Really you need to see Venice. I wouldn't mind if you read about it too...
The train to Venice didn’t offer much in the way of scenery except for the promise of distant mountains and the occasional placid lake. Suddenly the landscape vanished. We were hurtling across the turquoise Mediterranean, sharing the road with barges and fishing vessels. We cut our speed and glided into a non-descript train station. We went to the tourist information office and figured out where our hostel was located. The testy Venetian woman pointed at a long island across from the main square of Venice. She then offered to sell us ferry tickets.
Guide books informed me the public ferries were the busses of Venice, only much more expensive. As an expense and a bus, the vaporettos dually repelled me. We would walk. We squeezed out of the phone booth they call tourist information and stepped outside. And there it was. Venice.
A wide canal flowed by the front steps of the train station with boats puttering along the dilapidated, pastel buildings. We followed foot traffic and the detailed map into the maze of the city. I was lost immediately. Streets changed names every block and never met at right angles. Canals sliced across the street requiring side trips to small bridges. The way to navigate Venice is to follow occasional street signs pointing in the direction of major landmarks. You ignore the street names. So do the locals. There is no set system for numbering buildings. Instead you just pick a number when you build (though there haven’t been many new buildings in Venice in quite a while, giving the mail people plenty of time to study-up).
After discovering we were going east when I thought we were going west, I swallowed my navigational pride (with my brother’s enthusiastic support) and went back to the central station. We would ride a bus. With a youth card acquired at the TI, we bought a three day pass for the vaporettos. This turned out to be a great move since our hostel could only be reached by vaporetto. I guess we could have tried to swim, but our passports might have gotten soggy.
We threw our bags in the middle of the deck and motored into the harbor, past cruise ships and barges. Yellow DHL delivery boats were loading up at the warehouse, and construction rafts floated concrete trucks over the waves. Venice is a surreal city of water. When I went to Copenhagen, I was told it was the “Venice of the North.” When I when to Hamburg, I was also told this was the “Venice of the North.” Bruges and Amsterdam vie for the title in their chunk of the North. But none of these places are Venice. There are no cars in Venice. There are no bikes. Their absence isn’t driven by draconian city planning, but by practicality. The canals are the streets and narrow alleys give way to steep, stepped bridges that make bikes a silly investment. It is a flooded city. A city that isn’t just financially supported by water, but physically supported. Back off Northern Venices. Ya got nothin’.
Our hostel was a no-frills barracks with a couple of steel bunk beds punctuated by an occasional communal bathroom. But out our window was the clear Mediterranean. We could see St. Mark’s Cathedral and the lighthouses, bell towers, and domes of the drowning city. I would have paid for the view, but I got a bed to go along with it.
It was time to explore that view. First we hopped onto a vaporetto to the mouth of the Grand Canal and the spiritual center of Venice at St. Mark’s Square. The wide piazza is surrounded by expensive cafés that feature live string quartets that have entertained everyone from Napoleon to Twain.
But the cafés don’t hold your attention. That goes to the Cathedral.
From the 12th to 16th centuries, Venice was the wealthiest city in Europe. It was an economic empire that mediated trade between Europe and Asia. They had a lot of cash flowing in and they wanted to show it. So they built a Cathedral. The place was inspired by Byzantine architecture with domes popping up across the roof. Spires topped by saints reveal a little Gothic influence. The interior is literally covered in mosaic. Every corner of the ceiling, and every inch of wall is blanketed with tiny tiles of glass and ceramic. The heavenly backdrop is luminous gold. The designers had so much space that they broke out the more obscure biblical stories and holy people to cover the interior. Walking into the nave and craning our necks, we could only gasp, “Wow.”
We toured the interior, admiring the intricate floor tiles and the golden alter with hundreds of tiny portraits of Christ and the Apostles, all in the stern, Eastern iconic style. Apparently no one smiled for the camera in Byzantium.
Then we went up a narrow staircase that would never pass code in the U.S. to admire four bronze horses, symbols of Venice’s former power. The horses were cast in the 5th century B.C. in Greece. Then Constantine carried them off to Constantinople. The Venetian Crusaders brought them home for the cathedral. Then Napoleon carted them to Paris. The French finally returned them in the 19th century, and now they are sheltered from acid rain while copies take the brunt of industrial offense. The horses chomp their bits and they muscles tense in mid step. I am continually amazed at the anatomical detail the Greeks worked into their art. Over the next couple of days, this admiration would only increase.
On to the Domo’s palace. At the peak of her power, Venice was ruled by a Domo, or Duke. He was elected by a grand council that included prominent businessmen and important families (crazy how those go together). He wasn’t a tyrant. Just an executive with constitutional duties to councils and legislatures that governed different aspects of municipal affairs. The palace was both the Duke’s home and the primary governmental meeting place. It’s also bathed in art. Maps of the world from the 1700s and portraits by Old Masters like Titian and Tintoretto are literally on every wall. It was exhausting moving through each chamber, trying to put together the complicated network of Venetian politics and history while keeping an eye out for important artists.
Our final stop was the jail which lead directly to the court of justice. Byron called the bridge between the jail and the court the Bridge of Sighs, imagining the incarcerated taking in his final view of the harbor before being condemned. Romantic, it’s true, but a little less so now while construction swathes the palace and provides ample advertising space.
As the sun prepared to set we hopped onto a Vapparetto down the Grand Canal. With a Rick Steves audiotour in our ears we puttered through centuries of opulence followed by evidence of slow decline. We saw the Rialto Bridge, and the Jewish Quarter (thank you Billy Shakes for giving me some context), then on past palaces and markets.
Every guidebook comments on Venice as the dying city. It’s no longer a world power, and the inconvenience of living there is driving people to the mainland, but it didin’t seem overly seedy. It may be shrinking, as it should. It doesn’t need to be as large or powerful as it once was. Now it is a kind of historical Disneyland, a retreat from the way you expect life to function.
There is not motor traffic except the chopping of rotor blades. Gondoliers row relaxed, loving couples (and Japanese tourists) along narrow by waters lined with ferns and petunias. Ever city should be afforded the opportunity to age with such grace.
As the sun set over the bay, we dove into the city, vaguely hoping to find a place for dinner, but not rushing ourselves. There was a city to take in. We finally settled down for some pasta and calamari, eavesdropped on some Irishmen, and moved to a Jazz Bar. There wasn’t any live music, but there was a lively atmosphere and more affordable beverages than we found in Milan. This seemed counterintuitive since we were on a series of islands where everything is supposed to be more expensive than the mainland, but we didn’t want to ask any questions.
Then into the night. The moon was shining through a thin veil of clouds, illuminating the quiet canals. We stopped on a dock jutting into the Grand Canal. A lone gondolier slowly navigated his craft out of a small channel and into the main stream. The only sound was his oar slicing the current. We watched in silence, then turned from the surreal scene of Renaissance palaces and watercraft without comment.
As we crossed the city towards the hostel, we found an isolated tributary that wound past buildings that have been floating in the bay for centuries. We listened to the water lapping the deck and watched the moon reflected in the water. If there was a time to have Carolyn by my side, that was it (no offense Josh). We poked our toes into the water. I’m not sure either of us can articulate why we needed to do that, but it felt like the right thing to do. We then began our happy, slightly wet march back to St. Mark’s Square and our bunk beds with a view.
The next morning we returned to St. Mark’s with plans to leave our luggage at the free baggage check by the Cathedral. The attendants weren’t happy with our clever, time-saving plan and told us the bags could only sit there for an hour. Damn. Back to the hostel to leave our stuff in five Euro locker. With some Tetris-like shoving we crammed both our packs into one locker and went in search of some art.
The Academia in Venice is the best place in the world to enjoy the work of the Venetian Renaissance (go figure). We did our duty admiring Titian, especially his depictions of the story of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice. The winged lion with the gospel, the symbol of Mark, is literally everywhere in the city. I wonder if there are any citys with St. Matthew’s winged human (not an angel) festooned on every bell tower and boat? This is what the internet is for…
Before leaving town, we needed to hear if there was any news on the Rialto. The Rialto Bridge is a Renaissance edifice that arches over the Grand Canal. It’s also the center of tourism and souvenir stands. Josh collects masks, and Venice is famous for its Carnival masks. While I considered a hand-made journal, he evaluated masks. Most were cheap souvenirs. Then we found a small shop with pictures of Tom Cruise in a golden mask declaring, “Featured in Eyes Wide Shut.” This might be authentic.
The proprietor was at work painting a Harlequin mask when we stepped in. At first he seemed skeptical that these two American tourists would stay for more than thirty seconds. As Josh examined his options (and wallet), I earned us some credibility points by asking about Stanley Kubrick and the artist’s work for the San Francisco Shakespeare company. When we left, everyone was satisfied. Josh had a very authentic addition to his growing collection, and I got to chat with a Venetian.
We grabbed massive sandwiches from a street vendor and settled down on an empty dock to watch the boats go by on the canal. Venice seemed to invest us with a desire to dreamily watch the city move by. It was a breathing movie set, a fantasy. It was all it was cracked up to be. But we couldn’t sit dreamily all afternoon. It was time to spend some time in the golden light of Tuscany….
More photos of Borths Boy wandering.