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La caigada: A misty spring walk in Venice

It looks like it’s raining any minute in Venice .. and the city is clad in thick mist called caígo. Just before a soft drizzle sets in, the gardens turn completely quiet, and the scent of the spring blossoms is overwhelming. That’s why a misty spring day has its advantages: It’s an opportunity to take in the scent of the city, so special in May. But first, we’ll walk down Riva degli Schiavoni just before the rain, visiting a secret garden holding a little surprise, and then return to eat lunch in a special restaurant offering excellent sea food in Late Antiquity style.

This secret garden is the cure for everyone who for some reason didn’t take pictures of wisteria blossoms: It’s part of the Gabrielli palazzo complex built in the 14th century, now turned into Hotel Gabrielli Sandwirth, a four-star hotel bordering on a canal at the far end of Riva degli Schiavoni. This family-run hotel is currently being restored, but I was told will reopen in 2022.

Located just across from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the Gabrielli building looks more like a fairy tale palace than a hotel. Founded in 1856, it’s run by the same family, today in their sixth generation. They still speak German and even have an Austrian-style Weinstube (wine bar) down the corridor leading into the garden.

And they do have a couple of treasure plants, from giant red water lilies growing lush in red marble basins to an ancient white wisteria. Or rather, instead of calling this sprawling green area just one garden, you could rather view it as several garden rooms: Small courtyards with breakfast zones, a corner covered by vines forming a thick roof by early summer, and a lawn bordering upon Rio Ca’ di Dio, from which the garden is separated by a wooden and wrought-iron pergola.

Now imagine a humid but warm morning in May, with clouds hanging deep, plus a garden filled with the song of blackbirds and the soft cooing of doves as you enter the lawn crossing yet another courtyard with a pozzo (well).

The skies are laden and just the faintest sun ray’s trying to get through, with dark clouds announcing a thunderstorm around the corner. My walk of discovering the Gabrielli complex started with a surprise as a profusion of pink azalea shrubs in ornamental terracotta pots welcome visitors at the entrance hall of the hotel. These make a fine flowery composition, contrasting with the red and greyish marble floor, the walls painted in rosso veneziano (Venetian red), and glass doors leading into the first courtyard, which you can see below. 

Outside in the garden, a colorful rose corner awaits you, whose yellow buds are framed with pink and reddish hues. To the left of the door leading into the garden, you can see another Venetian vera da pozzo and a terraced pathway leading around the rectangular lawn.

Palm trees grow in the corners, side by side with more rose bushes and a main path separating niches overgrown with ivory, laurel and pittosporum. This is the informal garden room, where shrubs are surrounded by young hemp palms, everpresent in Venetian gardens, and a plant nursery corner with lots of terracotta pots of young cyclamen and geranium. Small grey stone terraces are another defining element in this garden, softened by pink hydrangea shrubbery whose blossoms open by late May.

And in the far end, running all along one side of the garden, is a pergola, but you need to stand just below it to fully appreciate its beauty. First I looked down, searching the water basin overgrown with water lily leaves for buds, then I looked up towards the thick green roof of wisteria leaves. From the distance, I had hardly noticed them in the humid haze, but as wisteria already blossoms earlier in April, I didn’t take note of what was really above me – the most beautiful white wisteria blossoms in Venice!

These cascades of white blossoms were so beautiful but less scented than the purple variant. Wisteria (glicine in Italian) officially came to Europe in the first part of the 17th century, but as always, there’s a chance it was present in Venetian gardens much earlier. In Venice, you’ll usually find glicine comune – the Chinese variant of wisteria (wisteria sinensis): Its blossoms are visible by early April, even before the leaves are growing, and for a couple of weeks, its sweet perfume is practically everywhere, in public and semi-private areas like corti and sotoporteghi

There is, however, a second wisteria variant, hardier than the first and also growing purple blossoms, called wisteria japonis. The white wisteria in Venice is called wisteria brachybotrys.

The fourth representative of the wisteria family growing in Venice is American wisteria, blossoming in late May and June. It has small blossoms with little or no scent. So if you’d like to discover “exotic” wisteria in Venice, it is worth paying a visit to private gardens, like this one at Hotel Gabrielli, filled with roses, water lilies, wisteria and palm trees of various kinds.

Leaving this refreshing spring garden, I can feel heavy drops of rain on my shoulder, so I return to Campo della Bragora. Walking along Salizzada Sant’Antonin and Salizzada dei Greci, I reach Fondamenta de l’Osmarin in less than seven minutes with the rain getting stronger. From there, I cross right into Calle and Corte Rota towards Ruga Giuffa, less than two minutes from a special restaurant where I used to spend a lot of time when I was a child. I take the first calle on the left, walk along a very narrow one framed by red brickstone buildings, cross a canal, and from there, can make out the little wrought-iron sign to the left just after the bridge, saying Antica Sacrestia.

Entering the courtyard, every trace of wind and rain dissipates. The red flagstones look wet and the lawn refreshed as I quickly cross the little courtyard and walk inside. Antica Sacrestia is also one of Lina’s favorite restaurants in Venice. Most probably, her favorite, she has known the owner Giuseppe Calliandro for decades. Until 2018, she used to visit every year for dinner on 25 April, when Venice celebrates La Festa di San Marco, with her Venetian association engaging in charity projects but also, working very very hard for Venice in the background.

As I wrote in the introduction, this is a special place, resembling Venice in the 6th and 7th century AD, the post-Roman period, Late Antiquity so to say. And the food is most probably the same, which is no coincidence. The owner takes care that only the best seasonal ingredients, bought at the market only hours earlier before you’ll eat it, go into his lush dishes. His food is a rare mix of simplicity, generosity, and elegance. It’s not “a dish of fish” you’ll eat here, or simply “pasta alla busara”, “spaghetti alle vongole” or “cozze della Laguna”. No, you won’t be served average food here, these are dishes prepared in the ancient Venetian style, the way the Romans used to cook and serve it.

The restaurant looks cozy and spectacular, and at the same time, it’s not overpriced but worth every dish you try. But you’ll also notice its different style of cooking, unusually tasty home-made pasta based on ancient recipes. In short, if you’re looking for the origins of Venetian food, you’ve come to the right place.

Every menu finishes with a dessert, but if you’re unable to eat more, you’ll receive a little gift box to take home with you a special selection of cookies. At first sight, they look a little rough but smell very sweetly, like zaléti cookies which not only include chocolate drops but also a special secret spice mix.

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