Venice in pandemic – café life returns

The city’s open again and, as I reported yesterday, busy, even bustling in parts. But the last eighteen months must have been hellish for the industries that rely on tourists. No income, only outgoings. How have they emerged from this nightmare?

Rather more successfully than you might have expected. I made it back here a year ago and found quite a lot of places I knew boarded up. Many have either reopened or been taken over by new, different businesses.

An example: the Dolce Vita café close to the Frari, a regular breakfast haunt for years. Twelve months ago a sign on the door thanked customers and announced its closure. Today, it’s open again. Not quite the same as it was but still a good spot to stop for a coffee and a cornetto.

In England, particularly in businesses owned by big corporations, prices have on occasion soared with the reopening post-pandemic. One of my brewery-owned locals in Kent has put up drink prices by ten per cent or more. Gatwick has instituted a £5 charge for cars dropping off passengers to fly there — a great way of saying, ‘Thanks, welcome back.’

To my surprise, prices in Venice don’t seem to have changed much at all over the last few years. A coffee will still cost you just over a euro at the counter, a spritz anything between €2.50 and €4 or more depending on the location. The stunning frittura mista at Osteria Al Merca on the Lido is the same €25 it’s been for years, and still enough to feed two.

Lunch on the Lido

Purely for research purposes you understand, I had to try one yesterday and can report it’s as good as ever.

Business is quiet, though. Another favourite, Osteria Ai Pugni by Campo San Barnaba, had only a few customers inside when I dropped in for some cicchetti last night. Even at this point of the year, with most students gone, it’s a place you’d expect to be packed on a Friday night.

Fridays would normally be heaving here in Ai Pugni. Not last night.

Like many places, the Pugni has set up tables outside, in its case by the canal, a little way along from the point at which Katharine Hepburn tumbled into the water during Summertime.

The Pugni is right by the bridge in the background. Not much has changed sixty-six years on except for the shops. The poor woman picked up an eye illness that dogged her for life after falling in the canal. Remember what I said yesterday about steering clear of the water here?

Outside tables are a concession from the authorities to allow bars and restaurants to serve people more safely. In some cases this has expanded their business quite a bit. A short walk away from Dolce Vita in Calle Crosera there’s a tiny wine bar, Adriatico Mar, run by a friendly husband and wife who specialise in food and drink from the Adriatic, not just Italy. There are a handful of tables by the canal and not much space inside so getting in can be difficult in normal times. Today though it has tables in the street.

How busy they get… I’ve yet to see. I chatted to the husband, a chap with a very good memory since he immediately recognised me and wished me ‘bentornato’.

The street concession is temporary for the duration of the pandemic, at the moment anyway. It will clearly become more important on August 6 when customers will only be allowed indoors if they can show a green pass certificate proving they’re double jabbed. Quite how this will work no one I spoke to knew. Your UK NHS pass will be recognised here by the way, though until the end of August at least it won’t stop you needing to quarantine for five days on entry.

The big worry, though, is winter. A year ago I recall people being apprehensive about what lay ahead. With good reason as it turned out. For many it meant prolonged closures. That same fear is about today, the feeling that we’re far from out of the woods and could easily be headed for another lockdown soon.

In a normal year I’d be looking to return here in a couple of months to finish a book. Right now, I’ve no idea if that’s going to be possible let alone practical.

That’s the last of my Venice reports, for a while anyway. I hope they’ve been useful. The city is as delightful as ever, and it’s heartening to see the crisis has done little to knock its confidence. The streets are still full of happy people, kids playing, bickering dogs and the unique Venetian spirit. Long may it last.