Naples is a funny old place. It sits on one of the most beautiful bays in the world and has a history going back to Roman times, and beyond to the Greeks. Tourists pour into one side of the city to visit Pompeii, Sorrento and the Amalfi coast. But very few venture the other side, even though historically this was where the Romans loved to come and play.
Italian food is always astonishing and Verona, if I’m honest, has some of the best you’ll find. Over five days we never ate a bad meal, something that’s very easy to do in Venice, and even in Rome if you pick badly.
So just for the record (and when I next go back) let me set down a few food and drink tips that may be useful.
First… a rediscovery. The wonderful red onion of Tropea. This is an onion, but not as you know it. Grown exclusively in the Calabrian seaside town of Tropea it’s so sweet they make jam out of it. I bought some seeds and tried growing it in England. It turned out onions but they weren’t the same. Oh well…
The pizza at the top features slowly stewed Tropea red onions and a local Verona cheese. It was simply stunning. Nine euros if I recall correctly and you can find it in a church now converted to a very handsome restaurant, Santa Felicita, near the Ponte Pietra. The pizzas were excellent but there’s a wide menu available too.
There are frescoes on the walls from its church days and seats in the gallery which give you a great view of everything including the kitchen. The place used to be a carpentry shop; its days as a church were numbered when Napoleon marched into Verona and closed the place down, along with lots of other churches he didn’t like.
If you mention the word ‘carnival’ in the Veneto people will immediately think you’re talking about Venice. I’ve done Venice carnival. I had to when I was writing Carnival for the Dead. Much as I love Venice I won’t be doing carnival again.
All the locals I know avoid the thing if they can. It’s certainly spectacular but it’s primarily an event for tourists, many of them dressed to the nines.
I’ve been heading off to Venice for around twenty years now, as a visitor to begin with, now mostly for work. Either research or ideas or to finish off a book in the quiet of the little apartment of Dorsoduro I’ve rented off and on for the best part of a decade. There’s nowhere else quite like it. But the changes in those twenty years are quite depressing. No wonder the locals feel cheated and neglected.
To the casual visitor the place itself might seem much the same. But month by month the city is losing many of the vital social connections that make life there acceptable for the declining number of residents. It’s hard and expensive enough living in a city where everyday items must arrive by boat, be lugged through streets then carried up often narrow stairs.
But along with the unavoidable has come the decimation of the city’s everyday shops. On the corner of Campo Santa Margherita where I stay there used to be a fantastic local butcher. It’s now the inevitable bar. All over the city essential shops — bakers, stationers, butchers even fishmongers — have given up the struggle to survive and closed.
And in their place? Identikit bars selling identikit food and drink. And so many places flogging masks and glass — much of it fake Murano from China — you wonder what their margin must be to make a living. Most of Italy is still remarkable for supporting the individual shopkeeper over the supermarket. Even in the centre of Rome you can still find wonderful small wine shops and delicatessens. In Venice you’d struggle to manage without going to a supermarket. As one local put it to me recently… you can buy a mask or a piece of glass just feet from the front door. But if you want some kitchen roll you might have to walk a mile.
Last time I was there I saw the latest victim. The Strada Nuova has never been the greatest of streets. It leads from the station to the Rialto, a succession of cheap cafes and restaurants, most of them best avoided, and so many tourist tat shops the mind boggles. But halfway along there was this lovely little place for anyone who owned a pet.
In a city that loves its little dogs this was one of the best pet shops you could find. Friendly staff and, as you can see from the window display, with a great sense of humour too.
And what is it now? A bar. What else? For all I know a very good bar. But really… the last thing any resident of Venice needs is another place where you can buy spritz and cicchetti. A decade ago I wrote of Venice turning into a kind of Disneyland with gondolas. A regular visitor berated me at the time. How could I even think such a thing?
Today it’s almost a cliche. Without Venetians that’s just what Venice is: a soulless theme park. There’s a vicious circle here. As the resident population dwindles so the shops become uneconomic. And as the shops vanish it becomes harder and harder to stay. Every loss of a local business and its replacement by one more cafe, tourist tat shop or mask emporium is another nail in Venice’s coffin. Local politicians need to take their eyes off squeezing more and more tourists and giant cruise ships into the city and start focusing on keeping Venice alive before it’s too late.
There are millions of Venice-lovers out there. If you want a reminder of why people adore this unique city on the water here’s a book for you. Dream of Venice is a compendium of photos by Charles Christopher with words by a selection of writers and artists associated with the city over the years, from Woody Allen to Julie Christie, star of Don’t Look Now.
I’m delighted to be represented too with an extract from Carnival for the Dead, which is set entirely in Venice during the February carnival.
You can read more about the book on this site. I very specifically tried to capture the atmosphere of the city during a freezing February carnival, and spent a lot of effort there trying to get it right. Given that Venice is an unreal place at the best of times the idea of setting a story there when it deliberately tries to put on a show was a challenge I found quite irresistible.
Carnival isn’t conventional crime or thriller though. It’s what I think of as an entertainment — a toying with literary forms, false stories within false stories, designed to evoke the atmosphere of carnival itself.
Here’s a clip from the Dream of Venice’s Facebook page. I’m delighted to say I’ll be back in Venice next month for a week finishing off a new book. I seem to have fallen into that habit over the past few years — it’s the perfect place to work undisturbed. So the third Pieter Vos tale, set entirely in the Netherlands, will be completed in Dorsoduro.
And here are a few of the hundreds of photos I took while researching the book.