Venice – the prettiest city on planet Earth, with a population of 60,000 and the same number of tourists each day. Birmingham – the gritty, landlocked second city of England with a population of over 1 million. Believe it or not, the two have a fair bit in common…
You’ve heard the comparisons. Bruges, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are all known as the Venice of the North, mainly because they have canals and are very pretty. Well let me introduce you to the Venice of the UK – Birmingham.
It may not be the most attractive city, but one thing it has more of than Venice is canals. The first time I heard this, I thought no – it’s got to be an urban myth.
But it’s a fact (Birmingham beats Venice by 35 miles to 26 miles).Birmingham lies at the heart of Britain’s 200 year old canal network – the canals were once the highways of the industrial revolution. Cargoes such as coal, glass and more importantly chocolate from the nearby Bournville factory were transported from here all over the country.
The waterside between The Mailbox and Brindley Place is now a food and drink lover’s playground – especially if you like chain bars and restaurants like All Bar One, Pitcher and Piano, Zizzi, Wagamama, Handmade Burger Company etc.
Venice is split into six areas called sestieri. The most central is San Marco, which contains the city’s most popular tourist attractions such as Piazza San Marco, the Basilica San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale. Unsurprisingly, the streets surrounding these sights are jam packed with tourists and day-trippers from cruise ships.There’s another urban myth about Venice – that it’s shockingly expensive. While there is some truth in this (we paid €30 for two glasses of wine in Piazza San Marco, although this did include a €5 per person “musical accompaniment charge” for the privilege of being entertained by a string quartet), if you know where to go there are some bargains.
We stayed in the northern sestiere of Cannaregio – only a fifteen minute walk from San Marco, but a world away. People actually live here – there are schools, apartment blocks, washing hanging out across streets. It’s also really, really quiet and peaceful as few tourists bother coming out here. There are no cars beeping their horns anywhere in Venice, and with our hotel in Cannaregio being nowhere near a main canal or the waterbus route, we had a great night’s sleep.A highlight of any trip to Italy is a chance to taste the delicious food on offer, and although there are few decent restaurants in Venice that don’t rip you off, cicchetti bars are a great way to have some quality food and wine without blowing all your euros.
Cicchetti (pronounced “Chi-Ket-Tee”, with the emphasis on the “Ket”) are local Venetian snacks served in wine bars – a bit like Italian tapas. You can get things like plates of olives, salami, and bread with a variety of meat and fish toppings all for €1 each.
Order a few, and pretty soon you’ll be full. It helps that cicchetti are served in wine bars too – we came across one just around the corner from our hotel, and liked it so much we returned there every night. Al Timon (Fondamenta Ormesini2754) serves red and white wine ranging from €1.50 to €5 a glass – there’s a blackboard behind the bar with the available wines and the cicchetti are displayed behind a counter.Unusually for Venice, the bar does not cater primarily for tourists, so there is a good mixture of Venetians, students and holidaymakers. The staff don’t speak brilliant English, so it’s a case of pointing at the food and trying to pronounce the type of wine you want in a dodgy Italian accent.
There are a few tables inside and even fewer outside alongside the canal if you are lucky – otherwise you’ll have to stand, or sit on the pavement on the canal’s edge. People were even arriving on boats, mooring them outside the bar and taking their food and drink back on board with them.Back in England, I wondered why there were no cicchetti bars at home – after all, everyone loves a Spanish tapas bar, and cicchetti are nicer than tapas. The owners of San Carlo, Birmingham’s premier Italian restaurant, must have been wondering the same thing, as they have recently opened a cicchetti bar in the city centre called Fumo (1 Waterloo Street).
Like its Venetian counterparts, you can’t book a table here – just turn up and if it’s busy, squeeze in at the bar and wait your turn. We were lucky to get a tiny table for two on our visit on a Saturday night and were impressed with the quality of the food and wine. There’s no need to point and pick blindly, as there’s an extensive menu of cicchetti to choose from and the friendly Italian waitresses will answer any questions you may have. We were told to pick three plates each, but as we were starving we chose four – eight dishes came in dribs and drabs and there was barely space for them all, although Fumo’s bizarre idea of decorating every table with a real lemon and a tomato didn’t help.
The portions are bigger than in Venice, and pricier too – a plate of three prawns in tomato sauce is £7, with small glasses of wine costing from £5. My favourite red wine from Al Timon, Barolo, comes in at a whopping £10.40 for a 175ml glass at Fumo and with cocktails starting at £7 we were happy with a bottle of Pinot Grigio between us for £17.
Who says Venice is an expensive city?