‘There’s a real drinking culture in Venice,’ our tour guide informed us as we headed for our first port of call. I had joined a couple of honeymooners and a family of four – all from America’s Deep South and all visiting Venice for the first time; my companions needed an experienced hand to help them navigate the city’s aperitivo scene. ‘Just like Louisiana!’ said one excitedly. I suspected the cultural similarities might not extend much further. After a couple of prosecchi and ciccheti, I think my companions agreed.
Venetians like their drinks, and drinking is one of the few things Venice does cheaply (a small glass of wine, or ombra, generally costs around €1). A few of the city’s most popular bars open at dawn, don’t even own a coffee machine and frown on such weak stuff as water or soft drinks. Even when coffee is served – as in the neighbourhood café where I consume my unadventurous cappuccino and brioche of a morning – glasses of spritz and grappa are handed out to the many patrons around me who need a little something to drive the damp from their bones.
Much of the city’s social life revolves around the ostarie and bacari that are dotted around its streets, from larger bars with seating to others so small that they take hole-in-the-wall literally. Locals will gather after work, often with children in tow, to share a drink or two before ambling home for the evening.
To know Venice, therefore, is to know its bars – not just the expensive tourist draws, with stunning views and jaw-dropping service charges, but more secluded spots where you might catch a glimpse of that elusive breed, a real Venetian. This was the common purpose of the group that I joined on a sunny Saturday evening on the steps of a pretty, neoclassical church in the centre of Venice.
The first 20 minutes were spent exploring narrow streets as our guide (a friendly French woman, who had lived in the city long enough to be on first-name terms not just with bar staff but with most of the people we passed on the street) introduced us to the nuances of Venetian drinking etiquette and taught us how to barge rudely through crowds like a local (an important skill).
We then hopped (or stepped gingerly) on to a traghetto, the large, no-frills gondolas which are quickest way to cross the Grand Canal, and a fun way to save on a far more expensive ‘real’ gondola ride. Venetians typically stand for the short trip – a delicate balancing act that certainly defied some of our group as the boat rocked perilously back and forth. By the end of the journey, we felt we had more than earned our first drink.
The aroma that announces the fish market is one that you quickly grow used to, living in Venice. It also signals that refreshments are just round the corner: traditionally, traders and market-goers alike needed a drink or two to get them through the long hot days. The same is true today, and many of the bars in this area have been in operation for centuries. Our first destination, a narrow space with an eclectic assortment of copper pans hanging from the ceiling, claims to be the city’s oldest bacaro. Here, between refreshing sips of prosecco and mouthfuls of baccalà mantecato (creamed cod), a Venetian speciality, our guide told us what to expect from different types of wine bar.
Four of the five stops on our tour were bacari, typically small, dark places with one or two token tables that tend to get snapped up at lightning speed, particularly during winter months. Some will have a restaurant section, where people can sit down for a more expensive meal. Most customers, however, stand at the bar grazing on ciccheti (small snacks, from grilled fish to meatballs and crostini, that, when piled high on a plate, can add up to a full meal), or mill around outside, raising the neighbourhood’s noise levels (part of the reason why many bars close early).
The second place we visited, a dimly lit but friendly ostaria that used to double as a brothel, had more of a restaurant feel to it. Here, we were able to sit down after our long exertions and try some polenta with sarde in saor, sardines stewed in onion. The wines ranged from Prosecco – the popular tank-fermented sparkling wine produced in the northern Veneto – to Raboso a rustic red, generally drunk chilled, that is as tannic as the Venetian character. We finished with a sweet and more-ish Verduzzo dessert wine from Friuli, the perfect, summery wrap to a light Venetian dinner. ‘The best thing about it is that we don’t have to drive home,’ confided a truck driver from Texas.
By the end of the tour, despite my best attempts to paint myself as a local, I was ready to go home for an early night. My companions, meanwhile, had only just begun. Armed with their annotated maps and a near-perfect knowledge of Venetian drinking habits, they marched off to discover a new part of town.
Clara went on the ‘Wine and Cicchetti tour of Venice’ led by local tour guides throughout the year. To book, and for information on other Venice tours, visit Urban Adventures.
FOR MORE TRAVEL IDEAS AND EXPERT GUIDES, LIKE US ON FACEBOOK
OR FOLLOW US ON GOOGLE+
OR ON TWITTER