Hidden Corners

"Open my heart and you will see graved inside of it, Italy."

Robert Browning

If you were standing in Piazza San Marco, the heart of Venice, on a clear day, you would see -amid the hundreds of pigeons and tourists- the massive bell tower, the basilica of San Marco, the Doge's Palace, the honeycomb-like presence of the Procuratie enclosing the Piazza, and a glorious opening, the only opening, to the water. If you didn't know Venice you couldn't guess that this city was surrounded by and infused in water. If you were to go a hundred meters above the paving stones of the Piazza, say by taking the elevator to the top of the campanile, you would realize that this most peculiar city was completely surrounded by water but you would not see any sign of the myriad of canals that crisscross her. All you would see was a pleated mantle of uniform terracotta tiles, punctuated by the occasional bell tower, floating in the green waters of the lagoon. If you were to go five hundred meters above the paving stones, you would see what Jacopo de' Barbari could have only imagined half a millennium ago, but managed to render with astonishing precision on paper: a city shaped like a fish, made of a hundred pieces glued together with just water. This most impossible, most singular, most miraculous city is Venice.

Now we will embark on an irreverent tour of the city. We will not spend much time in the basilica of San Marco, the Doge's Palace or the Rialto bridge, instead we will visit some of my favorite corners, where the pulse of the real city beats in the hurried stride of the Venetians and where few tourists tread. Before we begin our tour, a few words about the geography of the city. Venice is divided into six districts called sestieri. This is a very ancient division dating back to the middle of the XII century, or perhaps before. Each sestiere has its own idiosyncrasy and traditions, even its own manner of speech. To the north and east of the Grand Canal we find the sestieri of San Marco, Castello and Cannaregio. To the south and west: Dorsoduro, San Polo and Santa Croce. The street numbering system is peculiar, if not whimsical, by European standards. The numbers are assigned consecutively often around the block and then they may jump to the other side of the street or two blocks away, one never knows. The end result is that each sestiere is numbered from 1 to the last number of that sestiere, which is usually prominently displayed. For example, the last number of the sestiere of Santa Croce is 2359 (notice the Venetian spelling: "Crose"). Addresses in Venice are given by the sestiere followed by the number; the name of the street is optional. For example, San Marco 1 is the address of the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace). 

The Giudecca island is technically part of Dorsoduro and Sant' Elena part of Castello but have independent numbering

There are five cardinal points in Venice: Ferrovia, Piazzale Roma, Piazza San Marco, Rialto and Accademia. Knowing where they are on the map will help you navigate the city. If you get lost, prominent yellow signs throughout the city will direct you to those locations. Follow them only if you absolutely need to. Half the fun of getting to know Venice is being lost in its labyrinthine self. One never knows what hidden treasure awaits around the corner.

There are no cars in Venice except for a small area around Piazzale Roma where the bus terminal and the car parking are located.  The islands are connected by bridges, over four hundred of them, that will take you anywhere without the need of ever being on water. Contrary to some people's belief, every building in the city can be reached on foot, but not every building can be reached by water. One of the most efficient ways to move around is to ride the vaporetto or water bus. There are several stops or fermate along the Grand Canal and on the periphery of the city. A ride on line 1 is the best way to see the many palaces and few churches that grace the Grand Canal, the most magnificent avenue in the world.

A few words about Venetian lexicon are in order. A regular Venetian street, usually very narrow, is called a calle, a very Venetian term for the Italian strada or via. The terms strada, via and viale in Venice are reserved for rather recent streets, usually wide by Venetian standards, opened during the Austrian occupation or after the unification with the rest of Italy. A fondamenta is a street on the side of a canal; so is a riva. A sottoportico or  sotoportego is a street or short section of a street under a building. A corte is a short street usually leading to a dead end. A ramo is a branch of a more important street. A salizzada or salizada is a street that was paved in times when others were not. A piscina is a street that used to be a pond. Ruga refers to some of the oldest streets opened in Venice, they usually have shops. A rio terrà or rio terà is a filled-in canal. A lista is a street where an embassy used to be. A campo is a square, usually paved despite its name (campo means field)  and near a church. A campiello is a small campo. Piazza, well...there is only one piazza in Venice: Piazza San Marco. There are only four canals in Venice: Canal Grande, Canal de la Giudecca, Canal de Cannaregio, and Canal de San Piero. All the other watercourses are called rio or riello. A traghetto is a gondola ferry, a traditional and efficient way to cross the Grand Canal. Taking the traghetto will give you a taste for a gondola ride at a fraction of the cost and you will get to do it with true Venetians; the only con (or added bonus depending on your point of view) is that you must do it standing up.

                                                                                               Around San Marco 

   Around Cannaregio

                                                                                                         Around Castello

   Around Dorsoduro

                                                                                                           Around San Polo 

   Around Santa Croce

Acknowledgment. I am very grateful to Albert H. from England for his interest in this site and his quick eye in catching typos and other mistakes. Thanks Albert!