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Matthew Fort: Venice!

“Venice, its temples and palaces did seem like fabrics of enchantment piled to heaven” wrote the Victorian critic John Ruskin.

It was night as I approached the city in one of those elegant, speedy water taxis. I sensed rather than saw the fabrics of enchantment, although the short journey from the airport had a magic of which even Ruskin never dreamt. The ghostly outline of the city ahead, lights glimmering on the polished black surface of the lagoon, the stakes marking a marine highway leaning this way and that. The shapes of other boats glimmering through the darkness and then gone, the rush of wind in the face and the intoxicating brew of sea and salt and seaweed and diesel.

I have been to Venice a good many times and I’m still astonished by its loveliness, its dream-like quality and sheer improbability. If it didn’t already exist, no one would make it. To have a few days to potter around the city after the restrictions of Covid was a rare privilege, not least because Covid had winnowed down the hundreds of thousands of tourists, sightseers and selfie fanatics down to, well, thousands.

In many ways, I think autumn suits Venice best. The weather was still warm. The sun was longer the brass gong of high summer, but a quieter, gentler orb, muted and slightly blurred. Mist rose up from the canals each evening, lingered on a while before vanishing in the course the morning. The whole city was cloaked in an exquisite melancholy. It had the quality of a woman of ravishing beauty on which time has left its indelible mark, but who daily puts on her most sumptuous trappings, employs all the artifice of embellishment and sallies forth once again.

So there we were, my old chum, Lisa Hilton, whose earlier essay on the leading part that Venice played in the introduction of coffee to Europe in the 17th Century graced the Piano Coffee blog, and I, sitting in the sunshine at a café (or caffé as Italians prefer) on the Zattere with a clear view of the church of Il Redentore, across the Grand Canal breakfasting on an impeccable cappuccino and a croissant plush with crème pātissière.

Yes, she said, of course you can find the vestiges of Venice’s great coffee past here and there around the city. There’s Florian’s on the Piazza San Marco for a start, quite possibly the grandest and certainly one of the most expensive cafés or caffés in the world with the Grancaffé Quadri not far behind, and Caffé Lavena, not to mention Harry’s Bar, a parvenu among Venice's social landmarks, and others less well known, there was still at least one coffee roaster in the city, and yes she would show me all of those, but not today because she had other things in mind.

And so began a helter-skelter scamper through some of Venice’s diversions old and new, that took in the Majlis exhibition celebrating aspect of pre-Islamic and Islamic culture in the gardens of the Abbazia di San Giorgio Maggiore; revisiting old friends such as the altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini that graces the church of San Zaccaria. Then a concert of Baroque trio music followed by Negronis in the bar of the Gritti Hotel then a detour to the extraordinary, multi-arched circular staircase known as Scala Contarini del Bovolo followed by dinner at Ai Mercanti, one of Venice’s more stylish contemporary restaurants; and a walk with the ghosts of Venice on the night of Halloween. It’s the kind of combination of experiences you can only have in Venice and possibly Rome.

But Rome doesn’t have Venice’s wavy, watery dimension that leant a whispering, lapping, sinister quality to our encounter with some of the city’s ghosts.

About a dozen of us had dutifully followed Oscar Blustin, an immersive theatre director, our guide and narrator, as he galloped from one spot to another, recounting various episodes of a story that encompassed several murders, the spirit world, and the darker side of Venice’s history. We arrived a little breathless at a bricked doorway in a narrow, winding, crepuscular alleyway. Behind it, according to Oscar, was the spirit of a murderous girl who had been imprisoned there.

‘Please place your hand on the brickwork,’ he asked one of our party, a young woman

She placed her hand flat on the brick.

Oscar went on with his exposition. After a minute or two, he asked the young woman with her hand on the brickwork if she felt anything.

No, she said.

‘Move your hand a little lower and try and imagine how a young woman walled in behind bricks might try to communicate with you.’

The young woman did as she was told, looking sceptical. And then she didn’t. She closed her fingers around something and withdrew it from between the bricks. It was a tiny scroll tied up with a ribbon. Carefully she undid the ribbon and unfurled the scroll and read what was written on it by the light of a somewhat inadequate street lamp.

‘Terra Acqua
Sangue sciacqua
Acqua Terra
Sangue sferra’

She read out loud, which roughly translates as:

Earth water
Blood rushes
Earth water
Blood unleashes

and then

‘Tu sei il prossimo’ - You’re next.

Well, I can tell you, at that time, on that day, in that place, it was really spooky. Worth a dozen trick or treat outings. Thank heavens it was time for bright lights, glasses of wine and a supper of pumpkin risotto robust enough to banish the eeriest of ghosts.

The next day it rained all day.The waters rose and began lapping over the city’s walkways. It was time to go.

Matthew Fort is a renowned food writer and critic. He was a judge on the BBC’s Great British Menu from when the series began in 2006 up until this year and was The Guardian’s food and drink editor for ten years. His great love affair with Italian gastronomy and culture has inspired three out of four of his books. We welcome Matthew as an ambassador for Piano Coffee.