Our latest Local Knowledge interview is with Luca Zaggia, a coastal oceanographer working for Venice’s Institute of Marine Science, specialising in the study of the sea and wetlands, and spends most of his time in Venice on the water. Here are his local tips on things to do in Venice, what to eat and drink, and what souvenirs to buy.
Luca’s work involves everything from investigating contaminants in the lagoon, estuaries and canals to studying the environmental effects of dredging and commercial shipping. He also monitors the environmental effects of the controversial MOSE project, aimed at protecting Venice and its lagoon from floods.
His passion for Venice and the lagoon could partly be explained by his birthplace, the small mainland town of Pontelongo, where the Foscarinis, one of the Venetian Doge families, had their summer residence. “A marble plate was found in a palace there, which says “Indorum auro vivimus” (We live on the gold of the Indies),” Luca tells us, “Which probably refers to the spices or silk and other things the Venetian merchant families traded with the Far East.”
Luca comes from a long line of tailors. “This year we’re celebrating the centenary of this tradition. My grandfather was a tailor and my father and uncle have been tailors since they were teenagers. After a life spent on a bench pushing a needle they convinced their children that studying was the key to the future, giving light to a generation of scientists: a geologist (me), chemist (my brother), and an astronomer, architect-historian, engineer, and literature specialist (my cousins), all brilliant careers, but unfortunately no one is taking up the family tradition.”
Why water? “A long tradition of tolerance in Venice and peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups made this city unique since the very beginning,” Luca explains. “The real enemy for centuries, as today, has been the sea and its forces and a changing environment.”
Luca travels frequently for his work and reveals to us that his best memories are when he stays in a place for a while and lives as a local. “I cooperate with a university in Long Island and I’ve been many times to Manhattan, for example. Once I rented a small apartment in the Village and lived like New Yorkers, talking to people at the bars, buying food at local markets, and connecting with the local culture, something you can’t do on a cruise or tour.”
When Luca’s not working, he likes to wander around Venice hunting for the marble plaques scattered around the city so he can learning something new about the past habits and historical life of the city. “The ones I love most are those reporting minimum allowed sizes for seafood to be sold at the market and the one on the side of Chiesa della Pietà or the one at the Erbaria (Rialto) stating farmers coming from Chioggia and the mainland are protected vendors like the ones from within the city,” he reveals.
Luca also likes to drink an Aperol spritz or two and chicchetti with friends and colleagues at the bacari (typical local bars), like the one we meet him at on a Friday night. Dreams? Future plans? “Three grandsons. And I think tonight I’ll play my guitar.”
Local Knowledge: Luca from Venice on What to Do, Buy, Eat and Drink in Venice
Q. What do you most love about your work?
A. It satisfies almost all of my curiosities and it’s a perfect mix of science and social relations in the office, the lab and the field, Venice and the lagoon.
Q. Why should people come to Venice?
A. People should come and stay in Venice long enough to enjoy the life here on foot and learn something of our culture – there is so much to do! – not just make a fast indigestion of art and monuments.
Q. 3 words to describe Venice?
A. Unique, irrational, fascinating
Q. 3 ways to describe Venetians?
A. Cynical, nice, rare
Q. Top 3 recommendations?
A. Venice is not just a museum, it’s a city where people live and work. There’s an intense pedestrian traffic which you have to pay attention to, if you want to respect our life and be respected. Don’t take pictures of everything, Venice is not what you see on the LCD screen of your iPhone or camera, it’s a wide-angle experience you have to live not just observe or portray.
Q. Best souvenir from Venice?
A. A bag of Buranelli is the cheapest and sweetest souvenir. A book of Venetian recipes is also a good souvenir. Some really original glass rings or necklace or bracelets; there are a bunch of shops selling superbly designed pieces.
Q. Must-do eating experiences?
A. Try Sarde in saor, Seppie nere con la polenta and Risotto al nero di seppia (cuttlefish with polenta or risotto both with the black ink); go to the bacari (typical local bars) and eat cicchetti (local snacks); and in summer, taking a boat to le Vignole on an island just off the historic centre, to eat a traditional seafood lunch like the locals. In winter, go to the Osteria Cà d’Oro (La Vedova) and eat polpetta with a glass of white wine.
Q. An essential thing to know before coming to Venice?
A. Acqua Alta (high water) is not just in winter, but anytime there is a storm surge caused by southeasterly winds: San Marco square can be flooded with just 70 cm above the local reference of Punta della Salute, roughly 50 cm above mean sea level, so be prepared to walk on water at any time.
Q. Most important phrase to learn in Italian/Venetian?
A. Attenzione! (Attention) and Ocio ae calse! (Take care of your stockings!) You’ll hear the cart drivers shouting this to you in rush hours. This is when they take goods from the docks to the shops, restaurants and hotels and they are usually in a hurry so be ready to jump to the side of the street if you want to avoid collisions or being screamed at!
Q. Other advice?
A. Only visit San Marco square late at night (around 1.00 am) or very early in the morning. Actually, it’s best viewed during a fog in winter. Visit the fish market near Rialto early in the morning (Tuesday to Saturday), but avoid it after a stormy weather, when there is not too much to see/buy as the fishermen haven’t been out in their boats.