Venice is one of the most popular and extraordinary destinations in Italy, and among our favorite cities in the world. Like most travelers, we’ve had to forgo a trip to Venice this year – along with the rest of Italy – due to travel restrictions, and we have particularly missed exploring the tiny lanes and canals of La Serenissima in this year of staycationing and plotting future trips.
We couldn’t end our popular “Meet Our Guides” series of blog posts without dropping in on the Floating City and getting some background and insider intel from one of our top Venice guides, Caterina Nardin. Like all of our guides, Caterina passed the rigorous exam to become a licensed guide in Italy and now spends her days sharing the highlights and hidden gems of Venice with clients from across the globe.
If you’re just discovering our “Meet Our Guides” series now, be sure to go back for more guide interviews and insights into cities like Florence with Elvira, Pompeii with Antonio, Bologna with Nathalie, Rome with Alessandro, Tuscany with Roberta, and Sicily with Italo. We guarantee that you’ll come away with a deeper understanding of their areas and a bit of inspiration for future trips!
But first, take a virtual trip to Venice with us this week…
Tell us about yourself! Where are you from, what did you study, and how long have you been a tour guide?
I was born in a small English town called Guildford in the county of Surrey because my parents had decided to live in my mother’s hometown for a while. When my father began to feel homesick, both my parents decided to go back to Italy and live in Venice, where my father’s family was from. I have always lived in Venice since then.
During my childhood, I lived near St. Mark’s Square and went to primary and secondary school in my neighborhood. My high school was close to the railway station, but at that time I lived near the Rialto fish market. In the winter, if it did not rain, I would take a shortcut: a gondola ferry that let me avoid crossing the Rialto, the most famous bridge of Venice.
My high school was specialized in tourism and it still is one of the largest schools in Venice with more than a thousand pupils. There I studied a lot of different subjects including languages like French and German, art history, and technical subjects dealing with tourism.
After high school, I worked for a boat company while attending university, where I majored in foreign languages and literature. My thesis dealt with the life of women writers from all over the world, focusing mainly on the living conditions of African women.
After many other professional experiences in tourism, I passed the qualification exam to become a guide in 2000 for Venice and its environs.
Years later, I joined a cultural association called Venezia Arte which promotes cultural events and organizes ad hoc tours. Over the past decade, I have also volunteered for the Italian Environment Fund (known in English as the Italian National Trust), guiding mainly in sites of local interest.
In my free time, I dedicate myself to my family, reading, music and theater, as well as to cooking and traveling.
My philosophy: my personal success is based on transferring the enthusiasm I have for my job to my clients!
What attracted to becoming a guide?
I remember that when I was a teenager I would tell my mother that I would be conducting tours in Venice one day. Those are things one says when one is very young, but at the age of 15, while I was still in high school, my art history teacher told us to choose an important Venetian monument and describe it. I chose the church of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello island and decided to go there and see it. It took me more than one hour by public boat to reach the island, but it was worth the effort. For me that was both an inspiration and a premonition!
The island of Torcello is the most peaceful of the lagoon’s accessible islands. It was one of the first spots where refugees settled over one thousand and five hundred years ago, when its first church was built. Located at the heart of the village, the Santa Maria Assunta church was the focus of what was once a thriving city. Reconstructed in the 11th century – before St. Mark’s basilica – it still bears outstanding mosaics, especially those on the rear wall representing the Last Judgement.
What is the one thing all visitors to Venice should see in your opinion?
Well, Venice offers a wide range of buildings that are on everyone’s must-see list. St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace form one whole and help understand the history of this incredible city.
St. Mark’s church, the oldest existing building in the city, is covered with an amazing coat of mosaics and marble. It was the private church of the so-called doge for over a thousand years This governor resided in the Doge’s Palace, the former seat of the government. Its interior is decorated with paintings from the 16th century that offer a window into understanding the power and wealth of this great mercantile republic.
What is your favorite secret treasure that you love to share with visitors?
There are a lot of hidden treasures and secret gems in Venice due to its labyrinthine shape. The Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo in St. Mark’s district is one of those. Built in the late fourteenth century by one of the founding families of Venice, it includes a multi-arched spiral staircase that enhanced the prestige of its commissioning family. It has a unique shape inspired by the shape of a snail’s shell (the word “bovolo” means snail in our local dialect). It might be hard to find it but it is worth seeing.
Complete this sentence: If you really want to experience the spirit of Venice, you should …
. . . take enough time to stay and see it. Venice is not just its main center, called Saint’ Mark’s Square, but much more than that. The whole city is an open-air museum. One day is not enough to explore it, to understand it and love it.
In order to understand Venice’s labyrinthine layout I recommend you see it from the top of St. Mark’s bell tower, where you have one of the most amazing views of the city.
A tour on foot in the backstreets and a tour by boat will give you the chance to deepen your knowledge of the city. You will get a first-hand understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of living in this city.
Name a sight or activity that visitors should avoid in Venice.
In my opinion Venice is a safe place and there are no sights that visitors should avoid. Venice is a major tourist destination and one of the most expensive cities in Italy because getting things in and around the city has an extra logistical challenge as we do not use trucks but boats.
What is your favorite local dish, and is there a specific place visitors should try it?
One of my favorite local dishes is salt-crusted baked sea bass. How do you prepare it? It is a very easy and quick recipe. When you buy it in Venice at our local market, called Rialto, you ask the fishmonger to remove the insides. You wash it then under cold water and you put it flat in a pan. You fill the belly with some herbs and lemon slices. After you covered it with coarse salt, make sure you leave the tail and the fin out. Cook it in the oven at about 200 degrees until the top fin comes away easily.
Venice is famous for its fish market, where most of us – including me – buy their fresh products. If I have time, I visit twice a week early in the morning. I bring a small cart that works like a shopping bag and I buy mostly fish, vegetables, and fruit.
In the Rialto area, there is a wide range of wine bars that Venetians call “bacari”, a name derived from the god of wine, Bacchus. One of the habits locals have is to break up the day with a small glass of wine called an “ombra” ( or shade). In the olden days, wine was sold in the shade of St. Mark’s bell tower.
A snack, called a “cichetto”, will accompany the wine. Among the most favorite ones there are meatballs, baby squid, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, artichokes hearts, and vegetables conserved in oil, just to mention a few.
While you are in Venice you should try this experience either near the market area or in other areas of the city.
Share your favorite memory from a tour you have given.
I usually work with small groups and I remember that not long ago, I gave a tour to just one lady. She was afraid of getting lost in Venice because she had no sense of direction. I have such fond memories of the two afternoons I spent with her, showing her the best bits of the city, that she would not have seen on her own as she did not feel like venturing in the backstreets. We keep writing to each other of interesting experiences dealing with our trips around the world!
Can you recommend a book or film for those planning of visiting Venice?
I can recommend many books because over the years I read very many and I keep reading books dealing with different subjects. There is one that is not too dense and contains a lot of information without being boring. It was written in the 1980s by an American writer, Frederick Lane and it is still used at the university of Venice as a major book for Venetian history.
Venice is a wonderful scenic city and it has been chosen as a backdrop for many great movies. One of the most recent ones is “The Tourist” with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.
For classic lovers, “The Merchant of Venice” and for a female audience “Dangerous Beauty” – dealing with the life of the most famous Venetian courtesan, Veronica Franco – are other examples of films shot in Venice.
What changes do you foresee in Venice’s tourism due to Covid-19?
I would like to highlight that until the end of 2019, Venice counted 30 million tourists a year for at least the last 10 years. The relationship between the high number of visitors and the number of about 52,000 inhabitants in the historic center of Venice gave rise to an unstable level of tourism.
For Venice, over-tourism has become a plague and it has had a negative impact on the environment. What local people would like to see change is new ways of rendering their city more accessible to visitors without damaging its history, culture, and environment.
The project “Enjoy and Respect Venice” is a campaign launched many years ago by our local authorities to encourage and remind visitors to behave responsibly towards its fragile ecosystem.