The Venice Caffè culture

Venice caffè or Coffee shop scams is a popular argument. Every now and then, you read in a newspaper, or nowadays someone writes a Tweet or a Facebook blog, about the rip-offs in Saint Mark’s Square. Someone has walked around there when suddenly the urge for a cup of coffee hit him from nowhere. So he sits down at the nearest table, looks over the square and feels very satisfied with the view. He calls the waiter and orders a cup. The excellent blend goes down like a dream and he pulls up the wallet to pay.
venice cafeHe’s preparing for something expensive, but hey, you only live once …
A coffee in a normal Venice Caffè at the bar costs what, 1 euro?.. 1,20? Here it got to be more, so maybe 2… 3? Then I’ve been sitting down and that’s always expensive, so 4 euros?.. 5? Now really? He pulls out a fiver and calls the waiter…
– That will be 19:50, the man with the white jacket says in a perfectly neutral tone.

The Venice Caffè

In Italy, normal coffee drinking procedure is as follows. You go into a Bar, preferably with friends, order for everybody and when you get the coffee, you drink it with or without sugar. After that, you argue a bit about who’s going to pay. No, not who’s paying in the sense that it has to be correct and fair. In Italy, the one who says the word caffè is supposed to have invited, and he’s the one paying, but everybody tries to get ahead and pay. If you’re a guest you don’t stand a chance. Just forget it. It took me two years in Italy before I was able to pay for my first coffee.

Now, if you sit down you normally pay a little extra, but always ask. Sometimes they let you sit down with the coffee from the bar, without charging. On Piazza San Marco, that is not the case. On Piazza San Marco you pay, and you pay a lot.

Drawing room EuropeThe rule here is: Always ask before. The prices on restaurants and bars in Italy have to be exposed. That doesn’t always happen but as a rule, you should always ask before. On Saint Mark’s Square, the prices are exposed, but still: Ask before. That’s the fourth time I write that.

Caffès in Saint Mark’s Square

On Piazza San Marco there are five Caffès. On the south side, Caffè Florian the most exclusive and Caffè Aurora, the least exclusive. On the north side, there are Caffè Eden, Gran Caffè Quadri, and Gran Caffè Lavena. Of these Florian, Quadri and Lavena have music. With the music, there’s a cost and this is included in the prices on the menu for the latter two. In the case of Caffè Florian, the music fee is 12 euros on top of the things you order.

Around the corner, there are two more, but that’s not really Saint Mark’s Square. It’s actually what we call La Piazzetta, and it’s really the oldest part of the Square. There is Caffè Chioggia, which is expensive, have music and is no good. Then there is the Bar Gelateria Al TodaroThey have some decent Ice cream too.

A tactical consideration

An example. You order a single cup of coffee. That would not be convenient on Florian, as our friend at the beginning realizes after having argued with the extremely calm waiter. But if you eat two or three tramezzini and you wash it down with half a bottle of Prosecco, then it’s possibly better to go to Florian as you pay only once for the music.

If you order to have done just that… To be able to tell the people at home that you had a coffee on San Marco, and you chose the cheapest thing you see on the menu, which would be a coffee. Then chose one on the northern side. But again, if you want to put the check in a frame over the dinner table, and tell the story about the rip-off to friends and family, then Florian is the way to go. Like my father did. He and my mother went there in the 70s and he kept the receipt of 22.000 lire in a box al his life, as a souvenir.

caffe venice
Caffè Florian

And… Florian is the oldest Cafè in Italy. It dates back all the way to 1720. That should be worth something. And the view is nice. The Square that Napoleon Bonaparte once called the Drawing room of Europe is the buzzing heart of the magical city.

The Venice Caffè Orchestras

The music is quite alright too. Frankly, I think they deserve the money, the musicians. Although I think most of the 12 euros go to the coffee shop owner. Still. they play from early morning until late evening, and they do it well. Normally a quartet or a quintet. Piano, Double Bass, Violin, and a Clarinet. Can be more even, but they can also be less.
A fun quiz is to get out in the middle of the square and try to guess what they are playing. With three orchestras playing more or less the same repertoire, it’s what we in the business call spontaneous polytonality…

Saint Marks OrchestraSo if you’re on a tight budget, but still want it all, then have your coffee at the bar inside Caffè Aurora next to Florian. That’s 1:50. Then walk out on the Square and listen to the music for free. But if you do that, you will not be able to keep the receipt of the ridiculously expensive coffee in a box and show it to your children and grandchildren with a smile saying:  In Venice, I’ve had the biggest markup of my life… 

Carnevale di Venezia II

What is the meaning of the Carnival?

Best Mask CompetitionJust the other day I was talking to a friend of mine. He’s not a young man and he used to live at Cannaregio in the fifties and sixties. Back then there wasn’t any Carnival. No Flight of the Angel on Piazza San Marco, no Water-Shows on Canale di Cannaregio and no invasion of tourists. It was more or less just the ordinary life going on as usual.
But the kids weren’t satisfied with that. They needed more… So they invented all kinds of jokes and pranks, just to have a bit of fun. They used to buy flour from the local groceries or just steal it from mothers pantry.
With the paper bag in one hand, they went out in the street and started throwing the flour on each other. After that, they got into throwing it on others, and that was much more exciting… And dangerous. If the other, happened to be someone who could identify them, then it could mean a beating and to be stranded for a week or two.

japanese colorsThe best time was when it was raining. One can only imagine the poor mothers face when one of her children got home after a whole day of street-war with white flour on a rainy day.
He also told me, they used to swim in the canals. Something I wouldn’t recommend today. They even jumped from the Ponte delle Guglie, which is quite a high bridge. The target was to jump right in front or beside a boat so that the water sprayed the passengers. Often they had to run away from a suddenly appearing police boat, half-naked and shivering.

The Carnival

It’s a wonderful event with thousands of people having a good time together, eating and drinking, showing off, and enjoying the moment. But maybe it all started with children playing and inventing every kind of practical joke. And then, afterward, they put an organization on top of it, and they ended up with the Carnivale di Venezia.
Because at the end of the day, we don’t need the Carnival. Nobody does. The party is OK all by itself. It doesn’t have to be so well organized. To enjoy life you don’t really need all the packaging… A good meal, a glass of Wine and maybe a Frittella. A disguise, good friends and cheerfulness. There’s the real Carnival for you… And it doesn’t even have to be in Venice.

french soldierAnd then, the Venice Carnival isn’t all that uniform. It is not one, single, antique holiday imposed by the Catholic church. It’s not some remembrance of an occasion in ancient time when someone was miraculously saved by a Saint. The Carnival has some very old traditions as a ground plate. On these, they then built the modern Carnevale di Venezia as we see it today. And one of the most important traditions is La Festa delle Marie.

And this is how it goes…

One of the oldest Christian holidays is the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary also known as Candlemass. It is celebrated 40 days after Christmas and anybody knowing about mathematics realize that the day would be the 2nd of February. Actually, one day is missing, but in ancient time the days were a bit shorter. The purification of the Virgin Mary was a very important feast in Venice. That day, every young couple who was engaged to get married that year got blessed by the Bishop in San Pietro in Castello.

Among the young girls there were some who really didn’t have enough nor for the dowry, neither for all the rest, the dress, the jewelry, and the eating and drinking. So it was decided that to help the necessitous, twelve of the poorest, but most beautiful of the future brides, would be dressed and decorated by the noble families. And the state would pay for the banquet and thus giving the opportunity for even the least propertied of the city to marry.

beautiful italian girlsThe Dalmatian Pirates

In the year 943, during the ceremony inside the church of Castello, the whole city with the noble families all present as well as the Doge himself was caught completely off guard by pirates. The ships from across the sea, from Dalmatia, had sailed right into the lagoon and while everybody was engaged in the celebrations, they just landed right outside the church, went in, grabbed the twelve girls with all the jewelry, lent to them by the state for the occasion, and sailed off.
The Venetians were heartbroken and desperate. How could they have let this happen? Twelve of their most valuable virgins were gone… And so were the jewels from the city bank vault, as well as the dowry offered by the nobles. Action was called for and it took the Doge no more than 12 hours to prepare and send out ships to pursue the pirates.

On the sea, the Venetians were a capable lot. They had fast, strong vessels, and they could row as well as sail. So, outside Caorle in a place which after that became Porto delle Donzelle, they caught up with their enemies. There was a battle and the Venetians saved the girls and killed every single one of the pirates. The spot where it happened has changed the name since and today it’s called Porto Santa Margherita if you would want to visit it.

Anyway, the brides were all saved and so was the gold (…just as important). And so to magnify and enlarge the celebration, after this, there were processions on the Canal Grande, there were processions by the girls and every other party-hungry citizen, there were artists and musicians and there were a lot of beautiful dresses, probably combined with masks. And it went on for several days… weeks even.

colors venice carnivalThe Decline.

This went on for hundreds of years, but as time went by, the safety and more so, the moral conduct of bridegrooms and admirers of the poor girls went to exaggeration. And the relationship between the different families of the poor girls as well as between the rich giving away and the poor receiving often led to quarrel and even hatred. So in the 14th century, the real girls were substituted with copies, statues in wood. The Venetians angrily rebelled against this change and it’s interesting to read a law instituted in 1349 that reads: Anyone caught throwing vegetables or other plants or fruits on the statues during the feast of the twelve Maris, will be sentenced to jail.

In 1379 it was abandoned altogether. And since then no Festa delle Marie has taken place in Venice, although the Carnival lived on. Until 1979, when the new Carnival was introduced, and they kicked life into a whole lot of the old traditions again. And now every year the most beautiful of the twelve Maris gets to be the one flying high over Saint Marks Square in the Flight of the Eagle, the event that officially opens the Carnival.

And apart from that, she gets married,..