Living Venice – The Castello District

Living Venice – The Castello District

It was my first visit to Venice. One instant, I was in central Milan, the next I was on a vaporetto (water bus) chugging along the Grand Canal, watching Gothic palaces float by. I remember nothing of the three-hour train journey in between, but this long ago boat ride from the Venice Santa Maria train station to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) is forever etched in my memory. I had arrived at the core of the political and economic power that ruled the mighty Republic of Venice for a thousand years; the grandiose showpiece built to inspire awe from its citizenry and visitors. It still worked.

First Impressions

Venice-St Mark horses.

The Triumphal Quadriga was originally part of a monument depicting a four-horse carriage used for chariot racing,

Over the next two days, I engaged in a marathon of the timeworn clichés of the St. Mark District, starting with the Basilica and its 8,000 square meters (2 acres!) of gold mosaics. The cavernous cathedral was so dark I could barely make them out. But the Basilica Museum one floor above the main level was worth the climb. In addition to getting a better view of said mosaics, I got a close look at the Triumphal Quardiga, the magnificent life-size bronze statues of four horses in motion. Dating back to the third century AD, they were first installed on the outer loggia of the cathedral in 1204, after being looted from the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Recently moved inside to protect them for the ongoing pollution, they were breathtaking. And the exact copies now prancing on the loggia did them justice.

Venice-St Mark clock tower.

The 15th century clock tower was placed to be visible from the lagoon and give notice of the wealth and glory of Venice

Venice-Rialto.

The Rialto is the oldest of four bridges spanning the Grand Canal.

Next door, the immense Doge’s Palace still overwhelmed with its gold and fresco-encrusted halls. But lacking fondness for oppressively grand interiors designed to intimidate, or detours into basements of dank prison cells and medieval torture chambers, I thought the best feature of the palace to be its lacey pale stone façade. I then rode the up the 99 meters (324 feet) to the top of the Campanile (St. Mark’s bell tower) for a panoramic view of the city. I lingered there, eyeing the top of the clock tower across the square until the two bronze figures struck the hour on the bell. I walked across the Rialto Bridge, and along the Riva degli Schiavoni Promenade to admire the great Palladian Church of San Giorgio Maggiore on its own island across the St. Mark Basin.

Then, with barely time for a passing glance at the labyrinth of alleyways and stepped bridges that lead to tiny piazalle and dead-end courtyards where the heart of the city had been beating of over a millennium, I was gone. I had seen the Serenissima, and missed the essence of Venice.

The Source of Power

I have returned several times since then, to explore the ancient side canals and back alleys where everyday Venetian lives happened, and still do. Each district has its own personality, but I find none more fascinating than the Castello.

Venice-Arsernal factories.

Owned by the state, the Arsenale was responsible for the Venetian Republic’s naval power.

Venice-Porta Magna.

Built into the fortifications, the Porta Magna was designed by Bellini.

Right behind the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, across the Canonica Canal (of Bridge of Sighs fame), the diverse Castello spreads through the entire eastern end of the city. This is where in 1104 Doge Ordelafo Faliero founded the Arsenale, the shipyards that quickly developed into the largest industrial complex in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Stretched over 46 hectares (114 acres), it built the fleet of merchant vessels and military ships that ensured the Republic’s naval dominance and its prosperity for centuries.

The vast complex of factories and docks is surrounded by 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) of ramparts dominated by two crenellated towers at the entrance of the arsenal’s basin. On the front campo (square), four lions (symbol of St Mark, Venice’s patron saint) guard the Porta Magna, the spectacular main gate designed by Bellini in 1460. The most imposing of these lions is Greek (circa 360 BC). Originally a landmark in Piraeus, the harbor of Athens, it was plundered by Venetian naval commander Franscesco Morosoni in 1687.

A minimal part of the Arsenale is still in operation, mainly for boat supplies. The Museum of Naval History is also housed here. It includes a sumptuous model of the Bucintoro, the Doge’s gilded ceremonial barge that was destroyed by Napoleonic troops in 1798, and a ship pavilion with vessels of historical significance.

Colorful Castello

Venice- City hospital entrance.

The main entrance of the Scuala de San Marco, now the city’s public hospital.

Venice-Santi Giovanni e Paolo church.

The walls of the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo is lined with funerary monuments.

Yet the Arsenale occupies barely 20 percent of the Castello. Since not all wealthy merchants could aspire to a palazzo on the Grand Canal, many settled in the western part of the district, creating a residential neighborhood desirable for its proximity to the San Marco district. Great churches and religious institutions followed. On the Campo San Giovanni e Paolo (Saint John and Paul), the Scuala de San Marco, a major religious confraternity patronized by the Venetian high society from the 16th to the 18th century stands out as a lovely example of Venetian Renaissance architecture. Spectacular carvings of lions top the portal of what is now the main entrance of the city’s public hospital. The hospital itself is in principle not open to tourists (unless they are in need of medical assistance), but it is nonetheless possible to walk through the main public areas and admire the building and its inner garden.

All but unnoticed on the side of the campo is the massive gothic brick façade of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, the principal Dominican church in Venice, built to hold large congregations. Its interior is notable for its large polyptych altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini, and for the funerary monuments of 27 doges and other prominent men of the Republic who are buried there.

Venice-Castello canals.

The side canals of Castello.

Venice-San Giorgio del Creci.

The Orthodox Church of San Giorgio del Creci, and its noticeably leaning bell tower.

Meanwhile, most of the men who worked in the sprawling arsenal lived in the modest houses at the eastern end of the district, as did fishermen, creating a lively working class neighborhood that still endures. Here, the streets and canals bustle with activities, and laundry flaps in the sea breeze on lines stretched between realistically ramshackle buildings on both sides of the narrow canals.

Not far from there, the secluded San Giorgio del Creci church is the hub of the large Venetian Greek community. Greek merchants had been a regular presence in Venice since Byzantine times, but their numbers increased exponentially after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Built in the 16th century according to in the Orthodox model, the church includes some spectacular mosaics. Next door, what was once the headquarters of the Scuola dei Greci is now a rich museum dedicated to Greek Icons. In addition to ancient icons brought by the 15th century refugees, it hold some that were later manufactured locally, thus providing a unique insight on the evolution of Greek art in Venice.

A Renaissance Comic Strip

Venice-Carpaccio Frescoes.

A cycle of frescoes by Vittore Carpaccio line main hall of the Scuola de San Giorgio Degli Schiavoni.

Venice-Carpaccio detail.

Detail of St. Jerome leading a wounded lion by Carpaccio.

However, of all the artistic riches of Castello, my personal favorite is the Scuola de San Giorgio Degli Schiavoni, a small confraternity and church founded in 1461 by Dalmatian merchants and sailors (i.e. Schiavoni or Slavs from the East Coast of the Adriatic in today’s Croatia) living in Venice. In 1502, they commissioned the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio to decorate the first-floor hall with a narrative cycle of frescoes recounting episodes from the lives of the Dalmatian patron saints: St. George, St. Tryphone and St. Jerome.

The ten frescoes line the walls like a wonderful Renaissance comic strip. Originally dismissed as primitive, Carpaccio is now considered one of the early masters of the Venetian Renaissance. But art history aside, I love the tongue in cheek story-telling quality of the images; the terrified monks tripping over their robes to flee as St. Jerome leads a wounded lion into the monastery; the before and after pictures of St. George first charging a fearsome dragon, then dragging the crestfallen beast into the village square. There is more art in the upstairs hall, including an interesting relief painting of St. George over the altar, but everything pales in comparison to the Carpaccios.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting around – The best way to get around Venice is usually on foot. But if you get tired of walking, the Venice public transports company, ACTV , runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around Venice as well as the outlaying islands of the lagoon. Single fare tickets are € 7.5 (approximately $10 at current exchange rate). If you plan to use vaporetti frequently, travel cards are available for unlimited travel during a set period of time (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) at greatly reduced rates. Tickets and cards may be purchased at vaporetto stops. Time begins when you first validate your card at the yellow machine located at each vaporetto stop.
  • VisitingVenice Naval Historical Museum, Rio della Tana 2162 c, Castello, Venice (close to the Arsenale bridge). Open every day from 8:45 am to 5:00 pm. Santi Giovanni e Paolo church, Campo Giovanni e Paolo Santissimi, Castello 30122, Venice . Open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sunday from noon to 6:00 pm. Greek Icons Museum , Castello 3412, 30122 Venice. Open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Scuola San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, 3259 a Calle dei Furlani, Castello 30122, Venice. Opening hours: 9:15 am to 1:00 pm and 2:45 pm to 6:00 pm. Closed Sunday afternoon and Monday morning.

Location, location, location!

Castello District

The Magic of Venice in Winter

The Magic of Venice in Winter

Venice is unique, dazzlingly so. It’s a fabled destination that belongs on everyone’s European bucket list. A distinction that during the tourist season, from Easter thorough October, turns the city of the Doges into a chaotic citywide museum, overrun by millions de visitors. At the height of the summer rush, cruise ships alone can unleash a daily stampede of up to 30,000 day-trippers onto the tiny island city. In the narrow lanes and lovely little squares along the de-rigueur circuit from the Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge, foot traffic slows to a shuffle, and lines for anything from entering the Basilica to buying a gelato can reach epic proportions. But come winter, the crowds fade away and the magic of centuries past returns. The Serenissima becomes once again serene.

The Romance of Winter

Italy-Venice mist.

A gauzy mist spreads over the lagoon.

Venice is a winter place, romantic and mysterious, especially when fog drifts in across the lagoon, swathing the whole city in a gauzy mist. Come evening it becomes an eerie place where footsteps echo along empty alleyway. It can be damp too, downright wet actually when acqua alta (high tide) blurs the line between lagoon and pavement. Boardwalks are quickly set up as water rises, and pedestrians walk on unconcerned. And it can get bitingly cold when the wind whips down from the Dolomites, adding a bitter edge to the damp air as it clears the sky to a crystalline blue. Time to wrap up warmly and enjoy the exquisite golden light that brushes the lacey façade of the ancient Byzantine palazzos.

Italy-Venice canal at night

The canals become eerily quiet on winter nights.

Winter is the time when Venetians bring out their fur coats and their perfectly groomed little dogs bundled in stylish quilted jackets. Of course there are still tourists, there always are, but they are few and mainly focused on their own artistic pursuits. Local people go about their business and stop to chat in the small neighborhood squares. And this is hot chocolate season, time to dive into a cozy café for an afternoon cup of decadently rich cioccolata calda and perhaps a frittella, the plump little doughnut oozing with sweetened ricotta or zabaglione that is a pre-Lenten staple. Everywhere the mood is one of conviviality unknown once the tourists take over.

It is this wintery Venice that cast its spell on me decades ago, on the November weekend of my first visit, and draws me back every few years. Over time, I have set for myself a few necessities for an ideal Venice sojourn.

Arrive by Train

Italy-Venice train.

The train reaches the lagoon with the morning light.

Not just any train mind you, but the overnight train from Paris, one of a handful of sleeper trains still operating in Western Europe. This is not your Agatha Christie sort of train, but a comfortable, moderately priced no-frill one (complimentary welcome glass of Prosecco served with dinner in the cafeteria-style dining car notwithstanding). The private cabin I am sharing with my girlfriend is made up into two bunk beds while we dine. Traveling at pre-high-speed pace over the Alps and down the Po Valley, we ease into Venice rested, just in time to watch the sun rise over the lagoon.

Italy-Venice San Simone

Voyagers step off the train right onto the Grand Canal.

It doesn’t get any better than a morning arrival at the Santa Lucia train station, where you step out straight onto a Canaletto painting of the Grand Canal, with the regrettable but necessary contemporary addition of a major vaporetto (water bus) hub. The sudden transition into the timeless universe of Venice feels a bit surreal.

Take the Vaporetto

Italy-Venice Zattere.

The Canal of the Giudecca. offers a unique view of the Zattere Promenade.

Venice may be a puzzle of 118 islands stitched together by 400 foot bridges, but constrained within its watery boundaries, the overall city is actually quite small (about 4.5 kilometers, or 2.75 miles east to west, and 2.5 kilometers, or 1.75 miles north to south), making it possible to walk just about everywhere. Although we could walk from Santa Lucia to our Dorsoduro District hotel in about the time it takes reach it by vaporetto, only a boat approach will do. As soon as it has extricated itself from the traffic in front of the station and circled the western tip of the island, the vaporetto enters the broad outer Canal of the Giudecca. The familiar stretch of the Dorsoduro’s Zattere Promenade comes into focus, punctuated by the soaring classical façade of the Church of Santa Maria del Rosatio glowing in the morning sun. From here, Venice unfurls itself in all its splendor.

Stay in the Dorsoduro

Italy-Venice San Trovaso.

The Squero di San Trovaso is oldest gondola yard in Venice.

Located on the south side of the Grand Canal, right across from the San Marco district, the Dorsoduro is my favorite place to stay, for its authentic lived-in neighborhood atmosphere and relaxed pace. Here, housewives roll their small shopping carts to the market in the morning, and children play in the squares after school. On the San Troveso Canal that links the Giuadeca to the Grand Canal, the city’s oldest working gondola yard, the 17th century Squero di San Trovaso, one of the last two surviving in Venice, is still bustling with activity.

Italy-Venice Ca Foscari

The Ca’ Foscari University overlooks the Grand Canal.

Home to several of Venice’s leading museums, including the Gallerie dell’Accademia (Venetian paintings) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (modern art), the Dorsoduro is also the main university area of the city. Both the Ca’ Foscari University and the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) are located here. Between classes, students fill the small, convivial cafés that serve inexpensive ciccheti (small snacks) at all hours. These are fun places where to pop in for a quick lunch.

But for now, lunch is still some ways off and our room won’t be ready “until afternoon.” We entrust our luggage to the desk clerk and head out to enjoy a favorite Venice pastime: wander along back alleys, cross narrow stepped bridges and peer through open doorways into hidden garden. Just get lost for a while and let the city reveal itself.

Italy-Venice Dorsoduro

Vaporetto approach of the Dorsoduro.

Good to Know

  • Getting thereThello is a subsidiary of Trenitalia (Italian Railways) formed to operate trains between the Paris Gare de Lyon and Venezia Santa Lucia railway stations with stops in Dijon, Milano Brescia, Verona, Vicenza and Padova. The refurbished Wagons-Lits Company sleeping-cars were originally built from 1964 to 1974. Each has 12 compartments with their own washbasins, usable as single, double or triple berths. Basic couchette cars with four and six berths are also available.
  • Getting aroundVaporetto The Venice public transports company, ACTV, runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around the city and the outlaying islands of the lagoon. Single fare tickets are €7.5 (approximately $10 at current exchange rate). If you plan to use vaporetti frequently, travel cards are available for unlimited travel during a set period of time (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) at greatly reduced rates. Tickets and cards may be purchased at vaporetto stops. Time begins when you first validate your card at the yellow machine located at each vaporetto stop. Traghetto – If this ultimate Venitian tourist cliché otherwise known as a gondola ride is on your bucket list but you are put off by the extortionate rates, consider a taking a traghetto, the gondola service used by locals to cross the Grand Canal between its four widely spaced bridges. Traghetti usually run from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm at six crossing points. Rates are € 2 per crossing for non-residents.
  • Staying – There is an over-abundance of short-term lodging options throughout Venice, ranging from efficiency apartments to internationally famous luxury hotels. Prices soar during the tourist season, but return down to earth in winter. For years, my personal favorite place to stay has been La Calcina, Dorsoduro 780, Fondamenta della Zattere, 30123 Venice. While this property, family-run for generations, had long since been fully modernized, it had retained the unpretentious feel of a genteel pensione reminiscent of the days when the famous 19th century British author and art critic John Ruskin  was a long time resident there. However, on this last stay, the property had recently changed ownership. While sweeping view of the Giuadecca Canal, attentive service and realistic prices remained, the public areas had experienced a complete “update” to the stage-set style that is the norm in many Venice hotels. Our room was still unchanged but there was considerable work in progress on the upper floors of the hotel. and it’s anybody’s guess what may become of La Calcina in the near future. Contact: tel + 39 (0) 41 52 06 466, email: info@lacalcina.com.

Location, location, location!

Venice