Exploring the Hanging Gardens of Venice

Every city has her secrets, but I find it strange how a city as “well visited” as Venice is, doesn’t make her secrets obvious. In fact, most visitors I meet (a lot over the years at Lina’s hotel) are happy to explore the farthest corners of Venice. After having seen so many of off-the-beaten corners in town, can one say that they have seen all of Venice?

Our answer is NO because almost half of the city’s surface consists of private gardens. Not just tiny courtyards but there are a lot of spacious gardens you can make out looking at an aerial view of Venice on Google Maps. Here, you can make out tiny green patterns all over town, but there are many larger ones as well.

For centuries, Venice was the greenest city in Europe, and percentage of her gardens is still considerably higher than in most other cities on the mainland. And for centuries, Venetians have developed the art of enlarging these tiny green patterns you can make out on your map, by creating sprawling terracescapes stretching across gardens, leading up the rooftops of one-story homes, and then up again to the second and third floors via wrought staircases. As you can see below, this way of carving out space for plants is also true for Lina’s garden.

From Lina’s terraces, balconies and altane, you get a wonderful view across Castello, at least from the second and third floor terraces. Not all can be used during all months of the year, though. Some are so exposed to the sun, getting parching hot in summer and freezing cold and humid in winter. Some terraces are quite spacious and thus divided into smaller “zones” by wooden dividers overgrown with roses and jasmine. And wisteria, of course.
In that way, we create protected spaces, cool in summer and safe from the winds during winter.

In the courtyard garden, the soil is covered by patterned flagstones creating paths that divide the little garden into “edible” and ornamental zones, pergolas and a nice corner for breakfast. There are several kitchen gardens and a tiny orchard, all divided by rows of lavender and hortensia.

Gardening in Venice is challenging because even though you could say that the climate is mild, definitely true for much of the year, there are strange winds “meeting” in the Lagoon, affecting the weather during all seasons. Libeccio, a cool south-westerly wind, brings rain. Bora, the northerly wind, brings freezing cold slate between November and February, yet, Bora’s existence is essential for Venice for it chases the languid mild air and high waters southwards, out of the Lagoon and silences the southerly Scirocco winds.

Without Bora, Venice couldn’t exist, because the water masses brought into the Lagoon by the Scirocco would have drowned her. Knowing these four winds is so important for gardening, when you need to create several climate zones in your garden and choosing the right spot to plant herbs and sensitive fruit like kumquat and lemons.

Now you can understand that gardening in Venice requires a lot of experience and sensitivity to seasons, winds and the sun. The complex connectivity between these three forces of nature can foster or hinder the success of a Venetian garden, and Grandmother Lina did succeed in creating a gardenscape consisting of several climate zones.

Of course, the difference “between garden climate zones” is less palpable on a sunny summer morning when it’s pleasantly cool and sun rays on your face are a boon (never after 8:30 am, though :-) That’s why you don’t find plants on Lina’s second-floor terrace, as you can see in the image above. Plants simply wouldn’t survive, so between June and early September, we need to remove herbs and flower pots as they would die in the sun within one single day.

So yes, gardening in Venice is challenging but also so rewarding. After all, she’s been a “botanical city” with lots of experience in cultivating exotic and local plant species since the 13th century, famous in Europe and counting the largest numbers of botanical gardens in the world. Creating gardens in Venice was less a hobby but simply a necessity, using up every single spot to grow edible plants. That’s why you find green landscapes, filled with edible plants, herbs and vegetables in Venice. People needed the space to grow fruit trees, vegetables, salads, herbs and edible blossoms to survive in the midst of a Lagoon!

Venice has collected massive know-how in growing plants and using them to make simple and healthy dishes. Of course, there are also ornamental plants whose fruit and blossoms one cannot eat in the Venetian gardens. In former times, these ornamental zones used to take up only a small part of the city, as Venice needed food from the gardens to make up for the lack in space to grow large-scale harvests.

Venetians developed techniques and recipes for self-sufficient life, learning to waste as little as possible and using all parts of their edible plants. For example, blossoms would go into syrups, infusions, beauty products and remedies (there were no chemical medicines in the past, but Venetians introduced spices as powerful remedies in Europe). Also, fruit would be used to make jam and syrup, and leaves went into infusions, salads and again, remedies. Usually, the whole plant would be used. Take, for example, carrots: to this day, Venetians love salads made from carrot greenery.

Nonna Lina learned a lot about growing plants, harvesting and seasons while growing up in the northern Lagoon during WW2. Upon returning to Venice, the family opened their first restaurant, and Lina became a chef herself and instructor at Venetian luxury hotels. In 1968, the family bought the guesthouse of the former monastery of San Zaccaria from the nuns living there after their return to their home town, Augsburg (Germany).

That’s when she and Grandfather started creating, that is, enlarging a blossoming paradise, experimenting with recipes using blossoms, herbs and spices, going through the ancient cookbooks and journals the nuns had left in the library that once had belonged to the monastery San Zaccaria.

It happened so often after the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797 that convents were sold to families, who then could  benefit from ancient know-how. In our case, the recipes were treasured and collected, and Nonna Lina spent many days with me, teaching me about healthy food and a style of cooking obviously forgotten in our days. Yet, this style of easy cooking with herbs, blossoms an spices comes in so useful in our times, and the recipes aren’t complicated at all. Most dishes are prepared in less than 15-30 minutes, so they are an excellent substitute for fast food. Call them healthy fast food …

After learning about the ancient Venetian style of using herbs, blossoms and spices for decades (!!), we are now ready to share what we’ve learned. That’s why we started La Venessiana and La Venessiana’s NEW SPICE ATELIER, LA SPEZERIA. La Venessiana is the place where we collect and store  ancient knowledge from Venice for you, in blog posts, ebooks and online courses. We start in summer 2018! Stay tuned here !