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Giants, Spirits and the Holy Grail? Unravel the Mysteries and Legends of Venice

Unlock some of Venice's most mysterious legends. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gondoliers who can walk on water. Monster masks that can ward off the devil. Haunted palaces, meandering ghosts and magic stones. Venice is a city built on legends, lore and mysteries.

Every calle leads to a new mystery, and through every sottoportego is a new legend to explore. Below are some of the most intriguing tales.

Witches Wake-Up Call

In the labyrinthine streets near the Accademia Gallery is the quiet Calle della Toletta, where a so-called “witch’s clock” keeps the neighborhood ticking. Hanging off exterior piping (look for a yellow house) is an old-school alarm clock.

Legend says that a witch once lived here and dabbled in the business of black magic. She used the alarm to remind her customers their payments were due. When she died, the local residents hung an alarm clock on the building in jest.

Years later, it was removed, and the neighbors began to talk of strange happenings, odd sounds and random accidents. The clock was returned to its position, and the events stopped. Years later the clock was removed, and the neighbors again claimed unexplained events, so the clock was placed back permanently.

Death in Venice

Walk by the columns of San Marco and San Todaro — but not between them. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Council of Ten — a feared governing body — ruled the city from 1310 to 1797 with eyes everywhere thanks to its hundreds of anonymous informants who shared residents’ secrets and lies, condemning many to prison and death.

According to gossip, the narrow Calle della Morte was the Council of Ten’s “death alley,” an advantageous location where condemned people would be tricked into visiting only to be killed on site. Most likely, the street is named after a dead body found in that location.

What is fact is that the secretive Council of Ten were very forthcoming with public executions and designated the small area between the columns of San Marco and San Todaro at Piazza San Marco as a site for city-sanctioned deaths, and to this day, Venetians do not walk between the columns. Take a stroll here from the nearby Hotel Danieli, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice.

The Giant of Corte Bressana

Listen for the bells. (Photo: Alamy)

Venice is a chameleon of a city, changing its personality drastically from daytime charm to nighttime fright. According to Castello neighbors, if you find yourself meandering the streets surrounding the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo after midnight, you may meet a giant looking to buy his bones back.

Who’s the giant? According to legend, he’s one of the last bell ringers of St. Mark’s Bell Tower, clocking in at nearly seven feet tall. The Bell Ringer’s height made him such a local celebrity that the director of a scientific institute offered him a small fee to leave his skeleton to science upon death. The giant bell ringer agreed to the offer, rationalizing that he would outlive the institute director and the deal would be forgotten.

To the contrary, the bell ringer died shortly thereafter, and his skeleton went on display at the Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia. Castello residents say that every night, just before midnight, the skeleton walks out of the museum to Piazza San Marco, where he climbs to the top of the bell tower, rings the bells and then walks the streets toward his home on Corte Bressana (Castello) begging for money to buy back his skeleton.

The Holy Grail

Pretty much everyone agrees that the most coveted artifact for would-be Indiana Joneses is the Holy Grail, aka the chalice that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper.

According to legend, after Joseph of Arimathea collected Jesus’s blood in the cup, the Grail was removed from sight for centuries and eventually secreted away to Glastonbury by the Knights Templar.

Here’s where the Venetians have a bit of a deviation. At some point before the Grail’s journey to the British Isles, it was hidden in none other than the throne of the Apostle Peter (a marble seat), forcibly removed from Constantinople during the Crusades and brought to Venice with the rest of the plunder. Where’s the chair today? Inside the Basilica of San Pietro in Castello.

House of the Spirits

Are you a believer in dark magic? (Photo: Alamy)

A quick 6-minute vaporetto ride from The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice, at the edge of the Fondamenta Nuova in Cannaregio sits a beautiful 16th-century palace overlooking the water. For centuries, the Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo, better known as the Casin degli Spiriti (house of the spirits), has been notoriously recognized as a hub of dark magic; a preferred location for cults, orgies, pirates and smugglers; and as a gathering place for the restless spirits of Venice.

One ghost in particular can’t seem to leave — that of Pietro Luzzo, a painter who shot himself in the palace grounds, despairing of unrequited love. The day after he died, his tormented ghost appeared at one of the palace’s windows, prompting the owner to cover it with bricks.

Luzzo appeared at another window and then another, until the owner walled in all of the palace’s windows. Supposedly, Luzzo continues to haunt the palace, returning on dark evenings, screaming throughout the palace.

This article first appeared in Marriott Traveler, April 2019.

The 6 Sestieri: An Insider’s Guide to Venice’s Distinct Neighborhoods

Explore Dorsoduro's church of Santa Maria Della Salute. (Photo: Getty Images)

Thanks to its labyrinthine streets and impossible canals, Venice is one of the world’s easiest cities in which to get lost. But with a bit of research, it is also the easiest town to understand. From a bird’s-eye view, Venice is made up of two central islands that look like intertwined hands.

Neighborhoods, called sestieri, subdivide the islands into six characteristic areas, which range from busy marketplaces to quiet communities. Here’s a look at each of these distinct sestieri.

Dorsoduro

Traverse the wooden Accademia Bridge to arrive in Dorsoduro, known for its charming artsy vibe thanks to a mix of families and university students. Its beautiful palazzi and campi (squares) are picture-perfect, and the area is peppered with bars, galleries and restaurants.

The southern neighborhood spans from Punta della Dogana, the old customs building at the very eastern tip of the island, to the Port Authority in the most southwestern edge and includes Giudecca, the long residential island immediately to its south.

Sites not to miss: Gallerie dell’AccademiaPeggy Guggenheim CollectionIl Redentore, Campo Santa Margherita, Chiesa Le ZitellePunta della DoganaSanta Maria della Salute.

Castello

Campo Santa Maria Formosa. (Photo: Getty Images)


Named for a former fortified palazzo, Castello is the largest of the six sestieri and the greenest. Its western border lines up with the edges of San Marco and Cannaregio, so expect a bustle of tourists and souvenir shops.

Head east down the calle and along canals; the farther afield you go, you’ll find Castello becomes a charming microcosm where the tourist flow trickles down to a near standstill.

Eventually, the eastern half of Castello becomes a large public garden and shipyard — the Biennale Giardini and Arsenale — home of the annual La Biennale festival. The cemetery island San Michele is also part of Castello.

Sites not to miss: Basilica of Santi Giovanni e PaoloChurch of San Zaccaria, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Complesso dell’Ospedaletto

San Marco

St. Mark’s Square. (Photo: Getty Images)

Named for the city’s patron saint, San Marco is the most visited of all Venetian sestieri. The sestiere’s heart is Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), the number-one destination for all visitors to Venice. Here you’ll find tourists taking photos of the inimitable Basilica San Marco or enjoying a spritz at the square’s historic cafés.

The San Marco neighborhood spans from the Rialto Bridge to St. Mark’s Square, so once you’ve visited the piazza, head deeper into the neighborhood. Wander past small-scale piazzas and peek into lavish museums, and keep an eye out for waterfront photo ops across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore island, also part of sestiere San Marco.

Sites not to miss: Basilica di San MarcoDoge’s PalaceTeatro La Fenice, Campo Santo Stefano, Palazzo GrassiScala Contarini del BovoloMuseo CorrerCaffe Florian

San Polo

To many, this tiny sestiere is the heart of Venetian life. One of the oldest neighborhoods in Venice, San Polo is a dynamic neighborhood filled with families, shops and students who all seem to converge on Campo San Polo, the second-largest square in Venice.

San Polo is also a thoroughfare for tourists walking toward San Marco after visiting the Rialto market, the historic and picturesque fish market.

Sites not to miss: San Giacomo di RialtoSanta Maria Gloriosa dei FrariGrande Scuola San Rocco, Campo San Polo.

Cannaregio

The Rialto Bridge. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cannaregio is the gateway to Venetian life. Starting from the steps of the Venezia Santa Lucia train station and extending eastward on the famed Strada Nuova to the Rialto Bridge, Cannaregio is a vivacious sestiere of boutiques, restaurants, squares and palaces.

The wide Strada Nuova is a busy shopping promenade, while its side alleys lead to niche communities like the Jewish Ghetto, which dates back to the city’s original 4th-century Jewish settlements. Fondamenta Nuova, the northern edge of Cannaregio, connects to the island of Burano via vaporetto (boat).

Sites not to miss: Ca’ d’OroMuseo EbraicoChurch of Santa Maria dei MiracoliChurch of Madonna dell’Orto and the Oratorio dei Crociferi

Santa Croce

This sestiere is said to have a dual personality. The southwestern area of Santa Croce is a transport center, with Piazzale Roma as a hub for buses and taxis. Its northeastern area is more typical of Venice, filled with canals and alleys lined with historic palaces. Though tiny, Santa Croce packs a cultural punch with lavish architecture ranging from Byzantine to contemporary.

Sites not to miss: Fontego dei TurchiSan Giacomo dall’OrioSan Zan DegolaPonte della Costituzione (Constitution bridge) and Palazzo Mocenigo


This article is part of a series which appears
Venice travel for Marriott Bonvoy Traveler.

Andiamo! A Local’s Guide to Island Hopping in Venice

This article first appeared in Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, March 2019.

The Island of San Giorgio. Photo: Getty Images

With 118 islands making up the Venetian archipelago, there is far more to see in Venice than St. Mark’s Square. Whether an afternoon or a weekend affair, island hopping is the best way to get to know Venice and its 1,500-year-old culture. Here’s a guide to some of Venice’s most must-see islands.

San Giorgio Maggiore

The emblematic San Giorgio Maggiore is one of those islands that is always photographed but rarely visited. Dominated by the San Giorgio Maggiore church, a multilevel marble landmark designed by Renaissance phenom Andrea Palladio, San Giorgio Maggiore seems to float impossibly in the middle of the Venetian lagoon.

Today, exhibition spaces Le Stanze del Vetro, a former boarding school, and the Fondazione Giorgio Cini showcase contemporary arts projects, while the rest of the island remains green — impeccably pedicured gardens hiding mazes and more.

Discover the art of glass blowing. (Photo: Getty Images)

Murano

For centuries the tiny island of Murano produced the world’s most beautiful glass pieces behind closed doors. Its reputation seeped out of the lagoon, and now Murano is the most popular of the Venetian islands.

Master glass artisans open studio doors to give tourists a select glimpse into their secretive workshops with organized, behind-the-scenes experiences at historic fornace (furnaces) like Seguso. The key to best experiencing Murano is to get past the souvenir shops and explore deeper into the island. Visit the Museo del Vetro to learn Murano’s glassmaking history.

Catch the colors of Burano. (Photo: Getty Images)

Burano

Of all the Venetian islands, Burano is the one most remembered. Here visitors find a mini version of Venice, with a rainbow of brightly colored houses lining picture-perfect canals.

Burano, like most of the outlying islands, is a microcosm of locals who have grown up with one another for generations and for generations have been making its famous lace products by hand. The Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum) chronicles Burano’s more than eight centuries honing lace craftsmanship.

Mazzorbo

Linked to Burano by the Ponte Longo, a wooden bridge, Mazzorbo is a quiet island of less than 400 inhabitants and was once an important political and commercial scene in medieval Venice.

Mazzorbo’s draw today is that in the midst of Venice’s tourist-laden streets, it remains untouched and out of the way of clutter and kitsch. Charming residential areas line up with stretches of cultivated land, including vineyards such as Venissa, a walled-in vineyard reviving heritage dorona di Venezia grapes. The 13th-century Chiesa di Santa Caterina, the island’s last remaining church, has a bell tower with one of Europe’s oldest bells and is also worth a visit.

San Michele

Within a gondola ride from the fondamenta nuova, Venice’s northern waterfront, you’ll find the mysterious San Michele. Beautifully landscaped with tall cypress trees and surrounded by a pedicured redbrick wall, San Michele has served as the city’s official cemetery ever since a Napoleonic decree banished burials from Venice churchyards.

Serene and tranquil, San Michele is the final resting place for Venetians and famed outsiders, including American poet Ezra Pound, Italian painter Emilio Vedova and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Lido di Venezia

Everybody loves Lido, the large Venetian island best known as the home of the Venice Film Festival, the august cinema fest where the world’s best directors and actors celebrate their films.

What most people don’t know is that all year round, Lido remains a charming community of families. The seven-mile-long Lido is also a jewel box of art nouveau and art deco architecture — including villas, hotels and ornamental gardens.

In the warm months, Venetians from all over the islands head to Lido’s stabilimenti balneari, beautifully coiffed and colorful waterside establishments on the island’s six miles of uninterrupted beach.

Torcello

Located on the northern edge of the lagoon, Torcello is one of the most remote islands in the Venetian archipelago and the oldest that has been continually populated — in fact, its origin story predates Venice.

Once a busy settlement, today Torcello is sparsely populated. What remains from its resplendent past are a few structures, including the seventh-century Cathedral of Santa Maria dell’Assunta with its beautifully preserved Byzantine mosaics and a head-spinning bell tower that overlooks Burano. It’s definitely the place to clear one’s head.

Find your way to remote Torcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

How to visit the islands

The only way to travel the islands is by water. A network of vaporetti (waterbuses) zigzag the Venetian Lagoon, connecting the islandsThe best option is the ACTV tickets offering unlimited travel within a 24-hour period at 20 euro. Less economical and far more efficient is a motoscafo, a sleek, wood-paneled water taxi, which can privately arranged through Consorzio Motoscafi.

Gondolas, Markets, Campi and More: Don’t Miss the Top 10 Things to Do in Venice

Visiting Piazza San Marco is a must. (Photo: Getty Images)

Visiting Piazza San Marco is a must. (Photo: Getty Images)

This article first appeared in Bonvoy, March 2019.

Venice is magic: a floating city caught up in the waves of modernity yet resisting the undertow of about-face change; a mind-bending, misleading labyrinth that always brings you to exactly where you didn’t know you wanted to be; and an interactive time capsule that manages to place you in 21st-century Italy and the 15th-century Venetian Republic at the exact same time.

It is a beautiful contradiction and a rebellious landscape of countless canals, narrow calle (streets), romantic palaces and wide-open campi (squares) where nothing is ever what it first appears. Since it’s just as easy to fall in love with “La Serenissima” as it is to get lost, here are our top 10 things to do and see in Venice.

Stand in Piazza San Marco and Climb the Campanile

St. Mark’s Square is Venice’s iconic landmark. It’s a vast piazza lined on three sides with 15th-century palaces and the beautiful Italo-Byzantine St. Mark’s Basilica on the fourth, and just standing in the middle of the square will give you an idea of the incredible riches and power of the former Venetian Republic’s heyday.

But as any Venetian knows, viewing the city is really all about perspective. It’s not about how you stand, but where you stand.

Climb the Campanile, the 320-foot free-standing bell tower in the Piazza’s southeastern corner, possibly the city’s best perch for a bird’s-eye view of the square and surrounding islands. For a little less effort, head to the Basilica’s balcony for a center stage view into the piazza.

Pro tip: Avoid on-the-hour visits or those bell tolls will drive you out of your mind.

Behind the Scene and Screams of the Doge’s Palace

Just behind the Campania, and facing the open waters of the Venetian Lagoon, is the Palazzo Ducale, the residence of the Doge, the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice.

For 400 years, the Doge’s Palace was the seat of Venetian government, as well as command center for all trade and commerce across the Mediterranean waters.

The palace’s Gothic exterior hides a labyrinth of rooms, from residence halls and courts to prisons and torture chambers. And this is where Casanova allegedly was held until his victorious escape.

Pro tip: Skip the queue and sign up for a private tour of the Secrets of the Doge’s Palace.

Get Lost at Libreria Acqua Alta

Photo: Getty Images

Considered one of, if not the, prettiest bookstores in the world, the Libreria Acqua Alta (Bookstore of High Water) is a whimsical secondhand bookshop tucked away in a back alley of Castello sestiere(district), which you can enter on foot or, more interestingly, by boat.

Its number of overstuffed rooms are stacked wall to wall with books, magazines, maps and other ephemera placed in shelves, bathtubs, bins and even a gondola.

Pro tip: You can wind your way through the Castello sestiere to get there or sneak in the back entrance — reachable by gondola — only if you take a water taxi.

Break Away to Burano

Photo: Getty Images

Venice is an archipelago of 118 small islands, each with its own distinct personality. If you want to avoid the throngs of tourists visiting Murano (known for its glass blowing), you’ll find that just a 40-minute water bus ride from San Marco is the city’s most colorful isle, Burano, which is known for its vibrantly hued houses — a patchwork of colors that brightens up any day and Instagram feed — as well its centuries-old traditional lace work.

Pro tip: Make like a local and head to a Burano bakery and ask for a bussolà, a donut-shaped cookie typically flavored with vanilla, rum or lemon.

Scale the Spiral Scala Contarini del Bovolo

Venice’s secrets are usually hidden in plain sight; you just have to know how to find them. Head to Palazzo Contarini, and along the way meander the side streets of Rialto, near Campo Manin. You’ll eventually arrive at an ornate palace showcasing Renaissance, Gothic and Byzantine styles, with an external tower attached to the facade, vaguely reminiscent of Pisa’s famous tower.

The elaborate arcaded tower is actually an open-air spiral staircase, or bovolo (Venetian dialect for “snail”), and after walking up the 80 steps to a domed lookout, you’ll have a private view of the rooftops of Venice.

Pro tip: Bring a camera; the bovolo is decidedly Insta-worthy.

Binge at a Bacaro

Venetians have fine-tuned snacking to an art form. Across the city are tiny bacari, typically rustic wine bars where, for a few euros, you can enjoy a glass of local wine with a taste of the owner’s cicchetti(delectable, homemade snacks) while standing at the bar.

Essentially, it’s Venice’s clever and very delicious version of wine tasting on the go. The idea is to enjoy a few glasses and taste a few snacks while catching up with friends and then move on to the next.

Pro tip: Save your appetite for Cantinone Gìa Schiavi, an 80-year-old outpost in the university-area Dorsoduro noted for incredibly creative crostini and cicchetti.

Catch up with Contemporary Art

Every two years, Venice becomes the global center of contemporary art with La Biennale di Venezia, a six-month-long art fair that takes over the Biennale Gardens and Arsenale shipyard and spills across the island with arty events.

Pro tip: Bring a great pair of shoes and plan to dedicate at least two days to art hopping.

Gondola Ride at Night

Photo: Getty Images

There is nothing quite like exploring Venice by water, but with daytime traffic from tourists and local deliveries, the very best time to catch a true sense of the floating city is in the evening.

Venice’s gondoliers are ubiquitous, standing at the sides of canals in their striped blue (or red) shirts, black pants and white sneakers. It’s easy to catch off-duty gondoliers looking for their next ride. Before you go, check out Gondola Venezia, which details prix fixe daytime and evening rates; gondolas can accommodate up to six people.

Pro tip: Avoid the San Marco area and look for your gondolier at Ca’Sagredo (sestiere: Cannareggio) or Campo Dei Frari (sestiere: San Polo).

Make It a Market Morning at Rialto

The Rialto market in San Polo sestiere is one of Italy’s most historic and unforgettable fish markets. Built in 1907, the neo-Gothic loggia has been shacked up with vendors selling their wares for more than a century.

Of course, time doesn’t stand still, and though Rialto remains a vibrant fish market scene, bars, restaurants and boutiques have taken residence.

Pro tip: Take a seat at the market’s canal-facing bars and enjoy an afternoon spritz.

School Yourself on Tintoretto

You can thank a 15th-century confraternity — a group of religious laymen — for funding the creation of a literal wealth of Venetian art. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, as this well-funded brotherhood is still known, commissioned La Serenissima’s favorite painter, Tintoretto, to create a masterpiece of Old Testament and New Testament scenes within their headquarters. And he did.

After 27 years in residence, Tintoretto left the buildings of the Grande Scuola in San Polo almost entirely adorned in his inimitable, monumental paintings.

Pro tip: Tintoretto also decorated the adjacent church, San Rocco.

Window Seat: Quadri in Venice

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Venice in its inkiest hours is my favorite time to walk through La Serenissima, and perhaps the only time to peruse St. Mark’s Square. The arcades are lit with a warm glow, reflecting in the basalt pavement and setting the square on fire. Foot traffic is different. It’s not rushed, it’s not crowded. People quietly cross the piazzas to get from here to there. Stragglers are trying to snap a Basilica night shot, while others are hiding behind columns to catch some bars of Brahms or Mozart from the small ensemble orchestras at Quadri and Florians. A St. Mark’s evening is decadent, romantic and slightly heartbreaking, like a fading memory that won’t disappear.

Me? Time and time over, I chose to stay. St. Mark’s is an old friend, and so are its cafes. The square comes at a premium, even with knowing a few secrets on how to enjoy an aperitif at the most expensive bars in Italy. And I am willing to pay for the experience if it is unforgettable. Quadri is more than just one of the epic cafes in the square with a live orchestra and front row seats to Basilica San Marco. It is a gastro-cultural experience. In 2011, the Alajmo brothers took over the more than 200-year-old property, with the intent of creating the very best pastry and coffee bar, along with opening up the first floor to an experiment restaurant. If you know the Alajmo brothers you know that they are full immersion- they idealize, create and personally execute every detail from concept, mentality, and dishes to vibe and design down to the glasses in your hand. At the beginning of 2018, the Alajmos brought in expert conservation artists to restore the Grand Caffe Quadri, original hub to writers and artists of the Grand Tour, and asked their friend and constant collaborator Philippe Starck to come back to the Michelin-starred Ristorante Quadri for a design upgrade.

Flavour Hunter in Condè Traveller, September 2018

This grand cafè opened in 1775 on St. Mark’s Square and over the years gained a list of regulars than included Lord Byron, Alexandre Dumas and Marcel Proust. But the romantic veneer of the square diminished amid the relentless commercialism that swept over venice at the end of the 20th century (along with pigeon photographers and gondolier hats), and Quadri was no longer the place to be seen.  Then, in 2011, chef Massimiliano Alajmo and his brother Raffaele arrived, a duo with three Michelin starts at Le Calandre in Padua, and it wasn’t long before Quadri earnt one of its own.  The Max and Raf menus highlight each of the brothers’ personalties; Max is the innovative one, Raf the more traditional. But the tasting menu- 16 courses for two- is a combination of oth, with dishes such as cappuccino di laguna, a mix of lagoon seafood and moeche, a soft-shell crab only found in the Venetian islands served with green fronds of samphire-like agretti. 

Yet it is only this year that the restaurant’s 250-year-old interior caught up with the kitchen’s contemporary attitude.  Philippe Starck, the man responsible for projects as diverse as the Mama Shelter hotels, Steve Job’s yacht and the interiors for a new space station, set to launch in 2020, has uncovered the palace’s original stuccowork from beneath layer upon layer of paint. Old-fashioned wall coverings have been replaces with earthy tones modelled on a 16th-century silk brocade - but look closely as there are rockets and satellites as well as portraits of Massimiliano and Raffaele within the fabric.  And on shelves above the doors, whimsical taxidermy rabbits and foxes are ready to take flight, a nod to the winged lion that guards the city.  Reserve a table by the window on the first floor for a front-row view over the square, high above the crowds - because this is once again the most-coveted spot in Venice.a

Peep the Alajmo brothers’ portraits in the brocade. Photo credit: Quadri.

Quattro Atti. Photo credit: Quadri.

Have I eaten at Quadri? Twice over the past two years at Ristorante Quadri and both times (a lunch and a dinner), I have not only relished the view, but loved the dishes. Massimiliano is a genius, fact. He is clever, he is instinctive, he is innovative. His dishes are heart-warming, reminiscent of past lives and history. And most of all they are unexpected. But let’s be serious- I love Quadri for its location, especially the window seat in the evening where I have the glowing piazza below me.

Mornings, I am at Grand Caffe Quadrino as much as I can. I frame myself below the beautifully restored walls and mirror next to the elderly German man who sits in the corner every morning. On a brisk and clear morning, I will sit outside, but usually before the orchestra starts so that I can read. Tip: For the experience with less of a price tag, you can also get stand up service at the bar.

Me enjoying Quadrino, the ground floor Grande Caffe Quadri.

How to Do the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2018

Another Generosity at the Nordic Pavilion. Photo by Erica Firpo

My article on the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture appeared in Condè Nast Traveler, May 2018.

Our guide to the very best of the seven-month architecture festival taking over Venice this year.

The Biennale Architettura 2018, or Venice Architecture Biennale, is an architect’s dream—but it’s also a design adventure for visitors, a temporary theme park for interactive and experimental works. Running through November 25, the event turns the entire Venetian archipelago into a playground of events, plus permanent and semi-permanent pavilions and projects that transform historic palazziand parks into design destinations. Here’s our guide to making sense of it all.

The Basics

The event centers around the Giardini, or the Biennale Gardens, a park where you’ll find the original national pavilions, a potluck of architecture from the early 1910s to today that includes projects from Australia, Great Britain, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

The Central Pavilion, also at the Gardens, is the main stage for this edition of the Biennale, which is based around the theme of Free Space. Biennale curators Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Dublin’s Grafton Architects chose the theme, but what exactly does it mean? “It’s the paradigm of architecture,” says McNamara of the concept. "It's a question about the absence and presence of architecture."

The Biennale Gardens. Photo by Erica Firpo.

In all, there are 63 national pavilions—and more than 70 architects—at the Biennale that explore the concept, but these six are among the most interesting:

  • Another Generosity, at the Nordic Pavilion (which reps Finland, Norway, and Sweden), you’ll find large membrane-like balloons, filled with water and air, that deflate and inflate as viewers walk through the space, a meditation on the relationship between nature and the built environment.
  • Dimension of Citizenship, at the U.S. Pavilion, consists of installations, films, and talks that explore "spatial understandings of citizenship," organizers say, at a time when "questions of belonging, of who should be included and how, are posed with every athlete taking a knee, every #metoo, every presidential tweet, and every protest sign or fist raised."
  • Robabecciah: The Informal City, at the Egypt Pavilion, is a almost sculptural installation of “old junk,” or robabecciah, showcasing Egypt’s historic “spontaneous” markets.
  • UNES-CO, at the Czech/Slovak Pavilion, a futuristic welcome center where the backdrop is a screen showing a live feed of the Czech city of Český Krumlov, which has seen the population in its historic center drop dramatically in part because of an influx of tourists in recent years. The feed shows 15 couples and families who are being paid to live in the city full time.
  • Isola/Island, at the U.K. Pavilion, focuses on themes of isolation—both environmental and deliberately man-made—as well as questions of identity, both top of mind in post-Brexit Europe.
  • Svizzera240 House Tour, at the Swiss Pavilion, is a bit of a voyeuristic spin on architecture shows: As exhibitors put it: “What is built within the Swiss Pavilion is not a 'house' but a house tour: interior scenes are constructed at a range of different scales and spliced together, creating a labyrinthine sequence of interior perspectives.”

Meanwhile, the Arsenale, Venice’s former shipyard, hosts the Corderie, a nearly 400-meter corridor that expands the Free Space exhibition; the neighboring warehouses host newer pavilions, including those of China, Italy, and Kosovo.

One of the 10 chapels on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, part of the Vatican's entry for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018.Photo by Lena Klimkeit/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

More Must Sees

  • Woodland Chapels, the Vatican’s first ever entry in the Architecture Biennale, is both pilgrimage and installation. To visit, take a Line 2 vaporetto to the beautiful island of San Giorgio, where you’ll find 10 chapels designed by a dozen architects including Andrew Berman, Sir Norman Foster, Carla Juaçaba, and Eduardo Souto de Moura.
  • Environmental Justice as a Civil Right, at the Antigua & Barbuda Pavilion, the nation’s first entry to the Biennale, is set in the 15th-century Don Orione Artigianelli monastery on Dorsoduro. The pavilion explores sustainability, including the use of local materials and the importance of public parks—and the redevelopment of Barbuda, after the massive destruction caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
  • 1948: The Biennale of Peggy Guggenheim, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, recalls the the 1948 Biennale. Greece pulled out, and Peggy stepped in with a Carlo Scarpa–designed exhibit of 136 works; this year, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection celebrates its 70th anniversary by partially recreating the exhibition and bringing together works—from the likes of Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart and Jackson Pollock—which have not been seen in Venice in decades.
  • John Ruskin: The Stones of Venice, at the Doge’s Apartment in the Doge’s Palace, brings to life Ruskin’s three-volume tome on Venetian art and architecture through paintings, including Ruskin’s own watercolors.
  • Machines à Penser, at Fondazione Prada, in the ornate Ca’ Corner alla Regina, explores the ideas of exile and escape, with contemporary pieces inspired by (or reacting to) the work of the philosophers Adorno, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.

Where to Refuel

In the morning, hit Gran Caffe Quadri, the centuries-old coffee shop in St. Mark’s Square, that’s a favorite of local resident (and architecture superstar) Philippe Starck: “It’s a powerful concentration of mystery, beauty, oddity, and poetry,” he says of the famed coffeehouse. (In the evening, you can do dinner upstairs at Ristorante Quadri, the lavish and whimsical Michelin-star restaurant that he designed.)

Book ahead for lunch, since the Biennale crowds often fill Corte Sconta, a tiny Venetian trattoria with private garden, and Local, a former electrical shop gutted and transformed into a minimalist locavore restaurant. AMO, the atrium restaurant at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi, is another Starck-designed choice near the Rialto Bridge.

Navigating the show

The best plan is to split your visit over two days. Start at the Giardini, visiting the central pavilion before branching off to the other country-specific entries; focus your second day on the remaining pavilions and the Arsenale. If you’ve got more time, spend it on off-site pavilions like the Vatican’s or seeing the contemporaneous shows around town.

The Biennale runs through November 25, and locations are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are €25 ($29) and grant a single admission to each of exhibition venues. You can buy tickets ahead of time online.

Photo credit Erica Firpo.

Where to stay

The Aman Venice, set in two restored centuries-old palazzi, feels like its own architectural show. The Palazzo Venart Luxury Hotel is a sleeper favorite of Condé Nast Traveler editors that was on the Hot List in 2017. On the island of Giudecca, and a short (free) ferry ride from St. Mark’s Square, the Belmond Hotel Cipriani is perfect if you prefer quiet—and it has what’s got to be the biggest swimming pool in Venice.

For a virtual tour of the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture, please take a look at my Instagram story that follows my adventures at the Biennale.

Did You See the Dramatic Hands Trying to Save Venice from Drowning?

This article first appeared in Fathom, February 2018.

The hands that shot out of the sea and were seen around the world. Photo courtesy of Halcyon Gallery.

Venice is a floating city of a million unforgettable moments. And in 2017, the most unforgettable was Support, a Venice Biennale sculpture by Lorenzo Quinn depicting a pair of colossal hands rising out of the Grand Canal, seeming to hold up the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel. If you happened to be in Venice this year, you know what I’m talking about. (If you're desperate to see it before it goes, the show closes on February 28. Hop the 1 or 2 vaporetto water bus from Santa Lucia train station and get off at the Ca d’Oro stop.)

The stark white hands look like a submerged Atlas reaching out to support (or grasp) the closest palazzo. Quinn created Support as a site-specific piece that was both a figurative and a physical support to Venice. The idea was (and still is) to open the doors to a discussion on climate change, global warming, and cultural heritage. Did it work? Yes, and then some. Magical, absurd, funny, poignant: No matter what your mood, the hands drew you in and brought out emotion.

The first time I saw Support, I laughed. A good, happy, hearty laugh. It was a clear, sunny day, and Venice was giving me everything — and I felt like those hands were giving me the world. I came back in the late afternoon and watched the sun set on the canal in a rainbow fire while those white hands practically prayed in gratitude to the raw siena color of the palazzo. 

Another time, I saw the sculpture on a raining morning on the way to Piazza San Marco. I was elbowed into an uncomfortable corner of the vaporetto with what felt like every tourist Venice has ever seen. The hands seemed to desperately claw at Ca’ Sagredo’s walls. The last time I saw it was at twilight, when those fathomless colors of Venice were fading and the hands seemed to be gently cradling the side of the palazzo, protecting it, holding it, cherishing it. Magical. Powerful. Venice.

Find It

Support will be on display until February 28, 2018. It is best visible from the 1 or 2 line of the vaporetto water bus at the Ca d'Oro stop. 

Learn more: Lorenzo Quinn's website.

Unbelievable: Damien Hirst in Venice {Review}

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A shipwreck.  A disaster.  A failure - that’s what the art world said about Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable , his mega-exhibition at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi/Punta della Dogana double header.    Lighten up, this is Damien Hirst, YBA poster boy and mug shot.  And the Wreck is the kind of show where that only asks for a bit of humor as you enjoy the lavish fantasy and Palazzo Grassi’s gorgeous exhibition spaces.

A legendary exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of The Unbelievable is a visual story about the discovery of an ancient shipwreck and its unfathomable cargo, a collection of monumental bronze and marble statues and gold coins and ingot, from Cif Amotan II, slave-turned-freedman.  It’s big, it’s extravagant, it’s over the top.  And it’s fun.  Best of all, it’s all Hirst, who bankrolled the research, discovery and subacquatic archaeological excavation of the 100 works of art which, um, he created. Yeah, you read correctly.  Hirst is behind all of it: from the production of incredible bronzes (seemingly distressed from centuries underwater) and the “contemporary reproductions” to the discovery backstory, images/videos and research collaboration with University of Southampton’s Center for Maritime Studies.  Kind of like having a dinner party with Steve Zissou, Jacques Cousteau, Indiana Jones and Marcel Duchamp, and Baron Munchaussen’s cooking.  In other words, eckless abandon.

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana through Sunday, December 3.  Coming soon-  Darius Arya’s 360 video, Archaeologist Examines the Unbelievable.

And even more unbelievable: Venice is just a day trip from Rome.  For real.

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Day Trip: Venice

"Where should I go for a day trip out of Rome?" That's probably the most popular question question people ask me when planning a trip to Italy.  Tivoli, Napoli, Cività di Bagnoreggio, Bomarzo, Caserta, Spoleto, Siena... so many sites, towns and cities up my sleeve and all within reasonable distance.  But here's one I never, until now, bothered to suggest:  Venice.

Venice? Impossible, you say.   Not at all. . .

Door to door Roma Termini- Venezia San Lucia is a 3 hour 45 minute train on the Alta Velocità (high speed) trains.  Double down for the return and you're only 7.5 hours seated where you can contemplate time travel by catching up on most of the entire first season of Dark.  To make the most of a Venice day trip, you're going to have to get up early.  The best Rome departure is on the Italo 6.15am train*, arriving in Venice at 10am with a return train at 7:00pm- that gives you nine full hours to do whatever you want in La Serenissima.  And to make the day trip evening sweeter, Italo Treno offers day return fare at great prices, the kind of incentive if you are competitive and thrifty like me.  

Whether meandering or must-see, if you're really going to day trip to Venice, have a plan.  Or better yet, download a Google map for an idea of where you want to go and how you will need to get there- your choices are walking, water bus (see below) and water taxi.  If you want to be clever, customize a My Maps by dropping pins on cultural and food sites and download it onto your phone.  It's going to be a long day, so I suggest powering up on protein and excitement or coffee, and wear your most comfortable (and waterproof) walking shoes.    

Most importantly, know where you're going to eat.  For the daytripper, my only suggestion (and latest mantra) is get thee to a few baccari..  Baccari are those  no-frills bars overflowing with people queued up for cicchetti, whimsical appetizers like creamed cod, pickled onions or braised artichokes on a bread, usually accompanied by a glass of wine. Service is quick, once you are front and center at the counter, and the cod (bacalà mantecato) is an excellent protein solution to fuel you through Venice.  My go-tos are Da Fiore (San Marco/San Stefano), Cantine del Vino già Schiavi (Dorsoduro) and Osteria da Carla (San Marco).

And the best tip? Keep spare euro in your pocket for cicchetti and also the vaporetto, Venice's water bus public transport system.  The 1-Day fare costs 20 euro, while a single 75-minute fare is 7.50 euro (and can be bought on board). Again, cash is king and makes everything go faster.

Is a day trip to ambitious and frivolous? Yes, just like Venice and at times, just like me.

*Daytripping from Florence is even easier: just 2.05 hours by train, and you don't have to get up in the dark. Departure: 7.54 am.

La Biennale is the perfect excuse to visit Venice for the day. A heptathlon of cultural events, the Biennale's big draws are art, architecture and cinema. Every odd numbered year, the islands are inundated with contemporary art  for the international art festival, a six-month art fest from  May through November.  Architecture and design lovers head to Venice in even number years as the Biennale Gardens and Arsenale transform into the very cutting edge for the Architecture Biennale May through November.  At the end of every August, Venice's Lido island illuminates with a galaxy of silver screen stars at the annual Film Festival, an eleven-day affair which is both the both the worst and best time to book a reservation at a five star hotel.

My latest day trip to Venice was an intense attempt to visit all 120 artists and 86 country participants in the *57th International Art Exhibition - Viva Arte Viva in less than 8 hours. My take? Christine Macel's curation for Viva Arte Viva was more introspective, and had more humor and human interaction than biennales past.  The Italia Pavilion was finally something to talk about and at times, amazing like a Neil Gaiman story, whereas Russia was a disappointment. The USA Pavilion was somewhere in between, but that was artist Mark Bradford's point.  The Biennale's roster of artists was solid-  enough new entries to make you feel like the art world's wheels are moving more aggressively.

PHOTOS FROM THE 57th INTERNATIONAL ART EXHIBITION

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A Fashionable Packing List for the Venice Biennale

This article originally appeared in Fathom on April 28, 2017.

Highlights from the most recent Biennale. Photo by Erica Firpo.

Every other spring, the contemporary art world flocks to Italy to celebrate art, dance, architecture, cinema, and theater at the Venice Biennale. Fathom contributing editor and Biennale regular Erica Firpo gives us a peek at what she's packing in her suitcase.

VENICE – Flashback to the 1999 Venice Biennale, a time where I spent many months covered in red powder. Anne Hamilton, an artist representing at the U.S. Pavilion, made a crimson snowfall cascade down the walls for her installation Myein, and it was my job, as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection assistant, to make sure the powder and everything else flowed smoothly. There was nothing glamorous about the long hours, often spent alone, in a bone-chillingly cold pavilion, occasionally greeting guests and explaining the installation — but the full immersion into contemporary art was unforgettable, and every 24 months, I return to the Biennale for that very same pleasure, though now as a journalist covering the art.

Over the decades, the press preview for the exhibition has evolved from a quiet industry event for artists, gallerists, and journalists to 72 solid hours of art and hobnobbing with the Pantheon of Glitterati — art, fashion, literature, and film folk from all over. As soon as I arrive in Venice, I have to be ready for nonstop exhibitions, openings, and cocktail parties. Style, efficiency, and fun are my goals — and the same can be said for anyone visiting the Biennale. My suitcase is a balanced mix of form and function, organized Matryoshka-style. Here's a peek inside.

Mophie Juice Pack Air

The Biennale is more than an all-day affair — I'm out the door by 8 a.m., photographing Venice street scenes, perusing every pavilion in the Venetian Arsenal and gardens, visiting collateral events, and partying late into the evening. The Biennale doesn't just kill my feet, it quickly and painfully kills my phone, a.k.a. my life source. Because there is nothing worse than trying to find a free outlet in Venice, I always bring an extra battery pack, and lately it's been a pretty rose gold case that snaps right onto my phone. If I'm feeling extra gamey, I bring two. ($100)

Insta360 Nano Video Camera

The Biennale is not just freeze frame art, it's panoramic performance. For the rare times I broadcast on Facebook Live, I love giving the full 360-degree experience so viewers can choose what they want to see. ($199)

Kasia Dietz Nice Clutch

My handbag has to be stylish and easy to carry. I love Kasia Dietz totes for her choice of vintage fabrics, which are perfect for the exhibition's artsy vibe. I also make sure to have one of her clutches, for a quick switch to evening glam. (€70)

 

Opening Ceremony Silk-Satin Bomber Jacket

Venice is tricky. Misty mornings burn into hot days, while evenings are chilly and humid. The only solution is a satin bomber jacket and the reversible nature of this one makes it easy to do a quick outfit change. ($525)

 

Moleskin Ruled Reporter Notebook

The first time I ever purchased this notebook was in Venice, and I have carried one in my handbag ever since. The hard cover makes me feel like Lois Lane scooping the art world. ($13)

 

Hydaway Water Bottle

I don't like feeling the weight of a water bottle in my purse, but I don't want to be dehydrated either. My solution: a lightweight, collapsible water bottle introduced to me by my friend Livia's 90-year-old nonna. ($20)

 

Tom Smarte Panama Fedora

Most of my time is spent outdoors, walking from one exhibition to the next. I love a good hat with a little charm to protect my face and lift up my outfit. ($449)

 

La Roche-Posay SPF 50 Sunscreen

My London BFF introduced me to the French sunscreen. It's light, non-greasy, and the best way to protect my skin from the Venetian sun, which never seems as potent as it really is. ($34)

 

MSGM Jumpsuit

I love Italian brand MSGM and would wear anything they put in front of me. The fun, striped number would work well for artsy selfies at cocktail parties. ($700)

 

Tod's Tattoo-Inspired Sneakers

If there is one lesson it has taken me a while to learn, it's that style should take second place when it comes to shoes for an event like the Biennale. Comfort is everything when you're standing on your feet all day. Thank god these sneakers are chic. ($845)

 

Herban Essentials Peppermint Towelettes

You definitely need antibacterial hand wipes. Added plus: These smell amazing. ($7)

Olloclip Core Lens Set

I use this set of lenses to up my Instagram story game and love playing around with the fisheye and wide angles. ($100)