Wednesday, June 5, 2013

It’s a glorious morning in Venice. I know it is because I can see sunlight out the window of the plane as we approach Marco Polo Airport. I catch my breath when I spot the campanile in Piazza San Marco rising high above the skyline and the dome of the Salute church at the far end of the Grand Canal. The island is beautiful from a distance, but also small, like a tilt-shift photograph that renders the cityscape in miniature.

My flight lands on time and before long I’m stretching my weary legs on the long walk out to Pier 14 where there’s a water taxi waiting for me. This is a great indulgence of mine—I’ve always taken the bus before—but after all that’s happened in the last few weeks, I figure I deserve a break.

As the boat pulls away from the dock, I sink back into the seat and exhale deeply. At the touch of a button, the driver retracts the tinted roof and I close my eyes as rays of morning sun warm my face.

We gather speed as we make our way across the lagoon, and as the boat begins to skip across the choppy waves I can feel a fine salt mist on my skin. I had left my luggage upright on the floor of the cabin and now it’s starting to slide slowly on its wheels, back and forth.

We enter Venice proper through a square of open water in the sestiere of Cannaregio, near Fondamenta Nuove and the 14th century church of Madonna dell’Orto, and from there head south towards the Grand Canal. It’s just a short distance to San Stae and there the driver makes one final turn and pulls up to the water entrance of the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo. I’ve stayed here before—twice, in fact—but I’ve never arrived in such grand style.

Walter greets me warmly at the door and hoists my luggage out of the boat. It’s still early in the day, just 10:30 AM, so my room isn’t ready, but he invites me to sit for a while in the hotel’s courtyard and kindly offers to bring me a cappuccino. I feel exhausted from the flight and more than a little seasick from the bobbing of the water taxi. At the same time, though, I’m exhilarated to be here and comforted by the sight of familiar surroundings.

I leave my luggage behind and walk out the gate, following the signs that point to Alla Ferrovia and Piazzale Roma. It’s a pleasant walk through tiny alleyways and along quiet canals. I’m heading to the train station to buy an ACTV pass for the vaporetto and a Venice Card to cover my admission fees to a wide range of museums and churches. I’m trying to be optimistic about what I’m able to do.

It’s noon by the time I return to the hotel and my room in the Annex is waiting. It’s a lush space, with an open beam ceiling, dark silk walls, a carved headboard, and damask bedspread. High overhead there’s a Murano glass chandelier and I stare at it as I lay back and rest for the next two hours. I’m still not feeling well and I need to pace myself.

It’s 2:00 PM by the time I venture out again in search of a late lunch. I stop at Ostaria al Garanghelo and order a plate of ravioli with a sage butter sauce that tastes good, but settles hard in my stomach. There are two young women sitting at the table next to mine and I amuse myself by listening in to their conversation. One hands her phone to the other and says: “Look, you got a picture of that famous house and whatever.” Sophisticated travelers they are not.

Soon, however, their inane commentary is drowned out by two street musicians who settle in across the street. With a guitar and violin they smile widely as they play “Cheek to Cheek,” an Irving Berlin tune from the 1930s that has me envisioning Fred Astaire in white tie and tails with the lovely Ginger Rogers in his arms.

Heaven, I’m in Heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can barely speak;
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.
And the cares that hang around me thro’ the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.

With no particular destination in mind, save one minor errand, I wander down across the Rialto Bridge to a Vodaphone shop, where I wait in line to buy a SIM card with a data plan for my iPhone. I press on, all the way to Piazza San Marco, where at long last, restoration work on the base of the campanile has been completed, freeing the square of five years worth of fences and construction debris. It’s been a nice afternoon, but my legs are tired and I’m ready to head back on the vaporetto.

I’ve been to Venice twice before, and as the water bus passes the colorful and crumbling palazzos that line the Grand Canal all the way back to San Stae, I think about how this releases me from the burden of expectations. I’ve seen nearly all of the major sights and tourist attractions in town—St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the Accademia museum, and the Bridge of Sighs. I’ve been out to the islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello, and to San Giorgo Maggiore with its majestic views of the city proper. With so few boxes left to tick, my time is my own, to wander and explore, and I’m quite looking forward to it.

By the time I leave the hotel at seven in search of dinner, the deep blue of the afternoon sky has given way to a brooding canopy of gray. A light rain is starting to fall as I slide into a comfortable seat at Trattoria al Ponte, just around the corner. I sit and relax through a bowl of bean soup and a fine plate of tagliatelle with tomato, eggplant, and smoked ricotta cheese. I had hoped to go back to Piazza San Marco tonight to listen to the orchestras play, but the gentle patter of raindrops on the awning overhead tells me it would be best to tuck in early for the night.

Venice may be sinking, but it will still be here in the morning.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

This morning, as I enjoy one last breakfast at the Hotel Davanzati, I’m taking stock of things. I do a quick count in my head and realize that my adventure in Italy now has reached its tenth day. I have seen the ruins of ancient Rome, the art of the Renaissance in Florence, and now it is time to head to the sea.

Fabrizio is kind to call me a taxi, and soon enough I’m stowed comfortably aboard the 10:38 AM Eurostar train to Venice. With “The Minstrels on the Bridge” singing sweetly in my ear, I watch the shifting terrain out the window, waiting for the causeway that connects the mainland to the island. I purchased Claudio’s CD that night on the Ponte Vecchio, from a stack propped against the lid of his guitar case. Copying the tracks to my iPod using the laptop in my room was the morning’s last minute inspiration, and it makes the time in transit pass quickly.

At a quarter past one, we arrive at Santa Lucia Railway Station, which is flat, industrial, and nondescript — an exercise in mid-20th century mediocrity. Walking out the door, however, is something else entirely. It’s like entering a wardrobe and finding the world of Narnia on the other side. This is the Venice of my imagination, and the Grand Canal is bustling with motor boats, water buses, and gondolas.

As I roll my suitcase down the steps in front of the station, I breathe deeply and allow the salt air to fill my nostrils and lungs. There is much to take in, but there is also business to be done.

At a kiosk to the right, I buy a 72-hour travelcard and learn through observation how to scan it on the machine before entering the Vaporetto. I count the stops carefully and disembark at the third, San Stae, and follow the directions printed on my itinerary to the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo.

It’s a lovely place, small and intimate, and my single room just around the corner from the lobby desk is exactly the same. There is much to admire here — elegant furniture painted in shades of green and gold, and a Venetian oil painting in an antique frame hanging on the wall — but my stomach is growling and I’m eager to explore. With little pause, I make my way back to the Vaporetto and head in the direction of St. Mark’s Square.

Riding a water bus down the Grand Canal is an interesting experience, to say the least. Despite the risk of collision, I’m surprised to see the boat zigzag from one stop to the next, docking first on the right, then the left. At midday, it’s also heaving with passengers and their mountains of luggage. These two things in combination are bound to lead to chaos and confusion. Halfway down the route, past the Rialto Bridge, a pretentious and overdressed couple waiting for their stop on one side suddenly realizes that it’s about to come on the other. They push their way through in a panic, dragging a quartet of suitcases the size of small ponies and weighing nearly as much. There is something of the ridiculous about them.

The Vaporetto begins to slide back from the pier just as they reach the gate. They lock eyes on the attendant, pleading for help, but he shrugs and shakes his head with more than a hint of amusement. With the energy born of frustration, they push their bags over the side and tumble out after them onto the dock. As I watch the woman’s stiletto heel slip predictably into the gap between the boards, I smile just a little, too.

It doesn’t last long. When the Vaporetto makes its final turn under the Accademia bridge, I can see the scaffolding on the dome of the Salute church looming ahead. There is a crane poised overhead and a monstrous wall of white that extends all the way to the tip of the peninsula. I was prepared for the sight of this in advance, and yet somehow not.

Renovation projects are a reminder of the effort required to hold nature at bay. After all, the city of Venice, perched precariously on its ancient pilings, is in constant battle with the elements. I know this, but I’m disappointed all the same when the Salute scaffolding is followed shortly after by the sight of Roger Federer’s face on a giant Rolex ad in St. Mark’s Square. Then there’s the work being done to the east of the Moors’ Clock Tower, and to the façade of the basilica.  There is netting on the spires to the left, and scaffolding above the center door, near the famous bronze horses. Finally, and worst of all, construction on the base of the campanile has fenced off a large corner of the piazza itself. I rotate miserably for a few minutes, taking it all in, before deciding that, like in Pisa, I’ll just have to get creative with my camera angles.

I walk north of the square, along the Merceria, and grab a late lunch at a small café. I spend the rest of the day wandering aimlessly through tiny alleyways in a deliberate attempt to get lost. Within two or three turns I have succeeded beyond all expectations! Occasionally, I see comforting signs that read “Per Rialto” and “Per San Marco,” but for now I’m content to let fate and fortune be my guide. I follow canals, climb over bridges, and window shop for Murano glass. The charm of the city is proving irresistible.

By 8:00 PM I’ve somehow come full circle, arriving back in St. Mark’s Square, and this time my eyes look beyond the construction and I see the beauty for what it is.

In what will prove to be both blessing and curse, I decide to have dinner nearby at “Ristorante All’Angelo.” I’m tired and it’s convenient. There is one small table left in front, and when the waiter directs me there I find myself sandwiched between a chain-smoking, Middle Eastern couple on my left, and a pair from Holland on my right. It’s a warm night and the quarters are close. It’s impossible not to overhear, and then join, entire conversations. On one side, the Dutch are trying to engage me a conversation about politics. On the other, there is a show of good natured bickering about love and obligation. It’s all so entertaining that I’m distracted from the menu. For sake of simplicity, I wind up ordering a prix fixe translated into English: a tasteless bowl of pasta pomodoro and a Greek salad.

Before long, those on the left introduce themselves. She’s from Syria, he’s from Egypt. They have a long distance relationship and agree to meet in exotic locations three times a year. But she complains to me that he’s not romantic enough, a pronouncement that has him rolling his eyes in mock exasperation. As a woman, she wants me to intervene on her behalf. I say he should take her on a gondola ride. He looks skeptical. Turning to her with a sly smile, I say that if it doesn’t work out, maybe she could go home with the handsome gondolier instead. She likes this idea. He doesn’t, but it seems to have the desired effect.

By the end of the night I’ve learned two things: One, that I should never order food from a Menu Turistico again, unless I’m in the mood for overpriced, uninspired fare; and two, when pressed, I’m perfectly capable of discussing international affairs while simultaneously giving advice to lovelorn couples. Who knew? Of course, maybe those skills are much the same.

Afterwards, I walk back to St. Mark’s Square, where the orchestras are in full tilt under a crescent moon. I watch as an audience of uncertain loyalty claps and cheers and moves in unison between “Caffé Florian,” “Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri,” and “Café Lavena.” Each group of musicians takes its turn, conscious of the others. The arrangement is simple — two violins, an accordion, a clarinet, string bass, and piano — but the sound they produce here under the stars is lovely, a combination of sentimental waltzes and lively folk dances. In this duel of orchestras, where bows cut the air in place of swords, “Caffé Lavena” surely wins the night with its rendition of Andrea Bocelli’s Con te Partiro. I’m familiar with the lyrics and it means “Time to Say Goodbye.” That will come soon enough. For now, I’m enjoying the moment.

It’s late when I begin to wind my way back to the hotel on foot. The lights from shop windows are fading fast, and soon it will be difficult to find my way through the unfamiliar streets. Still, I linger on the bridge outside of “Trattoria Sempione” to enjoy the scene. Gondolas are departing just below, and for a moment I wonder if I might see my Middle Eastern friends again, locked in a romantic embrace, or at least sitting grimly side by side. This thought is interrupted by a squeal of delight. In an open window of the restaurant, facing the canal, I spy two children, a boy and a girl. As each gondola passes by, they lean out between the ivy and the flower boxes and yell “Ciao!” to its passengers, then fall back into their seats and giggle. I watch them repeat this over and over, and every time it is the same greeting, the same fit of laughter.

It seems to me that we are in agreement, the three of us. Venice is enchanting and it is irresistible.