Seven Steps to Discovering Venice
“There is still one of which you never speak.’ Marco Polo bowed his head. ‘Venice,’ the Khan said. Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’ The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’ And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”
Are you surprised that we chose the picture of a “tropical garden” as cover for our Venice Guide? Discover the real Venice, beyond the impressions of first-time visitors by taking this virtual journey consisting of two blog posts and links to further reading on the blog.
Marco Polo and the other Venetian merchants set the stage for the unique economic power that Venice became by focusing on the spice and luxuries trade. Venetian creativity set the stage for a cuisine and lifestyle that influenced Europe for more than 1,200 years.
Venice isn’t easy to know, I’ve often heard our foreign friends say. It’s even more difficult because by now, we have lost too much of her heritage by now. We aren’t even able to exactly remember the language of the Republic. Yes, Venice was an independent state, one of the most powerful trading nations for more than 1,300 years. And Venice is truly a garden city. Just imagine that more than seventy per cent of the city surface are private. Of these, two thirds consist of gardens and courtyards. We now take you behind those scenes, the true core of Venice. Hortus Conclusus.
Start by reading this story about the Venetian language and our “starter article“. Afterwards, please return to this page and read the following chapters.
The Venetian state ceased to exist in 1797 and its culture fell into oblivion. It happened gradually and now, not much is remembered about the immaterial heritage of Venices. Much information is still available but tucked away in public and private libraries in town and at the Venetian State Archive.
VENICE is so much more than just this floating city you see in the midst of a 550 km² Lagoon. She was a trading super power for more than 1,200 years. Venice had been under the protection of Byzantium ever since and benefited by shaping a unique network of trading posts in the Levant. Why yes – this the visible heritage the merchants of Venice left to their city and the reason why Venice looks like an oriental fairy tale town. Enjoy this first step of getting to know Venice !
Slow City and the Lagoon: Click here to read our article The Lagoon of Venice for First-Time Visitors”
In this section, you will learn why Venice is considered THE Slow City. What Salvatore Settis means in his book “If Venice dies” by describing the basic requirements that cities need in order to guarantee a minimum quality of life for their inhabitants. Venice has mastered this task in an extremely difficult environment. Imagine what it’s like to build in the middle of a Lagoon, on unstable ground and tidal movements that may flood the place twice a day, and that’s normal !!
The secret of Venice being defined as the Slow City is the precise role each part of the Lagoon has been assigned to. The Lagoon is, for most of it, an artificial landscape, sculptured by Venetians for centuries. Each island has and always will have to fulfill a purpose. If one part goes missing or is damaged, the whole ecosystem loses its balance
3: Venetian gardening traditions, growing spices and exotic plant heritage
This section introduces you to the art of Venetians growing edible gardens in the midst of what seems a very forbidding environment. In a shallow Lagoon where salt water prevails over a few freshwater pockets located next to the mouths of rivers. Growing gardens was an absolute necessity for survival. Venice and her Lagoon, and even Venice herself defined as the 118 Rivo Alto islands, are completely self-sufficient terrain that succeeded in feeding 300,000+ inhabitants in the 16th century.
There’s much knowledge to be re-discovered: How could Venetians harness the strengths of such a potentially adverse environment to grow not just gardens blossoming with local fruit, herbs and vegetables but to make the most of imported spice plants. Yes, Venetians grew spices in their secret gardens and flowers on every possible public and private space. You will only understand Venice when you know how Venetians lovingly tended their hidden gardens and Lagoon vineyards for centuries. With such a history, Venetians for 1000 years fueled and coined European taste in using natural ingredients flavored with herbs and spices
Venetian beauty & Perfumery heritage
Imagine what an incredible delight it is to go about exploring Venetian palace gardens. In these private gardens you can still recognize the original structure and layout of Venetian garden culture. Al fresco living rooms with raised terraces and pergolas and woods and sometimes a gravel or wooden terraces overlooking a calm canal. Cultivating what on difficult, salty terrain you may think. The inventive Venetians conquered these difficulties and by the year 1500, Venice boasted the largest number of botanical gardens in the world.
Venetians used their gardens to experiment with exotic spices, blossoming trees and herbs. Out in the Lagoon, they could live out their agricultural soul, for entire islands were dedicated to farming and growing vegetables. Here in town, they cultivated everything precious to beauty, health and what they needed to make perfumes. Gardens, not just imported spices, were the prime source of the Venetian spice experts called spezieri, and the beauty industry in town (yes, there were soap factories too)
Slow Food, Herbs and Spices: Read our article about Venetian Food Culture here (coming soon)
I loved how Arrigo Cipriani describes the Lagoon produce in his book “Harry’s Bar Cookbook”. He mentions that Lagoon vegetables are smaller but so succulent. Slightly salty, they confer the taste of the Lagoon. Now that you know a bit about the Lagoon and how gardens were used to grow vegetables, herbs and spices, you will want to taste this authentic food in town.
The acqua granda (flood) of November 1966 was disastrous for the Lagoon vegetable plots and orchards too, and many didn’t grow afterwards as well as they did before. It’ only about ten years ago that conditions for cultivating vegetables and fruit on the northeastern fringes of the Lagoon are back to norma
6: Slow Rituals and the Coffee Story: Venetian habits permeate our day without us noticing or knowing, in the first place. Take the coffee break, for example. Venetians came across kafa – coffee in Syria as early as in the 11th century. They brought it back to town but it was only in the 16th century that coffee shops opened along the format of those in Constantinople. Caffé Florian wasn’t even the first to open, in town, the spice experts turned apothecaries by then, used coffee to heal any symptom of fatigue or bad mood and circulatory issues.
But then it’s not just coffee. Venetians structure their days the way they have always done. Around 11 am, you’ll find them flock to a bar-caffé or pastry store where they eat “their real breakfast”. That is, coffee and tramezzino or other delicious treats, both sweet and salty. That’s what remains from the ancient ombra break.
There’s a second ombra time in the late afternoon, and that’s the time when Venetians love drinking a tiny glass of wine and eat bruschetta. This ritual is called “i giri de l’ombra”
7: Slow Feasts and the Wisdoms of Life Feasts remind us of our history. There are monthly reminders in Venice, and Venetians spend much time to prepare for them. It’s just part of their lifestyle and how they structure their day. There’s always something to look forward to.
There are the regattas and 25 April when the Feast of San Marco is celebrated, the former national day of the Republic of Venice. Then there’s the Redentore Feast in summer and La Festa della Madonna della Salute in autumn. Venice still remembers how she overcame the bouts of plague in 1575 and 1630. How she became stronger afterwards and all other countries benefited from insights gained in treatment and hygiene and prevention in the first place.
Venice recalls the good and the bad times. How good ones were harnessed and the bad overcome and dealt with collective knowledge. Passed on from one generation to the next.
That’s how we still live in Venice. Read more posts from this series “Venice for beginners here.