‘Soaked and shivering, I order a spritz’: how I holidayed in Venice – without leaving York

One of the happiest times of my life was the month I spent in Venice last year. I’m desperate to go back – when I die, I want to be reincarnated as one of those well-fed Venetian seagulls – but it’s not on the cards, financially or practically. Thankfully I live in York, which is also very old and full of locals complaining about tourists. Could I have a Venetian adventure right here?

Espresso in a piazza

Emma drinks an espresso next to a topiary lion
Seeing the sights in Exhibition Square. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Guardian

I start in Exhibition Square, a notable York piazza that does not quite rival Saint Mark’s Square in size or beauty. There is, however, a plastic topiary lion: it’s not winged, like the Venetian Republic’s mascot, but it’s a promising sign. I order an espresso al banco (at the counter) from the York Art Gallery cafe in the square, which doesn’t cost €7 as it would in Florian’s, the ornate Venetian establishment dating from 1720. I wish the topiary lion a buona giornata, and head to the nearby minster to compare it with San Marco. I conclude that our family of resident peregrine falcons is better than their stolen Byzantine horses: York 1, Venice 0.

Get on to the water

Emma in a boat on the river, holding an umbrella.
Cruising the Ouse. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Guardian

Canals pose a fundamental problem for this exercise: York has none. “Some of the potholes in the Clifford’s Tower carpark are as big as canals,” my husband suggests, accurately, if unhelpfully. Thankfully, there are two rivers: the Foss and the Ouse. I can’t find a gondola, rowing boat, or even contact details for the guy from my school who sailed a giant pumpkin down the Ouse, but York’s City Cruises hire out little motorboats. They’re perfect for emulating those insouciant Venetians who zoom around side canals in shades and padded jackets, checking their phones.

I bring my husband to pilot the craft, instructing him not to look where he’s going or steer with his hands – like a real Veneziano (“Use any other body part”), then sit back and enjoy the ride. Tina, our boat, gives me a whole new perspective on my home town. Along the Grand Canal (Ouse), there is more going on than I imagined: narrowboats, rowers, workmen fixing stuff and the river cruise boat beeping and gesticulating at my husband to get out of the way. There’s even a vaporetto-style river bus service (albeit only one route, once a day).

The city looks good from this angle, except the pee-stained concrete walkway by the Panda Mami Buffet, which looks like a crime scene as usual (and not one from a stylish Donna Leon mystery in which Commissario Brunetti drinks an ombra and bemoans corruption). The boating experience is only slightly marred by torrential rain: Jack from City Cruises tells us they’re even expecting flooding – acqua alta! – soon.

Guild life

Medieval guilds played an important part in the life of both cities, so I head to the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall for a bit of history. The merchant adventurers were traders, much like their Venetian counterparts, and though the hall has no Tintorettos or Titians, it does boast a blingy silver apple corer and a wonderful timbered ceiling. I don’t remember that from the school dance I attended here in the early 1990s (my last visit) – that’s what several pints of Bacardi will do to you, I suppose.

Venetian eats

Alessandro Venturi prepares bigoli in salsa for Emma Beddington at his Spaghetti Junction restaurant.
Alessandro Venturi prepares bigoli in salsa. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Guardian

I check thoroughly, and can’t find Venetian cicchetti (nibbles) or tramezzini (overstuffed sandwiches) in York for love nor money. Instead, I head to Spaghetti Junction, Alessandro Venturi’s pasta place at the Angel on the Green cafe in York’s hipster quarter, Bishopthorpe Road. Behind a red, white and green curtain, the back room – with plain dark tables and wood-cladded walls – feels like a miraculous cannaregio trattoria you stumble on when you’re lost, squabbling and starving.

Alessandro is from Rome, but Venetian food, with its Jewish and Byzantine influences, fascinates him, and he rustles up steaming bowls of the Venetian classic bigoli in salsa. Bigoli are handmade plump wholewheat strands; Alessandro’s are actually tonnarelli, which he calls “Roman-style bigoli”. They’re served with a sauce of onions, softened for an hour to creamy sweetness in which salty anchovies or sardines dissolve, topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon (a nod to Venice’s spicy history).

I don’t usually eat fish, but I occasionally cheat on holiday, and I’m glad I do here: it’s delicious – salty-sweet and wholesome. Will Alessandro be adding bigoli to his menu of Roman classics? Probably not. “It’s not easy to introduce British people to traditional Italian food,” he says. “York is still old school.”

Browse the Rialto

Emma standing under a bridge with a handful of cherries.
Cherries fresh from York market. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Guardian

Regrettably, York market offers more “prosecco o’clock” plaques and mobile phone cases than fresh produce these days, but I bet Venetians say that about the Rialto, too. Cross of York’s fishmongers is doing brisk business in crab claws and kippers, anyway, and Harrison’s fruit and veg stall has nice bunches of prezzemolo (that’s parsley to you). No one can sell me an artichoke, but Sheila’s Greengrocer has lovely fat black cherries. I buy some to take down to Lendal Bridge (it’s big and white – it’ll do). As I tuck in on the riverbank, there’s a cacophonous beeping. It’s the river cruise boat again – I’m illegally on their jetty. I can’t linger too long anyway, in case York’s problem geese, who are as homicidal as Venetian gulls, come for me.

Spritz alfresco

Enjoying an aperitif at The Star Inn the City.
Enjoying an aperitif at The Star Inn the City. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Guardian

The rain hasn’t let up. I’m wearing a nice blouse and fancy shoes to respect the Italian tradition of la bella figura, but, soaked through and shivering, I’m giving “Dirk Bogarde expiring in a deckchair in Death in Venice” vibes. The thought that Katharine Hepburn never recovered from the eye infection she acquired falling into a Venetian canal for the film Summertime also comes to mind. But I know exactly how to cheer myself up. Aperitivo time! The Star Inn the City has a spectacular riverfront terrace and in this weather I have it all to myself, barring one hardy Scottish couple in cagoules. I get a waterfront table and order Venice’s most successful export since Marco Polo: an Aperol spritz. Cincin!

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