Hidden Gems of Castello, Venice

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October, 2021

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On our most recent holiday in Venice our (river) cruise ship `Michelangelo` moored at the Seven Martyrs’ Quay in Castello for 4 out of the 5 nights so we revisited old haunts in the area and found previously undiscovered places. Castello is a large and diverse district, the largest sestiere of Venice, and the further one walks away from St Mark’s the quieter it gets. It stretches from the Bridge of Sighs in the west to the eastern end on the island of Sant’ Elena and from the crowded Riva degli Schiavoni in the south to the Venetian Lagoon in the north. There’s much of interest to explore – important churches, museums, green spaces, the Biennale Giardini and the Arsenale. It has large areas of housing occupied by Venetians, particularly at the eastern end, and therefore the food shops and cafes are frequented by locals rather than tourists. Parts of Castello are home to artisans who make and sell their crafts in small shops and this is a good area to buy interesting gifts to take home. This review concentrates on the following things that we did in Western Castello on one day at the end of October 2021. (I will do a separate review on Eastern Castello.)

Campo Santa Maria Formosa is on the western fringe of the district, north of St Mark’s and midway across the width of Castello; it’s a beautiful square, dominated by the church of Santa Maria Formosa and is a good place to sit and relax in the autumn sun with a drink while watching the world go by; locals walk their dogs, there are many cafes with outside seating and market stalls selling fruit and vegetables and when we were there this time – a Saturday – there were several stalls with a good selection of vintage and collectable items. I had a lovely time browsing and bought a couple of small items for myself.

Clothes Shop: Banco Lotto n.10 in Salizada S. Antonin is housed in an old lottery ticket premises and is run by volunteers from a co-operative that sells clothes made by inmates of the local women’s prison on Giudecca who are retrained to become skilled dressmakers for when they are released. They also make costumes for Venice Carnival using rich fabrics provided by local textile companies and the sales benefit the training programme. In the past I’ve bought a lovely turquoise evening jacket made from velvet printed with a flower design, a silk coat-dress and silk scarves and considering the items are unique they are reasonably priced. It’s worth checking the website (bancolotto@ilcerchiovenezia.it) for opening times before hunting for the shop. I never go to Venice without a visit to Banco Lotto, even if it’s only to stock up on a few birthday or Christmas presents.

Book Shop Libreria Acqua Alta in C. Longa Santa Maria Formosa
I’d read about this bookshop but until this visit we’d failed to find it, however, on this occasion we just happened upon it: we wondered why there was a queue to get into a shop, and then we realised we’d found Acqua Alta. We saw a table outside covered with prints and postcards and a cat was sitting on top of them having his lunch. We worked out that the shop was probably busy because it was during the weekend and decided to return on a weekday, when it might be less busy. So the following Monday we found it again but the cat was nowhere to be seen. Inside there were books everywhere, some piled into an old gondola, some in other boats and baths and piled high on shelves, anything to keep them from being damaged if the shop shop should flood again due to an acqua alta. The owners have obviously made the most of this, constructing stairs from old, water damaged and unreadable books in an outside courtyard – it’s a photograher’s dream – `Instagram ready` as some would say – a place so popular with people taking selfies that we just peeped into that particular space and retreated to a different yard that was empty but where I found some cheap facsimiles of posters for old Italian films that I bought for my son. There were also interesting old postcards and Venetian greetings cards, which were bargains. My husband bought a new Venetian cook book he wanted that contained recipes for making cicchetti (like tapas). There are secondhand and new books on sale, mostly in Italian, but also in English and other languages; we could have spent hours in there. It’s just round the corner from the much photographed Ponte Tetta, somewhere else we’d managed to miss until this visit.

Cicchetti and spritz at Osteria Ai Do Pozi
We once had a very good lunch here but on this occasion we just stopped for a spritz and to ask if they had cicchetti (Italian tapas) as we didn’t want a lot to eat. The waitress on duty this time did not speak much English but she sent my husband inside to choose from the large selection displayed in a glass cabinet at the bar and, with the help of the owner, he managed to select two fish ones with squid ink colouring and two different vegetable ones and they were delicious, costing around 2 euros each: they would have cost less if we’d stood at the bar inside to eat them but at my age I need
an excuse to sit down for a rest occasionally.

The Church, Convent and Library of San Francesco della Vigna are in a somewhat isolated and shabby area on the northern edge of Castello. The nearest vaporetti stop is called Celestia but we always walk there. The church was built in 1534 on the site of vineyards, hence the name; the Renaisance church has a rather grand white facade designed by Palladio and it has a belltower similar in design to the campanile in St Mark’s square. We’ve never been in the famous Library and on this occasion didn’t go inside the church either but it is worth a visit to see its frescoes and statues and a painting of the Madonna by Bellini. We did, however, revisit the convent opposite as we wanted to sit down to rest and to drink some of our water. It’s a pleasant place to sit in the shade of the cloisters and whenever we go, admittedly out of season, there is never anyone else there. It is free to enter the garden where there’s a statue of St Francis and a good view of the impressive campanile. There is still a small vineyard hereabouts but we’ve yet to find an entrance to it or indeed find out if members of the public are allowed inside.

Just a small sample of the free or cheap things to see and do in Venice.


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