Venice, Italy June 2006
Saturday morning in Italy and I was officially off work and on holiday! I would have liked to spend more time in the GardaLake area, but I also wanted to see more of the country. So Jeff, Cindy and I all drove to Verona for separate trains. They were off to Florence (Forienze) and I to Venice (Venezia). The hours I had spent learning Italian had come in handy during our work week, but it was never more important than getting to the train station (A la statione ferroviaria, per favore- to the train station, please) by taxis (il tassi) and getting a ticket (Vorre una bigetto per Venezia, de andata—I would like a one way ticket to Venice). The key phrase turned out to be “which train track” (Quale binario?) since I had exactly four minutes to catch the train and could not read my ticket to save my life. (Note to self: This is a skill I need to learn!)
The train ride was uneventful and it took an hour and a half to reach the end of the line, San Lucia. I took the No. 1 ferry (vaporetti) which turned out to be a leisurely trip down the length of the Grande Canal. The beautiful palazzos we passed were the four and five story homes and businesses of the Venice rich. Most are not residential buildings now, but hotels and shops, and with hundreds of years of use, many need attention. My stop was Santa Maria del Giglio on SanMarco Island.
Venice has no cars, no bicycles. It is a city of walking tourists and boats. The handicapped and parents with strollers are severely limited, is not facing impossible odds. Venice is actually six islands with narrow waterways going between and through each island, and bridges everywhere. The walk from my waterbus stop to my hotel was less than 2 minutes, but I crossed two bridges on the way.
The Hotel San Maurizio opened onto an alley narrow enough to touch the buildings on either side, simultaneously. It is a four flour walk up. I was on the second floor with a single room. The room would have made a fine walk-in closet and contained only a bed (smaller than a twin) sink and tiny closet that wasn’t deep enough to put a thick hanger in. The bath was down the hall and I shared it with the rest of the floor, for 80 Euro a night (about $110 US). But there was a ceiling fan and a window (no screen) that opened onto the alley. It was “mostly clean.” That is, the bed and sink were clean, even spotless. But the floor was dusty and contained a used band-aid from a previous tenet. A line of ants led from the window down to it. Ick! I barely felt comfortable putting my shoes on the floor. I decided to borrow a broom and walked down to the front desk. “Of course, Madame. Have you spilled something?”
But I didn’t spend much time on cleaning and moving in. I dropped off my still packed bags (mi valiege) and headed for the focal point of this tourist mecca, San Marco Piazza. Officially, this is the only piazza in Venice, the rest being called campos (fields), the equivalent of a square, most with a community well at the center. I was only 5 minutes away from the Piazza, but there is no way to walk in a straight line in Venice. I didn’t bother with a map, I just followed the crowds. The Piazza is huge, on the scale of St. Peter’s at the Vatican. At one end is the amazing Basilica, built (and re-built after a couple fires) over the last 1000 years, it is ornate with five huge mosaics, five domes and too many marble columns too count.
The galleys on the side house shops and restaurants, some of the priciest in the area. When I took a break and had a cappuccino at one of the fancy restaurants, it costs 12 Euro (about $16 US). The coffee was served on a silver tray while a five piece band played. I sat leisurely and overlooked the view. That’s a lot of money and once is enough for such extravagance. But still, when I remember Venice, I close my eyes and I’m back there sitting at that small table, perfect weather, the cathedral in front of me, pigeons cooing, sipping a perfect coffee. Priceless.
The Basilica San Marco shares a wall with Doge’s Palace, the ruler of the Venito for its 1000 year history before the office was surrendered to Napoleon in the late 1800s.
Towering the piazza is the Campanile or belltower. Also an ornate clock called the Torre dell’Orologia. This clock shows both the time and the zodiac symbol. On the top are two large, dark metal figures (The Moors) who ring the hour with their hammers.
From the side of piazza is a large port for boat traffic and two massive columns, one topped with the Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of Venice. The other topped with St. Teodoro (Theodore), the original saint of Venice. The winged lion is everywhere, flags, clocks, buildings.
The other overwhelming thing about San Marco Piazza is the pigeons. They are everywhere and possibly the best fed pigeons in the world. You can buy tiny bags of corn for 1Euro from venders. And if you start feeding them, beware. They have no fear of people at all. They will cover your arms, your shoulders and even sit on your head. Has no one heard of avian flu?
I walked about for two straight hours in continuously larger circles, making sure I could find my way back to the hotel. Frankly I was lost most of the time. It was the heat of the day and I found myself exhausted. I wandered back to my hotel room (camera) for a shower and a one and a half hour nap. I could hear from my open window a guitar player who’s music colored my dreams. It turned out to be just like this every day I was there. An afternoon nap with dreams both sweet and strange. Boats. The ribbons from the straw hats of the gondola drivers. A king wearing a Doge’s cap and spouting wise words. The naps were among the most wonderful and strange I’ve ever experienced and I’d give a fortune to bottle them for later use. Sleeping at night, however, was only possible because I travel with earplugs against the thin hotel walls.
My days were mostly walking around and taking tours. One afternoon I ducked into a gallery (the columned but open front to most major buildings) to get away from a brief rain shower. The woman I shared a bench with was sketching in watercolor. She used only the color blue and recreated the columns and vaulted ceiling. She showed so much with just the flick of a brush. There is so much lovely art everywhere. A walk inside the basilica is breathtaking. It houses separate museums with painting, gold and mosaics. Many of these treasures were stolen in the middle ages during the “crusades”, clearly a polite Christian term for looting and plundering. And the most celebrated stolen treasure is the bones of the basilicas namesake: St. Mark smuggled out of Constantinople under a pile of pork, a meat Muslims will not touch. And the reason we know this is because the theft is documented on the mosaics across the front of the church. Celebrating thievery. How Christian. Of course the bones were lost in one of the church’s fires, but they “miraculously” reappeared when the current church was re-dedicated. Of course no one is allowed to see them. “Faith’s a fine invention/when gentleman can see….”
One day I got in line for what I thought was an audio tour of the piazza. It turned out to be the line taking the elevator to the top of the Campanile. Even with the 15 Euro cost, I still went up. The views are breathtaking.
The trip to Venice was not my usual budget travel, for many reasons. Not only is the exchange rate very unfavorable at the moment (1 Euro = about 1.27 US Dollars) but Venice is a tourist destination, which always raises the rates. In addition, transporting anything to Venice usually has three costs: The train or truck, the boat to get it to the island and then everything is hand carried or carted to its final destination. Something else unique about costs in all of Italy: a sit down meal. Most restaurants in Italy have a price for take out or standing up at the counter. This is the price in the menu. But you can expect an additional service charge, 15-30% to sit down. If you don’t know this, the bill can be quite a surprise.
My last day was abbreviated. I flew out of Marco Polo airport at 7am, so I had to leave for the airport in a water taxis at 4:30am, the most expensive way possible since at that hour there is no public transportation. It cost 90 Euro, but my driver, Fabio, was right on time. I could have killed my boss for the early flight arrangements. As we motored away, I turned and looked at Venice over the water. There was a full moon and a few lights flickering on the water. It was a nice goodbye to a city I may never see again.