Venice’s Last Laugh

Venice, as I may have mentioned, expects you to take it’s paths and bridges and meandering waterways in stride, hauling luggage over every uneven inch. When it was time to go the airport however, we were picked up directly in front of our hotel by water taxi. From there, it was an easy twenty minute race to the airport, each boat attempting to outrun the other, our captain taking the wakes in a rhythmic bump, bump, slam pattern.

I imagine a taxi ride in Rome would have felt the same.

Finally at the quiet dock, we stepped onto moving sidewalks that ushered us gently into the Venice airport. We waited at our gate, relaxing in the morning sunshine and sorry to see Italy go.

Of course, the minute boarding was called, everyone immediately stood up and crushed forward at the cattle chute. We were so Italian by this point.

The airline slowly and clearly called out each boarding zone and the restless passengers reluctantly took their turns moving through, flashing their tickets and dragging their carry-ons. Hubby inched one deliberate inch forward at a time, keeping an eye on a little old lady to his left and a businessman on his right, both of whom were preparing to jump the queue if he wasn’t diligent. I drafted behind him, playing word games on my phone, confident in his ability to blaze a path through the chaos.

We finally scanned our tickets through and headed briskly down the ramp, jostling our carry-ons and bags and the fluffy neck pillow that Hubbs so faithfully dragged all over Italy, knowing full well he was never going to use it. But it was from Costco. For all I know, he will attempt to return it.

What seat number was I again?

At the end of the ramp, it took a turn and instead of an airplane door, we were faced with a flight of stairs. Super confused but laughing, because this behavior is always what we will remember about Italy, we hauled our luggage down another, and another, until we were exiting the airport onto the tarmac.

Were we walking home?

There was a bus. Full of passengers, standing like cattle, holding onto handles from the ceiling. We squeezed on, trying not to step on the old lady’s foot. She looked ready to kick.

Everyone was shifting restlessly, eye-rolling, wondering which way they were going to stampede next, and preparing for all possibilities. Hubby flared his nostrils. Challenge accepted. “The first shall be last,” I whispered. But I knew better. This man had already extrapolated all pathways and exits. He was ready for the next Italian chess move.

The bus rumbled across the Venetian tarmac and vomited its passengers out in front of an airplane that had open doors at both ends, accessed by another set of stairs. I could see everyone mentally freaking out with the option.

The rush, I was told, is so that you have room in the overhead for your stuff. Worst case scenario? The nice stewardess takes your bag up front and hands it back to you as you casually exit at your destination. No overhead hoisting required. Less time sitting in a stifling plane, and a free valet. I’m sick of lugging luggage.

But honey, did I hustle with it.

I put some serious mileage on those poor little swivel wheels; cobbles, stairs, pavers, grills, bridges, escalators, curbs, moving sidewalks, ramps, rain, even an exploding water bottle. And it was always packed first and politely waiting for Hubby’s dastardly duo at the hotel door.

We finally sat in the plane, luggage at peace overhead. Hubby was in his seat, fluffing his shirt from his exertions and wrapped it up with his signature sigh. All was right in the world.

Goodby for now, Italy. Thanks for the memories!

We flew over the crispy alps of Austria, the farmland of Germany and the tidy dikes of Holland. Scotland, Greenland and the Hudson Bay brought us slowly back into America and home. So many more places to visit.

The world is bigger and smaller and more beautiful than you will ever discover in this lifetime.

But you should try.

Caio, bella Italia.

Island-Hopping in Venice

As your train approaches Venice, it’s surprising to see other islands out the window, some minute and others large enough to contain whole villages. There are reedy marshes in the shallows and areas deep enough to welcome massive cruise ships. It’s a delicate ecosystem that, as you know, has scientists scrambling to prevent its extinction.

Motoring away from Venice on the vaporetto, this extensive lagoon holds evidence that every inch of mushy land was a personal challenge to someone: if you can make it stay upright, you too can have your own private island in paradise. Not sure how it compares to Bora Bora, but obviously things did not always work out:

The lagoon won.

Our first stop was Torcello. This area was the first of the lagoon to be inhabited and contains the requisite basilica and campanile. The ruins can be perused after paying a fee to the guardians there, and are quite interesting. True to our mantra of “climbing all the things”, we ascended the little tower and discovered some curious facts: it was held together with baling wire and duct tape (Was it really safe to climb? Too late), it utilized ramps instead of stairs (nice), and the view is by far the prettiest view from a campanile that we had seen in all of Italy. Have a look:

The walk back.

Torcello had it’s own little canal, a beautiful restaurant and event venue, vineyards and agriculture, all enjoying this peaceful corner of the neighborhood. The brick walkway leading to and from our landing invited a leisurely pace, an opportunity to stop and smell the roses. Which we did. An elderly gentleman stood to one side, playing an opera selection on his accordion. So far as I could tell, it was purely for his own pleasure. I made the decision immediately to live on Torcello if I ever get the chance. It will bring the population up to eleven, I think.

Across the way is Burano, known for lace, brightly colored houses, and a leaning tower that we did not even attempt to approach. The tower reminded us that – oh yeah – we are all perching on stilts over a marsh. After Burano, we realized every tower in Venice was tilted.

The cheerful homes invited us to wander the island, the lace shops let their wares ripple in the sunshine. We ate some overpriced calamari, considering the options. I’m not so very into tapestries and doilies, but stepped into a shop and put some serious thought into a bodice. It was an intricate hand-tatted green glory fit for a princess. It also had a princess price tag: 380E.

I was expecting lace pantaloons.

Our next stop was the larger isle of Murano. Murano is famous for the art of glass-blowing, and you can take tours of the glass factories or even a class there. You can browse drifts of cheap glass souvenirs made in China, or consider high-scale one-of-a-kind glass sculptures made right here on the island. I had already made up my mind, before taking our trip, what I wanted. I could see it in my imagination but none of the shops seemed to be selling it.

All hand crafted Murano glass beads take time to create. The specific ones I sought have layers of colors from smaller millefiori cane beads, which are rolled together into larger beads, then eventually strung together into necklaces. The detail work, the patience under heat and pressure and the creative drive behind these little beads fascinates me. The colors, both bright and deep, swirled around each other, repeatedly fused together with fire, and knotted individually by hand represent a lifetime of marriage to me. This symbology is also used in tapestry; but a necklace can be worn over the heart.

I dragged Hubby over Murano – twice – before we found the exact right one:

The pretty stretch of Lido forms a buffer island, and helps protect the lagoon from the larger Adriatic Sea. It’s also a divider between the swirling Carnival within Venice and the cold industrial business in the grey waters without. Homes here appear to strike a gracious balance between them.

Lido is home to the famous yearly Venice International Film Festival. The mainland and other islands surrounding Venice host the multitude of art, architecture, dance, cinema, music, and theater people who attend. Probably someone stayed in Torcello, but I hear many of the private islands are rented complete by big celebrities. We had just missed the 75th year of the event, four weeks prior.

Lido boasts sandy beaches, both private and public, and we walked across it to put our feet in. Santa Maria Elisabetta dead ends in a “free, self-serve” beach. At one time in history, it must have been a bustling area with shops, a fancy restaurant and a bar. Only one out of three was operating, and I was thankful because a restroom was high on my list of priorities. Following the arrows on the floor through an abandoned cafeteria, past a broken euro turnstile, I entered a bathroom that made a gas station in Yuma look pristine. Doors were off hinges, empty dispensers hung from the wall, rubbish littered the floor. It was a perfect spot to get mugged…only the people I saw loitering in the area looked so apathetic that I felt sorry for them. I wanted to add a tag on the wall, “This too shall pass”.

Reappearing on the dark sand, I took Hubby’s arm saying, “You don’t want to order a drink here. Let’s go.” He nodded. The party hangover was pervasive.

The slate-colored Adriatic Sea licked at our ankles as we watched cargo ships in the distance. Where were they from? Where were they going? It felt piratey. Impersonal. Harsh even. But perhaps their pilots had other stories to tell.

I sighed a little.

Our love affair with Italy would end tomorrow. Like Lido, we had protected our bright anniversary bubble from the matte roughness of the daily business back home.

But like Murano, we have more beads to make.

Romancing Venice

Italy wears its heart on its sleeve on the isle of Venice. A thoroughly romantic mix of museums, music, colors, history, and mystery, Venetia makes you want to wear a pink swirly dress and swoon on a balcony.

Venice, the home of Marco Polo, Casanova, Vivaldi, Goldoni, and Titian, begins with formal introductions in St Mark’s square, but will lean in when you least expect it and whisper sweet intimate nothings in your ear.

Venice has no other purpose than to delight you.

St Mark’s Square is to be toured in an orderly fashion. The “finest drawing room in Europe” as Napoleon christened it, invites loitering with the pigeons while your imagination takes flight.

First, step into the Basilica (a free but timed voucher). The cathedral glows from an overbearing amount of gold decor. It feels heavy, a facade so thick that you are sure the real church must be hiding in the back somewhere, but no. For an additional fee, you discover that St Mark lies beneath a sheet of gem-studded gold that seems just a little like he is trying too hard to impress.

Competition is tough for saints.

You are not supposed to take photos, so you didn’t see this:

Near the entrance, a tiny passageway leads straight up to the rooftop terrace. Pay your 5E at the top and you will be able to enjoy the views, indoor and out, as long as you like. The original copper horses are inside, and replicas are out. Sadly, I was not allowed to ride either set. But they are magnificent.

This photo is for Kim.

Back in the square, a trip to the top (another timed voucher) of the Campanile is not to be missed and to prove that chivalry is not dead…it has an elevator! The lift holds just 11 people at a time and you will have only 15 minutes up top. It’s a gorgeous arial view of the island and its surrounding neighbors. The bells overhead ring at high noon. You will have to decide for yourself whether this is an exhilarating experience or the fast road to deafness.

The clock tower bell-ringers across the way are far more decorous in their duties.

Enter the lacy pink marble Doge’s Palace and you will once again feel the weight of history. It settles around you as you move from grand staircases to spacious rooms, fat gilded ornamentation bordering heavily detailed paintings, scrolled metalwork, polished wood; symbols of wealth, government, and religion. Here, judgement was passed and here, beyond an extensive armory, the Bridge of Sighs led prisoners to the dungeons. Graffiti in the cells is intriguing, especially as Casanova himself scrawled some of it.

This kiss is for John.

To complete the Square, explore the elegant Correr Museum. You will simply run out of time to see all of this multi-level extensive collection of everything. I was reduced to taking a photo collection of chandeliers (12) and then another of rare and ancient books (a million or so). A giant foot statue and a mummy rounded it off nicely.

When we ventured away from St Marks Square, Venice decided to rain on our parade. Armed with our Roman umbrellas, we hopped the vaporetto south for a march along Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. We admired his monument then strolled slowly back along the waterfront. When the drips threatened to put a damper on our day, we stopped at a sidewalk cafe and ordered hot espresso and a banana nutella crepe with a puff of whipped cream.

Because, happiness.

The Rialto Market was right beside our hotel. Placed beneath a permanent roof, this sumptuous daily market is full of tourists taking photos and locals buying their groceries. Everything is shipped in on early morning boats and by afternoon, nothing is left but a lone man hosing down the empty pavement. The variety of seafood, flowers, fresh produce, and spices is glorious.

This is a hint for what your restaurant is going to put on your plate tonight. It’s time to dress for dinner.

The cloak of dusk swirls around the island. Venice dons a mask of deep purple with gold trim, water shining through like eyes of magic. The crowds are finally gone. The night is young. And you are so beautiful.

Venice moves from courtship to seduction.

On each side of St Mark’s Square, a little orchestra plays. To your right, you hear The Blue Danube, from the left comes the theme from Titanic. Should you sit for a moment and take some champagne from the bow-tied servers hovering along the edge of the pavement? Or perhaps you would prefer a creamy hot chocolate from the cafe, steaming like a sigh from its cup? The music begs your feet to move, and happily, Venice is entirely new at night.

The Grand Canal is rippling glass, reflecting lamplight, moonlight, and the stars in your eyes. Wander over the Rialto Bridge (take the gratuitous selfie), and on past glittering delights in small shop windows. Chocolates, high end luxury stores, fashion, bakeries, gelato, lace, leather, glass, jewelry, pubs, and restaurants tempt on all sides.

There are few straight lines in Venice. Follow the curves and dips, the paths that make you glance back over your shoulder wondering whether you missed something, on through the twirling shadows. Each little bridge is an invitation to pause and enjoy the swimming splendor of it all.

If you are wise, you brought your own Casanova for emergency purposes.

If you are smart, you brought your dancing shoes.

Welcome to Venice: Get in the Boat

After disembarking the train into Venice, a meandering cruise down the Grand Canal via bus (vaporetto) is a great way to get acquainted with one of Italy’s most popular destinations. Grab a seat in the front. Wear something warm. Never stand up. This blocks your pilot’s view and he will let you have it because – surprise! – the Italians are still driving like…Italians. I never saw James Bond fly by (although we watched a film cast drift past, complete with cameraman, equipment, and actors hiding in the bow) but when you get everyone on the water it’s crazy. This is why we didn’t take a gondola ride. The tourists didn’t scream out loud, but the gondolier paddled for his very life a few times…

Playing chicken on the Grand Canal.

The water in Venice is very green lagoon water; it smells exactly like the San Diego Bay, without the salty open-ocean undertones. It’s not something you want to swim in and although we saw a gull or two, I saw no sign of marine life. The buildings in Venice are beautiful and in a constant state of maintenance. As the waters slowly rise, lower stories are abandoned in some of them. Doorsteps go right down underwater.

Palazzo Dario Ca d’Oro and a glorious green building.

As you make the first big bend in the Canal, you pass the colorful daily Rialto Market, full of fish, produce, flowers, and spices and the Rialto Bridge that gives gondoliers wonderful acoustics and bus drivers terrible tempers.

The Rialto Market A gondola, a taxi, and a bus walked under a bridge…

The next bend has the only “traffic light” in Venice. It sits at the corner and is used exclusively to allow fireboats out of the station at top speed.

If you watch long enough, you will also see garbage collectors, polizia, construction crews, ambulenzas, and other services at work…all by boat.

Hotel laundry? Who knows? Go under the Accademia Bridge next.

As you curve back around and see La Salute, this is your sign that you are about to enter the lagoon on the south of Venice. The water opens up and St. Mark’s Square is coming up on your left. You have arrived at your destination.

And so has everyone else…who parked that here? Yikes! Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. St Mark’s symbol: lion of Venice. St Theodore and his Crocodile.

We are going to leave St. Mark’s Square for the next post (click here for a preview), but I will leave you with this story:

A long time ago, before Venice was on the map, their patron saint was Theodore, the dragon slayer. After the sack of Constantinople, Venetians brought home random pieces of statuary, which were put together to form this image and for a long time, it was good enough. His claim to fame was that he wrestled crocs could bring victory in battle.

As politics marched forward however, the founding fathers decided that a more glamorous (and less Byzantine) saint was needed. So they stole one. In 828, Venetian merchants took the mummy of St Mark from its sarcophagus in Alexandria Egypt, packed it in a chest with pork and cabbages, and thereby passed it through Muslim customs officers. (Don’t try this at home.) They hauled St Mark to Venice and began a new church for him. The church was destroyed, then rebuilt, St Mark was lost and rediscovered in the process, and finally in 1094AD, we have the basilica, square and etc.

They left Theodore on his post to watch the show go by.

But I’d love to see him take on that cruise ship.

Just another day on the Grand Canal.