Venice is a surprising city. Its buildings root in pungent sea water, and the sloping architecture never ceases to drop the jaw. It is a place of contrasts, an ancient meeting point between East and West, and perhaps the most enjoyable juxtaposition it can offer today's fleeting visitor is its sudden switches from crowds and chaos, to back-street offerings of peace and wine-fueled bliss.
Just a couple of turns from the Venice's heaving Rialto route lie some of the world's most atmospheric wine bars, and after being lost in the hordes of tourists, stumbling upon their bliss is like happening upon an oasis in the desert. They are stocked from the Veneto region's rich acres of vin-yards and are not only idyllic in setting, but unusually cheap, where a small glass of wine known as an ombra will set you back only one or two euros.
A tradition of hopping between these bars has long been a staple of Venetian life, and to participate in this giro d'ombra is rapidly becoming any sensible tourist's true motivation for visiting the city. So after a day of having one's eyeballs tickled by visions of Venice's glimmering pink stone, the hour suddenly strikes six and you realise that it is time for taste and olfaction to have their turn in the doling out of the pleasures. The evening chime of the campanile signals to head towards the zone Cannaregio, where a myriad of wonderful bacari, (small, back-street taverns where locals stop on their way home for a glass of wine and a snack), await to provide the perfect remedy to the weary legs of any Venetian weekend wanderer.
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The bacari are Venice's traditional bars and they hold something of the homely eccentricity of an English pub, though with a caking of Mediterranean swagger. Upon entering the first thing you may notice is how many of the patron's refuse to take a chair, and instead stay stood at the counter, wine in toe, wishing to remain as close to the action as possible. For the action is fantastic, and merits retaining tight proximity; not only are the small wine glass in need of frequent refilling, but there is also the constant arrival of small Venetian dishes known as cichetti that must be attended and gestured at wildly to assure dibs on the best. These snacks are often compared to tapas, but if we are to be specific (to an extent that only this food-instagramming generation is capable of) we would say they are in fact more like pinchos, often comprising bits of fish elegantly paired with a little of something else and layered on a thin slice of crusty bread.
A joy of Venice is of course innocent discovery, so feel safe to get lost and ending up in whichever seem most beautiful and tasty. However there are perhaps a couple of places that should be not missed, and indeed deserve listing; Al Timon on the Fondamenta Ormisini has an incredible variety of cichetti, with an extensive wine list, boasting canal-side tables and always stocking the crowd favourite of baccalà on fried polenta cubes. Close by, La Cantina has the freshest fish with oysters on ice, and a personal favourite is Alla Vedova where each ombra costs one euro, and you can jostle for a place at the marble counter to watch their famous meatballs appear fresh every five minutes and disappear within five seconds (hopefully managing in the process to land a couple on your plate).
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Yet perhaps oddly the culinary victor in my own tour of the wine bars were the tramezzini. These are triangular sandwiches. Yes, sandwiches cut into triangles like your mother once made. It is not perhaps for their taste, but more their audacity that a region's traditional dish may be nothing more than the average content of a picnic or packed lunch, and not only titled, but proudly displayed to the world as their heritage. Yet sitting among one of Venice's quieter canals, with feet dangling jauntily over the bobbing water and prosecco in the other hand, I am quite certain there is no better way to savour the flavour of the city.
And it is in all the moments like these where la serenissima carries her title so sweetly. The lack of motorised vehicle and mechanic hubbub, granted to these cafes by roads of water in place of concrete, leave a vacancy in sound only to be filled by the clinking of wine glasses and la conversazione. For the whole evening of your giro d'ombra it invites you only to clink with it, to talk among friends, and revel in being so fulfilled by its sensory pleasure.