Tuesday, September 11, 2007

watery urbanity

My pint-sized room in Venice was so narrow that I could stand in the middle and press the first full joint of each middle finger on opposite walls. It had a little wobbly table that threatened to collapse under the weight of my laptop, and a window that looked directly onto the Grand Canal, so I could glance over and watch the boats go by while writing. Classy!

They also served breakfast in my room each morning, with a variety of things to put on bread:

Things to spread on bread that is not peanut butter is big over here. In the Roman convent, breakfast, other than a pot of coffee and a pot of hot milk, was one gigantic crusty roll, and a plate full of single servings of every sort of berry/fruit jam in existence. Given a choice, I always go for cheese and Nutella (not together), but blobs of butter and jam are nice, too.

After the brain-cramping Renaissance art and culture glut of Florence, I didn't feel a deep need to take in any museums there. Venice's charm is Venice itself. It's a grand city, full of stately buildings and palazzos which boast a distinctive style of east meets west. Sadly, its splendor is slowly rotting away, succumbing to gravity and water. It's not immediately evident if you're admiring the palaces along the Grand Canal, or caught up in the busy streets of the Rialto or St. Mark's Square, but if you take the time to walk the back streets and bridges, the decay is evident.

Entire buildings seem to be crumbling, showing layers of the facade falling off in stages, windows shuttered, first floors under water, and to all appearances abandoned. You can walk the back streets and see virtually no one, passing through squares and courtyards populated only by pigeons and water wells that are no longer used. From a few bridges away, towers lean at unnerving angles. They always seemed to straighten up when I pointed my camera at them, but I finally got one to behave.

But appearances can be deceiving, and while I was staring at the upper floors of one building through the open shutters, convinced that no one could possibly live there, I realized a family was having lunch on one of the lower floors. Just for kicks, I stopped to look at some property prices in the window of a realtor. Cheaper than the Bay Area. Hmm.

There's less traffic than the Bay Area as well, since Venice obviously has no cars, and the only bicycles I saw were being ridden by children. The back streets are a maze of winding alleys that lead to one of the hundreds of bridges that link the city together, or just dead-end into a canal. Since boats need to pass underneath the bridges, they almost always arch, and involve stairs. Everything delivered to shops must be carried or hand-carted in from the boats, and sweaty guys calling "attenzione" are wheeling handtrucks everywhere, with no patience for tourists who are standing stock still in the middle of the streets, having no clue that they are just in the way of business as usual. Everything the terra firma world has trucks for, Venice has boats for. I spied both a garbage barge and a cement mixing barge while strolling around. For everyone accustomed to the standard solid ground that the rest of the world offers, Venice's canals are both beyond-words weird, and strangely normal at the same time.

I got to Venice in the early evening via train from Florence. The first thing I did was seek out St. Mark's Square. Of course that's where the Basilica is, but I went there for another reason - I wanted to get a coffee at Florian's.

Florian's is one of the world's famous cafés, and has the prices to prove it. I paid 4 euro for a cappuccino (at the bar), and it was yummy and worth every cent. Plus I got a little chocolate covered coffee bean. Afterwards I sat in the plaza, and listening to orchestras at Florian's and Quadri's across the square trading tunes. It rained a little bit, but not enough to keep anything wet for long, and felt nice. You wouldn't know from me vacationing in Italy in August, but I love rain and cold weather. Cold weather lends itself to better fashion.

I revisited St. Mark's Square in the subsequent days during daylight hours to see the Basilica, Campanile, and however many thousands of pigeons infest the square before night falls. The Basilica is distinctly Byzantine-flavored, its squatter stature and multiple, heavily-ornamented, sort-of-oniony domes tinged with more eastern qualities than the soaring cathedral vaults I've seen so far. The ceiling is mosaicked, and any space not covered in figures or words is covered in gold tiles. Photos are not allowed inside. I initially steeled myself to stand in yet another line to enter, but doing the requested thing and checking my day bag allowed me to skip it - the guy who handed me my claim ticket told me to stay to the left and avoid the queue. Only by the grace of Saint Mark did I not get pooped on by a pigeon while criss-crossing the square. Or maybe just karmic balance, since I got nailed by one in Vancouver earlier this year.

I ascended the Campanile (via elevator this time, not steps), for a bird's eye view of Venice, but passed on the chance to call home from the multiple telephone booths on the viewing platform. I was hoping to get a view of the canals, but it isn't quite high enough to allow that. Since St. Mark's Square is one of the first areas to flood when the sea level rises, there is a sea-level gauge on the side of the Campanile. There was thankfully no flooding during my time there - I didn't bring any wellingtons - but there was one extended downpour on my final afternoon that must have raised the water level at least a half an inch. Fortunately, I was right next to a free exhibition of the Biennale contemporary art expo when the sky broke open. Shelter and art at the same time.

Venice has quite a lot of good shopping options, and the streets around St. Mark's are filled with shops with rather nice things. The main shopping district is the famous Rialto, but those shops are mostly filled with tacky things, as well as being so jammed packed with tourists that navigating the streets was somewhat slow and laborious. On my first night's perambulations, I came across a glove store that had what I can only describe as highly overpriced bicycle gloves; when else does one wear crochet-back gloves? I tried to find the shop again during daylight hours to try them on, but our paths never crossed again. They would have looked right smart with that pennyfarthing from Florence.

Since I'm traveling light out of a rucksack, I'm not really in the market for anything, but I can't help but stop to admire well-tailored shirts. Like casting a glamour, a fitted white shirt can make almost anyone look presentable. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most impractical items of clothing anyone can wear, unless you're on a strict milk or coconut snowball diet. I did come across a superb pair of shoes and had the shop been open, would have freely parted with piles of cash for a custom pair. Sadly, the shopkeep was on holiday until September. I may need to go back to Venice. I'm writing this several days later, I'm still thinking about them.

I also found this cool bookshop with a gondola inside, and a back door that opened up right into a canal. I only browsed the shelves (and gondola) the first time I visited, but when I went back the next day to get a postcard, the proprietor made a point of telling me to go see the back door.

The soundtrack of my youth was Gilbert and Sullivan, so at some point in my childhood I probably wanted to be a gondolier; likely after I wanted to be a long-haul trucker. I do like stripey shirts, and not enough people these days wear hats. Of course, I wasn't going to fork out for a gondola ride, although I would have paid good money to steer one down the Grand Canal. Obviously none of the gondoliers were going to let me do this, so I instead just spend some time studying them, since they have a number of intriguing details. They are build asymmetrically, presumably to allow them to cut a straight line while being oared only on one side. You won't notice this until you see them from above, which you can easily do by standing on any bridge close to the center of town.

All are black, but can have spruced up interiors. I also like the oarlocks; I think they have another official name, but I'm not sure what it is. Many are plain, but lots have carvings, and I found one that had the initials of its maker on it. I came across a shop that made them, and had a big block of wood with the pattern marked out in pencil, but no one was around to pepper with questions. Or else they were all in the back working. It's kind of remarkable what kind of handling the gondolas have. Many of the canals are quite narrow, with boat traffic in both directions, yet the gondoliers could angle their boats out of the way with just a few subtle oar movements. I'm not sure exactly how long a gondola is, but it's got to be close to, if not over, 30 feet.

I liked taking breaks in squares next to canals that were heavily trafficked by gondolas, since a gondola carrying an accordionist and singer would occasionally slide by, offering a few moments of free entertainment. Or, expensive entertainment that someone else was paying for. However, not wanting to miss out on experiencing the Grand Canal almost at water level, I took a couple of rides on the traghetti, which are gondola taxis that ferry people from one side of the canal to the other. It takes at the most about two minutes to cross, and costs .50 cents. Cheaper thrills are rarely found. And since I'm such a landlubber in real life, I got a few extra thrills, since even a ride that short gave me a minor case of sea legs on the opposite shore.

Venice at first pushed my navigational skills, and on my first night there I lost my bearings within a very small patch of ground, finding one restaurant twice without intending to, and walking across the same bridges multiple times. The next day I wised up, and remembering what Ling told me, started paying attention to the directional signs to the major business centers.

Knowing what to look for, getting lost in the city is actually fairly difficult, since it's too small to get very far off track. Sooner or later you'll just stumble across something familiar, and be back in familiar territory. On my second evening I took a water bus to the burb of St. Elena, and had dinner at a restaurant there because I thought I was way out of the city center. As soon as I started walking back, I realized I had come quite close the previous evening, walking down along the lagoon from St. Mark's. I had turned back because I couldn't tell if it was going to start raining harder than it had been.

The conductors on the water buses are fun to watch. At each stop, they need to moor the boat to the dock, and wear heavy gloves to handle the ropes. It happens so fast you almost don't see it.

To really get a feel for Venice, and not just see it, one would really need to spend some weeks there. I'd love to go back, and should I get the opportunity, would try to get my hands on a little rowboat to explore the canals; seemed kind of a shame to see the city with streets of water on foot. I also have a feeling that lot of the best bits and secret charm can be seen only at canal level, and in places where you can't walk without getting all wet. What I would give to have been here a few centuries ago. That would have been a truly grand time.

Today is September 11th, and I've been on the move for one month now. Happy birthday, Dad. I'm posting this from Rhodes, Greece.

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