Exploring hidden Venice with City Wonders
Two things concerned us about Venice. The crowds and the appalling reputation of the food.
Keen to avoid both, we headed to the northern neighbourhood of Cannaregio. An almost secret backwater relatively undiscovered by the tourist masses. Reputedly the place to experience a true flavour of local life, there wasn’t a selfie stick, mask shop or overpriced coffee in sight.
Now this was a side of Venice I could cope with.
We joined City Wonders on their Jewish Ghetto with Local Food and Wine Tastings Tour. A bit of a mouthful in name and taste! I loved the idea of combining history, walking and wine. Three of my favourite things, although not necessarily in that order.
I know you’re thinking what? They actually went on a group tour? Sure, it’s not normally our cup of tea, but we decided a local guide would know all the best spots to eat, and show us places we’d never have found by ourselves.
We were desperate to change our minds about Venice, and didn’t think we could do it alone.
The City Wonders Jewish Ghetto Tour
We met the rest of the group and our guide, Francesca, at Ponte delle Guglie on Cannaregio. I liked Francesca immediately. She’s a true Venetian, and the enthusiasm for her city was evident throughout the evening, despite the fact she does this same tour every week!
There were just 11 of us in the group, just the right amount for negotiating the narrow streets of hidden Venice.
After introductions and the obligatory sticker distribution (hubbie was embarrassed at having to wear a label!) Francesca explained that cicchetti (pronounced ‘chi-ket-ti’) were the Venetian equivalent of Spanish tapas. The small backstreet bars servicing cicchetti are known as bacari, and reading the guide books you’ll be forgiven for thinking that locals all visit these on their way home from work. Yet Francesca laughed and told us in reality it’s mainly the younger generations who like to do this. Much as if you visit Soho in London at about 5pm on a weekday you’ll see young hot shots in expensive suits spilling out of the pubs onto the streets, keeping up appearances.
We didn’t have to walk far for our first bacaro. Right next to the busy Ponte della Guglie, Cicchettaria Venexiana da Luca e Fred specialises in fried cicchetti. It’s a great place for people watching as locals and tourists alike use the bridge to head down towards the Rialto area.
We all squeezed around a couple of tables, and made polite conversation before each choosing from the impressive range of tasty morsels on offer. There was everything from anchovy fritters, aubergine croquettes, fried meatballs and mozzarella bites. I went for pumpkin and pancetta, washing it down with a chilled glass of Prosecco.
Purchased individually the cicchetti here are about €1.60, so if you’re after a cheap but tasty meal out, you won’t go wrong with a few of these.
Leaving behind the bustle of the busy bridge, Francesca led us into the world of the old Jewish Ghetto (Ghetto Vecchio) and our history tour began.
Jews were valuable to the Venetian economy for their commerce, scholarship and wealth. They were doctors and merchants, pawn brokers and moneylenders. In the 16th Century, the Doges (leaders of the Council) decreed that Jews must live a life of segregation in the world’s very first ghetto.
They were even locked in at night!
Yet this did come with certain benefits. One being safety. Thus the ghetto became a refuge, and a home to Jews escaping persecution and hostility in their own countries all across Europe.
There wasn’t sufficient space to accommodate the growing population and they had no choice but to build upwards rather than outwards. Some buildings have as many as 8 floors! They are often so tall they threaten to topple over, and anyone living on the top floor must be pretty fit.
No room for elevators here!
After the plague of the 17th Century which claimed the lives of 450 Jews, the ghetto boundaries were expanded to form the New Ghetto (Ghetto Nuovo) to house the wealthier Jewish merchants. Here the sunlight actually reached the cobbles below, and the area felt much less enclosed, although buildings were still high! Synagogues were built on the top floors of some of these ‘skyscrapers’ because this was the only place without any obstructions between the heavens and the congregation.
After all this history it was surely time for another bar, so we stopped at Al Timon, a popular institution amongst locals and those in the know. Set atmospherically beside the Ormesini canal, it couldn’t feel more different to the tourist traps of San Marco.
I decided right there that I did like Venice after all!
The traditional wooden interiors and shelves of dusty wine bottles gave it an old world feel, and the bar was several rows deep with chatting locals which was reassuringly comforting. We weren’t going to be served up anything disappointing there.
Thankfully a table had been reserved for us, which was gratefully received after all the walking. Ok, so it wasn’t much walking really, I just like wine! It was October and becoming a little chilly outside, so were were happy to be revived with our choice of red or white wine, and a different type of cicchetti.
This time they came in the form of flamboyant mini bruschettas. Zucchini with pecorino cheese. Smoked tomato drizzled with olive oil. Creamy codfish mousse, and even rabbit! People were a little dubious about the latter so hubbie did the gentlemanly thing and tucked in.
Apparently it was delicious.
Tongues were now looser after a couple of glasses and conversation flowed as easily as the wine. The group were mainly couples from the US and UK, and as we clearly all had a shared interest it wasn’t difficult to enjoy the company.
As dusk settled in Francesca led us onwards, now heading east along the canals and deeper into Cannaregio. Lights were twinkling in their watery reflections, and bursts of soft music and laughter tumbled onto the street as doors were opened and closed in the many osterias and bacari along the way.
The only other people around by now were locals on their way out for the evening. This was the real Venice, and the perfect place for a quick lesson in language.
Anti-semitism in the 18th Century resulted in harsher conditions and the exodus of many Jews from the ghetto. The Jewish community declared themselves bankrupt in 1737, and today, only 30 or so Jews still live in the ghetto.
Their language, however, lives on.
Did you know…?
Several English words we use today are linked to the Venetian Jewish Ghetto!
‘Ghetto’ is clearly the most obvious one, and being the first ever such district, the term was henceforth used for Jewish areas all over the world. Yet did you know that bank, soldier and salary are also reputed to derive from their language?
Bancos were pawn shops in the ghetto where people exchanged low value possessions for credit. The most famous and recently restored is Il Banco Rosso in the Campo de Ghetto Nuovo. Here, the customer would be given a red receipt upon exchange, and today some believe this is where the phrase ‘having a bank account in the red’ comes from.
It is suggested that the words soldier and salary stem from the Latin sal, meaning salt, which was an expensive commodity and used in lieu of coins to pay the men in Venice, and in Rome. Later on soldiers were given money instead, enough to purchase their own salt. Funny how today, salt is one of the cheapest things in the supermarket.
Salt also has the unfortunate effect of making you parched, so it was on to our final bacaro, Antica Adelaide, which wasn’t far from the Ca d’Oro vaporetto pier.
Here we were treated to more local wine and cicchetti, this time by candlelight.
By now we felt we were on an evening out with friends rather than being on a tour, and I have to say I didn’t take too much notice of what I was eating. I know there were tomatoes and cheese involved.
And that it was tasty.
Seeing we were enjoying lingering over our wine, Francesca gave us all the option of remaining at the bacaro rather than rushing to walk the last few minutes of the tour route. It was a unanimous decision to stay, and after making sure everyone knew how to get back to their respective hotels, she bid us Buona Sera and left us to our merry making.
Needless to say when the time came to leave none of us could remember the directions. I’m sure we passed the same little bakeries and crossed the same little bridges more than once. But what is a visit to Venice without getting lost.
It’s all part of the adventure!
Our mission was accomplished. We escaped the crowds and found some great local food too.
The fact that we learnt a lot and enjoyed what was essentially a bar crawl with a difference was just a bonus! Francesca was extremely knowledgeable and spoke perfect English, which made the whole evening so much fun. Definitely ask for her if you can!
To say I was apprehensive about joining a group tour would have been the understatement of the Century. Being rather anti-social travellers it’s not something hubbie and I do very often. Yet in the backstreet cicchetti bars of the Venetian underworld, I was surprised at how quickly everyone bonded and found I was actually enjoying the company of strangers. Miracles do happen.
Or maybe it was the wine.
Doing this tour will save you having to buy an expensive meal for dinner! You’re welcome to purchase additional cicchietti at the bacari you visit if you’re particularly hungry.
This City Wonders tour runs on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays
It begins at 5.30pm at Ponte delle Guglie, and ends in Campo della Maddalena (half way between vaporetto stop San Marcuola and Ca d’Oro)
The tour lasts about 2.5 hours and costs £36 per person.
Thanks to the lovely folks at City Wonders for providing us with our complimentary tour. All words and opinions are, as always, my own.