The free and easy style of sightseeing I had adopted in Venice, wasn’t without its drawbacks. I was halfway to the Basilica San Marco to book a place on the 11.00 am tour that would co-incide with the floodlighting of the mosaics, when it suddenly occurred to me that it was a Saturday. I knew the Rialto markets would be closed the next day. I was also aware that there would be no scheduled lighting of the mosaics on Sunday, and I was going to be returning home Monday morning. A quick decision was warranted. The market won. I doubled back and on to a vaporetto heading to the Rialto Mercato.
The Rialto – a corruption of Rivo Alto meaning ‘high bank’ – was the heart of the confederation of island communities that was the Rialtini, long before Venice became a republic. The sacking of the then capital Malamocco in 810 by Charlesmagne’s son Pepin, and the Doge’s escape to this unassailable high ground, paved the way for Riva Alto to become the Cuore della Città, the new political and financial hub of the most powerful maritime empire of the time. And later Europe’s foremost mercantile exchange.
The increased demand for trading space, and some say the objection to the stench of rotting produce by the banking establishments around, led to the transplanting of an existing market to the Eastern bank in 1097, where it functions to this day. The pontoon bridge built in 1181- the first of the four to connect the two sides – saw many transformations over centuries before attaining its new landmark stone incarnation. A great spot for photography if you manage to arrive well before the tourist hordes take over. It took considerable elbowing to capture my split second story!
A still life painter’s dream, the erberia, encircled by muted pink and yellow palazzos, was brimming with artfully arranged luscious local produce sourced from outlying islands and the mainland. But it is the pescheria with its abundance of frutti di mare, that is the star attraction here. The picturesque covered seafood market with stone fish gargoyles adorning its columns, is one of only two places where fresh fish can be sold in the city (the other is the lesser known pescheria di San Marco near the mint).
According to the Rialto Venezia website, fish mongers were traditionally expected to be Venetian natives over fifty years of age, specifically belonging to the regions of San Nicolo or the island of Poveglia, and needed to have a minimum of twenty years of fishing experience! Come to think of it, I didn’t spot a single vendor under the designated age!
The pescheria briefly faced closure when plans were floated to shift the wholesale market from Troncetto near Piazzale Roma, to Fusina bordering the industrial zone, that would have made transporting fresh catch to Rialto unfeasible. Good sense obviously prevailed and the market lives on, to the relief of the 60000 or so locals, and the delight of tourists several times that number. Applauded no doubt by the greedy seagulls.
I finished my visit at a deli nearby with a plate of decadently creamy baccalà mantecato (deep fried cod balls), washed down with a glass of sparkly prosecco. I wished I had one more day to revisit the mosaics. But I did not regret my decision even for a moment.