Castello: the Venetians' Venice!

You may feel the urge to put some distance between yourself and the jam-packed Piazza San Marco. Rest assured, life continues as normal in the Venetians' Venice, for example in Castello, a bustling working-class district fifteen minutes east of the Piazza San Marco. In the biggest and most highly populated of Venice's six sestieri (districts), washing still hangs out to dry at the windows, the elderly quietly go about their shopping, and bambini play football in the streets.

Castello is probably named after the little San Pietro island, which must once have been defended by a fortress (castello). The view from the wooden Quintavalle bridge over the Canale San Pietro takes in squeri (repair and construction shipyards), quays, pontoons and buoys.

On the green Campo San Pietro stands a bell tower and the San Pietro di Castello church, which was Venice's official cathedral until 1807. San Marco's church was the doges' private chapel. Admire the 54-metre-high (177 ft) dome of this basilica, just 4 (13 ft) metres shorter than the dome of Saint Peter's basilica in Rome. If you fall for the charm of Venice, return during the last week of June for one of Venice's most authentic popular and family-oriented events: the festival of San Pietro, where you can sample typical Venetian dishes, washed down with local wines, beneath a canopy made of hundreds of coloured bulbs.

Venice, queen of the Carnival

First, go to Mondonovo Maschere, Guerrino Giano Lovato's boutique and workshop near the Campo Santa Margherita. You will be welcomed with open arms by this old art historian, who was responsible for most of the restoration of La Fenice theatre the man is a master of all techniques, from fresco painting to the art of stuccowork. Here, "Gianni" upholds a quality tradition, the papier-mâché mask, an inspiration that has been reinterpreted and enriched by numerous contributions, from the carnival in Rio to cartoons. The greatest Italian Commedia dell'Arte troupes place their orders with him.

According to Gianni, the classic Venetian mask discreet and neutral - depended on "the performing qualities of the person wearing it". Today - and he says this without acrimony - "it's a triumph for narcissism", as attested by the many masks of celebrities that offer a borrowed personality. At his place, you will find a selection of real anatomical masks, i.e. made to be worn and not hung on the wall, with prices ranging from €25 to €100.

Castello, district of the Adriatic pirates

As you go up the Fondamenta S. Anna, you will pass a gondola full of fruit and vegetables moored to the quay; the locals come here to fill their shopping bags with small purple artichokes from Liguria, asparagus from Venetia and lettuce from Treviso. Further along, the fishmonger displays his sole, red mullet and cuttlefish, which are used to prepare the delicious spaghetti al nero di sepia (with cuttlefish ink), a typical dish and an absolute must.

Further on, to the left, you can see the Calle delle Furlane, lined with humble 18th century buildings similar to those on the Frioul Islands off Marseilles. The people who lived here came to Venice looking for work; the women were employed as washerwomen, child-minders and servants, and it was they who introduced the furlana, a traditional dance which they excelled at.

Next comes the Via Garibaldi (the only "Via" in Venice), the city's widest street (17.5 m, 57.4 ft) which stands on the former Rio di Castello, filled in on Napoleon's orders. An airy, lively street, dotted with many cafés, wine bars and some good small osterie (restaurants), the Via Garibaldi is a pleasant place for a stroll. In this working-class district, it is more common to have un'ombra di vino (a glass of wine) in the morning than a coffee - a prosecco, for example, or a glass of white wine. If there are any cicheti, delicious Venetian nibbles, even better!

Nearby, a trattoria called Sottoprova which means "conditional" - evokes the prison past of some of the inhabitants of Castello. After the Second World War, the district, occupied by American armed forces, was bursting with life, with the arrival of the first jukeboxes and many bands. The young indulged in all sorts of trafficking (first penicillin, then cigarettes) thanks to powerful motor boats, which earned them the nickname "pirates of the Adriatic".

The Arsenale

The highlight of the Castello district is the Arsenale - a city within a city, though nowadays largely derelict - which was at the root of Venice's maritime power. At the height of the Serenissima, it was the greatest shipyard in Europe, and the 5,000 workmen building up to two boats per day formed a kind of aristocracy there.

The gateway, heavily influenced by antiquity, with its lions, mythological statues and Greek marble columns, was the first Renaissance work in Venice (1460). The biggest lion, on the left, used to guard the entrance to the port of Piraeus in Athens and was brought to Venice as a war trophy in 1692.

All around the Arsenale lived not only Venetian workmen and sailors, but also Arabs, Turks, Byzantines, Syrians, adventurers from the four corners of the world, and former slaves. The district formed a patchwork of nationalities, unique in the world.

It is hardly surprising that Corte Sconta, Hugo Pratt's favourite restaurant, is just a stone's throw away, in Calle Pestrin. This place is known to all Venetians and excels in the preparation of fish, crustaceans and shellfish. Another way to enjoy the sea...

Practical information

Turismo Venezia

Corte Sconta
Calle del Pestrin, 3886,
Castello, Venezia

The tourist attractions mentioned

Castello Castello
Island of San Pietro Island of San Pietro
Island of San Pietro
Church of San Pietro di Castello Church of San Pietro di Castello
Church of San Pietro di Castello
Campo Santa Marherita Campo Santa Marherita
Campo Santa Marherita
La Fenice Theatre La Fenice Theatre
La Fenice Theatre
Arsenal of Venice Arsenal of Venice
Arsenal of Venice