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Chioggia, an authentic Italian experience

Canal Vena, Chioggia
Venice is all yours, I'll take Chioggia
Tuscany Tour description

Everyone feels that they need to visit Venice at least once and I understand that, but you don't need to stay long and you don't really need to go back when there's a perfectly good alternative just across the lagoon. Maybe it's an age thing but I no longer have much tolerance for heaving crowds of tourists, elevated prices and a lack of genuine locals who can still afford to live in what must be a tourist hell for them.

Canal Vena, Chioggia
At 9.45 am on a Friday morning, Italy without crowds is a paradise that few tourists experience

My last visit to Venice was in 2011 and it seemed quite crowded back then so I feel sorry for the 50,000 residents on the island today who have to put up with six million visitors every year.

Matteo Secchi of Venessia, an activist association for the protection of the historic center of Venice, noted with alarm the latest milestone passed in September 2023 when for the first time the number of beds available on the island for tourists passed the number of full time residents.

He remarked "siamo diventati una minoranza, la città non è quasi più nostra. I posti letto aumentano e i residenti diminuiscono". He went on to say: “We feel like foreigners in our own home..... every now and then you see a fellow Venetian and you acknowledge them from afar, but other than that you are surrounded by tourists.”

Ponte Vigo, Chioggia
Ponte Vigo out of season. You'll never see a bridge in Venice looking like this whatever the season

It helps of course to go out of season when everything is generally cheaper, especially airfares for foreign tourists, but there is no longer an 'out of season' for places like Venice and Florence, merely a slightly-less-than-completely-full season. But the good thing about Italy is that there is always an alternative nearby for the better informed visitor that is usually overlooked by the sort of tourist that you are desperately seeking to avoid, ie all those people with selfie sticks and Instagram accounts.

In the case of Venice, that alternative is Chioggia and on a weekend in early February we didn't see a single foreign tourist so Chioggia is the place to come if you want an authentic Italian experience rather than just impress your friends. There was nobody but us taking photographs and we heard only Italian voices buying fish at the market. Over a plate of cicchetti for lunch at Al Bacaro we chatted for half an hour with the owner Andrea as we were his only remaining customers and even though he was preparing to close up and go home he was in no apparent rush to end our conversation.

Chioggia canal, bridge and colorful houses

Later at dinner at Baia dei Porci when we were the last people still eating the owners, Cristina and her husband, engaged us in an interesting discussion on everything from the local flooding problems (acqua alta) to the fish we were eating and he even persuaded me to eat a cannolicchio that was alive and still wriggling which I then had to prize away from my chin a couple of times as it struggled to avoid its fate. I'd have happily let it live or at least fry, but under the watchful eye of the proprietor I didn't want to appear rude.

Canal Vena, Chioggia

Either it's because the Chioggians are a remarkably friendly people (which they are in fact) or our experiences are a result of our preference for slow travel, and by that I mean traveling out of season to more authentic places and being in no particular hurry.

It helps of course to speak some Italian but if you come to Italy and want to properly experience Italy then you should make an effort to learn a little Italian or you'll never have a proper conversation with a local and you'll be the poorer for it.

A long line of fishing boats in Chioggia
Chioggia has a significant fishing industry

Chioggia - history

The entrance to the fish market sculpted by Amleto Sartori
The entrance to the fish market sculpted by Amleto Sartori

There is plenty of evidence of Roman presence in Chioggia including a quite recent discovery of a Roman road submerged in the lagoon and in those times and for centuries afterwards the production and free trade of salt was the town's principal business.

By the 15th century salt from Cervia further down the coast, south of Ravenna, had become dominant with the Chioggia salt flats succumbing to frequent flooding. Unfortunately the 2023 catastrophic floods in Emilia Romagna have now done exactly the same thing to the Cervia salt basin, covering it with mud and fresh water.

The history of Chioggia follows the colorful 1,000 year history of the Venetian Republic from the 9th century up until its demise at the hands of Napoleon. However, not being as fully protected by the lagoon as Venice is, Chioggia found itself on the front line of various conflicts and was captured by the Republic of Genoa, Venice's main rival in the Middle Ages, in 1378.

The view from Piazza Vigo towards the lagoon barrier islands of Ca' Roman and Pellestrina
The view from Piazza Vigo towards the lagoon barrier islands of Ca' Roman and Pellestrina

The War of Chioggia was brief and at least at sea was won by the Venetian Republic, though not before the destruction of the Sottomarina district of Chioggia. The diplomatic peace agreement three years later gave Chioggia back to Venice and effectively ended further conflicts between the two great maritime powers of Venice and Genoa.

The ease with which the Genovesi penetrated the lagoon followed by the much greater threat that arrived later from the Ottoman empire prompted the Venetians in the 1500s to start building a series of forts. These included Fort San Felice in Chioggia, Forts Sant'Andrea and Sant'Erasmo around Venice and Fort Brondolo in Chioggia. This system was complemented with a set of five octagons, effectively fortified islands, which guarded strategic lagoon waterways.

After Napoleon, the old Venetian Republic never again achieved autonomy, instead it came under Austrian rule until becoming part of Italy in the Third Italian War of Independence in 1866.

Chioggia - the town

Chioggia itself, or at least the small island inside the lagoon that forms the centro storico, is a very attractive town that feels very much like Venice but to get to Chioggia you have to cross some flat, dismal countryside especially if you're arriving from the south or west. These are the plains of the Po and Adige rivers that empty into the Adriatic a little further south, so the landscape between Ferrara and Chioggia does not contain any of the beautiful scenery that most people associate with Italy. You can move through it quickly.

Chioggia at night

In the fading light of a winter afternoon, and even more so in the slightly foggy darkness that descends on its motionless canals and deserted alleyways, Chioggia has a slightly spooky atmosphere that reminds me of that excellent 1973 film by Nicolas Roeg called 'Don't Look Now'.

Starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in their prime, it was shot in Venice in the month of January giving it a wintry grey look, very similar to Chioggia on our first day before the sun broke through on the second morning and cheered everything up.

Chioggia fish market
Some of the best looking crustaceans I've ever seen and one grumpy looking stallholder

The famous Chioggia fish market between the Piazza del Popolo and the Canal Vena, right in the middle of the island, should be everyone's first destination of the day but before that even, this is a part of Italy renowned for its coffee. Venice, Turin and Trieste are second only to Naples when it comes to the best coffee in Italy so it's worth finding a good coffee shop in Chioggia to start the day properly.

A leisurely stroll along the length of Canal Vena with its nine bridges from Porta di Santa Maria to Piazza Vigo provides most of the photo opportunities and then back along the Corso del Popolo is where you'll find all the bars and coffee shops under the long portico.

Chioggia fish market
Sole, John Dory, Sea Bream, Monkfish, Tuna and other fish

Chioggia - the fish market

The fish market on Canal Vena is a retail market, open every day in the morning. It is supplied by the nearby wholesale market with fresh fish brought in that morning from the fleet of 400 fishing boats that operate out of Chioggia, making this the largest fish market in the entire Adriatic employing 8,500 people and turning over 800 million euros each year.

The fish market and Canal Vena in Chioggia
The outside of the fish market along Canal Vena

Having recently walked around Pike Place fish market in Seattle I would rate Chioggia just as highly even if they don't throw the fish around here as they do to in Seattle for the entertainment of tourists. They are very different markets in terms of the type of fish they sell but the prices in Italy are significantly cheaper for the items they have in common.

The Chioggia market has a huge variety of crustaceans and mollusks including many different types and sizes of shrimps, prawns, langoustines, clams, mussels, squid, crabs, lobsters, scallops, oysters and octopus. Clams come in three different forms - vongole veraci, lupini and arselle or telline. Mussels and vongole veraci (Manila clams) are farmed in the Chioggia lagoons but recently there have been problems with excessive salinity caused by poor water circulation that has attracted predators of the clams into the lagoon. Tuna, sea bass, monkfish, turbot, sea bream and garrick or leerfish were the other types of fish we saw in the market.

The only problem with a market like this with so much delicious fresh fish is that even if you're staying in accommodation that has a kitchen, it's unlikely that it will be sufficiently well-equipped to do justice to the fish you buy so like most out of town visitors to the fish market, we left empty-handed.

Chioggia - aperitivo & dining

Baia dei Porci restaurant, Chioggia

Chioggia may be quiet in the off season but even on a weekday in February the bars are open at 5.30 pm when the winter sun sets and the workplaces empty for an aperitivo.

This is Veneto after all and this region practically invented the aperitivo, being the home of both Aperol Spritz and Prosecco, two cocktail hour drinks that young people all over Europe seem to have adopted. And no matter the winter chill, Italians prefer to sit outside.

For dinner we headed to Baia dei Porci on the advice of a local resident and what a great recommendation it turned out to be. The name translates as 'Bay of Pigs' but has absolutely nothing to do with the Cuban misadventure of 1961, rather it refers to the part of the lagoon immediately north of Chioggia where the two barrier islands of Ca' Roman and Pellestrina are located.

Baia dei Porci restaurant, Chioggia

Some restaurants have a great atmosphere and put you in a good mood as soon as you walk through the door and Baia dei Porci is certainly one of those. It is a beautifully decorated intimate space managed by a couple who clearly enjoy their work and Cristina obviously has a great sense of humor to go with her sense of style when she placed Einstein's Theory of Relativity right between the signs for the kitchen and the toilet (left photo below).

Atmospherics and affable owners are all very well but a restaurant has to deliver on its main purpose of serving great food at reasonable prices if it is to succeed and Baia dei Porci certainly does that. We were very impressed with our dinner and the whole dining experience.

The Gran Saòr first course (left photo below) is a classic Veneto preparation for seafood that has developed over time from the simple cucina povera way of adding flavor and preserving fish, using just onions and vinegar, to a much more refined agrodolce preparation with the addition of toasted pinoli and plumped up sultanas. The word 'saòr' is Venetian dialect for 'sapore', ie taste.

The Gran Saòr at Baia dei Porci includes sole, mantis shrimp, scallop, squid and sardine and comes with grilled white polenta. I loved their take on the Saòr preparation but on balance I prefer yellow polenta.

Our other primo piatto was also a great success, tortelloni stuffed with various shrimps, scallops and local radicchio (right photo above). This was followed by a fabulous mixed grill of local crustaceans (left photo below), as pleasing to the eye as it was on the palate.

Below right are the live cannolicchi with the middle one already heading for the door before his second escape attempt on my chin. I should perhaps have doused him with some more lemon as a tranquilizer. These little beasts were served with a green salt marsh plant native to Veneto called salicornia which I believe translates to marsh samphire or glasswort or sea asparagus - another new experience for me.

After it was all washed down with a liter of Prosecco from the Veneto hills the bill came to a very reasonable 95 euros for the two of us which I consider excellent value and without doubt substantially less than you would pay further up the lagoon in Venice. Dining at Baia dei Porci is perhaps our best memory of Chioggia.

Chioggia - Sottomarina

Sottomarina divides the lagoon from the Adriatic and has a long wide beach that stretches for several miles down to the mouth of the Brenta river. In winter there are only a few people on the sand searching for telline which seem to be quite abundant here, but by the look of all the infrastructure and stabilimenti balneari they must get quite a crowd in the summer.

people looking for clams on Sottomarina beach in winter, Chioggia
Local Chioggians collecting telline clams on the Sottomarina beach

The settlement on Sottomarina was destroyed by the Genovesi during the War of Chioggia and lacking sea defenses it remained unpopulated for the following 300 years. Then over a 38 year period in the middle of the 18th century a series of walls were built by the Venetian Republic, called Murazzi, using Istrian stone (photo below).

These walls ran for miles up to and beyond the barrier islands of Ca' Roman and Pellestrina and a good portion of them remain intact today. In the intervening 250 years however the sea receded along the Sottomarina shore leaving behind the wide sandy beaches so today these old walls are a full kilometer away from the Adriatic.

Part of the Murazzi walls in Sottomarina, Chioggia

In the 1930s a long sea wall was built jutting out for a mile perpendicular to the shoreline to match the older one opposite on Ca' Roman and it is now lined with fishing huts as well as being a favorite place for the locals to walk and take exercise. Between these two sea walls there is a new underwater barrier that acts as a moveable dam when required, much like the Thames barrier in London.

Fishing sheds on the sea wall in Sottomarina, Chioggia

They were installed also at two other sites so the whole lagoon can be isolated temporarily from the Adriatic Sea during acqua alta high tides. In October 2020 they were used successfully for the first time but with a total cost of about 5.5 billion euros perhaps Venice ought to implement a higher tourist tax.

Ca' Roman has never been permanently populated but on the island there are some mostly abandoned tourist buildings and the remains of various military fortifications from different ages put there by the Venetians as well as Italy's many invading armies from Austria, France and Germany.

View of Chioggia across the water from Sottomarina
View of Chioggia across the water from Sottomarina


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