pieces mingled with Fortuny’s lush tapestries and oil paintings inspired by Wagner’s operas. A black-and-white video installation hung above a low-slung couch, piping out horror film music box melodies. There was a stack of vintage luggage and a series of photographs of a bearded lady’s head in a bell jar. An ante room held one of Fortuny’s large-scale models of an opera theater accompanied by life-size velvet theater chairs. Around the corner, Yann Sérandour’s Cactus Show & Sale cleverly juxtaposed a large-scale black-and-white photograph of a cactus sale with an assembly of mid-century branch-like tables topped with books on cacti. The combined effect was as lush and creepy and playful and atmospheric as the city outside.
It was time for lunch and my destination, Al Covo, was on a route that would allow me to tick off the obligatory visit to St. Mark’s Square. I had a notion to stop into the Florian for an apertif, but the arcade was jammed and unpleasant and I was relieved to get back to the open air of the Riva degli Schiavoni, where workers were busy assembling platforms and ramps for the possibility of flooding, the city’s famed acqua alta. I was early for my 1:00PM reservation but happy to get out of the rain and to have the pleasure, as the night before, of watching the dining room fill. It was my first meal at Al Covo, which I had read about online, and I was relieved to hear only Italian voices at the tables around me.
There is a special pleasure in dining extravagantly alone. In my younger days I trained myself to eat out solo by carrying a book, but now I don’t bother. I’d much rather shamelessly eavesdrop, or at least attempt to, as on the table next to me that alternated between French and Italian and then English, when they asked me if I minded their dog, a handsome, sullen Italian pointer named, rather unfairly, Brutto—the Italian word for ugly. I did not mind Brutto and, seeing that I would be offering no scraps, Brutto took no mind of me either. I worked through four courses, mostly of creatures from the nearby lagoon, accompanied by Prosecco and local, organic Pinot Blanc, biding my time until the tide receded.
The only downside of a luxurious lunch was I had no interest in dinner. Instead, that evening I took a walk to Campo Santa Margherita, site of our favorite dive bar during my college days. It had changed names and was populated only by two sullen old men, so I kept walking towards a light at the south end of the square. The shining beacon was a lively bookstore, Libreria Marco Polo. There was a small English-language section and it seemed the right time to make a start on the Ferrante Neapolitan quartet. I bought My Brilliant Friend and a turquoise library bag bearing the shop’s name in red. On my way home I stopped in Cantine del Vino già Schiavi again for a glass of red wine.
I had saved a visit to Peggy Guggenheim’s small but perfect collection of twentieth-century art for my final morning in Venice. The house where I had lived during college was next door to the museum, and I had visited weekly on the evening it was free to students. By the time I left, I had memorized the walls. It was, then, a relief to find the first room hung exactly as I remember it with my favorite, Magritte’s Empire of Light, retaining pride of place on the back wall. I have always been a sucker for his literal surrealism—it appeals to my left brain—and I had it all to myself in the opening minutes of the gallery.
Next I lingered on a couch with Jackson Pollock and hunted down the Joseph Cornell Wunderkammer that had moved from its former location in the hall. When I finally found it I also found something new: an inscription explaining that one of Cornell’s collages was about the Postman Cheval, a French postman who built a Palais Idéal from found materials in his spare time over the course of 33 years. I had never heard of Cheval and was intrigued. As with Morris and Fortuny, this was a new piece of silk in my cultural web: a thread to follow beyond Venice—perhaps to the palace in Hauterives one day—but one that will forever be, in my head, connected to this city.
Although the weather didn’t call for it, I ordered a Campari spritz in the museum café, along with a timbale of vegetables from the nearby island of Saint Erasmus. It was only 11:00AM, but I wanted a last meal in Venice before heading back to the hotel and then the water taxi awaiting me next to the Accademia Bridge.
This mode of transport isn’t cheap—it costs €100 more than the Alilaguna boat—but it is an instant mood booster. It’s also a threefer: you get a ride along the Grand Canal, then alongside gondolas through an interior canal that cuts across the ankle of Venice, and finally across the lagoon to the airport at full bore. It also saves an hour on the Alilaguna, so I looked at it as buying an extra hour on my last day. It still felt like I was leaving too soon, but, as the saying goes, best to leave the party while you’re still having fun.
Ciao, bella. Next time I won’t wait another 25 years.