The Canossian Institute San Trovaso
Everyone should fly into Venice – with a window seat – at least once in their life. First come the outlying islands, so many of them dotted amongst the blue of the Adriatic. Suddenly the history of Venice makes sense, from when the swampy, malarial marshes offered shelter from the invading Goths, to her days of seafaring glory.
Then comes the city herself. Even from the heavens Venice is breathtakingly beautiful, especially when bathed by an autumn sun as storm clouds swell on the horizon. Every part of the city is on view, from the Camponile to the ridiculously enormous ocean-liner terminal. Even the wooden posts in the lagoon are clearly visible, marking channels, moorings, and all important routes through the swirl of shallows and sandbars and wrecks and lobster pots.
The next essential is catching a boat from the airport to the city. There is no better way to approach Venice, whether on the public vaporetto, or by a much faster private boat. Our vessel was all streamlined wood, the skipper as sleek and polished as his vessel. (I have yet to spot a female skipper in Venice.) Despite a complete lack of Italian, as soon as my husband began admiring the boat (being a long-time sailor himself) the skipper happily displayed the boat’s paces. As the rain finally poured down and visabilty vanished, the skipper raced along the narrow channel to the city, overtaking vaporettos and all other speedboats in a shower of spray.
To avoid the perennial congestion near San Marco’s, our driver dropped to a gentle cruise as he detoured through a network of tiny canals. Some were barely wide enough for the boat, the wash lapping against the buildings and doors in a moss-tipped waterline. Crumbling buildings complete with Juliette-balconies and pots filled with geraniums stood tranquilly along the canal, as they have for centuries. Seagulls called overhead, bridges arched gracefully over the water, and the chaos of travel and Italian airports floated away.
San Marco’s safely passed, next came Sante Marie della Salute. Built in thanksgiving for
the city being spared the plague of 1630, the imposing Baroque church stands guard to the entrance of the Grand Canal. Next came the Zatterre, the long quayside stretching along the southern side of the Dorsoduro, before our skipper turned into the labyrinth of waterways leading to the convent. We even passed the gondolier repair shop on the Rio San Travaso, one of the few remaining squeli in Venice.
Although the height of summer, the streets around the convent Canossian Institute San Trovaso were deserted. The entrance is on a pretty canal, devoid of tourists. An elderly nun opened the door, and we walked into tranquility. Originally a monastery, the building dates back to the 1600s. Our nun led us through an inner courtyard, where some other guests sat sipping wine and eating gelato. Although there was a lift, we chose to climb a gracious flight of marble stairs to our room.
Our room was clean, spacious and simple, with a balcony overlooking a courtyard of vines and roses. The room were quiet, and of a morning I woke to the sound of church-bells and seagulls.
This part of the Dorsoduro proved a perfect area to stay. Away from the more popular haunts, it is one of the few places in Venice where the locals seem to outnumber the tourists, yet the Grand Canal and vaporetto stops are a short stroll away. Like most convents, the Canossian Institute San Trovaso has no restaurant (breakfast is not included), but does have a small kitchen for anyone wanting to cook (a small supermarket is a few streets away). But why cook, when the surrounding streets are filled with cafés and restaurants – and gelateria?
We partook of breakfast in a nearby small café; an espresso and a sweet bun eaten while
standing at the bar. I knew it would be delicious, for the place was crowded with (always well-dressed) locals. From there it was but a short stroll to the Campo San Barnaba (of Indiana Jones fame), but so much of interest lay between. Tiny streets unable to run in a straight line, little bridges, antique book shops, houses, mask shops, (and all much cheaper than the shops around Sam Marco). Everywhere we walked the air was permeated with the smell of leather and perfume.
Running alongside the Rio di San Barbara is the Fondamenta Gherardini, reputedly the most beautiful street in Venice. It boasts a colourful barge selling fruit and vegetables, with an equally colourful fruit shop just opposite. It is moored next the Ponte dei Pugni. Two sets of footprints are set in the stone of the bridge, marking the starting position for fights between rival neighbourhood gangs which ended when the opponent was thrown in the canal. (Notoriously violent, theses fights were banned in the 18th century.)
The nearby Campo Santa Margherita is full of cafes and restaurants – and also tourists, yet the number of local dining here ensures the food is remarkably good. This is the perfect place to try some Venetian specialties: a bellini (prosecco with peach necter, orginating in Harry’s Bar), antipasto di frutti di mare (the seafood being that morning’s catch fresh from the Adriatic), sarde in saor (sardines served with an onion marinade and pinenuts). Or maybe your tastes extend to Seppie alle Veneziana (cuttlefish cooked in their own ink) or fegato alle Venezia (calf’s liver served on a bed of onions, accompanied by polenta). To finish it all off? Where else but Il Doge, said to serve the best gelato in Venice.
Another perfect place for dinner was just a few minutes walk from the convent: L’Osteria San Barnaba Ristorante. In a tiny street filled with places to dine, I chose it by the old wine bottles in a side window, all covered in layers of dust. The place was tiny, with 2 waiters and a maitre-d’, all working around an impossibly small kitchen, yet everything was so professional. Being a waiter is obvious considered a serious profession in Europe, not a part-time job to support oneself through university. I started with hand-made ravioli filled with sea-bass and scampi, followed by pasta with anchovies and sardines.
As we walked back to the convent it started to rain – but not enough to deter us from a gelato. After all, a day in Italy without a gelato is a day wasted. And tomorrow we would wake to the sound of gulls, and the call of church bells.
Canossian Institute San Trovaso
Fondamenta de le Romite
http://www.istitutocanossianosantrovaso.com/ (in Italian)
Vaporetto stops: Zattere, Ca’Rezzonica, Accademia – each with about a five minute walk (over cobblestones and bridges, so travel lightly!
Some suggestions for Venice: