Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I wish I hadn’t said anything.

When I turned in last night I noticed a hole in my bed sheet. OK, so it was worse than that. There was a small and deliberate hole cut out of the middle, about one inch square, but also a huge chunk hacked out of the side. It’s worn and frayed at the edges, so it must have been laundered that way at least several times and still reused.

This morning I decide to take it downstairs to bring it to the attention of the front desk, where I know they speak English well. The clerk is appalled and he immediately calls for the head of housekeeping who, when she sees it, slaps a hand to her mouth and cries “Mamma Mia!” Soon, I’m told that the maid who serviced my room has been summoned to account for her mistake and she’s in tears.

I feel just terrible. I’m not in the least angry about the situation. I just want to make sure that the offending sheet is taken out of circulation, but the hotel insists on taking 50% off the bill for my last night’s stay, apologizing profusely. It’s a kind gesture and I leave feeling warm toward the staff at the Hotel Berna. I just hope the maid is all right.

I walk the short distance to Centrale station in Milan and wait for the 9:35 AM Eurostar train to Venice. This is the last leg of my journey; from there I’ll fly home. In truth, I’m growing weary at this point in my travels, but I’m also loath to see it end.

When I arrive at Santa Lucia station at noon, it’s pouring down rain—which after so many days of fine weather was bound to happen sooner or later. To save a few Euros for arriving mid-week, I booked a 72-hour Venice Connected transport pass online and now I have to pick it up. With my printed confirmation in hand, the instructions say to look for “the ferry embarkation point to the left of the station.” Unfortunately, I take that to mean to the left of the station as I depart down the steps. By the time I correct the error and walk back and to the right, I’m soaking wet and so is my luggage.

As I wait for the vaporetto that will take me to San Stae, I think about the contrast between this arrival in Venice and my last. On my first visit in 2008, I likened the experience to a C.S. Lewis novel. It was as if I had walked through a wardrobe and found the world of Narnia on the other side, and it made my heart leap with excitement. Today, I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed. There’s no time to stand in awe at the Grand Canal. It’s all I can do to manage my luggage and camera case and umbrella in the rain.

Still, the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo is as welcoming as I remembered, and like in Florence I’m ushered to the very same room I inhabited two years before. It’s comforting to mingle the fond memories I have of that trip with those I’m currently making. I change shoes and do the best I can to prepare for the weather by sliding a plastic sleeve over my camera, and then head out into the torrent.

I decide to walk toward St. Mark’s Square, and along the way stop at Cicchetteria Da Jorghe for lunch. They serve what the waiter calls a “special toast” and it’s delicious—an open faced sandwich with tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, and basil, along with a variety of less identifiable but equally savory ingredients. I feel better having something warm in my stomach.

When I reach the square, it too is a different kind of experience this time around. On my first trip, the weather was glorious for four days straight, so to see Venice in the rain is to embrace a different Venice, and it has a casual charm of its own. After all, this is a city for which flooding is not an annoyance, or even an inconvenience, but a mere fact of life, and because of that it seems more real and less like a theme park for tourists.

I take shelter under the long arcade in St. Mark’s Square and circle around window shopping. At Pauly & Co. the art glass is a thing of absolute wonder. There is large fish, a centipede, and a series of balloon animals that would surely pass for the real thing. I’d be tempted to take one home if the price tags didn’t run into thousands of Euros, but they do. And that’s just that beginning. There’s a green fedora for €7,500, and a folded shirt, complete with buttons, for €8,100. They’ve even made what would appear to be Cinderella’s glass slipper, and at nearly €11,000 I would need to marry Prince Charming to be able to afford it.

When the rain slows, I venture west toward the Accademia bridge and the art museum on the far side. It’s a steaming mass of humanity on a day like this, and I should have known better. Crowds are seeking shelter from the storm, and the air inside is thick and humid. I follow behind a woman with a blue guidebook in her hand. She has three children in tow—one a surly teenager, the other two much younger. We are standing in a room filled with Renaissance art and she spins them around searching only for the pieces Rick Steves recommends. There are so many Madonnas and Bambinos to choose from, and she insists on finding the one by Giovanni Bellini. It’s like playing a game of Where’s Waldo, only more challenging and less fun. I glance over at the kids and feel sure they’d agree. I could use a Bellini myself right about now, but the one I have in mind is more liquid in form.

Wanting fresh air, I take a short walk toward the church of Santa Maria della Salute, whose dome is, at long last, free of scaffolding. It’s nearly 6:00 PM and the rain seems to have come to a reluctant end. There is a classical guitarist playing nearby and I catch snatches of music as I wander in and out of shops in search of Murano glass jewelry.

For dinner, I already have plans in mind. A colleague from work recently returned from Venice and he’s recommended a pizzeria called Al Nono. I looked up the restaurant before leaving home and have a computer printout from Google Maps to guide me, but this is Venice, after all. There is nothing as precise as a street address because there aren’t any real streets. Instead, there is a number associated with a particular neighborhood, or sestiere. The one I’m looking for is Santa Croce 2338. Google Maps places it just to the west of Ca’ Foscari, and if I can find Campo Santa Margherita, it’s not far from there.

Finding the campo is easy enough because it’s unusually large, but Al Nono is no where to be found. A young couple sees me squinting at a map and stops to ask for help. They’ve checked into a hostel for the night, but went out exploring and now they can’t find it again. The best that I can do is to show them where we’re standing, but that basic logistical fact is of little help because they don’t know where they’re going, and quite frankly neither do I. I wish them well, they shrug with a cheerful resignation, and I continue my hunt for number 2338.

Eventually, I can feel myself getting warmer. I’m into the 2000s and then the 2300s, but that exact number simply doesn’t exist. Frustrated, I decide to give up and zigzag back to the hotel.

At the front desk of the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo, I ask the clerk if he’s ever, by chance, heard of a pizzeria called Al Nono. “Of course,” he says, “it’s just around the corner.” Incredulous, I ask him if he’s kidding and he says no, it’s literally three turns away. He pulls out a map and a pen and shows me. One. Two. Three.

So much for Google Maps. Go figure.

Perhaps it’s because of the damp weather, or perhaps it because of the epic quest that brought me here, but Al Nono fails to live up to expectations. It’s a cozy place with a lively clientele made up mostly of locals, but the food is middling. I order a pizza with prosciutto, pepperoni, and mushrooms, but find that the tomato sauce is bland and the mushrooms rather soggy.

When I leave the restaurant I look overhead and see that the sky is continuing to improve. The night is still young, so I wind my way back to St. Mark’s Square to hear the orchestras play. Lavena’s is midway through “Skoda Lasky” when I arrive. It’s a Polish tune that we’re more likely to recognize as the “Beer Barrel Polka,” and before long all that I have ever known and loved about Venice has come rushing back, and I find myself tapping my toe in time to the music.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

This morning when I open the heavy wood shutters in my room and look down on Via Porta Rossa, I can see scattered drops of rain making puddles in the street. I decide that this matters little since I plan to spend the bulk of the day in museums anyway.

After a hearty continental breakfast, I head off past the colorful leather belts and bags of the Mercato Nuovo to the Uffizi Gallery. The line at this hour is short, but I’m relieved nevertheless to have a reserved entry at 9:00 AM. I barely have time to distinguish the living statues on the street from the real ones in the niches along the square when I’m ushered into the museum.

There are four long flights of stairs to be conquered before reaching the U-shaped gallery, and as I climb, I fish my iPod out of my pocket to queue up another of Rick Steves’ Italy audio tours. By now, his corny sense of humor and persistent puns are wearing thin. After all, this is a man who in jest refers to Botticelli’s masterpiece, “The Birth of Venus,” as Venus on the half shell. But the quality of the actual commentary is quite good and as I see it, every Euro I save on official guides can be put to better use buying gelato.

When, halfway through, he quotes a poem by Michelangelo that says “souls will never ascend to heaven until the sight of beauty lifts them there,” all is forgiven. From now on, Rick can crack as many clichéd jokes as he likes. That line alone is inspiration enough. Here in the Uffizi on a Tuesday morning in June, surrounded by some of the world’s finest art, I feel about as close to heaven as I have ever been.

After buying a variety of souvenirs from the museum gift shop, I decide to drop the bag off at my hotel and stop for a quick lunch at “Caffé le Logge” along the way. From an array of freshly prepared sandwiches in the glass case, I select one with prosciutto and porcini mushrooms on focaccia bread and throw in an apple tart for good measure. As I sit inside at a small round table and eat, I watch a pair of elderly (and apparently very frugal) American ladies share a panini and cappuccino between them. When it comes time to pay the bill — which amounts to little more than five Euros — they raise their voices in protest. The price, they say, is not as advertised. In their minds, they have been cheated and they are determined to let everyone in this small shop know it.

I understand what they do not, that meals eaten sitting down, as opposed to standing at the bar, come with a small service charge, or coperto, attached. But given the vehemence of their complaint, I would rather not intervene to explain this. Coward that I am, I hang my head and pretend not to hear.

When I walk to the cashier minutes later to settle my own bill, it’s less than I expected. The manager, I think, is trying to avoid another scene. I’d like to tell him that it’s OK, that I enjoyed my meal and would like to pay for the seat I used, but he doesn’t speak English and I am at a loss in Italian. I drop a few extra coins on the table instead before I leave.

Outside it’s still spitting rain. I have a 4:00 PM reservation at the Accademia, but with several hours to spare and the Bargello museum already closed for the day, I hoist my umbrella over my head and walk to the Basilica of Santa Croce instead.

I know that much of the church’s interior is under restoration, but even so I’m unprepared for the sight of so much scaffolding. It covers nearly the entire East end of the church, including the altar and apse. At least the most notable tombs lining the nave are unobstructed by construction. I pause in front of monuments to Galileo Galilei, the mathematician and astronomer, and Niccolò Machiavelli, author of a famously shrewd treatise on power known as The Prince. But my real interest in visiting Santa Croce is to pay homage to the bones of Michelangelo Buonarroti — sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. His tomb is a beautiful fusion of all these disciplines, with a fresco above and allegorical figures below.

From here, I explore the small side chapels that flank each side of the apse, stopping first in the Bardi to admire a 13th century altarpiece depicting scenes from the life St. Francis, but longest in the Cappella Castellani to marvel at its detailed frescoes. By the time I reach the sacristy with its ancient ceiling of exposed wood beams, I’ve long forgotten about the scaffolding around the corner.

One my way out, I remember to visit the attached “Scuola del Cuoio.” It’s a famous leather school created by the Franciscan friars of Santa Croce. Their products are meticulous and handcrafted out of lambskin and other more unusual pelts, including, deer, ostrich, python and alligator. I can’t afford their handbags (or much of anything else), but I do come away with a miniature version that doubles as a keychain and change purse.

The Accademia is my last major stop of the day. As at the Uffizi, my reservation allows me to skip the queue outside, which despite the lateness of the hour runs halfway down the street. It’s an unassuming building, covered in graffiti and surrounded by tacky souvenir shops. Without the trademark crowd in front I might have unwittingly walked right by.

The star attraction here is not the picture gallery or the museum of musical instruments, but the original and unequalled masterpiece that is Michelangelo’s “David.” To get there, I walk down a long corridor, where unfinished “Prisoners” stand as stone sentries. It is a path that leads to the most recognizable sculpture in western art. The plaster cast I saw several years ago at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London cannot compare, nor can the replica I stood next to last night in Piazza della Signoria.

There are the usual signs posted in the gallery and a vigilant guard on hand, but I see several tourists seek pictures on their cell phones just the same, with David’s posterior being a particularly popular shot. As for me, I have had enough time to reconsider my rule breaking in the Sistine Chapel. My camera stays put in my bag. Although, when I buy an uninspired postcard in the lobby on the way out, the photographer in me knows I could have done better.

Back at the hotel, the sporadic rain that has fallen throughout the day has turned into a downpour. Determined to stay close by, I follow Fabrizio’s advice and have dinner at “La Bussola,” a cozy restaurant just down the street. Hungry without my usual afternoon gelato, I devour a plate of bruschetta pomodoro and a pizza made from local ingredients, including fresh pecorino cheese from Chianti and Tuscan wild boar salami.

When I have to resort to my umbrella for the short walk back, I know beyond doubt that Claudio won’t be singing on the bridge tonight, not in this weather.  Without that as an incentive to press on, I head to bed early.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

This morning, I’m eating a relaxed breakfast in the courtyard of the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo. I have a map of Venice spread out before me on the table, alongside a cappuccino and a warm croissant filled with apricot jam. This is the only day on which I’ve imposed any kind of structure. I have a 9:55 AM reservation for a “Secret Itineraries” tour of the Doge’s Palace, a 3:00 PM tour of the Moors’ Clock Tower, and an 8:30 PM ticket to see La Traviata at “Musica a Palazzo.”

Instead of walking, I take the Vaporetto the length of the Grand Canal, and step off at San Marco. A line has already formed at the palace door, but my printed confirmation allows me entrance past the guards, where I’m given a red sticker to wear and a bench on which to sit and wait. It’s a small group in the end, and we all seem to enjoy the privilege of slipping past the normal crowds into more private chambers and passageways behind locked doors.

Our guide is surprisingly young, but well informed. She has a knack for telling stories with the right mix of historical accuracy and narrative suspense. She tells us all about the civic and political history of the city and its “Council of Ten,” and she takes us to where the most delicate administrative tasks were performed, in an attic space far removed from prying eyes. We walk through the Chancellery, where walls of cabinets once contained secret documents, to the Torture Chamber in which prisoners were hung by their arms from ropes, across the infamous “Bridge of Sighs,” and into the prison itself to see the cell once occupied by Casanova, and from which he made his daring escape.

Afterwards, I have plenty of time to spare. The sky is clear and bright, so I decide to seize a prime photo opportunity. I buy a ticket for the campanile and ride its elevator all the way to the top. By now, my legs are used to climbing hundreds of tight, spiral steps. The dome of St. Peter’s, Giotto’s bell tower in Florence, the Torre Guinigi in Lucca, and Torre del Mangia in Siena — these were athletic challenges, worthy of the view and the reward of gelato afterwards. In comparison, this is such a painless journey I almost feel like I’ve not earned the right to enjoy it. Almost, but not quite.

From here, I can see the full length of the piazza, from the Correr Museum at one end, to St. Mark’s Basilica on the other, with its cluster of Byzantine domes. There are neat rows of café tables below, scattered souvenir stands, and flocks of pigeons that menace tourists in search of crumbs. In every direction, there is a visible coastline in the distance beyond a maze of red tiled roofs. It’s there that cruise ships lie in wait for the day trippers to return.

Once back in the square, I decide that tradition is more important than reward. I buy a dish of a gelato from the window at “Gran Caffé Chioggia,” and in the shade of the terrace consume a scoop each of chocolate and hazelnut. Then, in the sudden urge to shop, I make a turn around the square, where I buy a colorful strand of beads and a matching bracelet from Antica Murrina.

At three o’clock, the ticket to the clock tower I reserved online turns into an unexpected private tour. No one else has booked the slot. I enter with the guide through a narrow green door just below the arch and can’t believe my good fortune. We have free reign of the place for the next hour and she allows me to create my own “secret itinerary” on the spot, pausing wherever I like to ask questions and take pictures.

I’m able to look out through a porthole just below the dial that displays the signs of the Zodiac. I can see past the basilica, where the lines are long, towards the lagoon and its twin granite columns, the winged lion of St. Mark on the left, St. Theodore and his crocodile on the right. Further on we pass the clock mechanism and the two rotating wheels that display the hours and minutes of the day, one in Roman numerals, the other in Arabic. Climbing higher, we stop to appreciate the original three Kings that once bowed and tipped their hats to Mary and the baby Jesus, but now perform only on Ascension. Finally, when we reach the top, I’m able to stand next to the two bronze giants — known as “Moors” — who take turns striking the bell with their mallets. At a cost of twelve Euros, this must be the great unsung bargain of my entire trip to Italy!

The remainder of the afternoon passes quietly, with no particular agenda. For dinner, I stop at a restaurant on the Dorsoduro side of the Accademia Bridge and linger to enjoy an improbably grand view of the Grand Canal. A brazen sparrow is watching me intently. As soon as I finish with my vegetable pizza, he lands on my plate and takes off with a bit of crust in his beak.

Although I’m reluctant to head indoors on such a lovely night, I’ve reserved a seat at a performance of La Traviata at “Musica a Palazzo.” It’s a just a short stroll away, back over the Accademia Bridge and beyond Campo Santo Stefano, where I’m delayed by watching a troupe of singers and dancers performing in folk dress. The entrance to the place is unmarked and difficult to find. I make the required turn at the church of Santa Maria Zobenigo, go over the bridge, and along a small canal past the awning of “Agenzia Ippica,” which offers off-tracking betting on horse races. Still, I have to walk by twice to locate the proper door, and meet a confused couple doing the same.

Inside, the theater is as intimate as the location is obscure, lit entirely by candles. It is indeed an old palazzo, and as the scenes of the opera shift, so too do the performers and the audience. We begin on folded chairs in the hallway, move to a drawing room, and then finally for the death scene, to a bed chamber.

The quality of the production is impressive, given its size. There are three characters supported by musicians on violin, cello, and piano. It is true that, at first, both the casting and the costuming seem odd. Alfredo’s blue oxford shirt and tweed jacket make him look more like a college professor than a young nobleman, and the baritone who plays his father appears young enough to be his son. But there are also clever touches, apparent only because the performance is taking place feet away, rather than far removed on stage. When Alfredo throws money at Violetta at the end of Act II, in an outburst of spite that recalls her days as a courtesan, I’m surprised to see it’s U.S. dollars, which given the exchange rate these days, seems like even more of an insult. The bastard!

By the end of the night, talent and atmosphere have combined to draw me into a unique experience. On my way back to the hotel on the Vaporetto, I find myself humming the chorus of Verdi’s “drinking song.”

Be happy, the wine and the singing
And laughter beautify the night
Let the new day find us in this paradise

For two more days, at least, it will.