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  • Writer's pictureCristina Dwyer

Italy in Winter: Venice, La Serenissima

Updated: Feb 29

Our next destination on our Italian winter journey was Venice (Venezia). The train ride from Rome was a comfortable and picturesque four-hour journey, traversing through serene farmlands, vineyards, and orchards in their winter slumber, patiently awaiting the rejuvenating touch of spring.

It was cold and humid the afternoon we got there, and rain had been forecasted for the evening as well. No problem – an extra layer and an umbrella and we were all set to go. Like most tourists, we opted to stay in the historic heart of Venice (centro storico), rather than the mainland area (terraferma), where the majority of Venetians reside. With only a day and a half at our disposal, we were eager to make the most of our time exploring the iconic island city.

Arriving in Venice on January 7th, the first day after Epiphany, the city was still adorned in festive Christmas decorations, vibrant and bustling with life.  We found ourselves fortunate to visit during this time frame, as the streets were relatively uncrowded. It was a delight to wander at our own pace, taking in the local architecture, traversing the maze of streets and bridges, and indulging in window shopping.

As the city prepared to shed its holiday attire, we savoured the tranquility and charm of Venice in its winter lull, a serene prelude to the vibrant festivities of the upcoming carnival season in early February.

Venice is undeniably a marvel of human ingenuity. As you navigate its stone-paved streets, flanked by 2-3 story buildings perched on the edge of narrow canals, it's easy to assume it's just another Italian city. Yet, beneath the surface lies a fascinating history of innovation and resilience. This 400-square-kilometer city was essentially built on a sort of “inverted forest” by early settlers seeking refuge from Barbarian invasions in the fifth century. They drove strong wooden piles into the marshy ground, creating a sturdy foundation upon which a wooden plateau was constructed. Layer by layer, bricks and mortar were added, creating a labyrinth of buildings, pathways, canals, and bridges that define Venice's unique urban landscape. The wooden piles, now petrified over time, serve as the city's solid yet uneven foundation, while mosaic floors replace traditional wood to adapt to the uneven terrain.

In Venice, where real estate is scarce and precious, open spaces are few and far in-between. St. Mark's Square stands as the largest plaza, surrounded by narrow streets known as "calle," many of which have retained their historic charm after receiving a modern pavement facelift. Among these winding pathways, Calle Varisco holds the distinction of being the narrowest street in Venice, and the narrowest street I have ever walked on.

Eager to delve into Venice's culinary scene, I decided to embark on a guided walking and tasting tour of the former Old and New Jewish Ghettoes.

This lesser-known area of the city proved to be a hidden treasure of authentic Venetian specialties and rich cultural heritage. We traced the footsteps of the Jewish community established in Venice during the 1500s, whose descendants continue to live and work in Venice, and perpetuate their cultural and religious traditions.

Along the way, we made a few stops and tasted some Venetian specialties. We had “cicchetti’s”, a finger food that reminded me of the Spanish tapas. Not bigger than a few mouthfuls, a cicchetti can be prepared as a “crostini”, which consists of a small slice of a freshly baked and crunchy crusted bread, topped with a veggie or fish spread, cold cuts, seafood, veggies, or a combination of the above. Their variety is practically limitless as the cooks, while they may serve the traditional recipes or their signatures ones, like to create new recipes as they feel inspired by the season or the mood of the day.  Among the ones we tasted, we had cicchetti with creamed salted cod, “baccalà”, a Venetian speciality, salami and wild mushrooms, ham and caramelized onions, liver pate and grilled bell peppers, lard and pickled mushrooms. We also had a warm variation of the cicchetti – a lightly fried dough filled with cheese.

Cicchetti are typically served with a spritz (wine, Aperol, Campari, Select) or a small glass of wine, fondly called ‘ombra” (the shade) , after an old custom of having a break in the shade with a small glass of wine. Since we were serious about learning the authentic Venetian lifestyle, we happily indulged in both cicchetti’s companion drinks. The ‘Select Spritz’, a Venetian specialty, is now on my favourite list – less sweet than Aperol, less bitter than a Campari Spritz, is simply perfect!

As for a sweet treat we had freshly made “frittelle”, another Venetian specialty made of a dough similar to American doughnuts, but a lot fluffier. They are typically round shaped, lightly fried and can come in different options: simple or with a filling, dusted off with cinnamon and sugar, and they are best served while still warm. I tried the simple and the pistachio cream filling ones, and they hit the spot: light, slightly crispy and not too sweet. I was too full to eat them all that night, so I had the left overs next day, with coffee, and found them still very tasty.

The following day began with a guided tour that served up a rich history lesson about Venice's fascinating political and economic past. While today's world pictures Venice as the scenic lagoon city, the Venice of the 9th century was known as the Republic of Venice, “La Dominante”—an influential maritime empire stretching across mainland areas around the Adriatic Sea and islands in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Renowned for its prowess in sea trade and formidable naval force, the Venetian Republic reigned supreme for nearly 1000 years until it surrendered to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Today, iconic landmarks like the Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale) and St. Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) stand as testament to Venice's unique history and development.

The Doge's Palace, a testament to Venetian architecture, underwent multiple constructions and reconstructions over centuries; fires used to be a big problem back in time in Venice and the palace was not exempt.

Venetians clearly valued prime real estate, evident in the palace's multifaceted roles. Lavish chambers hosted government affairs and council meetings, while the Doge—a largely ceremonial figure—resided in more modest quarters. Interestingly, the palace also housed law courts and the city's prison.

The condemned continued to have a short journey from the judge to the prison even after the need for a prison expansion arose. The famed Bridge of Sighs (Ponte del Sospiri), a favourite backdrop for tourist photos, was originally built to connect the law courts with the new prison's quarters. The bridge's enclosed design, featuring separate corridors for incoming and outgoing prisoners, ensured secure transit.

Adding to Venice's unique legal infrastructure were the "lion's mouths" (bocche di leone) scattered throughout town and the Doge's Palace—a discreet means for citizens to lodge complaints or report infractions. These openings, often carved into lion-shaped sculptures, safeguarded handwritten notes behind two locked doors, that required two people with different keys to access them, as an insurance that no note will go missing. We’re talking about some serious data security here!

St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) ,dedicated to the city's patron saint, Saint Mark, is a testament to Venice's reverence and opulence. The basilica is linked to the Doge's Palace by a discreet corridor, a VIP route for the Doge, if you will - seems that while the Venetian Doges might not have wielded much executive power, they certainly knew how to enjoy the perks of representation.

Originally, the basilica flaunted a Byzantine simplicity - brick walls, sparse adornments; traces of its humble origins still peek through. But as Venice flourished, so did the basilica. Subsequent renovations and expansions saw an extravagant fusion of architectural styles: marble revetments, intricate mosaics made of precious stones, or Venetian glass, some gold plated, transformed St. Mark's into a dazzling showcase of Venetian grandeur. And where did the medieval Venetians source these exotic decorations from? The ancient Byzantine buildings of Constantinople! Even the iconic four bronze horses, once gold plated, and now housed in the basilica's museum, were snatched from the same source.

In the afternoon, we decided to experience another iconic Venetian tradition: the gondola ride. Despite its pricey reputation, booking as part of a group or tour can make it more budget-friendly. Plus, if you visit Venice in winter like we did, it's totally worth it since there's minimal traffic on the canals.

I thoroughly enjoyed our 20-30 minute journey gliding through the narrow waterways. Being so close to the ancient walls, with the gentle sway of the boat beneath us, was a truly unique sensation. Witnessing the gondolier's skillful navigation of the somewhat tippy vessel was both impressive and reassuring—talk about a master of his craft, passed on through generations.

As always, I simply adore strolling around, and Venice offers a completely unique experience unlike any other place. It's incredibly easy to lose yourself in the labyrinth of winding, narrow streets, where two-three storey buildings obscure the horizon, but it's a delightful kind of lost—each street, canal, and building boasts its own distinctive charm.

And when you're feeling chilly and weary, there's nothing quite like stopping for a velvety hot chocolate (trust me, you'll want the spoon that they would offer you) or, even better, a steaming cup of mulled wine at one of the cozy and quaint "osterias." It's like … walking on water, pure magic!

As our time in "La Serenissima" drew to a close, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of sadness mingled with gratitude. In just 36 hours, Venice whisked me through centuries of history and culture. Despite the brevity of our visit, I felt deeply immersed in the timeless allure of this city. I bid farewell, but not adieu to Venice.

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