Comacchio: The Unknown Little Venice

Your next destination is Comacchio, where you will find canals, an epic bridge, and all the eel you can eat.

Comacchio at dawn. Photo: Guido Andolfato, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr.

This is the floating city you should be dying to see, if only for the eels!

While researching Comacchio, the features I kept coming across were waterways, an utterly unique bridge, and dozens of recipes for Anguilla anguilla, better known to us as eel. If that last part doesn’t seem that appetizing, don’t wriggle away just yet. There is a whole lot more there worth seeing (and eating). To be quite honest, I knew little about the place before setting down to write this piece. I may have encountered the name before while watching a travel show or reading a guidebook, but it has never been fully on my radar. After my deep dive into the delta waters of ‘Little Venice’, there is no doubt that we all need to put this town of 22,000 on the top of our touring list as soon as possible, because what a hidden gem!  

The history of the area stretches back at least 2,000 years, so we won’t attempt to do it justice here, but suffice it to say that lovers of storia will get their fill and then some. Founded by the Etruscans, the settlement always revolved around the Po Delta and its riches, whether that was trade, fishing, or salt production. Known as Spina to the ancients, the port was a crucial step along the Amber Road, a shipping route that stretched all the way to the Baltic Sea, thousands of miles to the north. Silting and other environmental changes have since left Comacchio several miles from the Adriatic coast, but its fortunes are still dependent on the water. The old Comacchio grew so rich and influential off the transport of salt and garum that by the 9th century AD, Venice viewed them as a threat to their power and choked the area off economically. As its star faded, Comacchio drifted into the fog of memory for many centuries, becoming a backwater, sleepy and forgotten. Over the years, many of its surrounding swampland was drained and transformed into agricultural plots, allowing the residents a respite from constant mosquito bites and ensuing malaria. While Comacchio has entered the modern age with the rest of Italy, there is still a sense of stepping back in time when one glides down the canals and valli and sees the fishermen at work. 

When you build your town on 13 islands in the middle of a lagoon, bridges become a necessity. There are plenty of bridges to choose from in Comacchio, but the Ponte dei Trepponti is truly an arch above the rest. Imagine a battlement straddling the Po River. Underneath it, a gaping opening allows boats to pass through and go four different directions through the city. On top of the parapet there is a piazza where one has a fine view of the city and its dissecting canals, accessible by pedestrians via five sets of gently rising stone staircases. While its name translates to ‘Bridge of the Three Bridges’, the construction in reality boasts five total spans made of brick and stone. Whether or not its name is accurate, the bridge is one that you are unlikely to find anywhere else in Italy, let alone the world. Say what you will about the Catholic Church, but some of the most sensational structures in Italy were commissioned by its clergy, and Ponte dei Trepponti was no exception. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Maria Pallotta not only had a canal excavated and named after himself, but he also ordered a bridge to be built, which wound up being completed in 1638. The 17th century was good for Comacchio, as many of its most important buildings were constructed during this period with plenty of Papal State money available. Santuario Santa Maria in Aula Regia and the Chiesa del Rosario are a couple other significant examples of the flurry of marble cutting and bricklaying that occurred during this century. 

Trepponti Comacchio
Trepponti, Comacchio. Photo: Edoardo Cuoghi on Unsplash.

Now for my favorite part: eels! These catadromous fish have long been a staple for populations along the Po, and Comacchio may very well be the epicenter of this unusual provender. The number of eel recipes you can find are in the dozens, and here are some of them: fried eel, grilled eel, braised eel, eel with grapes, eel with peas, eel meatballs, eel risotto, eel paella, eel stew, eel carbonara, pickled eel, pizza with lacquered eel, and of course, a smoked eel sandwich. When visiting Comacchio, you can witness the fresh catch of the day being pickled at the Manifattura dei Marinati, a factory which doubles as a museum that tells the entire story of the art of eel fishing and how it has sustained generations of Comacchiesi. Within the same complex is the Sala dei Fuochi, where 12 restored ovens run continuously roasting eels on spits the same way it was done 500 years ago. Comacchio is so proud of its eel heritage that it puts on an eel festival every year in the fall, usually over three weekends in September and October. 

The Sagra dell’Anguilla attracts thousands of visitors from the region and beyond, all eager to indulge in the slithery delights of this sweet, soft, non-fishy tasting fish. It is a great opportunity to get a sense of what Comacchio is all about, and it is held at a time of year when temperatures are milder and the romantic allure of the fog draped lagoon is at its peak. Ok, I did promise there would be other options for those who shy away from eel. You can find plenty of seafare like clams, mussels, and cuttlefish, and polenta is prepared in many different variations. For All Saints’ Day in early November, local bakeries offer topini d’ognissanti, an adorable cookie shaped like a mouse. Supposedly Comacchio suffered an infestation of mice during the early 1800s, and after many months of prayer to the Virgin Mary, the rodents decided to vacate the town. The topini are a way of keeping the memory of deliverance alive. 

Comacchio houses
Houses in Comacchio. Photo:
Mia Battaglia
, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr.

We hope this little sampling of Comacchio was to your liking. There is of course much more to explore, including the Po Delta Park, covering a total of 158,000 acres across both Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, as well as the golden sand beaches just minutes away from the town center. If you are considering visiting Venice in the near future, pause for a moment. Do you really want to be surrounded by massive crowds and pay exorbitant prices even for a simple day trip? Comacchio is the other floating city still waiting to be discovered, largely preserved and free from the chaos of La Serenissima.