I first spotted My Local Guide to Venice in June 2009 when we were in town for the opening of the Art Biennale. It was actually our last day of a weeklong stay at the Novecento Hotel and we’d been using another excellent local guide produced by the hotel’s owners, the Romanelli family, so we really had no need for this little white book. However, we’d already been developing the Grantourismo project, as well as a couple of other local travel books with a major UK publisher, so I was compelled to buy the book anyway.
My Local Guide to Venice subsequently travelled with us to Mallorca, around the Middle East, to Thailand, and Australia, and then back to the Middle East and Europe again on the Grantourismo project for the next twelve months, and although I’d never actually used the thing, it was looking especially well loved by the time we returned Venice a couple of weeks ago. This trip, I was determined not only to test the book out, but, in view of our quest to travel locally this year, I was eager to meet its creators.
We met the book’s publishers and editors (also a husband and wife team), Matteo Bartoli and Mara Sartore, at their headquarters, Lightbox Publishing and Communication, where Terence took their portraits, and I went upstairs to chat to Mara about local travel while she fed her newborn baby in her Mum’s apartment.
1. Tell us about yourself and your ‘local travel’ experience.
My family is from Venice and I’m a Venetian although I was actually born in London. We have always travelled. My parents are both academics, economists, and they were in London for their work when I was born. We lived in many different places – for example, we lived in the USA for six month and I lived and studied in many different places, such as Barcelona, Madrid and Paris. This is how I like to travel, to live in a place.
2. How did you get the idea for ‘My Local Guide to Venice’?
Matteo had said to me “In this confused world, what we need is to be guided” and I’d been thinking for a while about new ways of travelling. I realised that European tourists travel very differently to tourists in the rest of the world. We travel very often, especially for weekends away – Europe is like one big country in a way – so we don’t really need a guidebook like Lonely Planet as we do when we go to a country such as India. Here in Europe we’re like one big family. We still need a guide, just a different type of guide…
3. Why a ‘local’ guide?
I started to realise that European tourists, and any cultured people, want more when they travel… they want a more local experience, a more authentic experience, and local advice. It’s what I want when I travel. Everyone wants a friend in a foreign place who says “don’t go here, you’ll have a terrible time, but you’ll love this place…”. I have always travelled this way, knowing someone in a place, perhaps a friend of a friend. You get deeper into a culture and a place that way. I once had a Dutch boyfriend and I had a completely different experience when I travelled to the Netherlands with him: I knew people, I went into their houses, and I got to know places through them. This flavour and this point of view is what we’re trying to achieve with our guide.
4. What sets My Local Guide apart from other Venice guides?
We don’t have chapters and chapters on history and politics and so on, just one short chapter on history and introductions to neighbourhoods and many local tips and we present it all and we present the city and its secrets through different local specialists, through their eyes. We have a curator responsible for different reporters who are experts in their areas, because we want high quality advice, not just advice from anyone. We also have different types of people to provide advice to our many different readers. For example, my mother knows some great restaurants in Venice, but young people don’t want to know where my Mum eats.
5. Why do you think local travel is more ethical and sustainable?
Venice has only 59,000 people yet the city gets 23 million tourists each year, and with these tourists comes pollution and other problems. Venice is fragile, so we want visitors to the city to have a special respect for our city. If you just pass through the city in a few hours or you stay in a hotel for a couple of days you don’t really care about where you’re staying. When you stay here longer and when you stay in a house or if you stay with a local, you respect the city more because you start to treat it like you would your own home and your hometown.
6. How can visitors to Venice behave in a more ethical and sustainable way?
The first chapter of our book is on ‘Eco Etiquette’, developed with CORILA, an association aimed at protecting Venice and the lagoon. In this chapter we recommend people arrive by train, as it has the lowest impact on the environment; refill water bottles at public fountains and don’t throw things in the water; use water transport, either a rowing boat, the gondola, or our local 50 cent ‘ferry’ (traghetto); use water and electricity wisely; buy locally made products and eat local foods at restaurants to support the local economy; and don’t feed the pigeons, as they dirty and decay our precious architectural history.
7. Your best local travel tip?
Simply to meet some locals! Just yesterday I heard an official tourist guide tell her group of tourists say: “it’s not worth looking for locals or local places – there aren’t any!” I was so sad. This is just not true! Because there are many locals – 59,000 of us – and there are many places where people can meet locals and have an authentic travel experience.
8. Your top 3 local experiences?
1) Get out on a boat, a traditional rowing boat if you can, to experience the lagoon: Venice is two cities, the one experienced on foot by walking and the other one experienced on the water. When Venetians have a day off we go out on our boats and onto the lagoon; for us, it’s like going to the countryside.
2) Explore local neighbourhoods like Cannaregio and Castello: there you will still find children playing and old people gossiping. In these areas you can meet real Venetians.
3) Find a nice local café or bar that you like and develop a habit of going back there, as this is what Venetians do and this is how you meet people. I have my favorite, La Cantina, downstairs, and I go there every day.
9. Best local souvenir from Venice?
My Local Guide to Venice, of course!
You can buy Mara and Matteo’s ‘My Local Guide to Venice‘ in bookstores and museum bookshops around Venice.