February 24th, 2016
Of Cicchetti and Gondolas
February in Trieste was rainy and windy, the bora had blown from moderate to strong all week. On the way to the train station I lost count of the number of umbrellas that filled the trash cans or lay on the street where the frustrated owners had thrown them. Umbrellas are no match against the bora wind which turns them inside out and then contorts the metal frames into unrecognizable shapes.
The forecast today for Trieste and Venice was “La prevision è incerta”, variable at best but this was my birthday outing so we decided to take the chance with the weather and go to Venice anyway. A friend had introduced us to a new ‘locale’ in Trieste called “Cicchetti”. There we had enjoyed an “aperitivo” of sparkling wine from the “Carso”. It was explained to us that “cicchetti” (pronounced “chee-KET-eeh”) in the Venetian dialect, refers to the small plates of food that accompany a glass of wine and which are served in Venice at “bàcari” (“BAH-car-eeh”), small, local bars. We wanted to try “cicchetti” in Venice.
The islands of Venice are divided into six districts known as sestieri. The Canale Grande, divides the city in half – three “sestieri” to the west and three to the east. Because the February days are short we thought it best to select one of the “sestieri” as a destination. Looking across the “bacino” from Piazza San Marco my gaze has often settled on the church of Santa Maria della Salute which is located in the Dorsoduro and today we were headed to visit it. The name of the Sestiere of Dorsoduro comes from the characteristic morphology of the island where it was built. This side of the city was less swampy and had a harder surface, so it was named in Venetian “Dorso duro” (hard back).
Santa Maria della Salute
The morning was perfect with a clear blue sky. All the way from Trieste to Venice we were lucky enough to enjoy the sight of the snow-capped Dolomite Alps dominating the horizon on one side of the train. As the train crossed the causeway into Venice, the mountains formed this solid grey white backdrop to the blue-green waters of the lagoon.
Crossing the Lagoon
We had used a map to trace out the route from Piazza San Marco to Dorsoduro but of course as we already knew a map is pretty well useless in Venice. We kind of followed our noses from Piazza San Marco excited by the feeling of not quite knowing where the winding “calle” would take us, but not really caring, enjoying the sights and sounds until we actually did find the Ponte dell’ Academia bridge and crossed over to Dorsoduro. Here all of a sudden we were in a Venice that was calm and peaceful. In fact we hardly met anyone at all as we strolled canal side. The sun was shimmering off the water, the pastels colors of the palazzi soothed my soul. I was so happy to be in Venice enjoying this birthday gift.
We had the civic number and we had found the Fondamente Nani of the “bacari” where we wanted to stop for lunch but we walked by it a couple of times. We missed it because it was actually more like a storefront, the small display window was filled with wine bottles and the entrance was obscured with a green awning over the door. It was around noon when we walked in and there was already a lot of activity at the long “bar”. Across from the bar the long wall was lined with shelves filled with wine bottles.
At one end of the “bar” was a glass enclosed showcase There were dozens of trays sitting on glass shelves and each tray was filled with one type of “cicchetti”. It was nearly impossible to decide what to choose. Little slices of crusty bread were a visual delight loaded with everything from creamy “baccala” to slices of prosciutto, to cheeses, to marinated shrimp, fish, onions, artichokes, eggplant. We asked for a glass of prosecco and six different “chiccetti”. All of them were not only delicious but also beautifully presented. They disappeared quickly and we ordered a few more!
We watched tray after tray of “cicchetti” being brought out of the kitchen, obviously made with great care by the “Mamma”, and served up by her daughter while the sons poured the glasses of wine. It was a busy place, well run and truly a family business.
We headed out towards the Fondamente Zaterre while visions of “cicchetti” danced in our heads!
We were literally stopped in our tracks. Beside a small canal that ran perpendicular to the one we were following we saw buildings that resembled mountain chalets, the wood darkly stained with age. The wooden buildings were an anomaly, a sharp contrast, to the marble and pastel facades that characterize Venetian architecture. A half dozen gondolas were sitting on low wooden saw horses and the gondolas filled the small courtyard.
Next to the Church of San Trovaso, at the angle of Rio San Trovaso and Rio Ognissanti, we had come across one of the last remaining “squeri”, the gondola dockyards of Venice.
The term “squero” is derived from the word “squara”, a team of persons working together to build boats. So, the “squero” is the workshop that manufactures and repairs gondolas.
This tiny boatyard known as the Squero di San Trovaso was established in the seventeenth century. It is the oldest of only three remaining “squeri”.
The “squero” is surrounded by Tyrolian-looking wooden structures that are home to the multi-generational owners and are the original workshops for repairing gondolas. The structures were built in the Tyrolean style since the woodworkers came originally from an area around Cadore, near Belluno in the Dolomites.
But the structure of the buildings was also practical. The covered “porches” were useful for taking cover when it rained and for storing the tools used for building and repairing the gondolas.
Before us was a unique and living piece of Venetian history. We watched in appreciation as the men worked on the gondolas following centuries-old methods just as their forefathers had done before them. In the summertime gondolas need to be checked, cleaned and coated with tar once a month . After 14 years of service gondolas go through a restoration process, after which they can be reused for another 10 years.
We reluctantly left the squero and turned onto the Fondamente Zaterre. The Fondamente Zaterre follows the Canale della Guidecca. In contrast to the narrow, shady “calle”, this “fondamente” is wide and in the full sun. We peaked through some large open doorways into what once would have been boathouses and warehouses but are now used to house trendy art galleries and art schools.
We rounded the tip of the island, Punto della Dogana, and reached Santa Maria della Salute. It was closed for the afternoon!
We followed the yellow “ferrovie” signs on the sides of the buildings and slowly wound our way back to the train station. Our spirits had been lifted by the sunny day, by all the colours of the palazzi, the winding canals and “calle”, the tastes of the “cicchetti”, the sounds of the Venetian dialect, all of which make up the history that keeps Venice alive and beautiful.
Squero di San Trovaso: The gondola boatyard