Among alleys, canals and hidden courtyards: discovering a cabalistic, mystical and forbidden Venice


Immersed in a Renaissance and romantic atmosphere, Venice remains an unsolvable mystery, a maze of narrow streets enclosed in a series of labyrinths that can lead to dead ends as well as to the vision of unexpected wonders.

Venice, queen of the sea, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and has been enchanting millions of tourists for decades with its masterpieces of art and architecture. The atmospheres it offers are something exceptional. Venice is an enchantress, the cradle of the last romantics. Perhaps among all Italian cities, it is the only one that exerts such charm, with its being so unique, distributed only on islands, with buildings that have remained unchanged for centuries, few architectural interventions from scratch in the last 100 years and the total absence of cars. However, not everyone knows the city for its hidden corners, less beaten by tourism but full of charm and all to be discovered. Also known as the Serenissima, it hides many alternative itineraries, unusual places to visit and to be inspired by. Small jewels usually reserved for the locals or the more curious travelers. 

Like a coin, Venice too has a dual identity. There is the Renaissance city, known to most for its historical destinations and its manifest splendor, with the main monuments within walking distance of each other, ready to be admired and consumed by glances. Among the best-known destinations is Piazza San Marco, which certainly represents an unmissable destination, even for those who know the city by heart and which still today has not ceased to amaze. Not far away you can see two other architectural wonders, the Basilica of San Marco and the Doge's Palace. And the myth of art that is the Bridge of Sighs also starts from the Doge's Palace.

Taking the Vaporetto, another must in Venice, the nerve center of the city, cross and delight of citizens and tourists, is also easily accessible: the Rialto Bridge (from Rio Alto), the original nucleus of Venice, where the old market stood, a place where the magic has begun, with its imposing double arch and the curious crowds that visit it daily;

But Venice is also much more, it preserves treasures that few suspect; another Venice, exclusive, even deserted at times, and perfectly silent. There are extraordinary places where you can discover magnificent works and very fine architecture, which tell the true story of Venice, the one too often overshadowed by tourism dedicated to traditional itineraries. The first district to discover, also called sestiere, in Cannaregio, considered by many to be a sort of free zone where Venetians are able to carve out moments of life with their city without having to suffer the pressure of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who invade it every year. To the north of Venice, Cannaregio, is the most popular district for young Venetians who don't usually travel to other areas of the lagoon. Cannaregio preserves the most secret and melancholic streets, but also the liveliest, perfect for an aperitif among the locals. A must-see is the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, built with the money donated by the Venetians to house the image of Virgin Mary, venerated for having performed miracles. Wandering around Cannaregio, you then arrive at the end, which overlooks the lagoon and the island of San Michele, which houses the cemetery.
Moving from Sestriere Cannaregio, a stop at Acqua Alta is a must, the jewel bookshop that has become a symbol of culture, which celebrates the love for the traditional printed paper of ancient texts and manuscripts. The library owes its name to the frequent floods of water in its interior spaces, due to atmospheric precipitation that caused the sea level to rise, bringing the city to its knees. Inside the library, the feeling is that of being projected into another time span, into past history, made up of invoices and alchemy, where there are strong references to distant echoes. In these humid environments, one finds oneself immersed in books, which are located in every corner of the shop. Inside, the rooms, almost surrounded by a mystical aura, contain books that sometimes find shelter on the highest shelves and sometimes inside ancient floating tanks. In some cases, however, the water is allowed to wet the books, moistening them and gluing them to the walls, making them part of the furnishings of this very special place. 

Considered among the most beautiful bookstores in the world, it is certainly one of the most original ever seen. Inside you can also see a real gondola used as an exhibitor, a staircase made entirely of books, a door that opens onto a canal and many cats nestled among the stacks of volumes. What better occasion to sit by the canal and spend some time reading a good book in complete relaxation.

Continuing the tour of the hidden Venice we reach even further south, in the splendid Sestriere Dorsoduro. Artists, intellectuals and designer ateliers make Dorsoduro the Venetian Pigalle. Aperitifs and evenings in one of the many jazz clubs in the area are the best way to experience this neighborhood. Also in Dorsoduro there is also Ca'Foscari, the famous University of Venice. The majestic and subtly austere palace seems to constitute a barrier with the outside world. Visiting the interior of the building and carving out a few moments of peace in the large courtyard, you are enveloped in a comforting silence, where the only sound is that of the wind whipping the trees. Another marvel that must be visited is the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Misericordia. Once one of the most important "schools" in Venice, it became the most unusual and eclectic basketball stadium in the world, where Reyer Venezia played legendary games, and then today becomes a beautiful venue for exhibitions and cultural events. Continuing towards the Rialto bridge, you come across a splendid building that was once the basis of trade between the Serenissima and Germany, later the seat of the Venetian post office, and only in recent years, after having undergone a complete restoration, the building now houses a store for luxury shopping enthusiasts: the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. The gem of this structure is its rooftop terrace, which can be visited for free and open to the public, which allows you to enjoy a 360 ° view of a breathtaking panorama. This spectacular view, still very little known, offers an unprecedented perspective and the view is definitely among the most beautiful that Venice can offer. Among the wonderful monuments, it is easy to see the churches of San Bartolomeo, San Giacomo, San Marco and San Giorgio.

Another pearl hidden among the Renaissance buildings of the city is the Scala Contarini del Bovolo, a wonderful spiral staircase hidden behind Campo Manin and set between period buildings. Climbing to the top you can enjoy a romantic experience panoramic view of the Venetian roofs almost having the perception of being able to touch the bell tower of San Marco with a finger.

Once in San Marco Square, in addition to being literally overwhelmed by the beauty of this historic place, you can enjoy another completely original attraction, a corner of illuminating contemporary architecture: the Olivetti shop. Conceived by the artistic and brilliant inspiration of Carlo Scarpa, it is absolutely a masterpiece of minimalism not to be missed.

Venice is also famous for being the birthplace of some of the oldest crafts in the world. In addition to the glass processing, in fact, it is also famous for some crafts now in danger of extinction, among which the activity of shipwrights, the craftsmen who create and take care of gondolas, sandals, caroline and other traditional Venetian boats. For those wishing to see some craftsmen still at work, the Squero di San Trovaso is very popular.

Another peculiarity of the Serenissima is the Garden of the Discalced Carmelites. Visiting the city one would expect anything but to find a vegetable garden in the middle of the historic center. It is possible to see an example just behind the church of the Discalced Carmelites, carefully kept by the friars of the convent. Melissa Moldavia is also cultivated here, the main ingredient of Lemon Balm Water which seems to have miraculous healing effects. Another unusual place for tourist itineraries in Venice is the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, located near the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a spectacular example of Gothic architecture. In addition to its wonderful facade, the church amazed at the countless art treasures inside. Here are buried Antonio Canova and Titian, many doges, condottiere, the musician Monteverdi and many other Venetian personalities. In the apse, Titian's Assumption is astonishing, the most important work of the church together with the Pesaro Altarpiece, also by the same painter. But the works of Bellini and the Deposition of Frangipane are no less. Inside the monumental 102-meter long basilica, there are 17 monumental altars and a collection of works worthy of the best museums in the world. A visit to the splendid wooden choir is certainly not to be missed.

In addition to the masterpieces, what amazes inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is the arrangement of the works as in a museum, the light effects that break on the walls of the interiors and the monumental power, which together give a perception of overall majesty.

Among the many monuments of Venice you can visit an astonishing number of churches hidden around every corner. Among these not to be missed is the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, which is located at the very beginning of the Grand Canal, very close to San Marco. A splendid and imposing pure white church built after the plague of 1630, near the Punta della Dogana that Pinault restored to house his collection of contemporary art.

For lovers of art and mastery of painting it is a must to stop at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, home to a brotherhood of wealthy Venetians dedicated to charitable works and which takes its name from the body of San Rocco, kept here. In 1564 the Confraternity entrusted Tintoretto with the task of decorating the School. In 24 years, the artist and his pupils have created a cycle of large canvases in the Sala Terrena and in that of the Hotel. The works recount biblical episodes and the life of Christ in an exceptional pictorial journey, which almost stuns for the size and number of the painted works.

Here Tintoretto left to posterity a work worthy of his talent and a treasure to be admired even today, a cycle of works considered by all to be the Sistine Chapel of Venice. Other hidden places overlooked by tourists are the Giardini della Biennale and the Arsenale, which also hosts the Architecture Biennale. The Arsenale district, called Castello, is a very lively area lived by the DOC Venetians, those with grocery stores and the most real and lively Venice. Castello is the neighborhood to discover if you want to carve out a moment of relaxation, away from the hordes of today's tourists.


Another very interesting area for lovers of history and culture, of which Venice is certainly the spokesperson, is the ancient Jewish ghetto, the oldest ghetto in the entire history of humanity, which also boasts the most beautiful square in the world: Campo del Gheto Novo (Campo del Ghetto Nuovo). Arriving at sunset, you can breathe a mystical atmosphere, and immediately perceive how much Venice still knows how to be secret and mysterious today.


Here there are hidden houses that could be accessed by climbing an old external wooden staircase called "scala matta", "scala delle pantegane", or "Turkish staircase". Above, from the windows, you could often glimpse grassy fields with wells covered with ivy. Among these one had a name: Corte Sconta called Arcana. To enter it, seven doors had to be opened, each of which had engraved the name of a shed, that is, of a demon, and each of them opened with a magic word.

Venice is also the city told in one of the most famous stories told by Hugo Pratt through the eyes of the character, the most famous gentleman of fortune in comics, Corto Maltese, who in 1921, in an atmosphere suspended between dream and reality, falling from the theater of a building in Campo SM Domini, start wandering and getting lost in the streets of the Serenissima chased by gendarmes, freemasons and poets.

Thanks to the cartoonist's stories it was possible to get to know the most authentic, secret and hidden Venice to most people. Indeed, his words perfectly outline the environment of certain forbidden and mysterious places, generating an impeccable photograph in the reader's imagination. For example, the well-known Corte Sconta, "hidden" in Venetian, was the Corte Botera, which owes its name to a workshop of pottery, ie manufacturers of fireworks, which was based near the basilica of San Giovanni e Paolo. In addition to the classic well, the original courtyard had a covered external staircase, a round arch in the Venetian-Byzantine style, some columns supporting the portico and a series of porches.


In the gastronomy of the lagoon, the goodness of the dishes begins with the appetizers. The counters of the "bacari", or taverns, are a real triumph for the eyes and the palate because they are filled with "cicchetti", the typical Venetian appetizers to be savored with a "shade de vin". If you are visiting the city, the options you can choose for a taste are countless: vegetables, crab, meatballs, sardines in saor, soppressa with polenta or half an egg with anchovies. Another typical dish of the local culinary tradition is certainly the famous risi e bisi, elsewhere known as risotto with peas, which was eaten by the Doges on April 25, in honor of the patron saint of the city. Spaghetti with clams, or cooked with squid ink, with strictly local fish are also very good. In these parts, pasta and beans enjoy a mysterious veneration, an inevitable dish both in homes and in taverns throughout Venice. Also not to be missed is the taste of Venetian-style liver, accompanied by "castrature", the typical artichokes grown on the islands of the Lagoon. During the famous Carnival of Venice not to be missed are the Galani, a lighter version of the classic chiacchiere or frappe.



In Venice it can be very difficult to find a place to sleep, especially in spring and during Carnival. A historical certainty, worthy of the Venetian Renaissance architectural beauty is certainly the Gritti Palace Hotel. Overlooking the Grand Canal in the heart of Venice, the Gritti Palace boasts one of the most spectacular views over the city's lagoon, from the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection museum, including attractions such as Punta della Dogana and the Basilica of Santa Maria della Health. Dating back to 1475, the year in which it was commissioned by the Doge of Venice, Andrea Gritti, born as the official residence of the Gritti family, was later used as the seat of the Vatican ambassadors in Venice. The noble palace, as well as a luxury hotel, is today a place of exceptional art and elegance that has managed to preserve the familiar and intimate atmosphere of a private residence. A true historical treasure, where traditions and culture mix with a renewed Venetian style, the Gritti Palace is a refined version of itself, and offers attentive service, a delicious gastronomic experience and new spaces for relaxation and free time. From the artistic design of its exclusive suites and legendary terraces to the Epicurean Cooking School, from the Riva Yacht Experience to the Riva Lounge, to the Gritti spa of the Sisley brand in Paris, the Gritti Palace welcomes multiple generations of international elite influencers, who come together inside to explore, taste and celebrate. The Gritti is renowned for its warm service, a delightful dining experience, and for being an intimate wellness paradise. It is a reference point for exclusive international events, such as the Biennale of Contemporary Art, the Carnival and the Venice Film Festival. After a meticulous restoration, the original wooden ceilings, the original hall floor, the mirrors of the consoles, the 18th-century wall lamps handcrafted in Murano and much more have been brought to light. The epitome of luxury, the Gritti Signature Suite Collection highlights the hotel's rich historical past.

Since its inception, the Palazzo has been home to a rich collection of works of art, a tradition that originated from the noble Pisani family, and which has continued with its subsequent owners, including the Gritti. Historically designated by elites around the world as a place to celebrate important events, this tradition continues to be handed down over time. From the panoramic suite Terrazza Redentore and the terrace of Bar Longhi to the Gritti Epicurean School, the hotel offers exclusive environments to celebrate every moment.


Another interesting address for sleeping, albeit completely different from the first and which is not included in the list of classic hotels reported by all guides, is called Combo. Located inside the former Convent of the Crociferi in Cannaregio, a few steps from Rialto, it offers different solutions: from the mini apartment to the single room, all furnished in a minimal way and with design pieces. The large cloister has been converted into a place that is always open, and is used for various solutions: from the ritual of the aperitif to dj-sets and traveling exhibitions open to all.


Among the many traditions of local crafts, the original masks of the Venetian carnival are famous. In order not to run into fakes and imitations, you have to go to the craft shops of San Polo. In this Sestriere, there are companies such as La Bauta or Atelier Marega, famous, among other things, for organizing the famous Casanova Ball every year. In these exquisitely baroque ateliers, you enter almost on tiptoe, such is the wonder and splendor that can be admired in every corner.


There is also no shortage of art galleries. Like that of Massimo Micheluzzi who from a photographer then became a master glassmaker, developing his own particular cold glass processing and finishing technique with unique collections of their kind. And the Giorgio Mastinu gallery, the smallest art gallery in the city, offers a rich program of exhibitions all year round. Another precious address is that of the Bruno bookshop. Managed by two young guys, it offers art, photography and graphics books with titles that hide particular and refined research on the part of the store managers. It is located just behind the usual tourist circuits and is the classic name that only Venetian insiders know.

Despite the changes that have taken place in recent decades, Venice remains a place shrouded in an aura of mystery and forbidden. Describing the bond that has developed over the years with the city is difficult to understand for those who have never lived there. It is almost an unpronounceable mixture of boredom, surprise and bewilderment at the constant wonder one encounters, matched by a sense of melancholy due to the realization that, despite its apparent immobility over the centuries, Venice is in constant transformation. On the other hand, this is Venice, an unsolvable mystery, a maze of narrow streets closed in a series of labyrinths that can lead to blind alleys as well as to the vision of unexpected wonders.



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