Wandering around Castello: Sant' Elena island
A couple of days ago we explored Riva dei Sette Martiri and then proceeded to Riva dei Partigiani and Giardini, so today I'm taking you to the island of Sant'Elena, often described as Venice's outdoor gym. Sant'Elena is a relatively big island, connected to central Venice only by two bridges.
We could say it makes a world of its own, in fact, although part of the Castello district, the address numbering follows its very own pattern (like everywhere else in the mainland). This is probably due to the fact that until the 1920s the island was separated by the rest of Venice and surrounded exclusively by water and the construction of public housing began after WW1. This is what we Venetians consider suburbs. Beware that we're going to see lots of trees, leaves and branches, so I hope you are the sort of person who enjoys nature and green areas!
I have to confess that I have a personal obsession with trees and Sant'Elena is the place I go to whenever I want to cheer myself up. Well, in total honesty...I jog there almost every morning and I have the feeling that I know these trees personally. The one depicted in the above picture on the left has been nicknamed by my husband as "the tired tree", so old and crooked that without the aid of that thick wooden pole it wouldn't probably be able to stand up. Recently the council placed a lovely and tiny open library on its trunk, where people can leave and take books to read on lazy days under the shade of the green foliages.
Vito and I lived in Sant'Elena from 2009 to 2011, which coincided with my university years. The house was lovely and we didn't mind the area at all, but we are the sort of couple who enjoys its privacy and our neighbours were a bit too present for our tastes, so as soon as I graduated and started earning some proper money (still never enough!) we moved to the heart of the city. Anyway, besides this small detail, I find Sant'Elena fantastic, a real green lung in the middle of the waters of the lagoon, an area to find peace and relaxation and to detach from the frenzy of our fast-paced lives!
Until some years ago there were lots of wooden benches and tables where people could stop for a while, but the council removed the tables and left only the benches... I won't express myself, but I'm sure you know what I think. Italian bureaucracy is crazy, just think that some 30 years ago a professor of the Venice Academy of Fine Arts was having a picnic with his friends, sitting on the grass with a nice blanket and savouring some delicious homemade food, when the local police arrived and told them that what they were doing was not legal. Flabbergasted by this ridiculous fact, the professor responded with some not-so-refined comment and the police fined him for insults to public officials. About ten years later, he was nominated Director of the Venice Fine Art Academy but -because of that fact- he was immediately revoked by the role.... Isn't this absurd?!
I hope this didn't scare you, you won't be fined, I promise! In summer I do it all the time, I just make a sandwich or grab something to take away in the nearby Via Garibaldi, sit on a bench and relax while admiring the view and leafing through a book or magazine. As long as you clean up and leave the area spic and span, nothing will happen and -trust me- this is a much better place to have a picnic than San Marco. Sant'Elena is great especially for families with kids, people with dogs and sport lovers. In fact, with regard to physical activities, there is really a lot going on (and almost everything is free of charge!!!): there is a basketball court, a five-a-side football court, a sailing club and many fitness tools that are just waiting to be used!
Sant'Elena is also the island where you'll see the Penzo Stadium, where Venezia Calcio plays. Since 1987 the original Venice team -the colours of which were black and green- was fused with Mestre and the colour orange was added to the flag. Needless to say, from that moment on the already weak team lost many supporters and inner divisions started arising. This mirrors an aspect that goes beyond football and regards the whole city, but I won't get into this as it's a long story, way too often banalised by silly considerations.
Anyway, leaving these arguments to us locals, if you decide to visit this island, a must is a stop in the Sant'Elena church. Dedicated to the Empress Saint Helena, mother of Constantin, this small church, mostly bare, is characterised by a magical atmosphere of silence and light. On its left, a stunning cloister with a couple of statues of the the Virgin Mary, a lemon tree and lots of bushes and leafy branches. This sight alone would be a good reason to walk this far...
Then, if you are curious to see how people live here and appreciate the beauty of ordinary things and everyday life... well, the colours, the trees, the flowers, the laundry hanging from the windows, the boats, the lagoon, the beautiful skies...should I continue?! All is worth being experienced and I'm sure you will love this place!
To conclude your perfect morning/afternoon walk, you could either head back to via Garibaldi for a drink or, if you'd rather stay on the island and have dinner there, two options for traditional food are Osteria da Pampo and Trattoria al Diporto! The first one is slightly fancier, while if you go to the latter... just beware that a frittura is huge, so before you order one each ask for one to share and, if you have appetite, try other traditional delicacies like schie (grey shrimps) with polenta or pasta with granseola (spider crab).
Have a great weekend and talk to you soon! Let me know if you enjoyed your experience ;-)