Article by James Williams


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Behind the Mask
From the July/August 2009 issue

We all know the bridge of sighs, but what about the rest of Venice? James Williams enters a world of spritz drinking, gondola making and life surrounded by water.

I'm sitting in a café on St Mark's Square savouring the last dregs of my €14 cup of coffee, watching as a young woman covered in pigeons poses for a photo against the backdrop of the magnificent, multi-domed Basilica. It's a familiar sight and this must be one of the most enjoyable public spaces in the world, but part of me is still asking why I came to Venice at all.

Just then through the crowds of teenagers buzzing round the tacky souvenir stalls I spot a rare sight on this iconic piazza - a local. I can tell instantly by the lack of a camera and casual demeanour that it's my guide, Fabio - a 24-year-old Venetian who has agreed to take me on a tour of his hometown, show me Venice's traditions are alive and well and introduce me to some of the best bars the city has to offer.

Ducking down an alley under the clock tower Fabio leads me through a dense maze of narrow passageways until I am completely lost and disoriented. "You could never find this place on your own," he says five minutes later as we enter a medieval courtyard near the church of San Giovanni Crisóstomo. There's a little taverna tucked away in the corner with a group of locals perched on benches outside, and at the other end a jetty stretching out onto the Grand Canal.

It seems the perfect place to try a classic Venetian cocktail. "So are we having a Bellini?" I ask. "No, Venetians don't drink those!" says Fabio with mischief in his eyes. "We only drink spritz!" The red-orange cocktail was invented back in the days of the Austrian Empire and tastes delicious - slightly bitter yet completely refreshing. Here at Taverna del Campiello Remer (Cannaregio 5701) they make it with white wine, Aperol and sparkling water.

Fabio informs me this courtyard would once have been a workshop making oars and oar rests for the gondola. "You can tell by the name ‘remèr'. At one time there were remèri all over Venice," he says. I'm intrigued, so we head off to meet Fabio's best friend Pietro, who for the past five years has been carrying on the tradition.

We enter a workshop in the laid-back Dorsoduro district to the pleasing smell of wood and varnish, and the strains of Vivaldi's Summer filling the room. Pietro shows us a finished forcola (oar rest), which has been carved from a whole piece of walnut wood. It looks beautiful. "This one provides the rower with two speeds and a reverse gear," he explains. "And we don't just make these for the gondolas - rowing is a very popular sport here and there are about 50 clubs. We make pieces for private buyers, too - there is even a forcola at the MoMA gallery in New York."

As we are talking, Pietro's boss - Venice's "master remèr", Saverio Pastor - appears and chats to us briefly before picking up a sharp tool and making intricate carvings to a freshly chiselled piece. Saverio is also president of the El Felze association, which helps to promote and preserve the crafts of the gondola, from boat builders to tailors and engravers. These artisans and their crafts offer a fantastic snapshot of the soul of Venice, and if you fancy seeing more you can even download maps showing workshop locations at

I sense Fabio is becoming restless. It's getting close to spritz hour, when the town's bars come alive, so we take the vaporetto (water bus) over to the district of Castello, where along the quiet, tourist-free streets like Via Giuseppe Garibaldi we find gondoliers out enjoying a well-earned beer, some of them still in their stripy shirts.

And best of all Fabio reveals he is to take us out tonight by boat, which we find moored near the Arsenale. Soon Pietro, who has got cleaned up, joins us and we get ready for the night out. "Look you can see everything from here," says Pietro, as the boat chugs along a narrow canal. We pass by secret gardens with plumes of purple wisteria leaping over the walls, a beautiful Greek Orthodox church, and Venice's own leaning tower. We also capture hidden moments, such as people on running machines in the gym and couples kissing next to a bridge.

Unlike your average tourist boat ride, we also have to get our hands dirty squeezing the boat under the dangerously low Ponte Tetta, or "Tits Bridge". "We don't want to get wedged under here," says Pietro, as he tells us about the prostitutes who used to display their wares from the windows in the houses above.

Happy hour is in full swing as we pull up alongside Ostaria Simson (Castello 6316), the first stop on our bacari tour. The aim is to visit several bars and osterias - small restaurants where you can either eat a meal or just drink great wine alongside cicchetti, bite-sized snacks that are a highlight of Venetian cuisine.

Clinking our glasses of white wine, we tuck into sarde in saor (sweet and sour sardines in onions and vinegar), baccalà (cod paste spread over crostini) and tender baby octopus. Fish has long been a staple in this former maritime nation and we also see diners enjoying seared tuna and pasta with clams.

Next up we moor the boat at Ostaria al Ponte (Cannaregio 6378), where the owner greets us with a jug of ombra - white wine consumed in glasses so small it's impossible to remember how many you've had. Another friend, Pippo, turns up and we all stand on the bridge overlooking Campo San Giovanni e Paolo eating wonderful soppressa salami, and hearing funny stories about Venice's promiscuous nuns and people falling in the canal.

Now we're all warmed up the Venetian boys proceed to lead us on foot through the labyrinthine back streets of San Marco. All around the deserted alleys are more signs of Venice's weird and wonderful past. We see peculiar masks used to ward off the plague, discover the square where Marco Polo and his family once lived, and come across a hidden courtyard that not even Fabio knew existed.

It's turning into a real adventure, as we sink yet more wine outside Trattoria Ca' d'Oro (Cannaregio 3912), scoffing fried potato and mince balls, before hitting our last port of call around 1am at the trendy Osteria al Pesador in the nightlife hub of the Rialto market. We zoom up the Grand Canal and moor the boat by the jetty. "Having a boat in Venice is like having a car - only better," says Fabio as we go ashore. I couldn't agree more, and we stay on drinking until the early hours, before thankfully the boat is on hand to transport me back to my hotel.

Head spinning the next morning I wonder how I'll manage spending this day bobbing about on yet more boats - having promised to meet with a few of Pietro's highly praised rowers. Leaving behind my comfy bed in the Hotel Papadopoli Venice ( - a luxury bolt-hole that's close to everything, including the main vaporetto terminal - I'm soon on the water again heading to the Querini rowing club, one of the oldest in Venice.

"The great thing about this sport is that people of all ages can do it, whether you're 17 or 70," one grey-haired man tells me, as a father and son push their boat out into the lagoon. Traditions are strong here, and so is the competition between clubs - races have been a Venetian way of life for centuries. The biggest of all being the Regatta Storica (6 September), which sees teams of top racers battling it out on the Grand Canal.

Gazing out at the idyllic scene before me, I contemplate how I've seen this city in a whole new light since hanging out with some natives. And I wonder how people can come here on daytrips and venture only as far as St Mark's Square. Or, as Fabio put it to me: "Venice is such an amazing, beautiful city - I just wish people would come and see more of it."


Learn to be a gondolier!
Ever wondered what it's like to ply the murky waters of La Serenissima? We had a go ourselves and it's not as easy as it looks. First you have to keep the oar in the water at all times and keep your balance. Second, keep your left hand below shoulder height and use those muscles. Many Venetians start rowing when they are kids, but luckily for us landlubbers a new hands-on course by Artviva The Original and Best Tours Italy will give you a two-hour lesson rowing a gondola. Unique in Venice, an experienced native-English-speaking tutor takes you out onto the lagoon in a specially adapted boat, where you'll also hear plenty of stories about this age-old profession. It costs €80pp (maximum four) and can be booked at For groups of 10 or more, try (lessons only). Also check out Artviva's Original Gondola Tour - the only one of its kind - and discover Venice with a quality guide in one of its magical black boats.

James Williams