Sunday, 14 April 2013

Venice's bookshops face closure - here is a possible solution

A Solution for the Bookshops of Venice - by Robin Saikia - 14 April 2013

Last Friday over 100 influential writers gathered in Venice to discuss the crisis facing the city's bookshops. The meeting took place, appropriately, in the Sansovino Library at San Marco, symbol of Venice's centuries-old literary culture. The agenda was simple enough. Of the city's 35 bookshops, 14 have been forced to close because of astronomic rents - the premises will ultimately become home to yet more shops selling cheap souvenirs. Either that, or we'll see yet more expensive bars and restaurants. Of the 21 bookshops that remain, 2 are in danger of immediate closure and for the others, the writing will be on the wall soon enough.

Various solutions have been proposed, none of them straightforward. There is the possibility of instituting rent control and applying for government subsidy - difficult to create and sustain in a country already riddled with bureaucracy. There have also been suggestions of a quick fix that would enable book dealers to set up temporary stands in public spaces such as the colonnades of the Palazzo Ducale.

But how about a permanent solution, one that would be commmercially viable and appeal both to private sponsors - such as Prada or Benetton - to the Comune and to central government?

Back in Britain, in the Sixties, the British entrepreneur Bennie Gray invented the concept of the indoor antique market. Over the last fifty years he has converted several large buildings in the city into retail space for hundreds of dealers. Each dealer pays a reasonably weekly license fee for a retail unit in the building. Units range in size from 6 to 60 square meters. The weekly license fee is a quarter - or less - of what dealers would have to pay if they were to rent a conventional shop. The antique markets, housing a rich variety of dealers, have become iconic destinations in London. The idea has been much replicated by successive generations of entrepreneurs - with great success - in other cities throughout Britain.

Why not apply the same principle here in Venice, and convert a large space in the Arsenale - or a similar location - into a home for booksellers, antquarian book dealers, bookbinders and printers, not only from Venice but from all over Italy? In addition to the retail units there might be exhibition spaces, a small museum - and a number of bars and restaurants run by Venetian operators serving good Venetian food and wine. The project could be owned and managed by the Comune in partnership with a consortium of private and corporate backers. It would be completely in harmony with the spirit that has informed the Biennale since the end of the 19th century. The book centre would be, in effect, an additional pavilion (padiglione)  - and also serve as a lasting, contemporary celebration of Venice's literary heritage. Finally, if properly managed, it could turn out to be that rare thing - a social enterprise that makes money for its private backers and swiftly repays any government grants.

If you wish to help take this idea further, please email me at [email protected]

Robin Saikia is a British author living in Venice. His books include The Venice Lido (Blue Guides), Blue Guide Literary Companion London (Blue Guides), Blue Guide Italy Food Companion (Blue Guides), Blue Guide Hay-on-Wye (Blue Guides), The Red Book - the Membership List of the Right Club, 1939 (Foxley Books). He is currently completing his latest book, Venice 1912 - 1947; Impressions of a City in Peace and War.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Venice Lido now available as an ebook...

A typical afternoon on the Venice Lido
Blue Guides is known for its well written, beautifully produced and authoritative guide books. The venerable travel imprint, founded in 1918, has now published its first ebook, The Venice Lido by Robin Saikia. The Venice Lido was the first in the publisher's new Travel Monographs series.The print edition is a great success and remains the book to consult before planning a trip to Venice or to its glamorous beach resort. It has been become required reading for the tens of thousands of tourists who visit Venice every year, offering them a completely different perspective on the city. The critics, too, warmly praised and endorsed the book. John Julius Norwich: "I have enjoyed it hugely - and it has taught me lots that I didn't know." The Spectator: "Warmth, charm and eccentric scholarship." Guardian: "Smashing... so well brought off I expected sand to sift from its pages while I was reading." Good Book Guide: "Combines an enthralling travel guide with an equally intriguing social and cultural history." Fictional Cities: "This book will broaden your horizons." Robin Saikia is delighted with the response: "A great many people think of Venice in terms of churches, palaces and museums. They do not know that only ten minutes away from San Marco there is this unbuttoned, sundrenched paradise dotted with tennis courts and stables, a golf course and a fabulously maintained beach. If, like me, you're both a culture vulture and a committed hedonist, you'll find the Lido a more than welcome bolthole from the high-brow hurly-burly of the city. Children: in an ideal world children shouldn't get bored looking at beautiful things, but in real life they do - so here are 10 things to do on the Venice Lido, some of which are perfect for children. Culture: do not suppose the Lido is entirely bereft of culture. Visconti filmed Death in Venice here. Here is a rare thing, a cocktail underpinned with literary integrity: Death in Venice the drink was invented by me and refined by Tony Micelotta, the bar manager at the Excelsior."

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Adopt a Venetian Cat!

British author Robin Saikia visits a small-but-beautiful cat sanctuary on the Venice Lido and adopts a new friend, Malamocchino (pictured here).
Malamocchino: old, unwanted, war-torn, deeply affectionate.
Adopted by Robin Saikia.
This August I visited the famous Dingo cat sanctuary on the Lido in Venice, the lively home of around 200 stray or unwanted cats from Venice and the islands of the lagoon. Founded in 1965, it is known as the gattile, pronounced gah-tee-lay, which means cattery in Italian. It is run by the charming Maria Grazia Macaluso whose work with cats is widely known throughout Italy and deserves wider recognition elsewhere. The gattile is an example of a small-but-beautiful animal charity, a model of efficiency and an ideal blueprint for anyone thinking of setting up something similar anywhere in the world. The Dingo set-up in Venice is part of the Anglo Italian Society for the Protection of Animals which has branches all over Italy. They keep a close eye on the welfare of all kinds of animals, from cats and dogs to birds, fish, donkeys, livestock and circus animals.

Robin with Maria Grazia Macaluso of the gattile.
Photo by Marco Secchi
The gattile is housed in a small farmhouse at the end of a lane in Malamocco, a pretty fishing village on the Venice Lido. There are cat dormitories and a surgery in the house and a series of outdoor enclosures. The cats in and around Maria Grazia’s office in the farmhouse are clearly very happy with their lot and not in the least upset by visitors, whom they greet with affection, curiosity, indifference or disdain. Alice is a prim, stern-looking little schoolmistress of a cat who sits aloft on a bookcase. Eric is a vast, indolent, orange potentate who loves to be brushed and stroked. Further away in the compound, in the quarantine huts and convalescence wards, you will find unfortunates like Alberto, who lost his tail in a car accident on the Lido and the ancient but quarrelsome Dándolo, who is slowly but surely recovering from a terrible fight. Further afield, there is an isolation ward for cats suffering from serious illnesses like HIV and a maternity ward for those who are about to have kittens.

It was a blazing hot day in August when I visited and many of the cats were huddled contentedly in the shade beneath candy-striped golf umbrellas strategically planted throughout the enclosures. Every day, Venetians bring in unwanted, sick or stray cats. Every day, each newcomer is given a medical. When its needs have been assessed, it joins the colony. The gattile is also an active ‘adoption’ agency and Maria Grazia does her best to find homes for the cats, though it is not always easy. Inky is a sweet little black kitten, pretty much assured of a home once he has a clean bill of health. Malamocchino, however, is a rather forbidding old cat and is probably going to stay at Dingo for the rest of his life. Though he is enormously affectionate, he has a war-torn face that many would find quite off-putting, with only one eye, one snaggled and protruding tooth and decidedly ragged ears, the legacy of bitter territorial ambushes in the alleys and colonnades of his Venetian youth. We took to one another instantly and I have ‘adopted’ him at a distance for a small annual fee. He will appear regularly on my website and will keep readers updated about the latest happenings at the gattile.

Malamocchino, Eric, Alice and the others have a noble lineage, since cats have for centuries played a key part in Venetian life. In Gaetano Zompini’s 1789 book about Venetian street traders we learn about knife-sharpeners, candle-sellers and wig-makers, but there is another intriguing trade, that of the castragatti, the cat-neuterers. The cat population of Venice had always been a problem but Venetians, as animal lovers, were always ready to try and compromise with their feline friends: cats kill rats, rats spread plague, so neutering the toms would have seemed a good way of keeping a useful ally under control. But over time the feral population inevitably grew until it was beyond the power of the castragatti or anyone else to contain it. Visitors to Venice in recent decades will remember the old ladies who fed the strays every morning along the Giardini Ex Reale. It was quite a sight. Hundreds of cats would appear, from bushes, rooftops, from behind pillars, leaping out of gondolas, snarling at anyone who dared walk too near to the piles of fishy scraps dished out by the well-meaning cat ladies. The Dingo charity had helped with general aspects of health and welfare since its foundation in 1965, but by the 21st century the cat problem was completely out of control.

The Comune di Venezia, the city council, comprised with time-honoured Venetian diplomacy and ingenuity. The cats were exiled to the island of San Clemente, formerly the site of Venice’s lunatic asylum for women, where they settled in well, their nocturnal mews harmonising neatly, some said, with the ghostly screeches of long-dead inmates. All seemed well until 2005 when the island was sold and redeveloped as a luxury hotel, the San Clemente Palace. The cats were again dispossessed. Again they were loaded into cages and cat carriers and hoisted, mewing, hissing and spitting, onto a procession of barges. This time they were rehoused at Malamocco on the Lido.

As I said farewell to my new friends, Maria Grazia and I agreed that it seems appropriate that the Lido should once again be the refuge of exiles, for that was what it was at the very beginning of Venice’s history. The ten-mile-long sandbank now known as the Lido (from the Latin litus, meaning ‘shore’) was the site of the very first settlement of refugees from the Italian mainland, driven here first by Attila the Hun and later by Charlemagne. The cats, like the early Venetians, landed here on nothing but a wing and a prayer. Now, they are thriving and fighting back. Long may it last!

Robin Saikia is donating 3 euros for every signed copy of his book The Venice Lido sold from his website. There is a prize competition too. Click here for details. For more details of the Dingo project in Venice, see

Friday, 12 August 2011

Death in Venice - the cocktail

Tony Micelotta (Excelsior) and Robin Saikia
Masters at work: Tony Micelotta (left), the internationally renowned bar manager at the Grand Hotel Excelsior, Venice Lido, puts the finishing touches to a new cocktail invented by Robin Saikia (right). "Death in Venice", a strawberry-themed vodka martini, will be available on the bar menu at the Excelsior next season. The strawberries allude to Von Aschenbach's fatal snack in Venice. The drink is made with Ciroc vodka, calling to mind the sirocco, the desert wind that ravages the Mediterranean in the height of summer.

Von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) and the fatal fruit.
Robin Saikia "Several bartenders over the years have attempted a Death in Venice cocktail but they always seem to miss out the essential ingredient, strawberries. Strawberries were Von Aschenbach's downfall in Thomas Mann's novella. The choice of Cîroc has a literary allusion too - but in terms of pure taste, which what a drink is ultimately all about, the slightly grappa-ish tang of Cîroc vodka complements the aquavit-based strawberry liqueur.  Here is my own recipe for Death in Venice, including instructions for making your own strawberry aquavit. If that seems daunting, there are several good strawberry liqueurs on the market."

1. Take a 250ml / 8.8 oz Martini glass, intensely chilled in the freezer for at least half a day.

2. Pour in equal splashes of homemade strawberry liqueur and dry vermouth. Swirl the glass until the interior is thoroughly and uniformly coated then discard the mixture.

3. Fill to the brim with Cîroc vodka which you've also stored in the freezer. The slightly grappa-ish taste of Cîroc complements the aquavit-based strawberry liqueur.

4. Serve

Here is the recipe for the strawberry liqueur.


2 and a quarter pounds of strawberries trimmed and halved
1 lemon
1 750 millilitre botlle of 40% proof aquavit.


clean 750ml bottle with reliable cork or cap

Put strawberries in a bowl; zest and juice lemon over the top and stir to combine. Cover and let stand at cool room temperature or chilled, stirring occasionally, for 24 hours. Pour aquavit over mixture; cover and let macerate at cool room temperature or chilled for 24 hours. Reserve bottle and cap (you will need 2 bottles). Strain mixture into a bowl through sieve, pressing to extract liquid. Wrap strawberry pulp in cheesecloth and squeeze over bowl to extract as much liquid as possible; discard remaining pulp. Let mixture settle for a few minutes, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl (preferably with a pouring spout). Pour liqueur into bottles, seal and chill until ready to serve. Note: Strawberry Liqueur keeps, chilled, for up to one year. The flavour becomes smoother over time.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Death in Venice

A delightfully festive record sleeve, the soundtrack of Death in Venice showing Dirk and Bjorn in a cheerful, summery mood. It has great charm, but of the wrong sort, rather like one of those London Transport of the Fifties.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Spelling it out

If this had been covered by Pathe News, the announcer would probably have said: "These Lido Lovelies may not know joined up writing, but they've treated us to a truly capital celebration of their summer holiday!"

Afternoon tea on the Lido