Only a few months after an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union, the poet Joseph Brodsky took a flight to Venice. He came back here again and again – "Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life," his mentor Anna Akhmatova used to say – wrote numerous poems in or about Venice, and, perhaps, simply felt happy here. Today, twenty-five years after the poet's death, many of Brodsky's favorite Venetian sights are still here for you to admire.
Why come to Venice in winter? Because then, the poet answered, Venice is like Greta Garbo taking a bath. Then nebbia descends, acqua alta rises, tourists choose to go somewhere warmer... and the Venetians flock to Zattere, the sunniest quay of the city to chat with friends, to admire the sea, to have an Aperol or simply to soak up the sunshine. A part of this wide, long, gorgeous embankment is Fondamenta Misericordia, immortalized (not for the first time) in Brodsky's Watermark. On one of its crumbling walls you can spot a shadow of Brodsky as if still enjoying the Italian winter sun.
On your way back from Punta della Dogana turn right from Zattere immediately after (tasting ice cream at) Gelateria Nico – that canal will bring you to Enoteca Schiavi, one of the best chicchetti spots in town. These tiny seafood sandwiches, washed down with a glass of wine or a shot of grappa, were apparently loved by the poet – and no wonder! Then, when the sun is down and the spirit is high, keep on walking along the canal until, at the end, you reach Pensione Accademia. This charming old-fashioned hotel is where one of Brodsky's most moving poems begins – and where you can end your day by the fire in the cozy lobby.
The next morning (or the very same night, if you feel inspired) you might wish to continue following the poet's shadow, across the bridge from Accademia, then right through the labyrinths of calli – until the mind-blowing Piazza San Marco freezes you to the spot. There, on the right, if the views and the walks have proved to be too exhausting, sit by the ancient wall of Caffe Florian, and relax. Dickens, Goethe, Wagner, Proust, Cocteau, and the company once stopped here for a coffee. In the documentary Walking with Brodsky, the poet lists Florian's famous visitors to his own friend Yevgeny Rein before adding, tongue in cheek: "One day they'll say that Brodsky and Rein were also here." And here we are, doing just that!
San Giovanni in Bragora
Keep on walking until the Piazza opens suddenly to your right – and where the Adriatic takes your breath away! When you recover, continue along the famous promenade, cross four bridges, turn left before Ristorante Bucintoro – that dark and narrow street will take you to Vivaldi. Or rather to the modest and loveable 8th century church San Giovanni in Bragora – one of the oldest in Venice if not in the world – where the famous composer was baptized. Why are we here? Because Joseph Brodsky told us to be. The poet loved Vivaldi's music and brought his guests here frequently. Should we allow to consider ourselves as one of Brodsky's guests also?
From there only a fifteen-minutes walk will take you to the world-famous Venetian Arsenal. A part of Arsenale – which, by the way, is mentioned in Dante's Divine Comedy – still belongs to the Italian Navy. The rest, however, is open to visitors during the Art Biennale. If it's not taking place when you are around, admire the sweet-faced lions at the gate – then turn left and follow the canal.
Since you're already in Castello and if, by this point, you are hungry, consider stopping at Alla Rivetta or Al Mascaron. These low-key Venetian trattorias serve traditional local food like spaghetti al nero di seppia (squid ink pasta) and my favorite fegato alla veneziana (Venetian-style liver). The last time I was at Al Mascaron, a cheerful group of gondolieri were having lunch at the next table. Both restaurants were recommended by Brodsky to Pyotr Vail. Apparently.
Now I leave you to find your own way across the island and to the "New Embankment", for the Venetian labyrinths come into their own here. But don't worry about getting lost in Venice – ah, what can be better than that?! Once you're out of the labyrinth, suddenly, you'll be facing the open sea again. And in the middle of it, as if suspended in the air, you'll see the narrow line of a floating green island. This is Isola di San Michele, the Venetian cemetery where Joseph Brodsky, the great Russian-American poet, is buried.
You can even cross the water (vaporetto 5.1, I think), get off at the first stop, walk straight from the pier, without turning left or right, until you find yourself in the Greek section of the cemetery. Once there, open a volume of poetry, or a new tab in your smartphone – or a special secret drawer in your own memory – and read a poem or two, as I do sometimes when I'm lucky enough to be there.