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Discovering Venice’s quiet sanctuary of Giudecca

Susan Nickalls

It’s unseasonably warm in Venice when I set off from Ospedale to Giudecca on a fine October morning. Even out of season, the city is swarming with tourists so I don’t pay much attention to the lurid orange and purple plastic shoe coverings some of them are wearing or the passerella in the middle of the damp streets. It’s only when I turn into St Mark’s Square that I see the acqua alta, or high water.

The middle of the piazza looks like a swimming pool – it’s around 3-4 ft deep. The police are herding the throngs onto the already groaning passerella snaking towards St Mark’s church and the Doge’s Palace. I can’t even see the end of the queue to get on these narrow grey footbridges. So I decide to slosh through the five inches of shallower water lapping at the metal gates the shopkeepers at the far side of the square have jammed into their doorways. It’s the long way around to the San Marco vaporetto stop and I arrive to find it’s closed. I might have to swim to Giudecca. But all is not lost, the woman in the ticket office tells me that the number 2 service from San Zaccaria is running.

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After squelching my way up and over several bridges, I’m soon on a vaporetto heading towards the series of eight interconnected islands stretched out like a fish bone in the lagoon. Giudecca was once home to a collection of large palazzos and gardens until these were replaced by shipyards and factories in the early part of the 20th century. But the area has been regentrified, with many former industrial buildings now converted into arts and cultural venues, hotels and new housing developments. As well as its trendy arts vibe, Giudecca is a quiet sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of the main tourist thoroughfares. It’s also dry, as I discover when I get off at the Zitelle stop 10 minutes later, with only a few puddles on the pavements.

I’m outside Casa del Tre Oci (House of the Three Eyes), Venice’s only public exhibition space devoted to photography. It’s an impressive-looking building with its three large windows based on the same design as those in the Doge’s Palace across the water and is the former home of a local artist. The current exhibition is by French photographer Willy Ronis, a contemporary of Henri Cartier-Bresson. As well as Ronis’ striking black and white images of Paris, taken between 1938 and 1998, there are photographs of Venice on display. He took these when the cruise ship he was working on visited the city in 1959. These charming glimpses of everyday Venetian life show children skipping along a pier and a mother with a baby and pram sitting on a bridge near the water. Scenes you’re unlikely to see today.

Behind Zitelle, at the eastern tip of Giudecca, is the Cipriano hotel, opened by the owner of Harry’s Bar 60 years ago. It’s famous for its rich clientele and gigantic 133 x 13.5 metre sea water swimming pool. The odd size is due to a misunderstanding between a metric-thinking Italian architect and a London one using imperial measurements. I’m disappointed to find the hotel, and its famous CIPS bar, closed for the winter so I walk westwards past Palladio’s most famous church, Redentore. With its imposing white façade and dome crowned by a statue of the redeemer it’s one of the Giudecca’s most visible landmarks. Like San Salute opposite at the entrance to the Grand Canal, it’s a votive church, built after the plague of 1575-1576 which wiped out over a quarter of Venice’s population. Every year in July a temporary Thanksgiving Bridge connects Redentore to Zattere opposite for the Feast of the Redeemer. Celebrations include boat and gondola regattas.

I continue west to the far end of Guidecca where a distinctive neo-Gothic red brick building dominates the horizon. Built in 1898, the Molino Stucky flour mill is now the Hilton Stucky Hotel. On the top floor there’s an infinity pool and the Skyline bar, both with spectacular views over the Guidecca rooftops and surrounding lagoon. I can also see into the large gardens beside the Fortuny factory. The Spanish painter and textile designer Mario Fortuny set up his factory at Palanca on Giudecca nearly a century ago and his sumptuous silk, velvet and cotton fabrics are still made by a secret process on this site. No-one’s allowed to see inside the factory but you can visit the showroom. But I have to make do with peering through the window as viewing is by appointment only.

Next door to Fortuny is the former Dreher brewery which has been converted into a collection of artist studios, galleries and trendy flats. There’s an exhibition of Brian Eno’s Ambient Paintings I want to see. By following the trail of small stickers on the pavement I eventually find the Galleria Michela Rizzo in building Q. The gallery promotes a mix of Italian and international artists. Eno’s light boxes, with their bright self-generative colours that slowly change in time to music, are mesmerising. They make a refreshing change from the plethora of shops selling Murano glass in the main tourist areas. There are no such shops on Giudecca.

But there are good restaurants and my friends have recommended one near the Palanca vaporetto stop. The co-owner of La Palanca, Andrea Barina, is one of the driving forces behind a five-day arts and music festival on the Giudecca in September. As well as concerts, films and exhibitions, some of the private houses and gardens also open their doors. I’ve been told the restaurant’s swordfish with lemon zest is delicious. But as it’s well after 2pm, I decide to have a quick sandwich and a warming hot chocolate, made with the real thing, and sit outside to enjoy the views across the water.

Afterwards, I set off to explore the area behind the main fondamenta. I’m keen to find the women’s prison where they sell vegetables grown in the prison garden and beauty products made by the women at a weekly market. It’s designed to help reintegrate the women back into the community after they’ve served their sentence. If it wasn’t for a flag flying outside, I would have walked past the unprepossessing 16th century building on the appropriately named Calle Convertite. It was originally an Augustinian convent and hospice for reformed prostitutes and other ‘fallen’ women before it became a prison in 1857. The rector of the convent, Fra Giovanni Pietro Leon, took advantage of his position to grope the nuns at the convent but was eventually prosecuted. Apparently it took 13 attempts with a knife to behead him in St Mark’s Square.

Women seem to have been a dominating presence on Giudecca. Along the canal from the prison I discover what was Venice’s most prestigious female monastery, the 15th century Santi Cosma e Damiano, now called Artisti Artigiani del Chiostro. Like the prison, I nearly pass it by as the signage is inside the unlit vestibule. Around the cloister there are a series of studio spaces for local artisans. I find someone blowing glass and there’s a life-size model of a beaky plague doctor outside the mask-making shop. The artists tend to keep their own hours so on the Saturday I called in, the paper maker and several of the painting studios were closed.

On the boat back to San Zaccaria, I’m surprised to find my feet have dried out although my boots are left with a white salty tide mark. Walking back to Ospedale through St Mark’s Square, there is not a drop of water to be seen and no sign of any tourists. The empty silver and yellow chairs in the piazza glint eerily in the moonlight as a lone pianist plays outside Caffe Lavena, Wagner’s favourite haunt. I feel like I’ve spent the day in a different world. That is the beauty of Venice. Each district has its own distinct character if you take time to look beyond its tourist mask.

How to get there

Direct flights from Edinburgh with EasyJet (from £190) and Jet2 (April – October only from £180) with Ryan Air flying to Venice Treviso (from £90). EasyJet also fly direct from Glasgow (from £110).

Where to stay

On Giudecca, accommodation ranges from the youth hostel (from £18/night) and the Hilton Molino Stucky (from £106/night) to the Palladio Hotel & Spa (from £240/night) and Belmond Hotel Cipriani (from £1150/night). The last two hotels close for winter.

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