Troy Hightower

Regata Storica di Venezia

Some people have official, written bucket lists, items duly checked off. Ours are more informal, but one of Troy’s has always been to view the Regata Storica di Venezia, held annually on the first Sunday of September along the Grand Canal in Venice. This year that list item floated to the top.

The Regata Storica has been held for hundreds of years, and is the culminating event in the annual Venetian "Voga alla Veneta" rowing calendar. There is a spectacular historical water pageant that precedes the race. And then heats of races of different class boats, team sizes and ages dash by in a matter of minutes, over the course of a couple of hours. The Regatta Storica is an unforgettable spectacle and a faithful reconstruction of the glorious past of one of most the powerful and influential maritime republics in the Mediterranean: Venice—La Serenissima.

So to mark this list item, we gathered a few friends who were also interested, and rented the ground floor of the Palazzo Dogaressa, a five minute walk from Piazza San Marco, with the imposing Santa Maria della Salute church staring at us from directly across the canal.

We arrive at Marco Polo aeroporto after a 20-plus hour journey, to be met by Davide in his typical sleek wooden Venetian water taxi. He whisks us in the still-hot evening air toward the city of canals and bridges, and after winding through back channels of Castelo and into the Grand Canal, we eventually nose up to the colonnaded stone steps of the palazzo. Young Brit Victoria, with Truly Venice, from whom we’ve rented the palazzo, takes us in through the marble courtyard and shows us the large four-bedroom space, and runs us through the ins and outs. We’ve ordered in some basic supplies, and prepare a Venetian spritz to take to sit out on the dock and watch canal life go by in the dusk.

The Palazzo is faded glory...beautiful parquet floors in the main salon and terrazzo floors in a small salon off the canal-side deck, but portions of the terrazzo are crumbling....likewise decaying Venetian plaster walls leave a row of plaster dust all around the edges of the rooms. Immense ornate Murano glass chandeliers hang in the main salon, master bedroom and dining room. There is a very nice outdoor dining terrace and garden in the interior courtyard, looking up from which you can see faded and cracked wood shutters closed on some of the apartments—which may have been vacant for is true all over Venice. And of course The 8x8-foot iron-railed deck, two steps down from the glazed doors of the small salon, with cushioned seating for six is the primary reason for taking this rental....ringside seats for the Regatta Storica to take place on Sunday.

After a long sleep, we set out to visit new and old friend cicchetti bars. Osteria Sepa in a narrow back alley behind the Rialto has long been a favorite. It’s been remodeled now, and has lost a bit of charm, in our view—maybe it’s just not liking change. The tapas are somewhat modernized....we try a gratineed scallop, stuffed artichoke bottom, polpette casalinga, and a potato cake topped with Gorgonzola cream. Nice enough, but not what we used to find here. Next a new spot called Lovo, which features canapé style chicchetti...we sample mozarella tomato, jamon with goat cheese and stuffed pepper. Nice enough again, but topped bread slices is not my favorite style.

Al Merca, just south of Rialto market, is a hole in the wall counter, always crowded, where you buy a glass of wine or beer, and one or more small crusty-roll panini and stand around in the square with the crowds and munch and sip. We order Prosecco, birra, and mortadella-bufalo and speck-Gorgonzola rolls and consume them standing around an upright wine barrel with young and old, Venetian and traveller.

It’s so hot out, and the cool cave-like interior of Cantina do Mori is a must. This is a  legendary, dark-wood low-ceilinged place, dating to 1462, with casks on the wall, carboys of wine and chalk lists of easily 40 vini al bichieri. We pick Ribolla Gialla, and Pinot Grigio Ramato—longtime favorites. Ramato means hammered, and refers to the hammered copper color lent the white wine by the roughly dozen hours left on the skins. We select an assortment of a special version of tramezzini called francoboli—literally postage stamp—for their miniscule square size. There are tuna and egg, and Gorgonzola and radicchio and prosciutto with spinach. An artichoke bottom filled with shrimp and polpette of veal finish us off. Full, we’ll have to save our favorite tramezzini spot, Bar da Lollo and Cantina do Spade for another day.

Sunday again starts warm and still, and predicts intense heat. We relax for the morning in the cool of the palazzo, and then venture by vaporetto–the Venetian waterbusses—across to the island church Abbazia di San Giorgio Maggiore, to view an exhibition titled “Human” by the Irish artist Sean Scully, one of the many installations around town during the run of the Art Biennale 2019. The main commissioned piece towers in the center of the Basilica—the stacked frames of Opulent Ascension, the tallest work ever created by the artist. Layers of brightly colored fabric frames stacked high direct the onlooker’s gaze upward toward the building’s cupola. At the rear there is an tomb-like opening, and the work can also be experienced from inside. There are several other sections of the exhibition spread throughout the church, including imposing abstract works of acrylic on aluminum, and some lovely stained glass installations. We’re treated to a half hour organ recital of Bach and other pieces echoing from somewhere in the complex as we wander.

Returning to the San Marco side, we edge down our narrow-access calle and around the corner to the new St Regis Venice, formerly and for years the Europa-Regina. After a year’s renovation, the public spaces, interior garden, bar, restaurant and canal-side terrace dock are spiffy, while retaining some of the historic elements. The menu is fairly interesting and we respectively choose vitello tonnato, orecchiette with tiny clams, and a frito misto from Rialto fish market—cod fritters, crispy shrimp and tiny whitebait, on a tangle of crunchy tempura vegetable shards.

The regatta commences at four, and various race teams and pageant barges have been seen all day around the canals preparing. On the stroke of the Campanile in San Marco, the scores of typically 16th century-style boats with gondoliers in period costume carry the Doge, the Doge's wife and all the highest ranking Venetian officials up the Grand Canal in a brightly colored parade and pageant. The costumes are elaborate and heavy, and the participants must be wilting in the heat. Various bands and orchestras, clustered on the steps of Salute, directly across from us, play a mélange of fanfares, classical pieces, and popular tunes. At 4:30, a few minutes after the stately profession passes around the bend, the racing begins and the first timed race shoots into view. Pairs of young women in whites—almost like tennis outfits—push hard, leaning into the oars of their light, narrow mascarete, low boats generally used for fishing and recreation around the lagoon. A dozen or so entrants shoot by in a couple of minutes. Next are the pupparini boats, with pairs of young men in striped blue shirts straining at the long oars zooming across our view. A half-hour later six-oared caroline with teams of men in bright solid colors come into view, and pass by at a somewhat slower pace…..more oarsmen, but much heavier boats. Broader and deeper, these boats were developed in the 16th century for fishing and for delivering fresh fruits and vegetables from island farms to the Venice markets. Twenty minutes later eight pairs of women in different colored jerseys power mascarete again along the course, stroking furiously, but in perfect sync. Last up, at close to 6:30 is the heat of two-man gondolini—lighter, faster versions of traditional gondolas, built especially for the regata. They still sport the distinctive brass axe-like prows that proudly part the air in front of each boat.

We relax on the dock with a glass of Prosecco as the lowering sun turns the Grand Canal to hammered gold, and shortly all the boats, interspersed in size and team, as well as all the ceremonial barges slowly make their way back to the Arsenale, effectively giving us another more stately regata to marvel at.

Prosecco turns to cocktails on the water while the passing canal scene continues, and then we make our way to the internal courtyard and garden for a picnic supper of prosciutto-melon, finochionna and mortadella, ripe Italian cheeses, and cold pasta salad with tomatoes and peppers. An important bucket-list item completed in style at a waterside Palazzo on the Grand Canal of La Serenissima—Venezia.