By ROBIN SAIKIA.
1 August 2014—I’M AGREEABLY EXHAUSTED after the Feast of the Redentore, for me the high point of the Venetian festive calendar. The Venice Carnival, earlier in the year, is almost invariably an over-commercialized wash-out — but the Redentore is the real deal. Hundreds of Venetians take to the water in open boats of all sizes, eating and drinking in boisterous family groups — and the festivities end after midnight with a spectacular firework display.
My day began well with a chance meeting with Marco, a fisherman who lives in Malamocco on the Lido. He had come over for the day with his family and was chugging along the canal by Campo San Barnaba in an elegant old sanpierota, the traditional flat-bottomed Venetian fishing boat. He pulled in alongside the campo, set up a trestle table in the stern and set about slicing up an enormous chunk of raw tuna. This is very much a Marco trademark and often, when I meet him in the local bar in winter, he will suddenly produce a fish of some kind from the interior of his overcoat. He’s a kind of Venetian equivalent of the poacher in Withnail and I who kept an eel in his trousers.
We were joined in the boat by Micky, the Dog Who Takes Himself For A Walk and who lives at the Bar Fontego in Campo Santa Margarita. Dogs are an important part of Venetian life – you can see their forebears in the paintings of Canaletto and Guardi skipping briskly about the city with an unmistakably proprietorial air. A few of them, like Micky, take themselves for walks, a phenomenon that illustrates how safe and self-contained the labyrinth of Venice is in comparison to other cities. You can’t get lost for long — and neighbours really do look out for one another. In this respect Venice is not only a paradise for dogs — but also for children playing in the afternoon after school, and women walking home alone late at night. Anyway, revenons. We quickly polished off Marco’s tuna with a sprinkling of black pepper and a twist of lemon juice — and he set off for the lagoon with his family.
After this unexpected and welcome blast with Marco, I set off for lunch with one of my best expat friends, the poet and translator John Phillimore. We always meet at one of the few genuinely traditional restaurants in Venice, a small set-up on the Fondamenta Cappucine near the Ghetto, frequented mostly by fishermen, gondoliers and water-taxi drivers. I daren’t utter its name for fear of a deluge, but I dare say you’ll find it soon enough. To give you an idea of how echt the place is, they do not charge for the wine – a system that works very well given the comparatively restrained drinking habits of Italians, but one that can be severely destabilized by the arrival of Anglo-Saxon literary types. We followed lunch with a walk back to Santa Croce and a quick drink at Rivetta, another spit-and-sawdust establishment that serves drinkable country wine for 90 cents a glass. I mention all this because it is easy to forget that real people on modest incomes live in and are the backbone of this city. Go where they go, eat where they eat, drink where they drink — and soon the myth of Venice as a hell of overpriced food and booze will be dispelled.
MY REDENTORE EVENING, in contrast to my day, was a very elaborate affair. I abandoned my usual annual routine of loafing about on the Giudecca waiting for the fireworks and instead accepted an invitation to dine at the Circolo dell’Unione, a club on the Grand Canal overlooking the Accademia Bridge and the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti. In general it can be pretty daunting to venture into the lion’s den of Venetian high society armed with little more than an Old Wykehamist tie and a hipflask of grappa, but not so at the Unione. For British and American readers, the club is roughly the equivalent of White’s in London or the Knickerbocker in New York – and, like those, it is significantly less uptight about itself and its guests than the more bourgeois enclaves.
The men-only rule was relaxed for the Redentore, so there was an agreeable seasoning of civilized and interesting women. Among them was the Russian artist Katia Margolis, now gearing up for her forthcoming show in St Petersburg – a collection of her wonderful and mysterious meditations, in oils and watercolours, on Venice and the lagoon. It was a good evening, all the more so because of my energetic host, Count Luigi Gallici-Deciani, up from his country house in Friuli-Venezia Giulia on an all-too-rare visit to town. His superb, eighteenth-century villa is a venue for a series of varied and entertaining fundraising and social events including, recently, a Shostakovich and Prokofiev concert, a get-together of the Austrian Rolls Royce and Bentley owners association, and the annual summer camp of the Belgian Boy Scouts. There will be more about our antics at his extraordinary pile in the next Letter from Venice.
After dinner we all crossed the Accademia Bridge in the moonlight and headed for one of the narrow alleys behind Campo Santo Stefano. At the end of it one comes to a forbidding monumental gate, beyond which lies a shadowy courtyard garden – and the thumping great palazzo of Count Mario Alvara. We saw the fireworks from his roof terrace – and on the way home I managed to find a quiet spot on the Grand Canal to watch the hundreds of Venetian revellers heading home in their boats. I caught sight of Marco, all tuna consumed and a great heap of children asleep in the stern. Finally I called in for a nightcap at Mille Vini, an excellent bar in Campo Santa Margarita owned by my pal Albanian Tony. The campo was, as it usually is, heaving with undergraduates and paralytic types from the mainland who had missed the last bus home – but it provided great street theatre nonetheless. Albanian Tony produced a fascinating artiginial brew from his homeland, a grappa of sorts. As a result of it I slept well and woke up feeling as fit as Micky, who was trotting around the campo at breakfast time, picking briskly through the post-Redentore debris in search of discarded pizza.
Robin Saikia is a writer and historian based in London and Venice. He grew up in Britain, Zambia, India, and Italy, and was educated at Winchester College and at Merton College, Oxford. He is a good cook, an adventurous traveller and an accomplished classical pianist. He is the Venice correspondent to The Fortnightly Review and the author of The Venice Lido, the first ever full-length historical and cultural guide to Venice’s glamorous beach resort, along with several other Blue Guides. His website is here.