The rooftop terrace, or as it is called in Italian; L Altana. They are visible everywhere. High up there, over the roofs, they are like bird’s nest high up in the treetops. Often they seem to defy all the laws of physics, those about gravity … Newton and his apple. Looking fragile in relation to the stable and well-built palaces below.
What are they for? Why are they up there? Had it not been better to build a real terrace with mortar and stone, of steel and concrete instead of that thin structure of wood?
L’Altana. The word comes from the Italian word for high – alto. And higher up than on top of the building itself one cannot be. They appeared for the first time roughly when the palaces began to become so large and stable that it was possible to build something on the roof. The first documents are from the 1200s.
The rooftop terrace
It has always been very loved and appreciated by the Venetians. Down in the city itself, it was crowded. There were the diseases, which were sometimes so serious that it was life-threatening to just leave the house. Down there was also the dirt, the stench, the horses and the other animals. And there it was crowded. The streets of Venice were, and still, are, cramped. The narrowest street is 53 centimeters, Calle Varisco.
But up on the roof … There you could enjoy wide views, the wind and the sun, and the rain and the cool. It was simply a wonderful place for the crowded Venetians where they could breathe clean and fresh air for a few moments.
In the beginning,
they were service spaces. They were there to hang the laundry, to grow some tomatoes … And to bleach the hair. There is even a name for it: Venetian blonde. The women used various home-made, but probably rather powerful, recipes. Then they went up to the Altana, put a special screen, which protected the skin of the face under the hair and let the sun do its job. The result was that the hair became brighter.
Nowadays, they are the perfect place for a spritz in good company, or for sunbathing … and not just the hair. You can also escape from the tropical heat during the summer months and even if it is warm up here too, it might blow a little and in this way, life becomes a bit more bearable.
But don’t they fall down?
No, actually they don’t. Occasionally, parts of buildings collapse, a cornerstone, a piece of the roof by faulty building techniques or material, earthquakes, or other natural disasters. But it is much more frequent that masonry terraces fall down than these wooden structures. They’re completely made out of wood. The pillars and railings can be in other materials, but the law states that the actual platform can’t be built in anything but wood. And wood is flexible and light and is maybe less subject to cracks.
Being up there it doesn’t always feel very safe though. Especially the ones that don’t have at least one brick wall to lean against. It can be a bit nervy.
Is it possible to build a new one?
Yes, it is, and every now and then you see a new Altana up and running. But it is quite difficult to get all the permits, e.g. you have to have all the neighbors’ approval, and thatalone can be tricky. Not everyone appreciates getting something above their apartment or getting the view obscured.
Italy has always had major problems with illegal buildings. It is expensive and difficult to build according to all the rules and meet all the conditions, so many build without authorization. Building a new Altana was previously completely forbidden. But the Venetians have never been a docile and compliant people. They built anyway.
Now that you actually have the opportunity to build a completely legal rooftop terrace, many have become accustomed to the old ways. The municipality has been putting the heat on unauthorized constructions for years and many are those who after a court decision have had to dismantle their beloved open space.
So the ones you see these days are all, or almost all, authorized and respecting all safety conditions. Next time you walk through Venice, look up. Because up there you have le Altane, there’s air and light … And up there you can still see some of the old Venice, the chimneys, the Venetian windows, without the souvenir shops and the tourist traps.
Well, first of all, the 25th of April is a public holiday. It’s the day of the liberation. In 1945, on the 25th of April, the North Italian National Liberation CommitteeCLNAI declared the final and total uprising against the German occupiers and around that time the occupied territory in the north was freed, Venice was liberated the 28th.
LIberation? What liberation, you might think. Wasn’t Italy allied with the Germans? So it must have been a surrender?
Not really. Italy was a part of the Axis forces but had surrendered already in 1943. The Italian people were never really so enthusiastic about the fascism, the treaty with Germany or the war. When the allied invaded Sicily, the fascist party decided to limit the power of their leader Benito Mussolini. Something they actually could do. That fact explains something about the authority or none authority of the Duke and the contradictions inside the Italian political landscape. Just imagine the Nazi-party firing Hitler, and you understand something about the difference between Italy and Germany at that time.
Mussolini was dismissed.
Anyway, the king Victor Emmanuel III simply fired Mussolini and put him in jail. Then he formed a new government together with the General Pietro Badoglio. Still fascist, but secretly negotiating with the allies for a surrender. The 8th of September an armistice was announced, and Italy had formally surrendered. From that point although there was quite a bit of confusion on the Italian peninsula, the Germans strengthened their presence, the allied troops advanced from the south and the Italians mostly started fighting their former brothers, the Germans. In Rome, only one Italian division was defending and the Germans could easily take the eternal city. They freed Mussolini and he then created the Republic of Salò in the north.
So the situation was that of liberation. The 25th of April represents the beginning of the final victory for the resistance and the allied forces. The Partisans captured and killed Mussolini on the 28th of April. On May the 2nd the Republic of Salò surrendered together with the German troops in Italy and on May the 8th the war ended.
The 25th of April is the anniversary of the liberation in Italy. As such it is a national holiday and we have the speech of the President, parades, brass bands and the Italian flags with its three colors… Il Tricolore.
The other 25th of April.
But in Venice, we have yet another public holiday (Couldn’t they have them on two different occasions? So we could be home from work on two days instead of one?). So here you can choose: Celebrate the liberation… Or, commemorate the death of the Patron of Venice, San Marco. He’s supposed to have died on that day, although deaths and births 2000 years ago are a bit approximative.
Saint Mark’s day the 25th of April was a very important holiday in the days of the Republic. There was a procession at Saint Mark’s square in which all the authorities of the Republic participated, the Doge, the Patriarch, and every other important person. But the Saint was such a central figure in the Venice’ life that they celebrated him on two more occasions. The 31st of January, when the relics arrived in Venice in the year 828, and the 25th of June, when the bones were placed inside the Basilica of Saint Mark’s.
… So what about it?
And now to the present political situation in Venice and Veneto. The separatists in many regions in the north of Italy are strong but nowhere as strong as in Veneto. The last election gave an absolute majority to Lega Nord, whose full name is Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania, The Nordic league for Padania’s independence. Padania being the Po-valley often used in a sweeping political sense as northern Italy. Interestingly they dropped the “Nord” in their name and got so many votes in the last national elections, that they could form a government together with the 5-star movement. A party who was founded on an idea to free the north from Rome is now governing the nation in Rome.
And this leads up to a situation where celebrating Saint Mark and celebrating Italy becomes contradictory. It’s a bit like a soccer derby. Two teams from the same neighborhood meet and the fans are just a bit too enthusiastic about cheering for their own boys. It can get rough.
The Saint Mark’s fans don’t want to hear the national anthem, they don’t want the President of the republic and they don’t want the Italian flag. They have their own flag with the Venetian Lion in blue or orange.
The Italianists don’t come to Saint Mark’s square. They go elsewhere or stay home to be able to watch national TV without interruption.
And on the 26th life goes on a usual, Because there is no people in the world with as good spirit, welcoming attitude and forgiving approach as the Italians. One day you’re enemies and the day after you offer a cup of coffee and that’s that.
Another holiday? How many do they have..?
Yes, there is another reason for celebrating. Or maybe not celebrating, because this is a very sad story. (… Now, come on. One holiday when we could have had three days off work..?)
At the end of 700 when the Republic still wasn’t in Venice, but on the mainland, the daughter of the future Doge Angelo Partecipazio, Maria fell in love with the young, handsome but inexperienced Tancredo. He needed to make a name for himself to be able to ask for her hand in marriage. So he went with Charles the Great to Spain to fight the Arabs. He was a brave soldier and had already started to distiguinìsh himself for his value on the battlefield when he was hit by the enemy in a counterattack. He fell in a rose garden and with his dying breath he took a rosebud colored with his blood. He asked his friend Orlando to bring it to his beloved Maria and tell her that his last thoughts were of her. Maria got the rosebud but the day after, 25th of April, she was found dead with the flower pressed to her chest.
From that day it’s a tradition in Venice, to give a rosebud to the lady of your heart on that day.
You may not know this, but Venice was actually the coffee capital during the Renaissance. The best Coffee in the world was found in Venice, in the bars, and in the shops. Despite the touristic touch of late, you can still find some extremely well-tasting java here and now I will tell you where to go to get the best coffee in Venice
In the middle ages, the practice of grinding the coffee beans and mix them with hot water spread across the Arabic world. The origin was possibly Ethiopia and from there it slowly came north. It was a very popular drink among nobles and others with money to spend. Considered a healthy, strengthening and even aphrodisiac beverage it finale reached Constantinople – Istanbul in the 15th century.
The word coffee comes from the Arabic word Cahwah, as it’s written in the Latin alphabet. In Turkish, Kahve. And it was right there in Turkey, or the Ottoman Empire, that the Venetian traders got their hands on it. They learned how to make Coffee from the beans from the locals and being what they were – Venetian businessmen, they soon perfected the process and started to commercialize the black gold in the west.
Gianfrancesco Morosini, the Venetian ambassador in Constantinople wrote about coffee already in 1585. And by the beginning of the 17th century, the first sacks reached Venice. It was considered a medicinal herb but very soon it started its triumphant conquest as a social beverage. It was good, it had a long list of beneficial properties, and it was exclusive and expensive. Drinking coffee was also a class thing, the poor and the poorly educated drank alcohol while the smart, beautiful and wealthy drank coffee.
The church, on the other hand, didn’t enjoy the new trend. It was black and it excited the drinker. Originated from the Arab world it was frowned upon. Fortunately, Clemente VIII who was Pope at the end of 1500 and the beginning of 1600 loved coffee. And he loved it so much that he had to think of something to be able to drink a lot of it. This beverage of the Devil is so good that we have to try to trick him… By baptizing it, he announced and so Coffee got baptized and everybody could enjoy it without risking their eternal soul.
Well, the drinking of Coffee soon went from being an extremely exclusive drug, used only for medical purpose, to become a social beverage to be drunk in Coffe houses. The very first real Caffè was opened in 1720 by Valentino Floriano Francesconi. Some say it’s the first Caffè in the world. The name was Alla Venezia Trionfante. It was an immediate success although the name didn’t stick to people’s minds. They simply called it The Floriano, or correctly in Venetian dialect: Florian.
We’ll come back to Florian but we’re going to look out over La Serenissima and try to find what is the best Coffee shop in Venice today and we’re going to try to get ourselves a really, really good cup of Coffee. To do this we will start at the long and relatively straight street called Strada Nova. In fact, it is the only “Strada” in Venice, while all the others are called Calle, Path. Strada Nova was created at the beginning of the 19th century, by the Austrians, and it soon became a very lively trading pot.
Right here was the home of the Torrefazione Cannaregio, opened already in 1931. I say was because last year, after having problems with skyrocketing rents – A very common phenomena in recent years – they decided to change location. Now they’re found right outside the Ghetto, in Fondamenta dei Ormesini. The new location is perfect, tranquil yet busy with a steady flow of locals and tourists. And as a client, you can enjoy the newly restored interior in brown and beige that goes very well with the subject.
The word Torrefazione means roastery and they not only serve coffee of their own production, but they also sell ground as well as whole beans in various qualities. On display, there are multiple pure Arabic coffees from all over the world and if you ask nicely you can even have a blend with a little Rustica in it. Although for me the pure Arabic is fuller and better.
Best Coffee in Venice – Caffè del Doge
Heading back to Strada Nova and continuing to Rialto, cross the Bridge, and turn left on the other side following the Canal Grande. Then take Calle Cinque to the right and you’ll end up at Caffè del Doge. This is my personal favorite. It too has a variety of different qualities and blends, and you can go through the whole world here just sipping one cup after the other.
The location is interesting. We are in the dead center of the city, but this little calle is still hidden from the mainstream. It gives the caffè a touch of genuineness. In fact, you see a lot of locals and gondoliere, and the atmosphere is. though not laid back, still a little more human than the surrounding restaurants. The locals also come because it’s one of the best Caffès in Venice, if not the best.
They also have some good pastries if you would like to combine. The Italian way is never to mix the two, though. You eat your sweets and after that, you drink your coffee. The coffee-taste is what you’d want to take with you. The coffee is always the last thing, be it a snack, a chit-chat break or a full dinner.
Ponte delle Paste
The next stop is not a Torrefazione and it doesn’t have much of a choice when it comes to coffee. But it’s still a genuine, quality Caffè who has seen thousands of tourists and Venetians come in for a sip and a sweet. It’s actually a pastry shop and it’s situated on top of a bridge, halfway between Campo San Lio and Corte Spechiera. The name is Ponte delle Paste, the Pastry Bridge. The sweets are all handmade right there. The chocolate is awesome and any of the pastries are recommendable… And the coffee is good. They don’t have all the different sorts as Torrefazione Cannaregio and Caffè del Doge, but they use the excellent Julius Meinl and the smell of the rich espresso is enough to convince you to stay for another cup.
Best Coffee in Venice – Caffè Girani
Now we’re going down to the crowded tourist district around Saint Mark’s Square. Crossing it and continuing down to Riva dei Schiavoni where all the Vaporettos and Gondolas are. Turn left, over the Straw Bridge, and over three more. At the first opening in the wall, turn left and you end up at Campo Bandiera e Moro. Here’s Caffè Girani. It’s not really a Caffè. It’s another Torrefazione and the oldest in Venice still in use… As well as the only one. Because all the others have all their production on the mainland, where the costs are lower.
Caffè Girani started out in 1928 and thus beats Torrefazione Cannaregio with three years. The machinery is right there behind the small shop and it’s working every Monday morning. They make a few different blends as well as pure Arabics. As I said before it’s not a Caffè. You can’t drink your coffee here. But you can buy some really unique beans or coffee grounds and if you come on a slow day, you can get a lesson in coffee toasting, drinking, and quality measuring from the owner. You have to come early though. They close at 12.30 p.m. and remain close in the afternoon.
Step over to the Bar next door to taste the products. They make their coffee from Girani-blends.
Il Caffè Rosso – The red Caffè
Now it’s over to Campo Santa Margherita. The buzzing student area where people stay up until very late and the bars don’t close until the morning light. On the western side, about in the middle, there’s the red caffè, il Caffè Rosso. The color is actually red but the nomination probably derives from a more political shade.
The Osteria Al Capon, now Antico Capon at the opposite side of the Square was a location for politically engaged workers in the harbor. Eating and drinking they started to build a reign of old Venetian values. They had a Doge, Ambassadors and even executioner. The Caffè Rosso on the other side became the enemy state and for many years lively political debates filled the Square as the representatives for the two factions practiced not only matters of national security but also deepened their knowledge in connoisseurship.
Now Il Caffè Rosso is a well-known meeting spot for youngsters and students. In the morning it’s more like a normal Caffè. You can have your Cornetto with a Cappuccino or a biscuit with a dark espresso. In the evening though, it gets crowded and lively. And instead of a Coffee, you should try a Spritz Aperol, Campari or even Cinar. It becomes a Party-Caffè just like all the rest of S:ta Margherita for that matter.
Most expensive coffee in Venice – Florian
So, in the end, we come back to where we started out. Caffè Florian. The oldest Caffè in Venice, in Italy and maybe even in the world…
Running uninterrupted for 300 years, it’s still there. On Saint Mark’s Square. And it still offers music as well as impeccable service and excellent coffee. It’s full of traditions, it’s part of a time when Venice still was the most fashionable city in Europe. When every important person had to live in, for a period of time, or at least having visited Venice.
The coffee is from their own production. Venezia 1720 it’s called and it’s a blend of various qualities of Arabica. It’s very good, full and rich. But the best of all when you decide to sit down at a table in the Square and listen to the excellent music while you drink your coffee. The best of all is that you will be able to put the receipt in a frame and hang it over the fireplace. And you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren about the most expensive coffee you’ve had in your life…