Dorsoduro: on the edge of Venice

Shona Main, author of Footprint's Venice & Veneto guide, takes us on a tour of one of Venice's lesser-known gems, the bohemian neighbourhood of Dorsoduro.

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The Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute in Dorsoduro.

‘See Venice before it sinks’ says the T-shirt. And, as one more alarmingly high acqua alta recedes and another palazzo’s wall - slapped by the wake of a vaporetto - crumbles into the canal, most of the 20 million tourists (40,000 each day in high season) who will visit Venice this year will take that sentiment to heart. With less than 60,000 residents, that’s a lot of extra bodies.

The academic Robert C. Davis calls the area the tourists’ pound, ‘the Bermuda shorts triangle’: Piazza San Marco (taking in the Basilica/Palazzo Ducale), the Rialto Bridge and the Accademia. And they do so frantically, buying up plastic gondolas and trying to see everything before they leave and this most unbelievable of cities slips into the lagoon.

It is possible to see Venice but somehow avoid the crowds and the clichés. However, it means chucking the tick the box mentality that so many guide books promote and doing things a bit differently. One way would be to spend your time getting to know one of the city’s sestieri or neighbourhoods.

If you love art, old and new, Dorsoduro feels like it’s on the edge of Venice. The name means ‘hard back’, although it’s more like a protruding tongue. It’s a bohemian neighbourhood that houses L’Universita Ca’ Foscari, its two most impressive contemporary art galleries and the world-renowned Accademia. Unlike other parts of Venice that die at 2100hrs, Dorsoduro manages to have a life about it yet is still laid back. And if you really must head over to the tourist traps of San Marco, it’s just a few steps across the wooden Ponte d’Accademia.

This little guide to Dorsoduro aims to expose you to the spirit of La Serenissima whilst skirting round the sweaty, heaving stampede of constantly-filming, backpack-wearing, gelato-licking tourists. Kid yourself not, you will still be a tourist, but one that sees and learns just a little bit of the lesser known, less-trampled Venice.

If you’re just going for a couple of nights and seek a hotel with a bit of romance, and soul, there’s Ca Maria Adele (www.camariaadele.it - keep an eye on their internet rates for splendid discounts). Right next to La Salute, it’s got the swags and sumptuousness of the old Venetian style but with cool lines, modern fittings and genuinely nice staff. On the Zattere, La Calcina (www.lacalcina.com) was John Ruskin’s favourite. It’s less lux, more genteel: the lounge is all chinking china and the rustle of newspapers. However, if you want to stay a few days the best and most affordable way to do it is to rent an apartment. Venice Apartments (www.veniceapartments.org) offer a good range of flats and prices. They also give the best customer service in Venice.

Right at the very tip of Dorsoduro’s tongue is the Punta Della Dogana (www.palazzograssi.it Wed-Mon 1000-1900, €15 or €20 to include a visit to Palazzo Grassi, Vaporetto: Salute,). A former customs house built in the 1400s its huge salt warehouses, the Magazzini al Sal, lay derelict for years until the François Pinault Foundation bought it (they also own Palazzo Grassi across the Canal Grande). With huge vision yet a love of fine detail, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando remodelled and concretized the interior into two floors of stunning contemporary art exhibition space. The gallery opened in 2009 and hosts some of the staggering collection of Pinault, the man behind the Gucci Group. Don’t forget to look up to Bernardo Falcone’s golden globe, the Palla D’Oro. Forged in 1667, its technical excellence and conceptual integrity show that great art, though centuries apart, always come from the same place.

(c) Shona Main
Campo San Barnaba - home to the best shops in Dorsoduro.

Next to it is Santa Maria della Salute (Campo della Salute, Dorsoduro 1b, Daily 0900-1200, 1500-1730, Vaporetto: Salute) This crowning Baroque beauty, La Salute (good health), was built as thanks to deliverance from the plague which killed 80,000 Venetians. The architect Baldassarre Longhena started work on it when he was 26, and completed it 50 years later in 1681 just before he died. Its broad sweep of marble steps rise from the waters of the Canal Grande up towards an apex, adorned with soaring saints, evangelists, prophets and Mary. Inside it’s a vast, solemn octagonal interior where you’ll find Titians and a Tintoretto.

A short walk through the calli and you are at Collezione Peggy Guggenheim (Palazzo Leone, Dorsoduro 704, www.guggenheim-venice.it Wed-Mon 1000-1800, €12 plus €1.50 online booking fee Vaporetto: Salute). With so much old, churchy art in Venice the opening of Peggy Guggenheim gallery in 1951 was when Venice – with its Biennale nod to modernity - truly woke up to the shock of the new. Peggy Guggenheim’s house is crammed full of world-changing art from Max Ernst, Magritte, Brancusi, Arp, Picasso, Dali and Klee many whose careers she got off the ground. Love the art but nod to Peggy’s brilliance for without her we might have never moved so wholeheartedly into the future.

You’d think it was a contrast, but actually the works at the Galleria dell’Accademia (Dorsoduro 1050, www.gallerieaccademia.org Mon 0815-1400, Tue-Sat 0815-1915 with last admission 1830, €6.50 plus €1 online booking fee, Vaporetto: Accademia) are part of the same narrative. Its exterior is in a state of perpetual restoration and is forever draped in tarpaulin (or advertising these days). Inside it hosts a remarkable collection – including Veneziano, Bellini, Tintoretto, Lotto, Titian, Veronese and Tiepolo - that perfectly show the development of how artists painted and why. Visit out of season and you could find yourself alone with the violence of Tinteretto’s Cain and Able (sala 6) or the unsettling vulnerability of Giorgione’s Tempest (sala 13).

Avoid the touristy prices around the Accademia and head west to the Ponte San Trovaso and Cantine del Vino Già Schiavi. (Dorsoduro 992, Mon-Sat until 2100). This family-run enoteca serves wine and cichetti (little snacks, mostly fishy). It’s always quite busy but they are keen to accommodate you, even if it does mean sitting on the canal wall outside.

Ca Rezzonico & Museo del Settecento Veneziano (Fondamenta Rezzonico, Dorsoduro 3136, www.museiciviciveneziani.it Summer daily 1000-1700, winter Sat-Thu 0900-1600, €7, Vaporetto: Ca’ Rezzonico) Robert Browning stayed in this Baroque palazzo just before his death in 1889 as guest of one of the many families of fluctuating fortune who have owned then sold it over the years. It’s now a museum of the 19th century and whilst full of the opulence and trinketure you’d expect in a grand Venetian palazzo, it is one of the few museums (along with the Museo Storico Navale and Museo della Follia - the Museum of Madness on San Servolo) in the city where you get a glimpse – just a glimpse – of the working classes and their life. The poor don’t get much of a look in, in the telling of Venice’s history.

(c) Shona Main
Ponte dei Pugni.

The best shops are around the Rio di San Barnaba, the Ponte dei Pugni (the bridge where the old Venetian gangs, the Nicolotti and the Castellani had fist fights: see the footprint starter marks) and Campo Santa Margherita. The bars here serve spritz (a mix of white wine and sweet Aperol or bitter Campari), wine and beer for around €3-4 a glass. However, on the eastern curve of the Campo, there is a smaller, old fashioned bar with green awnings. I’ve never been able to find out its name but you’ll be served a class of prosecco for €2.50 by a good natured if a little shy older Venetian gentleman.

If you have a hunger Osteria ai Carmini (Campo Santa Margherita, Dorsoduro 2849, Mon-Sat 0930-0100, Vaporetto: San Toma) is just around the corner. Venice is not famed for value for money eateries but this place is just that. You can sit down to spaghetti alle vongole (clams) and wine for under €15 or take away some calamari fritti served in a cone for €6.

At the far end of Dorsoduro, beyond the San Basilio vaporetto stop, towards the Nicoletti’s old ‘hood, there are three lesser known churches well worth visiting.

Those who liked Sally Vicker’s book Miss Garent’s Angel will want to look in on Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele (Campo Angelo Raffaele Mon-Sat 0900-1200 & 1600-1800). It’s got the loved feeling of your gran’s house - all pot plants, anti-maccassers and busy tablecloths. It’s the elderly congregation who do the loving and bustle away keeping it spotless.

San Sebastiano (Fondamenta di San Sebastiano, Dorsoduro 1687, Mon-Sat 1000-1700, Sun 1300-1700, Vaporetto: San Basilio) was the local church of Paolo Veronese, the famous fresco painter of the 16th century. He joyfully festooned the walls, ceiling, sacristy and organ of this church with an abundance of fruit, flowers, evangelists and animals, creating one of the happiest church interiors to be seen.

Slightly different is San Nicolò dei Mendicoli (Campo San Nicolò, Dorsoduro 1907, Mon-Sat 0900-1200, 1600-1800, Vaporetto: San Basilio) This dark, brooding church was built in the 13th century and named after the mendicoli (vagrants) who lived in this part of town. It was saved by the British Venice in Peril fund after the 1966 floods. Film lovers will recognise this as the church used in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). It’s not that scary but it has a melancholy about it…

But always, whatever mood you’re in and whatever the weather, there is the Zattere. Sometimes called ‘Venice’s beach’, there is no better place to see the Canale della Giudecca gleam with the peachy hues of the setting sun, enjoy the daily passeggiata and drink spritz at El Chioschetto (Fondamenta Zattere al Ponte Lungo 1406). You’ll see a lot of licking at this time of the day, with the gelati provided by Nico (Fondamenta Zattere ai Gesuati 922).


Shona Main is author of the Footprint's Venice & Veneto colour guide - available today from our online shop.

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