Our first encounter with Venice had been put off as long as possible. Fear of disappointment, perhaps, fear that the stories might be accurate, made us hesitate. Was there any truth to the rumor that it was a dirty, smelly relic, jammed with tourists and kitsch? We were afraid that our dreams of a lovely city afloat in the blue waters of the lagoon would be rudely and permanently extinguished like so many tooth fairies.
We had well-established mental images of the famous arch of the Rialto Bridge, and the expanse of the Piazza San Marco, featured in so many television commercials hawking credit cards and diamonds. We thought we knew what we might find, and the time had come to introduce ourselves, to strike up a conversation, and see if we might come to be friends, or at least admirers, of this elderly Grande Signora of the Adriatic.
Instead, our fantasy was suddenly replaced by the tangible reality. Venezia exploded to life as a multi-color, living creature, one that breathed in clouds of pigeons, exhaled legions of boats, and, like a queen, bathed in Adriatic tides four times a day. We were charmed, entranced, almost overwhelmed by the city we have since come to know almost as well as our home towns.
Known for centuries as the “Serenissima,” the Most Serene Republic, Venezia is a world unto itself, the antithesis of a modern freeway with its speeding traffic or interminable stoppages. Cars are things of the mainland: foreign, useless, and filtered from circulation at the Piazzale Roma, the end of the causeway.
Venice is the world by boat. In Venice, vessels are the natural adjunct of life, the thing upon which everything else depends. We were soon completely reliant upon them, and quick to learn that one gondola, with the accent on the first syllable, became two gondole. In a boat one travels, shops, and receives goods. The morning fruit and vegetable boat is the source of evening’s dinner.
Not even a dire emergency would permit a car to enter the city proper, for there are no facilities but pedestrian bridges to bear one across the waters. The ebb and flow of the tide makes an effective roadblock, protecting a city without a whit of care for such affectations.
Most visitors arrive either by train, over the long railroad bridge which had first linked the city to the mainland in 1846, or more often by bus or automobile over a parallel causeway called the Ponte della Liberta, or “Bridge of the Liberty,” built out from the mainland in 1933.
Arriving at Venezia, after weaving through the traffic on a high-speed autostrada drive across the plains of the Veneto, is a bit like reaching an oasis after a trek across a desert. The shock of contrast leaves you a bit breathless. The effect is only slightly lessened arriving by train. Whether parking your car in one of the multi-story garages or simply descending from your chauffeured chariot, you are at the threshold of a world at once foreign and fantastic.
For many visitors, their first unfortunate experience is the diesel-choked vortex of the Piazzale Roma, where buses and taxicabs circle like so many metal vultures, swooping in to gobble meals of exhausted visitors before dashing away to their refuges on the mainland. This expanse of asphalt, lined with hotels, parking garages, cafes, and the transportation ticket office, is a potent reminder of the world outside, a world soon to be left behind. Once across the first bridge, one steps into a different realm.
In Venezia, it is not only that there are no cars, buses, trucks, or motorbikes. There are virtually no wheels. It may take a first-time visitor a few days to notice the complete absence of even bicycles, skateboards, or scooters. One wonders if Venetian children have ever played with toy firetrucks or race cars. In this watery domain of gondole and motoscafi, the watercraft of Venice, youthful fantasies run more to sleek wooden speedboats. Their imaginations are fired by the looming cruise ships, white as soap against the moody blue of the lagoon, that seem to arrive twice daily in the warmer months.
If one discounts the tiny rollers on the suitcases led by invading tourists, only the occasional delivery carts make use of one of humanities’ most basic inventions. The carts themselves are as unique as everything else in Venice, featuring long handles, and an extra set of small extended wheels, so they can be levered up the steps of countless bridges.
Some first-time visitors arrive from long international flights and find themselves two hours later completely lost. Confounded by scribbled directions that point them toward reservations and much-needed sleep, they stumble along the fondamente, the water-front walkways, and through the twisting vicoli, or narrow alleyways, stumbling on their jet-lagged feet as if paying the required penance for the sin of arriving in the midst of such beauty.
“It’s got to be around here somewhere!” they mutter, barely glancing at their surroundings. They eventually locate their lodgings, and awaken from their naps to find themselves still immersed in a dream.
We arrived like most, but with a determination not to fall into the predictable patterns. Ignoring the large public-transport boats, we walked with our luggage, threading our way across the sestieri of Santa Croce and San Polo. We paused for heaping cookie-cones filled with creamy gelato, Susan’s choice still the chocolate-streaked vanilla straciatella, and mine the darkest cioccolato available.
We strolled with a confident air, certain that our infallible map, concealed in a handy pocket with landmarks circled, would guide us straight to our hotel. Yet Venice is never short of tricks. The random web of canals that slice the city into scores of islands make for interesting navigation.
We stopped to laugh and photograph, as thousands have before, the multiple arrows pointing toward Rialto or San Marco, or sometimes both, often facing in opposite directions stacked one above the other. There are many ways, it seems, to arrive at one’s destination, and we sometimes choose the road less traveled by. We found our hotel after only a couple of turns around a wrong block, having crossed a different bridge than intended.
Tourists can be easily forgiven for succumbing to the mysteries of Venezia’s twisting rabbit-warren maze of streets, which might have been planned equally well by following the drunken stumblings of Medieval sailors on leave. They narrow to choking straits that require passers-by to angle their shoulders to pass each other between rough stone buildings, then twist and turn, widening into broad places called campi, before suddenly ending blankly against walls. They jog suddenly around corners, cross bridges, and then turn back the way they came as if designed for the purpose, not of connecting places, but of dividing them.
In truth, each of the islands that make up the city had its own pattern of paths and buildings before the bridges began to link them. Bridges are twisted and angled to make the connections between unrelated passages. One, in fact, is known as the Ponte Storto, or distorted bridge, and resembles the form of a broken-backed dragon in its angular course. Today more than one hundred and eighty stand patiently bearing their human traffic over the liquid barriers.
The waterways, and especially the Canale Grande, or Grand Channel, are filled with boats of every size and description, including plastic kayaks, sleek private launches, and slogging Fed-Ex barges piled high with cardboard boxes. Police and firefighters, postmen and sanitation workers, each had their own fleets of boats to serve the population of the city.
Dominating the watery traffic lanes are the vaporetti, the Venetian equivalent of the city bus. Much longer and wider than those land-bound vehicles, a vaporetto might easily carry well over a hundred passengers, packed, at peak hours, like so many tinned fish. These curious transports earned their names because they were originally steam powered, their progress marked by plumes of vapor. Today they are driven by powerful diesel engines, and the sound of their propellers reversing is a familiar back-ground bass to the symphony created by wind, water, and 100,000 people passing by.
Vaporetto pilots guide their vessels around both the inhabited and desert islands of the laguna and through the Grand Canal, deftly threading the bewildering maze of nautical traffic. Avoiding each other and the thick flow of commerce, they dock briefly at floating piers on alternating sides of the Canale Grande to disgorge passengers. During the peak summer months, piles of luggage heap the center deck, while their owners jostle for space along the rails.
Visitors stand on vaporetto decks to gawk and photograph the boldly-colored palazzi, homes built centuries ago by wealthy merchant-traders, which line the waterway. Locals wedge into seats in the lower decks fore and aft to chat on their cell phones or concentrate on their newspapers.
Immediately succumbing to the magnetic draw of Rialto after our arrival, we headed through the backstreets of the San Polo district. Venezia is divided by custom not into ‘quarters,’ as in many places, but rather sixths, or sestieri, created as administrative divisions in 1170. Each has its own address numbering system that follows the twisting streets and open campi, contributing to the added confusion of generations of tourists. The city is further divided into thirty-eight parishes, a reduction from the original seventy. If it seemed we passed a church every second block, it was probably not our imaginations.
We threaded our way through shady portegi, or porticoes, and along out-of-the-way passages before finding ourselves at the side of the Canale Grande. Our path led us into the heart of a busy street market, a fixture on the San Polo side of the bridge. Here one could buy virtually any sort of snack, or spuntino, as well as toys, t-shirts, neckties, glass trinkets, or a thousand other sorts of distractions or souvenirs. Stalls and carts and tall racks of clothing made a colorful and entertaining maze, perpetually crowded with shoppers from the far corners of the world.
A cacophony of voices in a dozen languages mixed with the squawk of music, the shouts of children, and the cries of the vendors hawking their wares, but failed to disturb the ubiquitous pigeons that swept low over our heads or scrambled fearlessly underfoot in competition for crumbs and scraps. We pushed through the maze toward our destination.
Suddenly there before us was the familiar, yet never-before-seen shape of the Ponte Rialto, looking from our perspective more like a low hill. What photographs fail to capture is the marvelous 25-meter width of the arch. It is almost a piazza itself. Almost 30 meters long, the magnificent landmark was designed by the native architect known as Antonio da Ponte. Ponte means ‘bridge’ in Italian, and was a name no doubt earned by his construction.
Rising twenty-four feet above the Grand Canal to accommodate boat traffic, it was completed in 1591 to replace a wooden bridge which had been once been burned in a revolt, and twice collapsed. At last Venezia had a reliable stone portal across the big waterway, which slips like cupid’s arrow through the heart of the city. The people of the city naturally fell deeply in love with it.
The boisterous street fair we had already encountered seemed to continue right up the broad Rialto. It filled every available space on the three walkways which threaded between rows of shops designed and built permanently into the bridge in this space-conscious city. Temporary vendors with rolling racks and kiosks filled other available spaces.
We mounted the worn stone steps, marveling at the capacity of the structure. Passing through the crowds of tourists posing for photos, we found a spot at the top, leaned upon the balustrade worn to a soft patina, and gazed at the famous view down the center of the canal.
In sharp contrast to the scene at our backs, we gazed out at the heart of the city. Elegant palazzi lined the canal, and gondole slipped silently below. The water reflected the warm colors of the buildings, and the blue sky above.
(Unlike most cities, Venice isn’t divided into quarters, but sixths, called sestieri. Our stroll continued across the Rialto bridge, passing from San Polo to San Marco in the process, and led us into a small campo surrounded by shops and restaurants. We explored the area, discovering the city’s main post office, and a COIN department store, one of few larger chain stores in the city. Eventually we wandered, with no particular destination in mind, through a series of narrow, pedestrian-clogged streets that squeeze between buildings before bursting forth into the vastness of Piazza San Marco.
Clouds of pigeons announced our arrival as they swirled en masse toward a group of tourists spreading bird food purchased from the vendors. A young girl, half terrified and half delighted, was virtually covered with flapping, feathered, bird upholstery, her voice almost drowned out by the sound of wings in motion. The birds, of course, pose a constant threat of sudden droppings, but in Italy to be so anointed is considered a sign of future good fortune. The scene is rarely repeated today, as the sale of bird food has been prohibited.
Tearing our eyes from the pandemonium before us, we scanned the expanse of the Piazza. Unlike most Italian cities, in Venezia there is only one ‘piazza.’ Other open spaces are restricted to the title of campo. Large enough to encompass at least three football pitches, the size alone is remarkable, especially when compared to the crowded warrens of narrow streets that dominate the city.
To our left rose the five enormous silver domes that mark the Basilica di San Marco, each with its Greek onion-style shape, crowned by a smaller secondary bulge. The five domes reflect the typical cruciform shape of the cavernous space below. In keeping with the Italian love for Byzantine symmetry, five enormous arches across the front of the church shelter five huge entry doors. Those gigantic arches are themselves sheltered under a massive stone portico borne by dozens of finely-chiseled and polished marble columns. Inside the central arch stands a colorful mosaic with a gold-tiled sky, portraying Christ with a cross surrounded by kneeling saints. Atop the balustrade of the portico, crowded with visitors, stand four monumental horses cast in bronze. It is, without a doubt, a breath-taking sight.
To the right of the Basilica stands the graceful Palace of the Doges, Rows of columns support large Gothic arches, which in turn support a graceful row of more than one hundred smaller Gothic arches which continue along the side of the building. Above these sits the solid bulk of the palace, as tall again as the graceful double tiers of arches, and pierced only by a row of seven enormous arched windows, scaled to match the large arches on the lower level. The effect creates the illusion that the building is floating above a forest of columns and arches, as if being borne to the sky.
Beyond the Palace, the broad blue expanse of the lagoon, filled with gondole and other boats, forms an evocative backdrop.
Immediately before us, and separated from the palace by an open arm of the main piazza called the piazzetta, rises the soaring Campanile di San Marco. A zig-zagged line of tourists waited to file in for the elevator ride to the top and a view over the city. The tower has collapsed twice, most recently in 1902, and each time been rebuilt to the same specifications. Nearby, a group of street musicians plied their trade, tunefully recreating another familiar ode to love, or love lost. It was quite a charming scene.
Having wisely made reservations, we joined the line at the entrance to the Basilica, which moves with a merciful speed. Stepping through into the cavernous interior, we were once again overwhelmed with the incredible evidence of the love of detail applied to this magnificent space.
Rows of windows lining the base of each dome illuminate the fabulous gold-gilt interiors, lined with sky-blue portrayals of saints and angels. Much of the upper walls are adorned with colorful paintings of religious figures, some on horseback, some arranged in tableaux. Otherwise, every square inch of the upper reaches is covered with gold-covered ceramic tiles, creating a golden glow over the interior.
The Byzantine love of mosaic is reflected in the incredibly complex patterns that ornament the floors, their colorful ceramic chips well-worn by the passages of countless millions of feet.
Mounting the broad stone steps to the chancel, we came upon the four massive bronze horses. These are the originals, protected from the weather, unlike the replicas which have replaced them in their duties outdoors. Cast of nearly-pure copper, their finely-detailed features glow with a warm patina. It is easy to see how their striking beauty led to them being coveted prizes.
Although their exact origins are unconfirmed, they are perhaps 2,000 years old, and have a history of being stolen. Legend suggests that they were made for Alexander the Great, and conflicting written history from the 9th century described them as having come from the island of Chios. The Roman Emperor Constantine had them looted from Egypt’s Alexandria for his new eastern capitol in Constantinople. There they had been displayed with a chariot.
They fell to the Venetians when they became prizes of the sacking of the then rival Byzantine Empire capital of Constantinople by the Venetians in 1204. They were installed on the Basilica in 1254 at the command of the Doge Enrico Dandolo. There they remained for 543 years, until Napoleon looted them in 1797 after his capture of Venezia. Napoleon had them installed in his Arc de Triumph in Paris. In 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo ended Napoleon’s reign, the horses were returned to the Basilica.
In the corner of the Basilica stands another unique bit of art with a history. Known as the Tetrarchs, it is a statue made of a beautiful reddish-brown stone. Consisting of four anonymous men with impassive expressions, they are said to represent the four rulers of the Roman Empire after the decree of the Emperor Diocletian, who in 293 attempted to end another series of civil wars through a clever division of power, shared among four men.
Although the system existed for only twenty years, the statue remained in Constantinople until the city was sacked by Venice. Somehow in that event the statue was broken, and one corner, including a foot, was left behind, only to be rediscovered in Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, in the 1960’s. Of course, Venice asked nicely for the missing piece, and the Turks just as politely refused to hand it over.
To spend time in Venice is to immerse oneself in a spectacular array of sensory stimulation. The eyes seem to be constantly teased by the graceful shapes, reflections, lights and colors of a city of resplendent fantasy. Rows of small, pointed Gothic windows marked by miniature columns combine to form larger arches. Wrought-iron accents dangle over-sized lanterns above doorways and corners. Distinctively-flared chimneys stand in rows above roof-tops. Sunlight reflects from walls the colors of roses and marmalade, only to bounce off the rippling waters to toss dapples of contrasting light and colors across neighboring walls of yellow or cocoa-brown.
For the nose, aromas of fresh-baked breads and cups of steaming espresso mingle with the wilder smell of seaweed and saltwater. Flower markets send tendrils of scented air wafting down neighboring streets and canals.
The ears may delight in the dominant sounds of the bells which explode from the campanili with synchronized regularity, or the subtle cooing of the rock doves nesting on ledges. The melodic songs of the gondolieri serenading those willing to pay for the extra ambiance drift up from canals, often rewarded by the applause of tourists lining the bridges to soak up the spectacle.
Fingers will find their entertainments, too, in the soft fabrics and rich brocades offered in shops and market stalls, or the rough textures of the stones that form the enclosing walls of the narrow viali. Whether wooden knobs on ancient doors or the smooth glass of modern ones, each new touch contributes to a waterfall of sensations that overwhelm.
It is also a place that evokes many different emotions. Rusting wrought-iron gates enclose private gardens full of arboretum-quality trees. Modest neighborhood churches built of brick, or finished in painted stucco, always feature their towering campanile ready to sound the hours. We returned time and again to the Piazza San Marco, exploring the interior of the Doge’s Palace, with its incredible architecture, great halls, painted ceilings, and marble and mosaic floors. We crossed the Ponte di Sospiri, or ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ from which condemned prisoners may have caught a final glimpse of family and friends as they were led to the tiny dungeons across the narrow canal. Those iron bars seemed less threatening to us than they must been to those hapless offenders hundreds of years ago.
Venetians were mostly reserved, used to the masses of tourists chatting in foreign languages. We broke the ice with our growing vocabularies of Italian, and found them ready to respond, and quick to make friends. The barista at the cafe, the hotel doorman, the vendor at the vegetable stand, each was ready to suggest a favorite restaurant, or a special place to take a photo.
Dining in Venezia, as in most tourist destinations, is a challenging affair. Venice has long been the target of some who complain of bad food and bad service, but we found much to counter that reputation. Tourists pack into places offering beautiful views of the characteristic canals and bridges, paying exorbitant prices for the privilege. The San Polo side provided the candle-lit tables of ristoranti directly at the water, while the San Marco side with its broad fondamenta opposite featured a larger selection of bars, pizzerie, trattorie, and gelaterie, some offering the food wrapped to eat at walking speed, while locals often head for quiet, out-of-the-way places they know offer the freshest fish or best wines.
As we became familiar with the city, we learned to dine in out-of-the-way places, always watching for those that drew the local crowds. We preferred fine yet affordable feasts in the basement level of a converted sacristy in the San Marco district, and became enamored of the ala carte platters of calamari, buttered spinach, and crispy fried artichoke hearts, or carciofi, served in a quiet courtyard across the Ponte Accademia in the Dorsoduro.
At the northern tip of the Dorsoduro, within view of the Doge’s palace across the water, stands the elegant church of Santa Maria della Salute, one of the most familiar landmarks in the city. Viewed from inside the high dome of the church makes it appear even larger. Built by the people of Venice in gratitude for the end of the plague in 1576, it stands as a reminder of that event, which took a third of the population of the city.
We returned to Venice on a warm summer night to participate in the annual event that celebrates that deliverance, the feast of the Redentore. The eponymous Redeemer church stands on the shore of the Giudecca island, and becomes the focal point of one of the world’s most remarkable celebrations. For this one day a year, the broad expanse of the Giudecca ship channel is spanned by a long bridge, built upon an inflatable foundation that is anchored into place. Streams of pilgrims make the crossing to pay homage to the Virgin who is credited with answering the prayers of the city and ending the terrible plague. The day is also marked by a colorful regatta, which fills the channel with thousands of boats. Late that night the observance comes to a climax with an incredible display of fireworks, said to be the best in the world. It was a sight we were determined to witness.
Weeks prior to the event, our friend Ari arranged to reserve a gondola large enough to accommodate us and three of Susan’s airline co-workers. Boarding in a quiet canal, we were rowed into the Canale Grande and then out into the basin of San Marco. We drifted upon the crowded waters as the dazzling display overwhelmed the senses for close to a hour. Synchronized pillars of flame swept like metronomes, arched over the waters, sparkled in beautiful colors, and boomed in thundering ovations. It is the July climax of the summer tourist season, but a sight that makes coping with the crowds worthwhile.
On other visits to the Dorsoduro we frequented the parish of San Trovaso, host to an excellent taverna featuring delicious local dishes, and a popular local wine bar. There we also enjoyed the steady night-life generated by hundreds of locals. Nearby, in the Sestieri di Santa Croce and close to the Piazzale Roma, we also enjoyed the university district, where a broad canal hosts an array of pleasant outdoor cafes, and students often gather for late-night drinks of wine or espresso.
During longer visits we learned to use the multiple-day public transportation passes available at the ticket offices. Not inexpensive, once they are purchased they make traveling around the city much easier. Even buses to and from the mainland are included in the price, so those booking hotels in Mestre, Marghera, or nearby mainland areas can slip easily into Venice and step directly onto a vaporetto.
We took advantage of the boats for late dining, cruising home on the Grand Canal past the famous Venetian palazzi. Once homes of prosperous merchants, these homes line perhaps half of the waterway, wedged between hotels, churches, markets, and even the town’s famous casino. So spacious that a number have been converted into hotels, each palazzo was built so that merchandise could be stored on the ground floor, or pianterreno. Large doors opened directly to the vessels bearing the riches of trade, while the merchants and their families occupied the third level suites of the piano superiore. In between, the piano nobile was the site of the cooking and dining facilities, and was often replete with large salons capable of hosting parties for dining and dancing.
We explored more famous museums, including both the boggling litany of Renaissance religious paintings at the Accademia, the modern and sometimes bizarre works collected from artistic friends by American ex-patriot Peggy Guggenheim, and the civic museum of the Correr, located in a quiet upper level next to the Campanile di San Marco. There we were delighted to discover a marvelous museum of the history of the city, complete with dioramas, thousands of fascinating artifacts, and a portion of a preserved galley. Once teams of men propelled hundreds of these sleek vessels in battle, and heavy metal prows were used for ramming and sinking enemy vessels. Venice was a dangerous foe.
We shopped for art of our own among the dozens of booths crowded along the riva, or waterfront, near Piazza San Marco. Other artists preferred to paint in the quieter university area of San Polo. Artists practiced their trade and chatted with customers, pausing to wrap the occasional purchase. We chose a beautiful pair of paintings from a man who professed to have taught art to university students for thirty years. They hang framed upon our dining room wall.
For many visitors, a trip to Venice would be incomplete without a voyage on a gondola. We were no exception. At several points around the city we encountered gondolieri, dressed in their traditional black-and-white striped shirts and flat-topped boater hats, usually decorated by a red or blue ribbon. Gondoliers offered their services with repeated chants of “gondole, gondole” at passers-by. Everything about these men speaks of tradition, and admission into the limited ranks is not easily achieved. It was only in recent years that the first woman was accepted into their guild.
Gondole are the best-known of the several forms of boats developed uniquely for life in Venice. The boats themselves fascinated us. Built with a noticeable curve to the right, we learned that the unique design offsets the use of only one oar, always on the right. In the Dorsoduro, it is possible to visit the last remaining workshop where gondole are built and repaired.
The weight of the gondoliero standing at the stern required a counter-weight, which came in the form of ferro, or iron, at the prow. The uniquely distinctive shape of the ferro has evolved to represent both the past and present of Venice. Six forward-pointing and comb-like bars represent the six divisions of the city. The lone bar pointing the opposite direction represents the neighboring Giudecca island. Above, a curved form echoes the shape of the traditional head-piece worn by the Doge. It leaves a small arch shape below, which represents the beloved Ponte Rialto.
We spoke to a kindly-looking gondoliero standing near a quiet canal, and were soon gliding through narrow waters where he seemed to use his foot as much as the oar to turn tight corners, pushing away from walls as we navigated through oncoming motorized traffic. Once on the Grand Canal we glided slowly beneath the graceful arch of the Rialto bridge feeling like royalty.
Having evolved over the centuries, the gondole are used mostly by tourists today, with the sole exception of the long and useful tradition of the traghetto. We watched Venetians gather quietly at the secluded landings of the traghetti, places where slightly over-sized gondole have ferried the locals across the Grand Canal since long before there were any bridges.
The boatmen quickly carried each small group to the opposite shore, deftly cutting through the maze of boat traffic to deposit them closer to their schools, homes, or offices. In keeping with tradition, most of the passengers remained standing during the brief crossing. Within moments the boatman had collected a new group for the return trip, saving each passenger several minutes of walking to the nearest bridge.
Even the open waters of the lagoon offer a busy scene, as small boats follow the deeper channels back and forth between the islands. Occasionally we saw traditional boats rowed by teams of men standing, facing forward at the long oars, their gracefully rhythmic movements as traditional as the boats themselves.
Because of its proximity to the sea, Venice finds itself in an especially vulnerable position today. For years, heavy pumping of fresh water from aquifers below the city caused the land to slowly subside. Now, it is the rising seas that add the greater threat. It’s a problem that becomes more serious during the autumn and winter.
Each December, at the time of the winter solstice, the sun approaches its apparent southern-most point in our sky. At the same time, the moon, principal ruler of the tides, reaches its apparent northern maximum. At the full moon and new moon, the tidal pull of those celestial bodies coincide. During those few weeks around the solstice the highest tides, sometimes known as ‘king tides,’ become even more significant. Those are coincidentally the months during which winter storms come to Europe. On those occasions that there may be a south wind, the sea rushes in with a vengeance.
Known to the Venetians as aqua alta, or high water, the tidal flooding is normally anticipated well in advance, and sandbags become the order of the day. Long before the event, city workers stack many hundreds of folding platforms along vulnerable walks. As the moon waxes toward full, they erect long cat-walks of elevated staging, allowing pedestrians to access areas that would otherwise be knee-deep in water.
Each tide reaches higher until it spills into the city, pouring out of storm drains to fill streets and flood shops. For a few hours flood conditions persist, and then retreat, only to reappear ten or twelve hours later. After three or four days of this the cycle is over, only to repeat itself at the new moon. The only question, always on the minds of residents, is ‘how high will it reach this time.’
The floods sweep the streets of detritus, even as fish are sometimes seem swimming along them, yet they also leave behind their flotsam. Water damage to the palazzi, the stone-paved streets, and the public spaces is evident. Water marks can be seen on many buildings, and eroded stucco exposes the stone skeletons of some. Although built upon the seas, Venice was never intended to be submerged in them.
Over the years as the world has warmed the flooding has grown worse, and each new high-water mark is just temporary, until the next record is set. In response, the Italian government is constructing a massive public works project, a series of floating gates that will rise from the sea bed to block the advance of the tides at aqua alta. With more than a billion dollars already invested, it can only be hoped that the system will succeed.
We took our time exploring, saving some of the anticipated highlights for later. We began our tour of Venice’s famous art at La Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a ‘school’ adjacent to the eponymous church, which today serves as an enormous gallery and concert hall. We had few expectations, but found ourselves gaping at the massive paintings by the famed Venetian artist known as Tintoretto. Born Jacopo Robusti about 1519, he earned the nickname of Tintoretto, or the tinted one, honestly, because his father, Giovanni Battista, was a silk-dyer. One can easily imagine little Jacopo splashing the dyes, and wearing the colors like a human bird of paradise.
Tintoretto grew up to become a legendary painter of portraits and allegorical topics, as well as enormous landscapes, often depicting dramatic events of the Bible. He became a Fratello, or brother, and spent virtually his entire life painting for La Scuola. He left a monumental body of work that still dazzles today, and inspires hundreds of street artists.
We passed back into the bright light of the day, following a fondamenta, or canal-side walk, as reflected sunlight sparkled across flowered balconies and windows, sometimes shuttered for an afternoon nap. We ambled slowly through the Santa Croce district and into the Dorsoduro, past Ca’ Foscari university and through a quiet, shaded residential area. History seemed to ooze from the cracked and flaking stucco of the walls and rise from the well-worn stones beneath our feet. The city dozed in the warm afternoon in a sort of peaceful repose, and we felt a strange, relaxing peace settle over us as well, as if we, too, were back in the 15th century.
Wandering near Rialto we were approached by a man speaking English and wearing a plastic-covered license and photo ID, who described the beautiful fabbrica di vetro, or glass factory, to which he would transport us free of charge. Obviously spotted as tourists despite our best efforts, we accepted the ride in a sleek wooden boat, such as are the pride and joy of the city. The long, narrow boats, all polished teak and varnish, serve as the water taxis, and for a hefty fee bear well-heeled Venetians and wealthy visitors to all points of interest within the lagoon.
Feeling like royalty, we enjoyed the changing views as our boat threaded its way through narrow canals and emerged on the landward side of the lagoon into open waters, yet keeping to the marked channels that assured safe passage through the shallow tidal basin.
Several times we took advantage of the offers of free transport on the sleek powerboats to the fabbriche of the glass makers in the nearby island town of Murano. We learned that simply standing in Piazzale Roma or Piazza San Marco and unfolding a map was often enough to draw the attention of one of the people who recruited customers for these one-way rides.
The entire journey to Murano is little more than a mile, but there is a special reward at the end. Our boat soon approached a private dock and were assisted off at one of the half-dozen large brick fabbriche that stand on the waterfront of the island. These factories employ teams of highly-skilled craftsmen who fabricate spectacular art works in glass, il vetro, which is visible everywhere in shop windows throughout the city.
We knew that melting glass requires lots of heat. Those artisans ply their trade while working with molten glass at temperatures about 1,000° Celsius, or around 1,800° Fahrenheit. We stood at the entrance, and expected to feel the heat. Ushered inside, we were surprised to find that the room was cool, despite the fiery orange-red glow coming from multiple openings in an enormous fornace, or furnace, which is not extinguished until, after a year or more, the heat requires it to be rebuilt.
Treated to a show we have since revisited many times, we watched as the artist, known as il vetraio, deftly used metal tools and occasionally his breath to make simple art glass. The blowing of the hollow shapes for vases and other objects was fascinating to watch. Each artist showed his own flair for style, deftly heating and inflating their molten media with expert timing before pulling the taffy-like glass. We watched as they crafted their works of art, expertly shaping the glowing medium into figurines and vases.
Several men were working with small cast-iron bins in which had been melted the unique blend of minerals to create the rainbow of colors they employ: cobalt oxide for blue glass, titanium oxide for yellow, and gold oxide for the beautiful reds that show so dramatically. After each tour, guests are ushered into the vastness of the showrooms, where far more complex works, some requiring teams of men to complete, are displayed for sale.
Glass making has been concentrated on the island of Murano since the Doge ordered them out of Venezia in 1291 for fear that the furnaces would cause fire that might threaten the entire city. In more than 700 years, they have refined the process considerably.
It was on that small island that artists had developed the technique of creating fantastic confections in glass, including the murine, multicolored chips of glass with their layers of circles and stars. They had kept the secret of the millefiori, or ‘thousand flowers,’ their own for centuries, and those trained in the technique were forbidden from leaving, lest they be tempted to sell their knowledge. Used to make the famous millefiori patterns, they are made in long rods or cane which are then chipped into short pieces and re-melted. They take time to complete, and became a favorite ornamentation in the homes of wealthy Europeans, giving glass-blowing a cachet that has persisted today.
Famous families like Toso and Seguso passed their knowledge from generation to generation, and brought the old techniques to new and greater fame in the 20th century. Now, however, mass production, principally in China, produces imitations that flood small shops even in mainland Venice, and too often leave visitors owning inexpensive knock-off pieces. Small glass candies and figurines are sold for pennies, and make great souvenirs of Asia. For Venetian authenticity, it is best to visit an active workshop, and look for the local seal.
We surveyed the little island community, filled with glass shops large and small, offering the works of scores of talented artisans. Susan chose a spectacular lamp, and with a minimum of fuss had it shipped directly to our home, packaged and insured by the fabbriche. It arrived in perfect condition, marking an afternoon well spent.
Near the heart of Murano the web of canals form a bustling nautical crossroads. Boats of every shape and description converge, dodging the lumbering vaporetti en route to their stops. Nearby lies the Campo Santo Stefano with its tall Medieval clock-tower. In the shadow of that landmark we found a smiling, rotund and bearded man presiding over busy waiters serving his expanse of outdoor seating. In the process of requesting a table we struck up a conversation and learned his name was “Lele,” and that he had a bit of a love affair with America.
“Come inside,” he told us. “Let me show you my friends!”
In the cool recesses of the sprawling restaurant, he pointed out photo after photo of members of the Fire Department of New York. There, amid the groups, we inevitably picked out the smiling face of Lele.
“I go there every year, to New York, to parade with them!” he told us. Photos of many of the same faces gathered in the Campo Santo Stefano gave evidence that the visits were reciprocated. We had found the unofficial FDNY headquarters in Italy.
Lele was a gracious host, and although we could claim not the slightest shred of connection to the FDNY, we were well treated, and enjoyed the delicious local and regional favorites at his tables on several occasions.
We returned often to Murano, and during one January visit, when the tourists were scarce, we stayed in a four-room albergo on the island. After the shops and factories closed and the few tourists left for the evening we seemed to have the islands virtually to ourselves. We walked a few blocks to a local restaurant and enjoyed a delightful dinner, during which an evening thunderstorm swept the streets.
After the storm had passed we strolled back toward our hotel on shining damp stone pavement. The moon back-lit fluffy clouds, and stars peeked from a deep blue-black sky. Distant lightning occasionally flickered, reversing the lighting, and creating an enchanting effect.
We paused on a bridge, the only sound the tide lapping at the stones below, reflecting multiple moons on the rippling waters. As we soaked in the moment, we noticed a cat approaching along the fondamenta. It stopped and sat at the foot of the bridge and gazed upward at us, as if awaiting permission to cross.
Susan, always a fan of cats, gave a soft and friendly ‘meow.’ That was all the encouragement needed. The cat promptly rose and crossed the bridge, passing us with a glance that almost seemed like a smile. It quickly disappeared in the distance, apparently a feline on a mission. Murano was indeed another magical stop on our journey.
Passing back and forth from Venice to Murano, each vaporetto typically pauses at a stop called Cimitero on the fully-developed island of San Michele. This small, squarish island lies protected behind high seawalls, the better to defend it from the aqua alta. After all, it bears precious memories in the form of the graves of many thousands of Venetians. Originally lying alongside a monastery, the small cemetery grew to encompass all. The original church still dominates the setting. Many well-known people lie there, including Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky, and Horatio Brown.
Venice itself has little room for a cemetery, and even open spaces are limited. The principal park is that of the Giardini Publici, the public gardens. There along the waterfront a good distance from the heart of the town is the expanse of waterfront greenery that helps to dilute the concentrated humanity of the city.
The park is enhanced during odd-numbered years by the Bienniale, when artists chosen from around the world install their works to the delight of the public. Established in 1895, it now draws hundreds of thousands of visitors during its run of more than six months, and includes elements of art, architecture, cinema, dance, music, and theatre.
On a couple of occasions during long excursions on a vaporetto we stopped at the Lido, the long strip of barrier island that separates the lagoon from the waters of the Adriatic. There lie the famous beaches lined with hotels that had formed a magnet for visitors in the 1950′s and 60′s. We found it looking a bit subdued, having been largely cast aside by the “glitterati” in favor of the trendier Italian Riviera, Corsica, and other destinations. Still the beaches of the Lido remain popular in the summertime, and thousands of Venetians flock to bask in the sunshine and warm waters. Bars and restaurants abound, scattered among the plentiful, mostly aging, hotels. The Venice International Film Festival, a fixture for more than six decades, is held on the Lido. Like Venice itself, but lagging just a few centuries behind, the Lido seems charmingly out of date.
While Venetian hotels are uniformly expensive, most offer small rooms, some with wonderful views, others with none at all. The demand for hospitality on the crowded islands is partly relieved by mainland hotels in Mestre and Marghera. While some guide-books I have read slam the mainland towns as dirty and industrial, the writers had obviously not spent time wandering the leafy town centers, exploring the broad piazzas, or dining at the popular restaurants.
As part of a Delta Air Lines crew, Susan enjoyed many long lay-overs in a modern hotel on a main street in Mestre. From there it was a short ride on a city bus to Piazzale Roma in Venice, just across the causeway, or a pleasant walk to the centro vecchio, the old center of Mestre, where we dined at sidewalk cafes and watched throngs of locals enjoy the evening passegiata. Beautiful girls strolled arm-in-arm, still competing for the attention of handsome young men. Bicyclists wove between pedestrians and mothers pushed their bambini in strollers while grandfatherly men walked with their jackets draped across their shoulders in Italian fashion.
At the center of the town stands a historic clock-tower, and a small fee allowed us to climb the steps to see the ancient, hand-crafted clock-works, and peer out the windows at the roof-tops and busy walkways below. The museum on the lower levels tells some of the interesting history of the town.
We happened to be in Mestre in 2006 during the climactic game of the quadrennial World Cup. The Italians, like most of the world, are passionate about ‘football,’ which they call calcio, and Americans call soccer. The Italian squad is known as Gli Azzurri, or The Azure, because of the royal blue colors they wear in honor of the Savoy kings of Italy. They had made it to the championship game, but were facing the favored French squad in a game being played in Germany.
The streets were deserted and every television was tuned to the game that evening as the airline crew dined in the hotel restaurant. Even the waiters seemed understandably distracted as the game began, and we could imagine the chef in the kitchen riveted to every expert pass as our dinners smoked on the stove. Yet the food came out fine, and we enjoyed our meal in an otherwise empty dining room while the rest of the hotel’s guests crowded into a conference room upstairs that contained a large-screen television. We joined them as soon as we had completed our dinner.
To say Italians are passionate about calcio fails to express the reality. When France scored first, Italia seemed to groan as if everyone had taken a direct blow. The pain was only relived by an answering goal by the Azzurri. When the game ended as a tie, it came down to the five penalty kicks, which each team took in alternating turns. The tension could be cut with a knife until a shot by the French bounced off the cross-bar, and Italy moved ahead. A second miss had hearts thumping.
When the final shot by the Azzurri hit home, and the game was won 5-3, the entire city seemed to erupt. Within minutes the previously-empty streets were gridlocked with honking cars, fans leaning from every window. Flags flew from every balcony, and more were carried by the exuberant people who ran through the streets and chanted on the sidewalks. Our hotel proprietor brought forth an entire case of bubbly prosecco, and even the waiters joined in toasting the victors. It was an over-whelming outpouring of joy. We joined in the fun, realizing that at that moment the scene was being repeated in every city and village across the country.
Venice and the Veneto regione continued to impress us at every turn. On a couple of other visits, we bought tickets for the vaporetto and took the long ride to the island of Burano, making a tour of stops throughout the northern lagoon in the process. The town of Burano is famous as a center of lace tatting, and we watched skilled hands swiftly working in silk and linen threads, and bought samples of their quality work.
We walked around the low island, which also features quiet canals serving as streets, and small wooden boats as the preferred form of transportation. We had lunch in a pizzeria, a bustling place obviously popular with the local residents, who stopped to chat with one another. Oddly, it was decorated with Confederate flags. I asked the owner about the peculiar décor.
“I am a fan of Southern Rock,” he told me, and pulled out samples of his music collection, heavy with such American bands as the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. “It’s not political,” he added, raising an eyebrow to emphasize the point. “Just for fun.” Even he had an inkling of the dark American history.
Similar to Venice with its canals and boats, Burano is yet a world apart by nature of its modest-sized houses and distinct small-town feel. Here, away from the cruise ship crowds, tourists are fewer and the atmosphere more relaxed. Each dwelling on the island glows with a vibrant primary or pastel color that gives the entire village an otherworldly, remote feel. Bright blues, soft greens, and vibrant reds stand side by side. When I take up painting, this is where I will come to begin.
In our exploration of Venice we wanted to go far beyond the curious surface beauty that makes the city so unusual, and understand how things had come to be as they were. The magnificent public buildings and churches were augmented with things that seemed a bit out of place. We soon realized that many of them were from other, far older, civilizations. Our curiosity tweaked, we put on our sleuth hats, and began to research the ‘whys’ of what we were seeing.
Understanding Venice today requires understanding her history. It’s not a dry story. The great wealth that made Venice the most important city on earth came from her command of the seas.
Venezia grew from a tiny fishing settlement built upon tidal mud flats before 400 C.E. Newer arrivals to the growing town were refugees from invading Goths and Germanic tribes that flooded into Italy during the Middle Ages, after the collapse of the Roman Empire. One can easily imagine that living on the soggy flats of the tidal islands gave the refugees a natural defense as many older cities were sacked and looted by invaders.
The growing population needed space, however, and they soon began to dredge up soil from the bottom of the lagoon, adding small amounts of earth to raise and enlarge their holdings, incidentally digging the canals in the process. Venezia slowly evolved into numerous higher islands and deeper canals.
Originally too soft to support permanent structures, the silty clay soils were fortified by cutting alder trees, (preferred for their dense, water resistant wood), removing the branches, and driving the trunks upside down into the mud to depths of as much as six or eight meters. Venetians foraged widely upon the adjacent mainland, cutting and pulling the trees back to their islands. More trees were wedged into any gaps until the entire mass became a tightly-packed bundle. Then the pilings were cut off level, and covered with more earth and, later, stone foundations.
Locked in an anaerobic environment, the trees petrified rather than decayed. Upon those foundations rose the remarkable assemblage of palaces, churches, and monuments that make Venice a world treasure today.
Born and bred on the water, Venetians grew to be expert boatmen and creative naval engineers. Their skills and craftsmanship allowed them to assemble a powerful navy that grew to dominate the Mediterranean for centuries.
Long galleys were powered with a combination of sails and oars, and featured powerful metal rams at the prows, encouraging the navies of other realms toward calm consideration of differing views, and leading to significant trade concessions. Those who opposed Venetian fleets quickly regretted their error.
Venice came to control trade with the far eastern world of silks and spices that had been opened by her native son, Marco Polo, in his explorations. Her monopoly grew as the city became the clearing house of trade for all points from China to Britain.
Venice became a republic, and leading citizens participated in a council that elected the ‘Doges,’ or dukes, who had varying levels of authority over the centuries. It was an age of enlightenment and prosperity that made wealthy men of thousands involved in the shipping trade as captains, merchants, ship builders, or shipping owners.
Now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Venice features the art and creativity not only of its own cultural talents, but those assembled from the known world during its centuries of hegemony. As their thousands of ships visited far-flung ports, good captains and crews sought out the great treasures of those places, and, by skillful negotiation or skullduggery, shipped them back to Venice, where they ornament homes, churches, and palaces.
The monuments of Egypt, Byzantium, and the Levant found their way to Italy, to the glorification of the ‘Most Serene Republic.’ Each artifact has at least two stories: that of its origin, and that of its transport to Venezia.
Among the most enigmatic and controversial legends of Venice is the tomb of St. Mark which, some researchers aver, actually holds the remains of none other than Alexander the Great, missing for centuries. Alexander, who conquered most of the known world before his death at age 32, was widely revered as a ‘god,’ emulated and invoked by countless subsequent rulers through the ages. After his death, his body was stolen by Ptolemy and buried in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the cities he had founded. His elaborate tomb was eventually destroyed by war and a massive Mediterranean tsunami.
The relics in the tomb lying under the Basilica di San Marco were smuggled from Alexandria to Venice in 828 by two merchants convinced that the bones were those of Saint Mark, who had preached and died in Alexandria.
Secreted away by the Doge Giustiniano Participazio in his personal palazzo in Venice, the body was nowhere to be found when he ordered the construction of a Basilica to house it. The searching began in 1063 during the reconstruction of the Basilica. The bones were ‘relocated’ thirty-one years later.
Adding fuel to the theories are the stone images kept in the courtyard of the Museo Diocesano d’Arte Sacra, or the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art, immediate behind the Basilica of Saint Mark. There one can stare wonderingly at the fragments of a relief, reported also from Alexandria, that depict what is certainly a shield of the type used by Alexander’s Macedonian armies, as well as another with a portion of an arm raising a long Macedonian spear, which some speculate was a fragment of a relief of Alexander himself.
The Coptic Christian church, which descended from Mark’s evangelizing, claims that it, in fact, retains most of the relics of the saint, who was reportedly burned. The convoluted and conflicting history gives the imagination free rein to speculate. It is a story that gives church leaders a bit of angst.
As a city of enormous wealth, Venetian architects designed and constructed works that rival the finest on earth. Not only the palace and the magnificent churches, but public buildings and private residences became part of their story. Among the most stunning is the gold-gilt La Fenice, the last surviving opera house in Venice. Destroyed in a fire in 1996. it was meticulously rebuilt and restored to its former glory. The stunning tiers of boxes that surround the stage are a sight worth seeing, even lacking a performance.
For another close-up glimpse of the ornately-lavish architecture and luxurious fixtures that have long marked the city, we paid a visit to the Danieli, typical of the luxury hotels that have broad reputations. There we walked on fantastically-colored marble floors under the incredibly-detailed plaster-work ceiling. Gleaming urns full of fresh flowers filled the corners of the lobby, and an elegant marble staircase wound its way skyward. Above, tiers of colonnades marked each floor within the tall atrium. Formal dining rooms offer lavish meals at stiff prices, and cocktails are served, weather permitting, on a roof-top terrace. A dozen such hotels are among the most memorable places to witness a Venice sunset.
Gazing upon the canals of Venice today, lined as they are with the edifices of another age, one’s imagination may run swiftly to bear the viewer back to another time long forgotten. These waters, these walls and bridges, appear much today as they did when the famous German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe earned his first impression of the city and her realm, the sea, and told of them in his journal, Italian Journey.
Venice has survived both its trials and tribulations, and remains one of the most romantic and inspiring cities on earth, still enchanting millions. Teetering upon its buried wooden stilts, it retains the unique beauty that has captured the imaginations of writers through the centuries.
Modern Venice seems awash in a restless flow of visitors, a living tide that crests in the warmth of summer. The autumn and winter is given over to the waters of the Adriatic, which flood into the streets at the times of ‘aqua alta,’ scouring the soiled and worn pavement stones of the detritus of the invaders. It is then that Venice slips wraith-like into the past and assumes its proper form.
Sounds echo hollowly in deserted viali at night, and long shadows drape themselves around the shoulders of the palazzi in the cold winter afternoons. This is the way that Goethe found the city when he arrived on his long pilgrimage across the Alps from Germany: subdued, already stripped of much of its economic power and military might, awaiting only the final humiliation of falling to the armies of Napoleon nine years later.
On the last day of September, 1786, Goethe climbed to the top of the campanile of San Marco to behold, for the first time in his life, the broad expanse of salty seas beyond the lagoon. Those were the empowering waters that connected the city to the broader world.
Understanding Venice as Goethe did was to know that Venice had for centuries been a dominant force in world trade. Benefiting from her defeat of Constantinople, the ‘Most Serene Republic’ had controlled trade in the Mediterranean, and as far away as China. Her native son Marco Polo had opened the routes though which had flowed the silks and spices of the Orient. Her fleets of ships, once numbering over 3,000, had brought the wealth of the world to ornament her churches and public places.
Despite its already weakened state, Venice of the 18th century was the vessel that held the flowers of European art, literature, and architecture. It was a city both rich and enriching, and so it remains today.
Goethe rhapsodized at length about the mood of the city and its people, the architecture of Palladio, the humor of the operas, and the regal bearing of the Doge and the nobles of the city in their ceremonies. He praised the works of Titian, and Veronese. “The Venetian artists,” he wrote, “must see the world in a clearer and brighter light than other men,” an advantage he ascribed to the watery world in which it dwelt.
Venice, of course, has a magnetism that has long drawn the ferrous metal that seems to lie in the hearts of great writers. Goethe’s countryman, the Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, arrived for a holiday more than 200 years later, and was inspired to compose his classic work, Death in Venice. Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and Proust all walked these narrow passages and strode upon the broad Piazza di San Marco. An inquisitive visitor may find himself standing before the hotel or palazzo that hosted their literary genius.
Standing just to the east of the arch of Ponte Accademia, The Palazzo Barbaro was for many years the center of life for expatriate artists, and hosted such luminaries as Elizabeth Wharton, Claude Monet, and Robert Browning, as well as Mann. In more recent years it was detailed, along with the complexities of Venetian society, in John Berendt’s excellent work, The City of Falling Angels, which relates the story of the tragic fire at La Fenice opera house. There, too, Tiziano Scarpa crafted his beautiful tribute to the living qualities of the city in Venice is a Fish. This unique city continues to inspire those with poetry in their soul, and the ability to use language to show their greater insights to the world.
Venice is a place much different from the rest of Italy, as befits a city which was once the commercial center of the world. Yet tourists on their whirlwind tours often miss not only the subtle, but the dramatic differences. Learning to understand a place takes time.
During the warmer months, bloated cruise ships, often two or three a day, dump hordes of eager, guide-book wielding passengers to clog the streets for five hours at a time, running frantically from landmark to landmark, trying to take in all in, but in the end learning nothing but what they already knew. Without time to slow their pace, to see, to listen, to taste, to absorb, their experience is little more than 3-D television. Guided tour groups, led by umbrella-wielding guides, pass like herds of multi-color, language-coded sheep, listening to interpretive comments in Russian, Mandarin, English, Arabic, or Japanese. They descend upon the guides’ favored shops with reminders to make their purchases quickly, as they will meet again in ten minutes for the boat ride to a glass factory.
To Venetians, like residents in other busy tourist destinations, the tourists fade into the background, blur to match the cobble-stones and walls so effectively that they disappear, chameleon-like, against the terracotta and mustard-colored stucco backdrops. It’s not that Venetians aren’t helpful. They are, particularly those whose livelihood depends upon a steady stream of customers to fill their shops and souvenir stalls, purchasing countless tokens they hope can somehow bring to mind the sheer wonder of the wizardry and light that combine in the strange and incomprehensible stimuli they have encountered.
“Look, look at the color of that building, isn’t that amazing?” you may hear them exclaim. “Can you hear that gondolier singing? What’s that tune? It sounds so familiar…”
Highly adapted to their environment, Venetians learn to avoid walking about at peak tourist times, or which back alleys to use to avoid the snaking queues of tour groups. Venetians, of course, see primarily each other. They know the faces and names of hundreds or thousands of other residents, people who will still be here next week, and next year. They congregate in their bars to debate politics or sports, and swallow hot cupfuls of potent espresso from tiny tazzine, or thimble-sized shots of grappa, the ubiquitous and fiery distillation of grape must.
Afternoon warmth led to the tradition of working men gathering to prendere un’umbra, literally ‘take the shade,’ but translated as a glass of wine, preferably sipped in the cool shadow of a campanile. Many of these bell-towers loom above the scores of churches marking the various parishes of the city. The melodious pealing of the campane have become as much a marker of the starts and stops of workdays and lunch breaks as a command to express religious devotion.
Standing in the shop of our friend Olivo as he prepared to close for a twenty-minute break to take a mid-afternoon glass of prosecco with us, we were overheard using both English and Italian. “Oh, do you know the city?” the pleasant American tourists inquired. “What would you suggest as the most important things to see?”
“After the Duomo and the Doge’s Palace, which are first on everyone’s list, it seems,” we replied, “you should visit the Scuola San Rocco, or the Museo Correr. It’s also a real experience to walk through the quiet northern residential districts along Fondamenta San Lorenzo or Castello district, and be sure to stop in the Museo Archeologico in Piazza San Marco with its excellent displays of Venetian history. We can also recommend some restaurants, such as…”
“We have to be back on the ship by 4:30,” they sadly interrupted.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Not enough time to see much, is it? Perhaps another trip, then. Enjoy your visit!”