Travel The World

Seduction in the Ghetto: Venice

Venetian Mask - Striking Mask in Venice in Deep Blue and Gold

Venice has a tempestuous love affair with the world. Millions of adoring fans visit La Serenissima each year, lured by the sirens of the Adriatic – gondolas, waterways and the dream of birds fluttering up from St Mark’s flagstones. But if three’s a crowd, then 30 000 is a crush and the combination of cramped bridges, high prices and humidity leave many swearing off the city for life.

Perhaps I’ve spent too much time squashed on the London Underground, but in Venice there’s still real beauty to be found. Yes, the sight of sweaty tourists and adverts swamping the Bridge of Sighs is off-putting, but buongiorno? The rest of Venice is as captivating as ever and it’s only a footbridge away.

Venice Beneath the Mask

Ponte dei Sospiri - Bridge of Sighs - Famous Landmark in Venice

The Bridge of Sighs – A Consumer Product

My latest trip to Venice left me with just over twelve hours in this watery playground. Enough time to make the pilgrimage to St Mark’s Square, say hello to the pigeons, scramble through the masses on the Rialto Bridge and enjoy a plateful of polenta and cuttlefish served in the trademark black ink sauce.

If three’s a crowd, then 30 000 is a crush.

With a couple of hours to spare, I wandered off piste, turning right onto the Strada Nova and just drifting along. At the very first corner I found myself alone, accompanied only by the lapping of the water and my footsteps on the stone. Glossy black gondolas stood idle, wrapped up in canvas for Sunday’s day of rest. Venice may only have a few thousand true residents and an empire long since gone but behind the “I Love Venice” T-shirts people still live everyday lives.

Lines of laundry stretch along the peeling plaster and painted shutters like flags on a village fete. Tanned men in loafers drive their speedboats too fast, sloshing foam onto the brickwork that looks as though it has seen it all. There’s the sound of a baby crying and the smell of freshly baked bread.

Off-Duty Gondolier Reading a Newspaper in Venice by a Gondola

Another canal takes me past a vegetable market, where chubby cherry tomatoes and stout pumpkin-sized ones change hands beneath the shade of a church tower. A male voice choir entertains in one piazza, while a saxophonist lets rip in another. Gondoliers in stripy T-shirts smoke and read the newspaper, their straw hats tilted to protect them from the sun.

Then I cross the Ponte de Gheto Novo, the wrought-iron bridge that carries me into the square of the same name. As it turns out, I have been wandering through the district of Il Ghetto, the small enclave of Venice that gave its name to every sad and squalid ghetto ever since.

Il Ghetto, the small enclave of Venice that gave its name to every ghetto ever since.

In the 14th century, this was the Jewish area. Closed gates enforced a curfew at night, property rights were restricted and Jewish citizens had to identify themselves by wearing a badge. This sounded to me like the beginning of the holocaust but apparently, in the Middle Ages, such treatment was mild in comparison to persecution elsewhere. Jewish refugees arrived here from Spain, Portugal and the outposts of the Ottoman Empire, building upwards and upwards in this cramped corner of relative peace.

Star of David - Ghetto - Venice - Venetian Glass

In Venice’s Ghetto

Today those boundaries have long since gone, leaving butter-coloured walls and dark-chocolate shutters overlooking the children who play in the square. A bustling restaurant serves kosher food, stars of David glitter in traditional Venetian glass and synagogues operate freely.

In one corner in the shade, a set of metallic plaques commemorate the 200 or so Jews sent to the death camps during the Second World War. Surrounded by the romance of the sleek gondolas and the wealth of historic art, this atrocity seems somehow even harder to comprehend than usual.

Walking past students sitting cross-legged in doorways and sketching in charcoal, I realise that the ghetto that spawned them all doesn’t dwell in the past. Handmade posters name countries, detail times and catalogue dates – but it’s not a tourist-driven schedule, nor an historic monument. It’s the programme for the 2010 Football World Cup.

Campo San Geremia - Watching the world cup in Venice

The Beautiful Game in Venice

It’s the programme for the 2010 Football World Cup.

In a world of love affairs, La Serenissima, it seems, has fallen for the beautiful game.

Views from Piazzetta San Marco - Gondolas and Beautiful Landscape of Venice

Traditional Venice – View from Piazzetta San Marco

, ,

13 Responses to Seduction in the Ghetto: Venice

  1. Gernot Pösendorfer June 21, 2010 at 6:28 am #

    Nice story about Venice, one of the most likeable places in the world.

  2. Abi June 29, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    Thanks Gernot – I love the place!

  3. Steve June 30, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

    Stunning photo of the mask – I remember them from when I was in a few years back. Very distinctive and beautifully captured here.

  4. Melissa July 27, 2010 at 12:17 am #

    I don’t know if they told you this on the tour or not, but il Ghetto was the most liberal of Jewish quarters. In other areas of Europe, Jews were treated much worse then being locked in at night or were expelled altogether, such as in London and Seville.

  5. Michela July 27, 2010 at 11:09 am #

    I am impressed about the story of the Ghetto in Venice…this is an aspect of Venice I don’t know much about it…being Italian..in the past as a student I used to love cities like Bologna or Rome, in the meantime Venice has turned into my fave italian city, its flair and the peaceful atmosphere that reigns there is hardly to beat in Italy!

  6. Abi February 3, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    Oh – not sure why my comment didn’t appear here earlier.
    @Steve – yes, the masks are stunning. I know they attract a lot of grumbles as they are all over Venice now and not as well made as they used to be etc etc – but I still think that they are beautiful.
    @Melissa – uh, I wasn’t on tour, just roaming around on my own, with some research before and after. Not sure why you picked up on London and Seville in particular but the article does say:
    “Closed gates enforced a curfew at night, property rights were restricted and Jewish citizens had to identify themselves by wearing a badge. This sounded to me like the beginning of the holocaust but apparently, in the Middle Ages, such treatment was mild in comparison to persecution elsewhere. Jewish refugees arrived here from Spain, Portugal and the outposts of the Ottoman Empire, building upwards and upwards in this cramped corner of relative peace.”
    @Michela – Well, the ghetto looks so peaceful now! I agree, that Italy has so much to offer as a country – and I also think that as a traveller you notice things more than when you come from a place. When I lived in London, for example, visitors would arrive and explore the city like crazy but it was only when I realised that I would be leaving that I got around to visiting the biggies like the Tower of London and the smaller places, like the Florence Nightingale Museum.

  7. kitchenvoyage March 22, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Great city but very touristy if you want to stay and enjoy of another venice stay in dorsoduro.

    • Abi May 29, 2011 at 8:21 am #

      Incredibly touristy, I agree. Yet, it’s also easy to sidestep the tourists by turning down an alleyway…

  8. Mark S October 20, 2011 at 11:59 pm #

    Fortunately for us every time we went to Venice was in the spring mostly in May which is nice because it is before the kids get out of school in the US. The place was never as crowded as so many people have told us so it was always nice. One of the nicest days we had in Venice was our last day there on our last trip because the water buses were on strike and we had to walk everywhere. It wasn’t a big deal to walk since Venice isn’t that big but we got the chance to see many parts of the city we would have never seen because we were normally to busy going to and from places on the water buses rather than enjoying the journey to the site we wanted to see.

    • Abi April 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed seeing other parts of the city. I love Venice, whatever the critics say!

  9. Marius Achim December 23, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    I think it’s good, but could be better

  10. ashree February 14, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Another point of view for Venice. At least for me I always see it as a romantic city with waterway and that’s all. Nice article.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Secret Venice: Unlocking Venice’s Hidden Sides | Cheap Weekend Breaks - January 16, 2011

    […] Venice. Walk past gardens and parks, families having dinner, locals indulging in a kayak race…Retrace history in Il Ghetto, the part of Venice that lent its name to ghettos everywhere else. Sketching in […]

Silver Footprint Ltd 6464260 Registered in England & Wales. All links are hand-checked and only included if they are both useful and relevant. Some may earn this website money. See the small print for more details. Profile on

css.php