Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Secret Garden, Giudecca

Guidebooks tell us that in the days of the Republic the island of Giudecca used to be renowned for its private gardens: the enclosed pleasure grounds of those trouble-making aristocrats who were banished there because of their anti-government inclinations. A couple of months ago I met a woman who is supposed to own the best (and perhaps last) private garden still in existence on Giudecca. I hope to get a chance to see (and photograph) it this Spring. But two days ago Jen, Sandro and I visited a Giudecca garden of a decidedly more democratic bent than those old ones of the vanished Republic. 

Set behind the Church of the Zitelle, beside the Hotel Cipriani, this community garden, a Spiazzi Verdi project of a group devoted to permaculture (or sustainable organic agriculture), covers about 1 hectare (or 2.5 acres) of land within a large enclosed plot it shares with a casa di riposo (or rest home). As you can see in the photo above, it has a large plot of artichokes, a vineyard, a few fruit trees, and (less visible) another large plot of land given over to vegetables of every sort.

On the other side of a brick wall, there is a second plot of grapes, in an area long-used for their cultivation (at right). There is also a third vineyard, also long used for the cultivation of grapes, on the cemetery island of San Michele, and a very old cantina where, as monks did for centuries, the group makes wine from the fruit of their vineyards. [Insert your own joke about Wine and Spirits here.]                                     
We only found out about this garden last Saturday, when Sandro and I chanced into a conversation with its director and his 4-year-old son at La Serra, the one-time greenhouse for the Giardini Pubblici alongside Viale Garibaldi, which over the last year has become one of the liveliest and most interesting places in Castello. La Serra is not only a lovely tall sunny space, filled with plants for sale and a nice cafe, it hosts a wide variety of events: from water color and yoga classes for adults, to paper-making workshops for kids, fencing exhibitions, and educational projects about the ecosystem of the lagoon. Some of the seedlings sold in La Serra got their start at the community garden on Giudecca.    
The next day Sandro, Jen and I went to work at the garden. Sunday is the usual day for people to work there, though other days are also possible. Anyone can work and, in return for their labor, share in what the garden produces. In a place so unrelentingly urban as Venice, in which it's possible to stroll for an hour without seeing a tree, it's a marvelous thing to dig in the dirt. One of the main thrusts of the garden is educational: it hosts workshops for Venetian school children. And Sandro enjoyed hoeing and shoveling and running around so much that he didn't want to leave. 

It wasn't an especially good day to take photos: the sun was high and bright, and the garden was in its winter guise, much of it dead or, like the grape vines, pruned bare. But some beautiful photos and a really well-shot video of the garden in summer, along with much more information about it, can be found here:

For a very long time it's been easy and even fashionable for some people to be dismissive of Venice: a certain kind of male English writer in particular seems inclined to dismiss the city as merely, at worst, a tourist trap, at best, a museum. Geoff Dyer, for example, repeats the cliche about the inauthentic nature of the city's inhabitants, as if they all are merely playing at life on one big stage set. (Couldn't the same thing be said about Manhattanites, by the way?). Such writers pride themselves on being knowing, or in the know, seeing through the appearances that take in the rest of us. But in seeing through things, I wonder if they ever actually see anything at all aside from their own defenses, abstractions, or projections. It doesn't help, by the way, that many of the people who are most dismissive of the city speak no Italian at all. For such people as these the city largely remains a closed book, which they take great pride in judging by its cover.

But against all odds, there is plenty of life in Venice still, resisting the push to commercialize every square inch of it to death. In scattered sometimes hidden places, there are growing things--available to those who have or make the time to look and see.

The garden's wood-powered kitchen


  1. This is wonderful to know about, so many thanks. People are always amazed when I talk about the numerous gardens that Venice has hidden away in every area- there's this misconception that Venice is wall to wall stone.

    In particular the gardens of Giudecca are special hidden treasures - and it's lovely to hear about this community garden. Long may it thrive!

    1. Yes, it's every easy to get the impression that Venice is only wall to wall stone! It was such a nice surprise to find that outer islands like Sant' Erasmo are not the only places where veggies etc are growing.

  2. What a nice piece of happenstance that was, you and Sandro meeting and talking to just the right person at La Serra. I'll bet this won't be your only visit there.

    1. I think we're planning to go to l'orto again this Sunday! We've met a lot of interesting people & found out about a lot of interesting things simply because of whom Sandro happens to play with at a park or in a campo. Having a young child who's generally outgoing can lead to a lot of introductions among adults who otherwise might never be brought into contact. It's pretty easy to think of how traveling with a child can be limiting, but in other ways it can also really open things up.

  3. I have been thoroughly enjoying your blog and I am so happy to have found it through Yvonne's blog.

    This is a wonderful post. Last January, my husband and I spent a day wandering around Giudecca "garden spotting". If I lived in Venice, I would be hanging out at this garden a lot! I love the outdoor kitchen, particularly the cupboards filled with plates, etc. with the rattan blinds that can be rolled down. Do they perhaps use that kitchen for a vendemmia or mini festa?

    We also enjoyed stumbling upon La Serra for the first time!

    Susie L

  4. I'm very glad that you're enjoying the blog, Susie, and I think we should follow your example and go "garden spotting" ourselves on Giudecca. I've only been to selected areas and never really ranged as far as one could.

    I get the impression that once the cold weather is past there are a lot of mini-feste at the community garden; I suspect pretty much one every Sunday during the summer when there's so much to prepare at that little outdoor kitchen and eat. My wife Jen actually went to a lunch at the garden in the middle of last week! (Written about, in Italian, on the garden blog under the title of "Cucina da Campo in festa alle Zitelle Fertili" at:

    And La Serra is a fun place!

  5. It makes me so happy to learn that this place exists!

    Hope you and your family are having a wonderful EAster weekend.

    1. That's exactly how I felt when I first heard of it--and seeing it only confirmed the feeling. It's a great place. And the fact that it shares its huge parcel of land with a rest home, so that the elderly can come out and enjoy the sight of growing things (I haven't yet seen any who are in good enough condition to participate in the work) makes it even better.

      Thanks for your kind wishes, and Buona Pasqua to you!

  6. Hello Sig. Nonloso,

    I happened to walk into that wonderful garden during Biennale 2009 (a 'collateral event' in the geriatric center). I am very pleased to read your blog about the garden (and I like your complete blog of course, and your attitude, and your little boy...).

    Just a very quick message as it's late and I will be flying early tomorrow morning to Venice for a few days :-).
    I used your informations for a little report on MY(German language) blog without offending your copyright I hope. And I linked to your blog

    In case you don't agree let me know:

    Thank and kind regards

  7. Hello, B,

    I'm very glad to hear you liked the blog and the post and happy, too, to learn of your blog--which makes me wish I hadn't forgotten so much of the limited German I once knew. Now I have another reason to try to re-learn some of it, as well as some text with which to practice.

    I love your cover photo of the bird flying over the lagoon.

    Hope you have a great visit in Venice.

  8. Ciao,
    I'll be checking back, Sig. Nonloso, for secret gardens to visit next time I'm in Venice.
    I attempted to visit one that my B&B host sent me to on a rainy day in June, but alas, the gates were locked and no one was about that I could appeal to :(
    Giudecca, I must definitely explore further...

    (aka Bay Area Tendrils)

    1. I hope to post some more for you to check out, but I'm afraid I don't have any at the moment. Last winter I met a woman here who is supposed to have a marvelous private English-style garden on Giudecca and I intended to visit her in the spring when it was supposed to be at its peak but somehow forgot to do so! Maybe next year... In the meantime I will keep my ears and eyes open.

  9. Thanks so much for your news about the secret garden. I rushed over to the Giudecca a couple of days to see it and couldn't find it. We are in Venice for a long stay so I will try again. Can you please tell me how to find it - where I go once I get off the vaporetto at Zitelle? Thanks.

    1. I don't remember precise directions myself, but the garden is directly behind the church of the Zitelle. When you exit the fermata you should be a little west of--or should head west of--the Zitelle and take the first calle you see that allows you to head south. You will not walk all that far south--perhaps the equivalent of a NYC city block--and you will reach a viale that allows you to turn either left or right (east or west, respectively), you will want to turn left.

      At the end of this viale is an entry way with a buzzer. You will press the buzzer and be let in. A rest home will be to the south, the garden will be at the north end of a large open space.

      When you get off the fermata stop at Zitelle, you can also ask a Venetian "Dov'è la casa di riposo?" (Where is the rest home?) The garden is at one end of the large grounds of the rest home, and they share the same entryway with its buzzer.

      It might help you to do a googlemaps search of Giudecca and look at the big open space just behind the church-that's where you'll be heading.