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Prosciutto, prosecco and the pandemic in Venice

Updated: May 4, 2022

In September 2020, after the first UK lockdown, rates of COVID were quite low and to my delight and excitement, a travel corridor opened up between the UK and Italy so I booked a very last-minute trip to Venice.

Quieter Venice, same glory

This was the first time I have been nervous and fearful about travel. My worries included contracting the virus, dare I say death, spreading it, ending up very sick in a foreign hospital or being quarantined on either side in some tiny, suffocating government-mandated hotel room for two weeks or more.

However, I began to hear stories from friends who had successful recent vacations in Italy and eventually my desire and passion for travel won over my negative thoughts. After a very scary and uninspiring couple of months in lockdown, my innate wanderlust was sparked and I was instilled with enough confidence to take a calculated travel risk.

What follows is a very honest read about my experience staying as local as possible in the midst of the pandemic in Venice.

Airports and Flying

This was my second trip to Venice and this time everything was arranged within four days of departure.

With return flights booked from Bristol to Marco Polo and a reservation made for a self-contained flat in Venice's local Cannaregio district, I set off, with my husband for what was to be undoubtedly a very different travel experience

Knickers and bedsheets for all!

Going through the airport in Bristol relatively free of other travellers. Upon check in, I had to have my UK visa double-checked for the first time ever before my boarding pass could be printed but I quickly got through check-in and security.

The flight took only two hours and although my row was full, the plane had a few empty seats. To my relief, everyone on board was respectfully wearing masks and following the rules.

Security on the Italian side was also a breeze. They did not ask for any of the extra documentation as suggested by various airline and government sites but they did ask to see my UK visa, again a first, to prove I did live in the UK as US residents were not being allowed in at the time.

We arrived late at night and took a regular road taxi to the Piazalle Roma to pick up the keys for our AirB&B from a lock box. We then set out to find the flat, and as per the usual in Venice, got very lost along the way.

Making Myself at Home

The first couple of days involved getting to know what would be "my neighbourhood" for the next two weeks. The flat in the Cannaregio district, overlooked a small canal and as per the norm, shared a clothesline strung over the water with the neighbours opposite.

We were also across the water from the old Jewish Ghetto with a view of one of its last remaining synagogues. From the windows we could watch actual gondolier lessons (not for tourists), this might be as local as it gets in Venice!

I began to get used to my location as well as its inhabitants. There was a university nearby so there were lot's of students around and at first I was taken aback as the COVID rules just didn't seem to exist. People were wearing masks generally on the street but once you settled in at a bar or restaurant - forget it!

It was a little frightening at first - then strangly relaxing and comforting and kind of normal. I was pleased to discover excellent cichetti, wine, food shops, markets, produce, bars and trattorias right on my doorstep.

Ripe tomato from the market as big as your face!

The day usually started at Caffe Doges in the neighbourhood with a cappucino and a pastry - normally eaten standing at the bar with local Venetians. Although there is great importance placed on food and dining in Italy, breakfast is not a big deal and I love it. Just a casual bite and a few sips of surperb coffee is all you need.

I also found myself inspired once again and waking early to go for quiet walks at sunrise. It was as if I had Venice to myself at times and even though I have NEVER taken travel for granted, I considered myself extra-lucky to be able to have this experience.

The Vaporetto, AKA Vaporona

There are two ways to get around in Venice and during normal times I am a huge fan of both. The first is slowly meandering on foot as you discover all of the quirky bridges, wander through piazzas, people watch and generally admire the beauty and culture of the place.

If you want to go a bit further out to visit the beach or some of the other neighbourhoods, then your best bet is to buy a ticket for Venice's water taxi system, the vaporetto. The vaporetto costs tourists 15 Euros for an all-you-can-use day ticket. For locals, it's much cheaper (And I actually understand and like this).

I had mixed feelings about the vaporetto this time around and it was all to do with COVID. We got lucky on some journeys where there were few people, but on some trips the boats were heavily packed with passengers and even though all were wearing masks (albeit some improperly - which I continue to dissappointedly deem the primary cause for my loss of faith in humankind), I felt fearful being in such close quarters with strangers. This is not something I enjoy at the best of times, mind you.

On a what I felt was a way-too-long journey on a hot, crammed boat that smelled of gasoline to the island of Burano, a man with no mask, pissed off his face and stinking of booze, made his opinion known to all as he repeatedly shouted "There is no virus! There is no virus!" I wanted OFF the boat.

There was one early morning, however, where the impossible happened. I ventured out on the vaporetto once again, this time bound for the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, and managed to score a much-coveted front row seat. As the boat passed under the Rialto bridge revealing a sun-drenched Grand Canal with its bevy of activity, I just THIS is an extraordinary way to start the day.

Eating - The good, the bad and the Spar

In Venice you can dine well and economically for breakfast and lunch but be prepared to get your wallet out at dinnertime. Here is my account of my latest Venice food experience, which this time involved both a budget and access to my own kitchen.

The trouble with many tourist destinations is that sometimes you do, despite being a well travelled person, end up with shitty, tasteless "touristy" food. Usually this happens because you wandered around too much looking at beautiful things, you've lost track of time and the hunger pang you felt an hour ago is growing and you are now descending into the DARK REALM OF HANGRY. Sometimes lack of planning ends up in your favour and you stumble upon a really good dining establishment that is untouched or local. On one particular occasion on this trip, too much morning meandering left me in the DARK REALM OF HANGRY and my pleasant excursion turned into a crowded apocaclypse of COVID-19, cigarette smoke, annoying students, over-priced coffee and stale pizza. It happens.

But there go before the grace of God is the local SPAR back in Canarregio. Hallelujah! For those of you who don't know, a Spar in the UK is pretty much a store where you can get booze, cigarettes and the odd food item - pretty much like a 7-11 in the US. These places serve their purposes but they are by no means purveyors of fine food. But here, located close to the flat and situated in a gorgeous restored theater, is a SPAR with a bounty to include seasonal fruit and vegtables, a full-service deli counter, freshly baked bread, all sorts of interesting pastas, local cheeses and a marvellously vast but moderately priced wine selection. That night, it was dinner at the flat consisting of mortedella flecked with almonds, good sour dough, a very ripe tomato, scamorza, prosciutto, olive oil and local white wine - all for a fraction of the price you would pay anywhere else in town.

The Spar

Of course I got to enjoy some seriously good eats during this trip. I am a particular proponent of cichetti bars where you can order what some say is the Italian "version of tapas." In my opinion this is the best lunch solution ever. There is nothing better than sitting down with a glass of wine and sampling various bites of delicious food whilst watching the world go by.

I am also a big fan of a good family-run trattoria which serves honest, fresh and well-cooked food. I have selected a few places below which I happily recommend.

Fondamenta de le Capuzine, 3016, 3012, Cannaregio | +39 349 757 5106

This is a local family-owned and operated restaurant on a very quiet street on the edge of Cannaregio. The family was in the kitchen, seating guests and serving the food. We arrived on the early side of Italian dining hours but the place soon filled up. We loved the fresh razor clams, tomato and bread soup with burrata and aubergine, spaghetti with red mullet capers anchovies and tomato, and the house wine.

Embarassingly, I did not bring enough cash to pay and the lovely hostess assured me that it was fine and to bring the rest in the morning - I brought it that night.

Fondamenta dei Ormesini, 2735, 30121 Venezia | +39 041 779 0398

Another great canal-side, non-pretentious, chilled out lunchtime cichetti spot where I enjoyed toasts topped with creamed baccala (salt cod), spicy crab, creamed zuchini with gorganzola and turkey with tomato mayo and truffles. Plus a wine and a beer for 14 euros.

Piazza delle Erbe, 39, 35122, Padua | +39 347 260 1885

This is a great people-watching spot with excellent little sandwiches and a good wine selection on the edge of Padua's amazing market. I sampled delicious palm-sized sandwiches of mortedella and truffle cream, steak tartare with american cheese mustard and tomato and porchetta with parmesan

Calle de l’Aseo, 1885, 30121 | +39 041 476 3749

Yes, I ate Mexican food in Italy! And it wasn't bad. In fact it was nice to have a break and this place, tucked back in one of the little alleyways in Cannaregio, delivered on taste, freshness and price. Very nice tacos and burritos in a fun setting.

Santa Croce, 2166, 30135 Venezia | +39 340 134 2140

This new enoteca and cucina serves beautiful, fresh plates and fabulous wines. My husband and I shared grilled sea bream, ripe tomatoes with basil, sea salt and olive oil, some oozy, milky burrata and a selection of breads. Friendly and knowledgable staff. In a cool and relaxing courtyard setting all for 42 euros.

Lunch at Stappo

Around Town and Further Afield

I consider myself lucky to have spent such a significant amount of time in this ancient city. Two weeks allowed me to really get to know the place and explore all of the neighbourhoods in depth. It was a unique experience to "live" in such a well-travelled place during a pandemic. It was gloriously quiet and most days were spent peacefully strolling around a city that is in normal times, very busy to the point of chaos.

I explored Arsenale which was Venice's greatest naval base at one time, and is now the base for the Venice flood defense project, and strolled through the Park Giardini and the quiet neighbourhoods surrounding.

I also finally got to visit the Peggy Guggenheim Museum (I missed this on my last trip due to poor planning) which contains works by Dali, Pollock, Miro and many other contemporary artists. I set foot on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore with its beautiful church that happens to include Tintoretto's painting of the Last Supper.

Rambling about, I successfully made my way to the still very busy St. Mark's and Rialto districts using the Venetian street signs (Google Maps proves useless in Venice), before finding the calmer neighbourhood of Santa Croce. I took more boats to check out Lido and its beaches as well as the island of Burano and its eye-popping coloured houses.

If you are looking for a day trip from Venice, I recommend taking the train to Padua. Here you will find a fantastic food market, miles of porticos, couture shopping and the Prato della Valle, a 90,000 meter square which is surrounded by a small canal and 78 statues sculpted by various artists. The trains run each hour, the journey takes 47 minutes each way and it costs 15 euros (round trip).

Padua's Prato della Valle

Towards the end of my time in Venice, the balmy September weather started to turn. The temperature dropped, the skies became dark and the canals were swollen and streets flooded (which was actually pretty cool to see). So, my husband and I began to pack our things for departure.

Most of all, I will remember the calm moments spent listening to the activity of an otherwise noisy city - the rabbi across the canal in the old synogogue singing into the night and sounding horns for Rosh Hashana, piano music coming from a very Van Gogh-esque looking house perched on a quiet canal on a starry evening and the constant gentle lapping of waves from the surrounding waters.

I'm also glad that I am now starting to pick up the Italian language. It's only a little but I can usually communicate the basics at restaurants and cafes, translate menus and pick out words from conversations. And this I hope to build on back in the UK but nothing beats being fully emersed.

Ciao e grazie, Venice. Arrivederci.


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