15 May 2012
Fall for Venice
Autumn is a time when a wealth of seasonal dishes arrives at Venice's restaurant tables. The crowds thin out and allow you to dine at leisure, while making other discoveries in peace and calm.
If you really want to get off the beaten track in Venice, why not head across to the island of Sant'Erasmo? The best time to do so is on the first weekend in October to sample the first pressing of the new wine.
The Sagra del Mosto is a delightfully local affair with a village fete atmosphere, where stalls serve up grilled sausage and calamari and you can watch produce-laden tractors being blessed by the bishop and a race between mascarete - sporty little gondolas without the raised prow or stern.
Autumn is also the time when Venice goes back to being itself after the rigours of a seven-month-long tourist invasion. Faces relax and locals actually start to chat to you in shops. It's a great time to explore some of the city's less trafficked corners, like the quiet lanes of western Dorsoduro around the ancient church of San Nicolò dei Mendicoli (which film buffs will recognise from Nic Roeg's Venice-set supernatural thriller Don't Look Now); or the equally hidden church of San Francesco della Vigna in northern Castello - surrounded by garden cloisters where the monks tend their cabbages and tomatoes in the shadow of the old Venetian gasworks.
This is a season when zucca (pumpkin), wild mushrooms and other autumn crops and gleanings appear on menus. If you're lucky you might even find a traditional place serving castradina - a cabbage, onion and salted mutton casserole traditionally associated with the feast day of the Madonna della Salute in November.
I remember walking along the lagoonside promenade of Riva degli Schiavoni one glorious afternoon in late November, intending to get as far as the Vivaldi church of La Pietà before turning back to San Marco. But I was so rapt by the crisp autumn colours, the dance of gondolas, ferries, water-taxis and delivery boats, the stone lions outside the Arsenale looking surprisingly noble in the raking sunlight, the serious joggers pounding along to whatever was on their iPods, the kids on their way back from school, that I kept on going all the way to Sant'Elena - the easternmost point of Venice proper, a leafy suburb where a neighbourhood bar provided the goal I didn't even know I'd been looking for: a glass of spritz, that most Venetian of aperitivos, at a table overlooking the lagoon.
This is the joy of Venice out of season: the licence it gives you to get lost, and get in touch with the soul of this elusive, magical city.
By Lee Marshall, a Rome-based writer for major publications, who knows Venice well.
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Do you have any favourite autumnal treats in Venice to share?