Just steps off the main drag, the real Venice beckons
Make like a local and see a different side of the city
Walking through Venice while sightseeing can feel like traversing a very large, improbably handsome airport. You follow an eccentrically signposted route from which you cannot deviate, shuttling up and down endless, mysterious flights of stairs. And you’re surrounded by fellow travelers who come from all over the world yet seem oddly similar (and equally lost).
It is, of course, a fantastically enjoyable experience, with remarkable architecture at every turn. But the prescribed nature of the tourist trail means that if you venture away from it, going just two or three blocks off the beaten path, another world awaits. The Venice that actual Venetians live in is full of ancient little squares where children play football watched over by flocks of heavyset grandmas; restaurants serving cheap, delicious food to local laborers; and narrow canal-side streets which offer endless opportunities for impromptu entertainment. On my last trip I watched a young couple take delivery of a washing machine that arrived on a tiny boat, with no obvious way of getting it up onto the bank or into their 800-year-old house.
There’s one truly captivating local scene that you’re guaranteed to see if you stroll as far as the Campo San Giacomo on a summer Tuesday. As evening falls the plaza, built around a 13th century church, becomes a meeting place for Venice’s tango aficionados, a skilled and dedicated bunch who get together once a week and dance ‘til they drop.
As a visitor, your best bet is to arrive a bit before the sun starts to dip, find a table at a café or some space on a bench, and just watch: The dancers seem indifferent to spectators. Music, none of a more recent-sounding vintage than 1940, is provided by a middle-aged woman with a home-made wooden box on wheels that contains her stereo and speakers. As the sun goes down, people start to arrive from work and before long, all over the plaza couples are dancing, gliding around the square in fluid, sinuous movements with elaborate footwork, pausing between songs to change partners or splash water on their faces from an ancient spigot. (Tango is sweaty work, and Venice is hot and humid in the summer).
To the uninitiated, tango can seem extremely ornate, perhaps anachronistic; but seeing it danced with the passion and unselfconscious seriousness of the Venetians, especially in such gorgeous, ancient surroundings, it’s impossible not to be transported.
It’s also a fascinating study in social interactions. The night I went to Campo San Giacomo, after the dancing had been going on for a while, a very attractive woman rushed in from work with an extra bag, like someone who was late for their evening soccer match. She removed the high heels she wore to the office, and replaced them with the shoes in her bag. Sneakers? Oh no — an even taller pair of stilettos. She waited at the side of the square to be asked to dance: She was practically pacing, but, when it comes to tango, men have to do the asking...
As the next song started, a young man took her by the hand and they moved out into the square. He was leading, but in less than a minute it became obvious that she was by far the better dancer, and needed a more advanced partner. The song continued and they both made the best of it, he looking slightly embarrassed, she appearing frustrated and resigned. The music stopped, they nodded at each other, and he went for some water. She returned to waiting on the sidelines, with all the men present now understanding what would be required of them if they stepped up. She tried to look un-intimidating and she failed, but the night was still young. Perhaps the next man would be worthy.