Venice welcomes back its prestigious Biennale, the art world’s oldest and biggest gathering, from 23 April, after a three-year absence. From that day, vaporetto no 1 water bus, which chugs up the Grand Canal and past Piazza San Marco, will be packed with art lovers, who will stream off at the Giardini boat stop for the Giardini della Biennale, where 30 international pavilions present the latest cutting-edge creations.
But one stop further, just before the vaporetto steams off across the lagoon to the Lido, is little-known Sant’Elena, a tiny island, separated just by a canal from the rest of the Castello district. Overlooked by most people, it’s an oasis of peace at a time when weekend city centre visitor numbers to the are topping 130,000, significantly more than before the pandemic.
It is quite a surprise to step off the vaporetto into the middle of a sprawling grassy public park, a green lung in the middle of Ruskin’s City of Stone. The Parco delle Rimembranze is the largest green space in Venice, majestically landscaped with towering umbrella pines. Families with kids, joggers and dog walkers come from across the city to make the most of playgrounds, play basketball, soccer and Frisbee or tennis, or cycle on bike paths. Not what you would expect to find in Venice. Sant’Elena is home to a prestigious naval academy, whose cadets promenade in their splendid uniforms at weekends, and to Pier Luigi Penzo stadium, Italy’s second-oldest, home to Venezia FC, which is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame playing in Serie A against the likes of Juventus and AC Milan, despite a maximum attendance of a mere 11,500 supporters.
There are no baroque palaces or Renaissance churches here, although cloistered Chiesa di Sant’Elena, facing east towards the lagoon mouth dates back to the 10th century. The buildings today are mostly 1920s apartment blocks, built after the end of the first world war to house refugees and servicemen’s families from the surrounding Veneto and Friuli regions, where some of the bloodiest battles occurred: these are recalled in street names like Calle Oslavia and Campo Monte Grappa. There are war memorials all over the island, and even some of the pines are named after Italian generals. These flats were all case popolari, public housing, but today the population of Sant’Elena is changing, as many Venetian families, especially with children, move here from the historic centre to enjoy the green spaces and the beaches of the Lido. British author and university lecturer Gregory Dowling chose to live here 35 years ago. “I would never leave,” he says. “There is still a real community spirit, amazing open spaces, and some of the most stunning sunsets in the world.”
On weekdays the lack of crowds and tourists on Sant’Elena comes as a shock compared with the rest of the city. At family-run Osteria da Pampo, owner Martina Gianfranceschi says: “Sant’Elena is becoming a lifeboat for the last genuine Venetians. We have a butcher, a greengrocer and a bread shop. What else do you need? I guess we must be the last part of Venice that does not have a supermarket. Bar Vincent is where everyone meets for an aperitivo, while Vecia Gina has been making fabulous pizzas for three generations.”
Martina and her mother Paola, who does the cooking at Pampo, are from Genoa. “We really wanted to settle in Venice, but out of the centre, and our small family-run restaurant attracts loyal locals, Biennale-goers and curious tourists,” says Martina. The cuisine at Pampo is certainly a surprise after the classic menù turistico around Piazza San Marco, with Genovese specialities such as seppie in zimino, cuttlefish with chard, alongside the classic spaghetti alle vongole.
On a Sunday afternoon when Venezia are playing at home, Sant’Elena resembles a funfair, with Venetian families from all walks of life – gondoliers, Murano glass blowers, chefs and bar staff – making the pilgrimage. Where else in the world do supporters arrive by vaporetto to a stadium with views of the shimmering waters of Venice’s lagoon? Rising Chelsea star and Welsh international Ethan Ampadu, 21, is on loan here and has quickly fallen under the spell of La Serenissima. “I still can’t get used to the fact that there really are no cars,” he told me. “I could hardly believe on match day that we sail across the water by boat and are inside the ground in two minutes. I think whichever stadium I play in around the world, nothing will compare with that experience.”
The tiny Paludo Sant’Antonio bridge links Sant’Elena into the Giardini della Biennale. Head through the gardens toVia Garibaldi, and you are right back in bustling Venice, which feels like another world from Sant’Elena.
Stay While some Sant’Elena residents offer Airbnb accommodation, there is just a single hotel on the island, the designer Indigo (double from €150), a restored former convent.