Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Day in Venice

It was September first; our cruise was officially over, but we had one last day of vacation to spend in Venice. After breakfasting at our hotel, we went looking for the tobacconist where the hotel clerk had told us we could buy bus tickets into the city. A block from the hotel, we met a gentleman on a bicycle who spoke no English, but who nevertheless understood what we were looking for and tried to help. Unfortunately, this being Sunday, the tobacconist was closed. However, when our new friend realized that we wanted to ride the bus and not buy cigarettes, he guided us to a newsstand where we could buy tickets. The owner of the newsstand didn't speak English either, but one of his customers did, and helped us communicate that we wished to purchase four round-trip tickets to Venice.

We had been warned that the city would be crowded. This was the day of the annual Historical Regatta, and the Venice Film Festival was also going on. I could have sworn there wasn't room for us on the bus, but we managed to squeeze in—and at each stop between us and Venice, more passengers squeezed in. When we reached the end of the line at Piazzale Roma, we burst out into Venice like circus clowns exploding from a tiny car.

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain describes his arrival in Venice by gondola:
We reached Venice at eight in the evening, and entered a hearse belonging to the Grand Hotel d'Europe. At any rate, it was more like a hearse than any thing else, though to speak by the card, it was a gondola. And this was the storied gondola of Venice!—the fairy boat in which the princely cavaliers of the olden time were wont to cleave the waters of the moonlit canals and look the eloquence of love into the soft eyes of patrician beauties, while the gay gondolier in silken doublet touched his guitar and sang as only gondoliers can sing! This the famed gondola and this the gorgeous gondolier!—the one an inky, rusty old canoe with a sable hearse-body clapped on to the middle of it, and the other a mangy, barefooted guttersnipe with a portion of his raiment on exhibition which should have been sacred from public scrutiny.
Things have changed since Twain's visit. Although there are still enough gondolas to satisfy the tourists, the primary means of transportation for locals is the vaporetto, or waterbus. At the terminal, we purchased four 12-hour passes that would allow us to ride the bus and vaporetto for the rest of the day. Our first stop was Piazza San Marco. Between the vaporetto stop and the piazza, we passed the famous "Bridge of Sighs," where prisoners supposedly sighed at their last glimpse of Venice as they passed from the Doge's Palace to prison. Judging by the size of the windows, they couldn't have seen much to sigh at.

Gondolas Beneath the Bridge of Sighs

There were lots of people in the Piazza San Marco. There were also lots of pigeons and winged lions. The pigeons were real; the lions were not. Of the lions, Twain wrote:
They say St. Mark had a tame lion, and used to travel with him—and every where that St. Mark went, the lion was sure to go. It was his protector, his friend, his librarian. And so the Winged Lion of St. Mark, with the open Bible under his paw, is a favorite emblem in the grand old city. It casts its shadow from the most ancient pillar in Venice, in the Grand Square of St. Mark, upon the throngs of free citizens below, and has so done for many a long century. The winged lion is found every where—and doubtless here, where the winged lion is, no harm can come.

Winged Lion in Piazza San Marco

It was lunchtime, so we stopped near Piazza San Marco for our first taste of real Italian pizza. We ordered two: one with ham, artichokes, and mushrooms, and one "frutti de mare," with mussels, shrimp, and calamari. Knowing that we were Americans, the waiter did not think that would be enough food for the four of us. He recommended the Venetian Special, with shrimp and arugula.

Venetian Pizza and Boots of Beer

From Piazza San Marco, we headed to the Rialto Bridge. Venice is a maze of canals and narrow, winding alleyways. Fortunately, if you want to get from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge—or vice versa—there are prominent signs to direct you. (I'm not sure what you are supposed to do if you want to go anywhere else.) Along the way, we passed many shops selling the beautiful carnival masks that Venice is famous for. While we were in one of the shops, the power went out. I imagine that this is a frequent problem in a city whose infrastructure is under water. (You don't even want to think about the plumbing. Being a plumber in Venice must be a nightmare.)

Carnival Masks

Rialto Bridge was packed with spectators for the regatta, so we did not venture onto it, for fear our additional weight after consuming three pizzas would cause it to collapse. We took some pictures, then boarded another vaporetto. We wanted to ride down the Grand Canal before it closed for the regatta.

Ponte di Rialto

We got off near Ponte degli Scalzi and found a quiet cafe, where we stopped for espresso. We then walked back to Piazzale Roma and took the bus back to the hotel. We would miss the regatta, but we were all tired of crowds—and just plain tired.

After a few hours' riposo at the hotel, we were ready to return to the city. This time, we avoided the mob of tourists near Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal, instead losing ourselves in a maze of narrow alleys and canals that were less traveled. We weren't afraid of getting lost—we knew that sooner or later we would find a sign directing us to Piazza San Marco or the Rialto Bridge.

Venice in the Afternoon

At dinner time, we stopped at Birraria la Corte in Campo San Polo, where we were seated in a lovely courtyard lit by the setting sun. I decided to be adventurous and try Venice's specialty: spaghetti with cuttlefish, in a sauce made from cuttlefish ink. It had a subtle flavor that is difficult to describe, so I won't bother trying. I'll just say it's not bad, and was officially the strangest thing I ate on the entire trip.

Cuttlefish Pasta with Ink Sauce

When we arrived at the restaurant, we had noticed that temporary walls had been set up, fencing off about half of the piazza. When we left, we discovered the reason. This was the location of a temporary outdoor movie theater for the film festival. We didn't stay for the movie—a documentary about Bernardo Bertolucci—but headed back towards the Grand Canal. As we left the piazza, we met our first and only Venetian cats. Three of them greeted us from the open second floor window of a house on the piazza. They had barely a trace of Italian accent.

Back at the Rialto Bridge, we stopped to admire the work of a local artist. We bought a small painting from him to remind us of our visit. We climbed the steps of the bridge, and, at the top, found a crippled, hunchbacked beggar, to whom we bequeathed what was left of our change. On the other side of the bridge, we boarded a vaporetto back to the bus terminal at Piazzale Roma.

When Mark Twain visited Venice in 1867, he was appalled that what had once been "a haughty, invincible, magnificent Republic" had "fallen a prey to poverty, neglect and melancholy decay." And yet, he described a magical night on the Grand Canal, when "Every gondola that swam by us, with its crescents and pyramids and circles of colored lamps hung aloft, and lighting up the faces of the young and the sweet-scented and lovely below, was a picture; and the reflections of those lights, so long, so slender, so numberless, so many-colored and so distorted and wrinkled by the waves, was a picture likewise, and one that was enchantingly beautiful." Our trip down the canal was nothing like that—and yet it was. Modern Venice is still "enchantingly beautiful" in its way, and it's not difficult to picture its former glory.

In Venice Tasso's echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone—but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade—but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy!

—George Gordon Byron

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