The construction workers had been busy around the hole in the ground for a few days, just next to the bridge I walked over, first thing in the morning, sleep still in my eyes, to reach Bar Nico for hot croissants. Two days before my birthday, upon my passing, one of them whispered “Sei bellissima”. With uncombed hair, yoga pants and not a stitch of make-up, I strongly doubted his assertion about my beauty and I kept on walking. On my way back, croissants and newspaper secured under my arm, the same worker, undeterred, asked me if I could stop for a minute. I don’t, I am sure he uses the same lines on half the women who walk by, thereby delaying the filling of the hole in the ground, but I chuckle internally because this stranger, a good 20 years younger than me, gave me the gift of an uplifting compliment on the eve of a distracting and slightly traumatic birthday.
And so, here I am, with half a century behind me and an improbable 50 more years ahead. If anything could soften the blow, I knew that Venice could. Maybe Stefano, the genial host of Osteria Mascaron where I spent a pre-birthday dinner (I am known to stretch celebrations for days before and after) is right: Venetians are kind people because they live so intimately with and along the water and because having to walk everywhere robs you of any aggression. Venetians are indeed a patient lot, always eager to answer questions, give directions, unfazed by the throngs of tourists who stop abruptly, trip getting on and off boats and generally impede basic daily activities.
I am celebrating this milestone, this clarion call to change what doesn’t work anymore and to keep forever what stood the test of time, with some of the people I love most in the world, in one of the most mysterious and enchanting locales in the world. The light is not as bright as in California but it is softer, warmer. The full moon hanging over the island of Giudecca looks more playful than the one over my canyon, bathing rows of pretty houses rather than chaparral and coyotes. Maybe this light is the reason I am contemplating a possible move over here, some time in the future: it will be kinder on wrinkles. Or maybe because this is a place acutely aware of its past and, as we grow older, so are we.
The biggest surprise of turning 50, an age that, in my 20’s, was synonymous with demure two-piece suits, strings of pearls and bridge parties, has been the amount of energy I still have and the need for change, as if a different chapter were opening. I haven’t felt this exhilarated in years. Now, if I could only hold on to this feeling for the next 10 years…
Here are a few suggestions of unusual things to do in Venice, places to go or eat, that you won’t find in guide books. Some require a boat, that can be rented but it might be easier to befriend a Venetian – they are all equipped with boats the way we are with cars.
For Art Lovers: Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Ok, you will find this in guide books but it might not be at the top of your list. It should be. This sort of trade union of the past commissioned Tintoretto to decorate their building – all I can say is “breathtaking” View some images here
For Book Lovers: Libreria Toletta is a maze of a bookstore with different rooms dedicated to different subjects. The staff is very knowledgeable and will help you picking books on Venice in very many different languages – Sacca de la Toletta 1213, a stone’s throw from the Accademia Museum
Libreria Acqua Alta is an extremely fun place. Strictly used books arranged in piles, inside bath tubs or in a real gondola in the middle of the largest room. A cat sort of welcomes you outside while the owner, Gigi, will chat you up and offer you free books for a date (if you are a woman). Small English language section but prints and other fun items are for sale. Calle Longa S. M.Formosa 5176 (near Campo S. M Formosa in Castello)
For Food Lovers: Osteria al Mascaron is a Venetian mainstay. Reservations are recommended. The food is incredible. Try the polenta with squid ink for a real Venetian experience. Osteria Mascaron
Caffe ai Frari – an ancient Cafe that serves cold cuts, sandwiches and salads at lunch. Service is slow but the place is so charming, devoid of tourists and the prosciutto from the nearby Dolomites so delicious that is worth the wait – just off Campo dei Frari in S. Polo
Bar ai Tedeschi – on the tiny island of Sant’Erasmo there is a modest bar on the beach that serves the best spaghetti with clams I tasted the whole vacation. You can also swim. But a boat to get there is required.
Trattoria Le Vignole – on the Vignole Island, this can be reached with a vaporetto and I promise there will not be a tourist in sight (other than the ones who read this blog). You order fish at counter and then you eat in the large garden right on the water. Delicious!
Pasticceria Tonolo – for your sweet tooth. Go early in the morning and get a doughnut or, as we call them in Italian, krapfen. Well worth the inches around your waist – Calle de San Pantaleon, near Campo Santa Margherita
For the Romantic in you: Take a walk along the Zattere embankment all the way to Santa Maria della Salute church. Enchanting. You will see the moon rise of Giudecca island, sit on the steps of a beautiful church while staring at San Marco, the water lapping around you. It’s what I always do on my last night in Venice.
La Fenice Theatre. Possibly the most beautiful baroque theatre in the world, it burnt down a number of years ago and was painstakingly reconstructed in every minimal detail. Get a couple of tickets for any of the operas or ballets – your jaw will drop when you walk in. You can also visit it during the day with a guided tour but experiencing a performance is way more chic!
If you happen to befriend a Venetian, ask them to take you swimming in Bacan. They will explain and, hopefully, take you