A Vineyard to Wetlands: Unusual Things to Do in Venice (March 2018)

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Dream of Italy.

While working to launch her Prontopia app — which allows travelers to request on-demand help from locals in walkable cities — in its first city, Venice, Shannon Kenny got to know the city through her new local friends. Here are some of the Prontopia Locals’ favorite off-the-beaten-path things to do in Venice:

Visit an Ancient Vineyard

Just a few steps away from the Santa Lucia train station, right on the Grand Canal, there is a lesser-known gem of Venice known as Gli Scalzi — the site of the Church of Santa Maria of Nazareth — and the attached Garden of the Monastery of the Barefoot Carmelites. The church was built in 1608, and is the only church on the Grand Canal with a façade of Carrara marble.

Today, the monastery garden includes a vineyard, one of only two vineyards remaining in the islands of the Venetian archipelago. The Carmelite monks revitalized the ancient garden to now grow more than 20 grape varietals as part of a city project to preserve the viticultural biodiversity of Venice.

The garden’s design reflects the classic style of Italianate Garden’s (which originated in the Renaissance) ideas of symmetry of form and order, and is typical of the Venetian gardens’ style as it is built on an axis between the palazzo courtyard and a waterfront gate onto the canal.

In addition to the small vineyard, the monks maintained an herb garden for their apothecary. During the 17th century, the Veneto was renowned for its apothecaries. The Carmelite monks of Santa Maria of Nazareth in Venice became especially famous for their lemon balm remedy for curing anxiety and spasms.

In 1754, the Republic of Venice granted the Barefoot Carmelites the exclusive right to produce lemon balm water, which can still be purchased today at the monastery’s apothecary shop. Guided visits of the garden can be reserved April through October.

Gli Scalzi
Fondamenta degli Scalzi
(39) 041 8224006
Guided visits of the garden can be reserved April through October.

Enjoy Spritz and Cicchetti on a Boat

Enjoy typical Venetian food in a charming local neighborhood in Cannaregio at Al Timon along the Fondamenta dei Ormesini. The lively local setting along the Ormesini canal has ample outdoor canalside tables, and a large wooden boat moored on the canal where locals convene in the evening for drinks and cicchetti (Venetian tapas) on the water.

Join local Venetians for occasional live jazz concerts, a drink of prosecco or uno spritz with typical cicchetti, and a stroll throughout this enchanting area of the city.

Al Timon
Fondamenta dei Ormesini, 2754
(39) 041 5246066
Open daily from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Climb Snail-Shaped Spiral Stairs

The 15th-century Palazzo del Contarini del Bovolo is a small palazzo in a hidden area between the Rialto and Campo Santo Stefano with a unique external spiral staircase in the shape of a snail. The design of the stairs represents a distinct blend of the Gothic, Renaissance and Byzantine architectural styles of Venice through the centuries.

When you reach the top of the stairs, you are rewarded with a charming view over the rooftops of Venice from the palazzo’s balustraded terrace. The Sala del Tintoretto on the second-floor loggia of the Bovolo staircase is also worthy of a visit for its collection of Venetian paintings and sculpture from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Scala Contarini del Bovolo
San Marco, 4303
Corte Contarini del Bovolo
(39) 041 3096605
Open daily from April to October between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Explore Venetian Wetlands

The Venetian wetlands between the islands of the lagoon and the river deltas of the mainland comprise the largest wetland area in Italy. The interplay of canals, swamps, marshland and sandy beaches produces a diverse and unique ecosystem that is breathtaking to explore. Because of this diversity, the area is world famous for its population of birds, including several thousand flamingoes that migrated from Tunisia.

A guided ecological visit to some of the lesser-visited islands in the lagoon offers a chance for a nature visit in a beautiful setting, and a deeper understanding of the ancient history of life in Venice. Enjoy one of these excursions with local guide Marino Cacciatori.

Compare the birds you see in the famous art throughout Venice to the birds populating the lagoon today for a fun treasure hunt! This is a great way to see Venice as its locals do today, and as Venetians inhabitants have experienced the rich land for centuries.

It’s also possible to eat a very local seafood lunch on some of the outer islands, such as Pellestrina. Try Ristorante da Celeste for lunch on the terrace perched upon the lagoon: Ristorante da Celeste, Vianelli, 625B, Pellestrina, 39-041-967355; www.daceleste.it.

Marino Cacciatori
(39) 0426 380314
Rates: 13 to 17€ for guided boat excursions

Visit a Silk Factory

A visit to the Luigi Bevilacqua Silk Factory in the Santa Croce quarter is a chance to experience an ancient tradition of Venice still thriving today: weavers producing famous Venetian velvets from silk threads. The factory was established on this site in 1875, and is still run by the Bevilacqua family, whose roots in the Venetian textile industry date to the late 15th century.

The original site for the factory was an old weavers school purchased by Luigi Bevilacqua in 1875 in the Castello quarter of the city. The new mill restored the site’s 18th-century hand looms and revived production of ancient decorative patterns. The headquarters were then relocated to the current site in Santa Croce 17 years later.

The silk industry played a significant role in the rise of Venice as a powerful mercantile republic during the Renaissnace. Venice acquired the knowledge of silk fabric production techniques from the Ottoman Empire after the siege of Constantinople in 1204, and over the following centuries, developed its own techniques for producing sumptuous velvet, brocade, damasks, and satins.

Today the factory preserves these ancient traditions by producing gorgeous fabrics and products using hand-crafted methods on restored ancient looms, a talent that was almost lost with the mechanization of weaving technique during the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century. Visitors can schedule a self-guided visit of the weaving workshop with advance reservation.

To learn about the factory within the wider history of artisan craftsmanship in Venice, the Venice Arts and Crafts tour with Luisella Romeo of See Venice (see the article about her in the February 2018 issue of Dream of Italy) includes an expert explanation of the factory’s history and production. You will also enjoy visits to other craftsman studios producing treasures such as gold leaf, mosaic tiles, handmade books and paper, and shoes!

Luigi Bevilacqua Silk Factory
Santa Croce, 1320
(39) 041 721566

Listen to a Vivaldi Concert

There are many nice venues in Venice to listen to Vivaldi, but perhaps one of the lesser known but most endearing is the church where composer Antonio Vivaldi taught music. The Church of La Pieta is in the neighborhood where Vivaldi was born in 1678. In 1703, Vivaldi was ordained as a priest, and appointed as violin master at the orphanage connected to Santa Maria della Visitazione.

During this era, Venice’s four foundling hospitals were central to the musical legacy of the city as the young orphan girls were trained by Venice’s most renowned composers through music education programs supported by the Doge. They were also the sites of popular musical performances, and thus the buildings were constructed for optimal acoustics.

The unique atmosphere of this dynamic musical environment is thought to have had a strong influence on Vivaldi’s innovative and experimental style. The original church was rebuilt slightly after Vivaldi’s death; however, the Doge insisted that the acoustics of the new building achieve the highest results. The building consists of an oval oratorio encircled by an atrium designed to minimize external noise. The ceiling is adorned with a Tiepolo fresco.

Today, the site frequently hosts free choral and orchestral concerts open to the public. Visitors to Venice can experience Vivaldi’s music in a distinctly local architectural setting likened to the environment in which his original music was composed and first performed.

Church of La Pieta
Sestiere Castello
(39) 041 5222171

–Shannon Kenny

Shannon Kenny is the founder of the Prontopia app allowing visitors to request on-demand assistance from a local for any help getting where they need to go by foot. For more information, visit www.prontopia.com