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May We Live in Interesting Times

In Venice, a choice must be made between being a tourist or a visitor. If it's the latter, it's a beautiful destination.

There is no doubt that upon visiting Venice, one — plus any other of the 30 million or so visitors coming to La Serenissima each year, making it very un-serene — wants to pay homage to the great spots of the sightseer. No visit would be complete without checking out the news on the Rialto Bridge, a look at the Ponte dei Sospiri, and of course the ultimate destination of St Mark’s Square and the Campanile. And yet, with a walk of just a few minutes, one is away from the hustle and bustle, the signs to be beware of pickpockets, the pushing punishing crowds, the dawdling stragglers staring at their phones or taking selfies rather than actually looking at the wonderful architecture, the boats of all shapes and sizes, among little courtyards and alleyways to find details one can uncover only if one stops to look. Once again it is possible to be a visitor, an explorer or a quasi-local (there are only 50,000 true Venetians) rather than a tourist.

But what is the best way to do this? There is after all so much to see, especially if one takes one’s time to ensure that one eats and drinks well in good company. 

Talking of good company, I chose to look off the beaten track in the company of the fictional Corto Maltese, the protagonist of the brilliant Italian graphic novelist and story teller, Hugo Pratt (1927–995). Venice was a favourite spot for this comic book creator and a city that his rakish, seafaring Maltese, an early Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, would visit often as a starting point on their adventures to the Orient.

For Venice is the starting point and destination, the Holy Grail, for many travellers. It is not really a city of cruise ships, the internet and tourists, but a city of the past as evidenced in the names of the squares and bridges — such as the Ponte degli Squartai, the Bridge of the Quartered — all harking back to history. These are places to be uncovered, the doors behind which magic still exists.

When visiting this city, remember to look. Not for something, not on your phone, but to look up, around, and down. As Tiziano Scarpa said in Venice is a Fish (2000), “Where are you going? Throw away your map! Why do you so desperately need to know where you are right now? Why fight the labyrinth? Follow it, for once. Don’t worry, let the streets decide your journey for you, rather than the other way around. Learn to wander, to dawdle. Lose your bearings. Just drift.”

Every journey, even one of drift, must start somewhere, and what better place than Sant’Elena, a ‘newer’ part of Venice — it was only when Napoleon ruled over Venice at the beginning of the 19th century that the green oasis and gardens were laid out. Sant’Elena, with its own vaporetto (water-bus) stop, is cooler and much less crowded than anywhere else in the city. It is a perfect resting point. 

Its only hotel is the Hotel Indigo set in the old Monastery of Sant’Elena. Newly restored with nods to the city’s Byzantine, Ottoman, and Art Deco past, this elegant hotel has its own private garden and a restaurant so good even the locals eat here. 

The five floors have recently been renovated and the lobby is resplendent with lamps and Murano glasswork. It is the perfect spot from which to branch out, and is also just a stone’s throw on foot from the new Marina for any sailor arriving in their own boat and wishing to step ashore.

The Sant’Elena neighbourhood is one of the few authentic areas left in Venice and is just a short walk from St Mark’s Square along the charming Riva degli Schiavoni. It is right next to the Venice Biennale, a must for art and architecture lovers, and the Via Guiseppe Garibaldi with its local shops and traditional bacari, bars where one can enjoy a spritz or the appetisers known as cicchetti. It is also just one stop on the vaporetto to Lido, the island which is home to the Venice Film Festival, along with Cannes and Berlin, one of the big three.

The island of Sant’Elena took its name from an ancient legend of Empress Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great (272–337). Her relics are still preserved in the church of the same name. The ship bearing the urn containing her relics from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) ran aground on a sandbank entering the Venetian lagoon. Every effort to re-float it proved futile, until the urn containing the relics was unloaded. The crew interpreted this phenomenon as a sign of the Saint’s desire to remain on the uninhabited island leading to the construction of the Church of Sant’Elena which can still be visited today. 

Here there is a feeling of serenity that engulfs you as you step off the vaporetto into the Parco delle Rimembranze, a large and leafy park providing an opportunity to relax in the sunshine with a good book, with plenty of room and perhaps a glass of prosecco — one is still in Venice after all — before undertaking a pre-prandial walk for luncheon at the stylish Harry’s Bar.

However, our guide, Corto Maltese is preparing for another odyssey and is calling us to the ancient gateway to the Orient. The Arsenale is close by. At its height, at the time of the Most Serene Republic in the 16th century, it employed over 5,000 workers capable of turning out a new ship in a day! The word Arsenale, today perhaps best known as an English football team, means dockyard and comes from the Arabic darsina’a. It was first founded in 1104 and continually developed over the following five centuries.

The Italian poet, Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) in canto XXI of The Divine Comedy said, “as in the Arsenal of the Venetians boils in the winter the tenacious pitch to smear their unsound vessels o’er again, for sail they cannot; and instead thereof one makes his vessel new, and one recaulks the ribs of that which many a voyage has made; one hammers at the prow, one at the stern, this one makes oars, and that one cordage twists, another mends the mainsail and the mizzen…”

The area is a melting pot of Venetian, Italian, Greek, Byzantine, Turkish, Armenian, Slav, Balkan, Egyptian, and Syrian influences, summing up the true nature of this open minded and tolerant trading city. Look, discover, uncover, explore the legends, history, secrets and magic of this fascinating city. Expect the unexpected.