Shooting ducks in a barrel is a moveable feast
It’s gone 4am on a January morning and the housekeeper is gently tapping on our bedroom door. Mercifully she has brought strong, black coffee to bring us round; we have little idea of where we are except that my wife and I have come by car, one hour from Venice, having travelled south skirting the great lagoon past Chioggia and into a marshland area known as Polesine, the land between the Po and the Adige River.
This 300-year-old higgledy-piggledy house of smoky fireplaces, creaking doors and wonky floorboards, is surrounded by salty water that comes from the Adriatic in channels and canals. There are islands and long promontories covered in scrub that point into bays with a few pine trees breaking the skyline. You could be forgiven for thinking that we had joined a monastery, for there is a remarkable feeling of tranquillity here. But the Brothers might not have approved of the stuffed ducks and geese that are dotted around the house, or the ancient, canon-like punt guns that have been hauled up the walls and hung like precious pictures. On the other hand they would certainly be in awe of the beautifully carved duck decoys, two of which belonged to none other than Ernest Hemingway.
Duck shooting is an Italian obsession and in the hallowed surroundings of a private hunting lodge we are ceremoniously progressing towards a dawn flight. These country estates, known as valles, reach out across the vast Venetian lagoon and have a long history of providing wild ducks and geese for the table which started with the first Doges who had their own valles and cherished them as valuable hunting grounds.
Tingling with anticipation, we come out of our bedroom on to a dimly lit landing. As if to remind us of our quarry, we pass a glass-fronted cupboard full of yet more taxidermy. Mallard, wigeon, shoveler, gadwall, pochard and teal stand like heroic statues reminding us just how intrepid these wildfowl are. Every September hundreds of thousands of them migrate from the icy grip of a Russian winter to the almost Riviera climate of the lagoon. They come for the winter season and the abundant food, a lot of it supplied in the form of grain by the hunters themselves.
Downstairs the lodge is coming to life. More coffee is on the stove with delicious cake left over from dinner last night. It was made in the form of a preening duck and took pride of place on the table. “We don’t eat much at this time of the morning,” Alberto Pinori tells me as he tucks into a thick slice of it. He drove from Tuscany last night where he is big in leather and supplies the likes of Gucci.
Next to appear is Baron Alberto Franchetti, who has brought us here to meet his friend Marco Giol, the owner of this extraordinary valle hideaway called San Leonardo. The two men’s fathers are also shooting companions. “My father took over the estate from my grandfather and he devoted so much of his time here to make it what it is today,” Giol proudly tells me.
The elder Franchettis had another pal. A burly American who regularly came to Venice during the 1940s and fifties. He drank copious quantities of booze in Harry’s Bar and had a favourite room at the Gritti Palace on the Grand Canal. They went duck shooting together and Hemingway used the many occasions he spent hiding in a sunken oak hogshead as material for his book Across The River And Into The Trees. Much of the manuscript was sweated out at the Gritti and a first edition, signed by his daughter-in-law Valerie, takes pride of place in the Hemingway Suite.
Daniele, the head boatman, is patiently waiting, standing at the stern of his boat like a gondolier. He leads off into the darkness, pushing us with not one but two oars, a form of rowing that is unique to the valle. “This is one of the most beautiful and exciting moments of the hunting and if you remember, Hemingway described it in his book,” Franchetti whispers. “So we travel in couples, two guns together and in some boats the hunters lie down, but we’re privileged to be sitting and this is exactly what Hemingway would’ve done except he would have been on his own with only the boatman for company.”
“Whee-oo”, “whee-oo” come the calls of cock wigeon; it’s a sound that sends the heart of every wildfowler racing. We catch a slight breeze as we move into more open water. But it should be colder and windier than it is. The rule of thumb for duck shooting is the rougher the weather the better it is. Half an hour into the row and we are getting ready to beach the boat. Our two concrete barrels are waiting. One for me and one for Franchetti. In Hemingway’s day they were made of wood – oaken staved hogsheads he called them.
A pale watery light is fixing into the blackness and as every minute ticks by we can see more detail of our surroundings. A pack of at least 300 wigeon whistle over our heads from nowhere, twisting and turning and calling. Franchetti is whistling at them, pretending to be a wigeon himself. He has a piece of copper pipe handed down to him by his father and it makes an amazing duck call. “Whee-oo”, “whee-oo”, he calls. And magically a few break off and come back towards us heading for the decoys. BANG! A shot rings out. A single cock wigeon splashes down.
The rest of the pack flare away and head out across the grey water towards Giol and Gucci man. They are in barrels too, on a tiny island some 500 metres in front of us, looking as though they are floating in a giant tyre. Some turn away out of range but others carry on towards the guns. Wild ducks are like springs, gaining height imperceptibly; but Giol and Pinori are old hands. Shots ring out and ducks are tumbling into the water.
Daniele breaks cover to ask if he can row me back to the lodge. Lunch is looming and the hunters will soon be returning, happy and hungry. No wonder Hemingway became so besotted with this wild place little more than a stone’s throw from La Serenissima itself.
A limited number of spring and summer visits to Valle San Leonardo are being planned in conjunction with the Gritti Palace Hotel. And by special arrangement there may be an opportunity to shoot wildfowl in the winter. Contact Goldsmith & Co on 0131 4766500, www.georgegoldsmith.com.
Keith Allan stayed at the Gritti Palace Hotel, tel: 0039 041794611, www.thegrittipalace.com.
He travelled by train with Virgin East Coast to London (www.virgintrainseastcoast.com) and then Voyages-SNCF to Venice. Fares start at £217 standard class return, tel: 0844 8485848, www.voyages-sncf.com.
Across The River And Into The Trees, Arrow Books, £7.99, www.randomhouse.co.uk