Monday, July 9, 2008

This morning, I am slowly making my way through the streets of San Polo, across the Rialto Bridge, heading north to a long expanse of shore known as Fondamenta Nuove. For the past two days, I have traveled mainly along narrow canals and alleyways. Even at its widest point, the Grand Canal is no more than the length of a football field, and in most places along the Vaporetto’s route, it is far less. It feels good to be out in the open air.

From here I can easily see the island of San Michele and its walled cemetery, but today’s destinations are the three lagoon islands that lie further out to sea — Murano, Burano, and Torcello. The first is best known for glass-making, the second for lace, and (I suspect) the third and furthest away for being seldom visited by tourists.

I board a No. 41 ferry to Murano and fall into conversation with an elderly Brit on the way out. It’s a short ride, less than fifteen minutes, and on his helpful advice I disembark at the Museo stop, the fourth of seven in the boat’s loop around the island before returning to the city.

I take a quick stock of my surroundings and come to the conclusion that Murano looks much like a smaller and simplified version of Venice, with its own arched bridges and Grand Canal.

I walk along the quay past the glass museum, intending my first stop to be the Basilica of Santi Maria e Donato, but stop to admire a mammoth sculpture in the adjacent square, an abacus with hollow beads of marbleized glass. It’s mid-morning on a Monday, and when I enter the church itself, the space is dark, quiet, and cool. Built between the 7th and 12th centuries AD, the architecture is part Byzantine, part Romanesque. The apse shows the “Madonna at Prayer,” surrounded by gold, but for me the highlight is the finely cut floor, a mosaic of richly colored marble tiles that form interlocking geometric patterns, winged beasts, and other fantastical creatures.

I cross the bridge to the far side of the canal and browse the shops along Fondamenta Andrea Navagero. No trip to Murano is complete without a visit to a glass factory, so I pick one at random and drop by for a free tour. In the heat of the furnace, the craftsmen work quickly and deftly with molten glass that is roughly the texture of salt water taffy, shaping it eventually into an opaque pink sconce. I’ve enjoyed watching and I’m careful to leave a tip in the basket before I go, but I’m less pleased by the unrelenting salesman who follows me afterwards into the showroom. He turns the subtle art of browsing into an uncomfortable, high stakes game of cat-and-mouse. I manage to shake him off only by stepping back outside.

For a while longer I wander the streets, down to the lighthouse, then up Fondamente Venier where I pick a small bar for lunch and eat a panini among the locals.

I need to pace the day well, so by 1:30 I’m on a Laguna Nord (LN) ferry en route to Burano. It’s a beautiful day, clear and warm. I don’t feel much like spending the afternoon indoors, so once there I bypass the “Museum and School of Lacemaking” in favor of a long, slow turn through the island’s fishing village. The main shopping district is overflowing with cheap quality imports, with Venetian masks and machine made lace that defy that island’s history and traditions. And when I see the canal that runs down the center, perfectly framed by flagstone sidewalks on either side, the entire setting reminds me of a well-tended theme park.

The streets that lay beyond are a riot of color, lined with simple houses painted in improbable shades of blue, orange, green, purple, and red. Flower pots rest on window ledges, laundry hangs to dry, and nearly every front door stands ajar, covered only with a striped curtain that catches the breeze, as a sail might on a boat.

Still, as I roam, I can’t help but notice that there are no people at work, or children at play. Those I meet on the streets look as I do because they carry the same cameras, the same maps. At midday, hundreds of boats are unemployed, moored along canals and covered by tarps. An overturned tricycle and kicked-off shoes give indications of life, but it’s no where to be seen.

I’ve been told that Monday is wash day in Burano. But then again, everyday seems to be wash day in Italy. I’m beginning to think that it’s all a bit of a scam — that the Italians are fluffing their clothes in big electric dryers, and that they hang a few well worn and color-coordinated items outside on clotheslines to satisfy the tourist trade. If there is one thing a tourist can’t resist, it’s a picture of an Italian street with a bicycle leaning against a doorway, or laundry hanging out the window. For entertainment on Burano, I have a sneaking suspicion that they watch us descend upon their village with cameras slung around our necks and they roll their eyes and laugh, hoping we’ll eat and buy some trinket in town when we’re done admiring their underwear.

In the end, I wonder if authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. Here on Burano every bend in the road follows a canal that leads to the sea. Every turn introduces an artistic composition of light, color, and texture. It exists, but is it real? How much is genuine, how much manufactured? Does it even matter when the end result is so captivating?

I consider this as I make my way back to the pier, and as I go I start to notice the quiet noise of a TV set through an open window, and the muffled sound of voices within. I think the real Burano is hidden, lying in wait for the day trippers and their prying eyes to go home for the night.

It’s late afternoon by the time I arrive on Torcello, and the short jump to get here on the “Linea T” ferry belies a striking difference in landscape. There is a brick walkway that leads away from the dock, but much of the island seems to consist of open fields and undisturbed wetlands. I follow the path to a cluster of old buildings that includes two magnificent churches side-by-side — Santa Fosca, which is low and round, and the more conventional Santa Maria Assunta, with its solitary bell tower. Both are primitive, peaceful and calm, far removed from the opulence of Venice and its madding crowd.

I’m back in the city in time for dinner. I had planned on stopping at “Osteria da Alberto,” a favorite with fishermen and foodies alike. My map tells me that it’s close to Fondamenta Nuove, but even with the address at hand it costs me thirty minutes of frustration to find the place, and when I do I’m not eager to try dried cod or squid boiled in its own ink. This, I suppose, is the downside of authenticity. I decide to press on, feeling tired and a bit desperate.

In the ancient world, it was said that all roads would lead to Rome. Here in Venice, all roads lead to St. Mark’s Square, eventually. And so it goes.

At this point in my travels, I am reluctant to admit the truth, which is that while I’m not ready to embrace the unusual, I am growing tired of the monotony of Italian cuisine. I would gladly give the remaining Euros in my wallet for a decent meal of Chinese food, or Thai, or Indian. But go anywhere in the vicinity of St. Mark’s Square and the choices are slim.

I do some comparison shopping and weigh my options. I can pay either 20 Euros for a plate of spaghetti alla carbonara, or 11 Euros. But it’s still spaghetti alla carbonara. Figuring that I may as well pay less, and gain a view, I settle for dinner at “Pizzeria Ristorante ai Falciani,” next to the basilica. The food is on par with Angelo’s — which is to say, mediocre — yet instead of arbitrating a romantic dispute, I’ve somehow ended up as a captive audience to darker drama. There is a seagull intent on murdering a pigeon. I do my best not to look, but a mother and daughter dining nearby are keeping up a loud and running commentary.

Two nights ago, I watched a small band of protestors fight for the rights of pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. Their banners are tied still to the railing at the base of the winged lion. In Italian, German, French and English it says: “The pigeons in Venice do not have to starve.” Apparently, the same is true for seagulls.

Determined to end the night on a happier note, I walk to the Rialto Bridge and set up my tripod on a dock downstream, one that extends out into the canal for an unobstructed view. It is a quintessential scene. From here, I watch a steady stream of gondolas pass, each bathed in the inky blue of night.

Many believe that Venice will disappear someday, that it will sink into the sea or succumb to rising waters. Others believe that the threat is more immediate. After all, expanding tourism is both a blessing and a curse. It creates a vibrant local economy, but one that is difficult for ordinary Venetians to afford. The exorbitant cost of housing and the necessity of constant repair are driving people away, back to the mainland. Without its residents, what would Venice become — a ghost town, or even worse, a theme park?

As I’ve done all day, I ponder the meaning of authenticity. Surely it’s constructed of language, culture, and skill, of glass-making and of lace.  But what about smaller pieces of history and tradition? I think about the gondoliers in their striped shirts and straw boaters, and about the pigeons that roam St. Mark’s Square in defiance of their enemies, both natural and man-made.

In the Venice of the future, can’t there be room for us all?

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