Tuesday, June 10, 2008

This is my last day in Venice and my last breakfast in this lovely courtyard. Tomorrow I’m leaving early for home. The day will be given over to a series of small, logistical decisions. What time should I leave the hotel? How long will it take to get to Piazzale Roma? Where do I catch the express bus to the airport? Will my flight be on time?

For now, I would rather think of other things. I make a mental list. I haven’t seen the interior of St. Mark’s Basilica, or the Frari Church, or the view from San Giorgio Maggiore. I haven’t been on gondola ride, or tasted a Bellini, and for that matter, I haven’t had a decent meal. I have one final day to put things to right, to leave nothing undone.

The basilica comes first, but I’m torn between taking the Vaporetto down the Grand Canal or walking to St. Mark’s Square. I decide to go on foot, in part because I like watching Venetians go about their morning business, unlocking store fronts, or delivering crates of olive oil and oranges up and over bridges. It’s also because I never manage to go the same way twice, and I appreciate the element of surprise. The signs that read “Per Rialto” and “Per San Marco” are helpful to a degree, but often they point in two directions at once, creating endless combinations. Right, left, right. Left, left, right.

On one of my tramps through Venice I found a rare internet café, on another the perfect pattiserie. Each time, I resolved to return later, only to discover that they had disappeared into the mist like Brigadoon. I’m just not good at finding things, so I’ve resolved to discover them instead. The lack of intention makes all the difference in the world. It allows frustration to give way to serendipity.

So, on this particular morning, I enjoy a changing rotation of colorful storefront windows —exotic spices stacked into powdered pyramids, papier-mâché masks formed into the fanciful faces of cats, hedgehogs and owls, tiny fish suspended in blown glass aquariums of every size and shape, even a row of faces sculpted and baked out of pizza dough. I wonder what more there is to see, and I’m half tempted to spend the day finding out.

For several days now, I’ve passed the signs outside of St. Mark’s Basilica. There are a lot of No’s associated with entry, including no photography and no luggage. Concerned about their definition of the latter, in addition to the oppressive length of the line to get in, I decide to put one of Rick Steves’ favorite travel tips to the test. There is a free baggage check at the church of Ateneo di San Basso around the corner, and I stop there first to drop off my camera case. I’m skeptical that this will work, but when I show the tag to the guard by the exit, he immediately waves me through into the church. No line, no wait… unbelievable!

Actually, once inside I think that I should have reserved that word for the basilica itself. Some elements seem familiar, only enlarged and perfected. The gold mosaics overhead that begin in the atrium and spill out over every archway and dome remind me of the baptistery in Florence, while the intricate patterns underfoot are reminiscent of church floors on the islands of Murano and Torcello.

Admission to the basilica itself is free, but small charges for the chancel, treasury and loggia open doors to other wonders — the Pala d’Oro, a gold altarpiece constructed of enamel icons and encrusted with gemstones; an odd and extensive collection of chalices and reliquaries containing the blood and bones of saints; and the gilded horses of St. Mark, the prize of so many lootings over the centuries. In ancient times, some believe that the animals graced the Arch of Trajan. They are known to have been on display at the Hippodrome in Constantinople when they were taken by a Doge of Venice during the crusades. In 1797, they were stolen by Napoleon and removed to Paris to be placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel near the Louvre, but they were returned to Venice following the emperor’s exile in 1815. In the 20th century, they were hidden twice to escape the perils of war, first in Rome, then in Padua. Today, it is the threat of pollution that has driven them indoors permanently, replaced on the façade by a quartet of bronze replicas.

My visit has been a joy, absorbing most of the morning. After leaving the basilica, I glance toward the basin and see a mammoth naval warship anchored between shore and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. It’s the L-9893 San Marco, a transport for the Italian marines. I’m not sure how likely it is to block the view from the campanile, so I decide to lie in wait. Instead of heading across on the ferry, I take a long stroll through the neighborhood to the east, down to the armory and back, before stopping for lunch at “Pizzeria Ristorante Ai Leoncini.” With my energy restored by a fresh chicken salad and the San Marco unmoved, I hop the Vaporetto back to San Tomà and walk to the austere Franciscan church of Santa Maria Gloriosa del Frari to see the tomb of Titian and several of his most beloved works, including “The Assumption of Mary,” behind the altar.

By the time I return to St. Mark’s Square it’s nearly 4:00 PM. That blasted transport is still stubbornly moored off-shore, but without the time or patience to wait longer, I head across the channel by boat.

The church of San Giorgio Maggiore is simple and elegant, designed by the 16th century architect Andrea Palladio, whose style later inspired Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. The interior artwork by Tintoretto and others is impressive, but my main purpose for coming is to savor the view from the campanile. After a short and solitary elevator ride, I reach a space far removed from the congested crowds. From my perch I can gaze in all directions, west past the one-armed statue on top of the cupola, over the monastery gardens, and out along the island of La Giudecca, or north to the city itself, where I see the face of Roger Federer on a Rolex ad peering out from behind the deck of the San Marco.

It’s a great view nevertheless. I hold no grudges against the Italian navy. Indeed, I hope that perhaps its crew is in port for a well-earned holiday. Before heading down from the bell tower, however, I make myself a solemn promise that should I ever grow rich, I will never, ever, buy a Rolex. And at Wimbledon this year, I might just find myself rooting for Rafael Nadal.

So far, it’s been a good day for tying up loose ends, and I’m about to tackle another. I’ve dithered on the gondola question for four days now. It’s hard to imagine leaving Venice without a going on a gondola ride, but it’s been difficult to commit to it as a solo traveler, knowing that the system works on fixed fees. To go on my own will cost the same eighty Euros as a group of six. My brain knows that it’s a steep price to pay for a half hour tour, but on my last night in Italy the regret of not going looms larger.

With that basic question settled, the next is one of location. There are gondola stations all over Venice, including here near St. Mark’s Square. But I have somewhere else in mind, if only I can find it. I want to revisit that scene on the bridge, the one where the children leaned out of the window of “Trattoria Sempione” and yelled Ciao! to the gondolas passing by. That’s where I want to go, and in something approaching a miracle, I actually find it again by looking along the road between San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.

The business arrangements are handled neatly. I confirm the price and discuss the general route before paying in cash, then one of the gondoliers kindly offers to take some pictures with my camera. The gondola itself is sleek and black, lined with red damask cushions trimmed in gold fringe. I lean far back, arms spread wide, and strike a pose intended to conform my comfort in opulent surroundings.

Within minutes, we’re on our way, Fabio and I, in a boat named Sabrina. I wonder at first if Fabio is a pseudonym, something cheesy and romantic chosen for the benefit of female passengers, but my gondolier in his red and white shirt seems too earnest and hard-working for such a trick. When I turn around and ask for permission to take his picture, he reaches for his straw hat to complete the effect.

The journey itself is better than I imagined. We pass through several small channels before reaching the Grand Canal, where we merge into the late-day traffic long enough to pass under the Rialto Bridge. From the water, the city looks different somehow, and the gentle rocking of the boat to the movement of the oar is calming. I may not aspire to great wealth in order to buy a Rolex, but to afford a gondola with my own private gondolier would be a perfectly wonderful thing.

By 7:30 PM I’m back in the San Polo neighborhood, just around the corner from my hotel. I have a long-standing dinner reservation at “La Zucca,” a tiny osteria at the foot of the Ponte del Megio. I’m disappointed to be seated in the back room, rather than at one of the canal-side tables out front, but fall into easy conversation with fellow travelers. To my right are Lynn and Alan, a gregarious couple from Bristol, England, and to my left, a pair of young Americans who have just arrived from Germany. In the end, we share around my copy of Eating and Drinking in Italy, compare notes on translation, and admire one another’s plates. I’ve picked a chicken piccata with rice for my main course, but the true standout is the “Flan di zucca,” a creamy pumpkin soufflé with aged ricotta cheese. At long last, I have eaten a good meal in Venice. It feels like a genuine accomplishment, something achieved through will and perseverence.

I decide to end the night at “Caffé Lavena,” sipping a Bellini under the stars in St. Mark’s Square. The accordion player reminds me of an enthusiastic game show host from the 1970s, perhaps Wink Martindale. The orchestra is in top form, and he is playing to the crowd, pleading for even louder cheers.

The waiter has served my Bellini on a silver tray with an unsolicited bowl of salty potato chips. It’s a nice touch, but with an obvious intent. At fourteen Euros for the cocktail and nearly six in cover charge for the music, I can’t afford to quench my thirst with a second drink. I push it gently away to avoid temptation.

For an hour or more I sit and listen, waiting I think for the orchestra to play “Con te Partiro,” as they did on my first night in Venice. This time it really is time to say goodbye, and not just to this beautiful city of canals, but to all of Italy — to Piazza Navona and the Sistine Chapel, to the Ponte Vecchio and San Miniato al Monte, to leaning towers and medieval walls, brick piazzas and soaring bell towers.

As I sit, I think, too, about how travel is filled with unexpected moments and fascinating characters, chance encounters with people you wish you could get to know better — Maurizio, Fabrizio, and Father Rocco, Mario the crazy cab driver, Fabio the gondolier, the mischievous nuns at the Borghese Gallery, the impromptu teenage choir in Florence, the bickering couple from the Middle East in Venice, the children yelling “Ciao” from a restaurant window. I lift my drink and toast them all.

Then, without waiting longer for a sign of farewell, I stand up and make my way back to the hotel in the dark. My thoughts are already turning to next year. I wonder where I’ll go?

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