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.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

This morning, when I sit down to breakfast in the shaded courtyard of my hotel, I am greeted by a woman with a friendly smile, and she brings me a frothy cup of cappuccino sprinkled with cocoa and a basket of fresh croissants. With apologies to Gérard Mulot in Paris, these are my very favorite croissants in the whole, wide world.

I smile with recollection and then bite through the flaky exterior of the pastry into a warm center, filled with apricot preserves. The memory of it sends a shiver of delight down my spine and I am reminded of Proust and his tea-soaked madeleine. It’s been five years since my first visit to the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo and I’ve returned twice since. It’s nice to know that some things never change.

With the taste still lingering on my tongue, I set off on a leisurely walk toward Piazza San Marco. Breakfast has reminded me that Venice is a feast for the senses. I stop at the Rialto Market to savor the smell of fresh produce and the pungent odor of local seafood. I wander in and out of shops to admire the rich colors of Murano glass sculptures and vases and jewelry. And I pause to listen to the sweet sounds of street musicians, and the whir of motor boats down the Grand Canal.

It’s only when I reach the square that I realize just how crowded Venice is in the high season. It was Henry James who once said: “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” They’re everywhere, with their cameras and baseball caps and flip flops—day trippers from Hell. But this year they’re not alone. Within the last week, an international art exhibition known as La Biennale di Venezia has opened at the Giardini and the Arsenale, and so the city is congested with celebrities and art critics, too.

Eager to escape, I duck into the campanile and ride the elevator to the top for the sheer pleasure of the view. From here, I look toward the island of San Giorgio Maggiore where there is a gigantic and rather incongruous inflatable figure of a naked, pregnant woman, created by the British artist Marc Quinn. I recognize it immediately as one I saw years ago—in smaller form—on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London. I don’t much like it here, either.

I take pictures of the church of Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal, which was covered in scaffolding the last time I was here, and then scan the city with my telephoto lens, until it rests upon the elegant spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. It’s breathtaking, really, this sea of red tiled roofs.

Back in the square, I’m directly across from the Doge’s Palace on which hangs a banner advertising a major exhibition of paintings by Éduoard Manet, titled “Manet: Ritorno a Venezia.” I’ve been looking forward to it for months. I check my watch and see that it’s nearly noon. The line at the entrance is short and the sun overhead is bright and warm. The dim light of a cool museum sounds appealing.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the contrast of two famous works of art—Manet’s own “Olympia,” unveiled to great controversy at the Paris Salon of 1865, and its inspiration, Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” painted by the Old Master in 1538. I’ve seen both before, the former at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the latter at the Uffizi in Florence. But here they stand side-by-side, and the influence is striking and the interpretation modern. I like Manet very much, and many of my favorite paintings are here, including “The Balcony” and “The Fifer” as well as a view of “The Grand Canal” painted by the artist on a visit to Venice in 1875.

Hungry for more, I decide to head straight for the Biennale, although just outside the Doge’s Palace I get my first glimpse with an unofficial exhibit titled “This is Not A Czech Pavilion.” Intrigued, I peek inside and see a ring of shoes on the floor, each covered with the kind of disposable, blue booties that cable TV repairmen wear when they visit your house, so as not to soil the carpets with their muddy boots. It’s odd, especially when I notice a handwritten message scrawled on the wall. It reads: “This is the best piece at Venice Biennale.”

God, I hope not.

I take the vaporetto down to the Giardini and stand in line to buy a ticket. It’s a beautiful area of the city that I’ve never explored before, leafy and lushly green. The man at the ticket counter asks where I’m from and he is genuinely pleased that it’s Vermont. It seems he combats the boredom of his job by counting places and I’ve just added a rare specimen to his collection.

My first order of business is to find a place for lunch, but along the way I can’t help but stare at the entrance to the Spanish Pavilion. Inside there is a pile of rubble. There’s really no other way of saying it. It’s just rubble. A sign on the wall explains that the artist is Lara Almarcegui and her work “is not just formal or ontological, but also social, in that it points to the historical nature of the construction materials she uses, and addresses the complex interactions between materials, economy, and space. It is also political, insofar as she understands and places architecture and urbanism, their developments and historical dimensions, within the framework of the complex ecology of our social and political fabric.”

There’s a man standing next to me and we exchange a significant look. He doesn’t speak English and he doesn’t have to. We’re both thinking the exact same thing—

Bullshit.

There. I’ve said it, and I mean it. Give me a Manet any day over an “installation” of rock. Still, I have to admit, I’m having a rollicking good time already. Bad art really is kind of fun.

I walk toward the Central Pavilion, past a row of people lounging on porch chairs, all the way around to the back to a outdoor café, where I break for lunch. It’s just a simple Caprese salad, but the tomatoes are sweet and the buffalo mozzarella tangy. It rejuvenates me, and before long I’m ready to explore again.

It’s time to brave the United States pavilion. I must say I was warned about this one in advance, but it still didn’t prepare me for the horror of it all. A review in The Guardian put it this way: “America has an irritatingly complex ‘ecosystem’ composed of millions of fribbling bits of paper, string and gum by Sarah Sze for which there is simply not world enough and time.”

And there it is. “Fribbling bits” of this and that—balls of string, plastic water bottles, rulers and clamps—crawling up the front of the building like a tinker toy skyscraper on steroids. There’s a brochure that attempts to explain it all and it says something about inscribing a “fragile personal order upon a disordered universe,” but really The Guardian had it about right when they said there wasn’t enough time in the world to care.

Feeling apologetic and unpatriotic about the U.S. entry, I enter the Russian Pavilion next. There’s a hole in the ceiling from which a bucket hangs, and in the room next door I can see a large pile of gold coins on the floor. Before entering to investigate, a woman hands me a clear umbrella and I grin. It’s always a good sign when you’re handed a prop. It means interesting things are about to happen!

It becomes immediately apparent that the umbrella serves as a shield to protect me from being struck by the coins that are falling continuously from the roof. I’ve been instructed to bend down and interact with the coins, and to place a handful of them in the bucket next door. They’re stamped TRUST, UNITY, FREEDOM, LOVE. And, “The artist guarantees the value with his honor, 2013.”

And that’s just the start… There is also a man upstairs who is dressed in a business suit, riding a saddle astride a beam that he has reached with the help of a tall, wooden ladder. Every now and then he reaches out with his left hand and sprinkles sawdust on the floor below. On the wall, there is a motto that reads: “Gentleman, time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality and…”

There’s a brochure explaining all of this—of course there is—and it says something about a “cave womb” and the “anatomical construction of a myth,” but really who cares? This may peg me as one of those day trippers from Hell that I maligned earlier this morning, but the whole thing strikes me as perfectly ridiculous, but also pretty neat.

I spend the rest of the afternoon lazily walking through Ai Weiwei’s forest of stools and inside of what looks like a huge Fabergé egg. There are tables of artfully composed law directories, walls covered with plastic Mickey Mouse toys, and wire coat hangers twisted into the shape of turtles. There is a painting of a hairy man’s ass crack aptly titled “The Butt (2007),” which amuses me, and the clothed mannequin of an armless child wearing a sun bonnet that seems like a creepy version of Little House on the Prairie, which does not.

I’m still chuckling over the Biennale later when I sit down for dinner at La Porta d’Acqua. I laugh harder still when the waiter greets me by singing “Buona Sera” by Dean Martin. He’s quite a character.

I order some fried zucchini blossoms and stuffed shells with Bolognese sauce, but no wine. When I got sick in Germany two years ago, I developed a neurological condition called dysautonomia. Alcohol makes the dizziness and the nausea worse. It’s a hard enough thing to explain in English let alone a foreign language, so I just decline politely. The waiter sniffs at me suspiciously and says: “What kind of woman are you who no drink wine?” I shrug.

As I wait for my dinner to arrive, I pull out my iPhone and check for e-mail. Last night, I reserved a seat on a bus tour leaving tomorrow for the Veneto hill towns of Bassano del Grappa, Asolo, and Marostica. The Avventure Bellissime website says it’s one of their “most popular day trips from Venice!” Alas, it’s not. They’ve just cancelled.

Undeterred, I decide to go on my own, and so I pull up the Trenitalia website to check on train departure times. When the waiter comes by with the food, he looks over my shoulder and asks where I’m going. Bassano del Grappa, I say. I ask if he’s been there and does he recommend it? “Yeah, yeah,” he says, “the grappa.”

It’s the alcohol he likes. Of course it is. He’s Italian.

Come to think of it, though, quite a lot of art is inspired by booze. Quite possibly a lot of what I saw today. How else to explain the hairy ass crack? And a potent green liquor known as absinthe was equally famous in Manet’s day as the seductive muse of poets and painters alike.

I look down at my solitary glass of water, and I feel suddenly left out of an entire history of creative thought. Perhaps I should try some grappa in the morning. I’m already an academic with a tendency toward verbosity. I can certainly write a convincing brochure. All I really need for a change in career is a decent sense of irony and some “fribbling bits.”

Friday, June 7, 2013

It’s probably a bad idea to base a day trip around a single photo op, but there you have it.

I once saw a picture of Bassano del Grappa that showed a covered bridge called the Ponte degli Alpini. I’m not sure why it appealed to me so. I think it was because the buildings on either side of the Brenta River were clearly Italian. To me, the warm colors, balconies, window boxes, and towers were reminiscent of Verona, another city I had liked in the Veneto. And yet the wooden bridge itself seemed so very un-Italian. With some minor alteration in the trusses, that bridge would have looked very much at home spanning a babbling brook in a forest of autumn leaves back in Vermont. I became determined to see a place at once so exotic and familiar for myself.

I had hoped to visit Bassano del Grappa and two other small hill towns on a minibus tour offered by Avventure Bellissime, but they cancelled my booking last night due to a “lack of participants,” offering instead a tour of the Dolomites at the same price. I am two years removed from my disastrous trip to Germany and I still recoil at the thought of an alpine landscape. I suppose it’s a Pavlovian response, but I’d rather see the bridge.

While on previous trips to Europe I’ve gotten up early and stayed out late, this morning I slept in and barely made the 10:27 AM train from Santa Lucia station, which means I won’t arrive in Bassano del Grappa until nearly noon. On the journey out, it didn’t occur to me that this was a problem, but it is. By the time I arrive and pick up a map from the local tourist information office, the city has fallen into a deep slumber. It’s the afternoon siesta, a tradition rarely observed in larger tourist destinations, but here, nearly everything—churches, museums, shops—will be closed for the next several hours. I’m just going to have to make do.

I walk past the towering Torre Civica in Piazza Garibaldi, struck by the silence in the streets, and then continue on past the Loggia dei Podestà, with its sun dials and astronomical clock, to Piazza Libertà, from where I veer off to the right, down toward the river.

Known alternately as the Ponte degli Alpini, or the Ponte Vecchio, there has been a bridge in this spot since least 1209, but over the centuries it’s been destroyed several times through acts of war, as well as the forces of nature. Each time, it has been faithfully rebuilt according to Palladio’s design of 1569.

The bridge is open and airy inside, and it reminds me of a picnic pavilion somewhere in the Adirondacks. Standing here is pleasant, a cool retreat from the midday sun, and the view north of the Valsugana valley is nothing short of spectacular. To see it properly, though, I need to cross to the other side and walk along the banks of the Brenta. When I do, I look back and see the frame of the photograph I fell in love with so many months ago.

Today, there are white clouds of cotton candy high overhead, floating in a pale blue sky. There is a wall of mountains in the distance and a cluster of pastel buildings in shades of lemon yellow and salmon pink spilling down over the hill toward the river. In the contrast between the elegant architecture of the town and the rustic red bridge with its large wooden feet, there is also balance. They marry well, or as the Italians might say, si sposano bene.

I’m glad I came.

For lunch, I buy a sandwich at Taverna al Ponte, which has a tiny balcony overlooking the bridge, and then wander back up through the town, past the ceramics museum in Palazzo Sturm, which is closed, and the church of Pieve di Santa Maria, which is closed as well. I should have known.

The walk and the ascent up the hill tires me more than I expect, and by the time I reach the civic museum in the former convent of San Francesco—which is blessedly open for business—I need to sit and rest. Even so, I feel spent. Residual illness and jet lag are catching up with me. I rove through the impressive picture gallery upstairs, and marvel at a painting by Roberto Roberti titled “Il Ponte di Bassano” (1807) that shows the city looking much the same in the early 19th century as it does today. But the truth is, I’m ready to head back to Venice. It’s nearly 3:30 in the afternoon and the shops will be reopening any moment now. Even so, I don’t have the energy or the enthusiasm left to stay. I did what I came to do.

After relaxing on the train and laying for a while in the my air conditioned room at the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo, I feel surprisingly hungry later. Not wanting to go far, I have dinner at Il Refolo, in a small piazza facing the Ponte Ruga Vechia. I order the “Pizza del Doge,” with fresh mozzarella cheese, ham, tomatoes, and radicchio, and remembering the previous night’s admonition, I decide that I do not want to be “the woman who no drink wine.” I order a glass of prosecco, figuring that one glass—just one—couldn’t possibly hurt. Except that it does. The pizza is outstanding, one of the best I’ve ever had in Italy, but the wine sends my head into a nasty tailspin for the remainder of the night.

Cursing Germany once again (because, really, when is there ever opportunity enough?), I know that to make it through I’ll have to go teetotal from here on out.

I’ll be in Florence in two days time. I’m already mourning the Chianti.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

I’m bound for Florence this morning, but not quite yet. My train doesn’t leave until just past noon, so there’s still time left for one last walk around the sestiere of Santa Croce before I have to say goodbye to Walter and the wonderful Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo.

There are two “unofficial,” or collateral, exhibits from the Biennale nearby, plus a separate gallery devoted to honeybees and Murano glass. I decide to visit them all.

The first involves a crane and an odd red sculpture that’s been suspended from it these past four days. I saw it when I first arrived that day on the water taxi, just to the right of the church at San Stae, and I’ve wondered about its purpose ever since.

When I enter the United Cultural Nations exhibit, a beam of light leads me down the hall of a grand palazzo towards a room filled with the sound of tribal drums. Overhead, a hole has been cut in the ceiling and there, suspended high above, the red sculpture is hovering. It’s called the “Flying Ship.” The brochure says it’s meant to “promote rethinking the relations between individuals and others” and the “spirit to reach a new destination.” For me, though, it’s simply an Aha moment. It resolves a mystery. I may not understand what it means, but at last I know what it is.

The second exhibit is sponsored by Paraguay and while a number of artists are represented, two in particular stand out. On a small computer monitor, Daniel Milessi offers an imaginative history of his country in video game format. It reminds me of the old Pac-Man consoles I used to play in pizza parlors when I was a girl, though in place of the game’s original ghosts, the enemies are invaders and the outcome is told in pixels of blood.

My favorite of the day, though, is Pedro Barrail. There is a wall in the palazzo that’s been covered with its own image, printed with a large red dot in the center and the words: YOU ARE NOT HERE, alongside the longitude and latitude measurements of the room itself. It’s clever, really, and while I may not grab the “red lifesaver and head for redemption,” as the brochure advises, I find myself staring at it in defiance. It reminds me of the hurdles I have crossed over the past two years, to say nothing of the past two months.

I AM (most decidedly) HERE.

I grab my luggage at the hotel, promise Walter I’ll be back again next time, and then sprint off to the train station. It’s just a short journey to Florence, less than two hours, but the change in scenery is striking. Here, too, I am greeted by a series of familiar associations that bring a smile to my face as they pass outside the window of the cabthe green and white façade of Santa Maria Novella, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, and Brunelleschi‘s enormous red dome on the Duomo, which peeks out from behind nearly every street in town.

As in Venice, I’m returning to the same hotel that I booked on two previous trips to Italy. I’m a creature of habit and revisiting places gives me a sense of comfort and identity, a neighborhood to call my own. When I’m in London, I livetemporarily, at leastin South Kensington. In Paris, the 5th Arrondissement is my home. And when I’m in Florence, I stay at the Hotel Davanzati. It’s as simple as that.

It’s mid-afternoon when I climb the stairs and emerge out of the elevator into the quiet lobby. Tommaso greets me warmly from behind the reception desk and I inquire about his family, and his father Fabrizio in particular, as he encodes the key card. Before long, we’ve caught up and we’re talking about businesses and unions and Italian politics, and debating whether or not the U.S. is any less dysfunctional. It feels good to be back.

Outside, the day has turned gray and cool, and I spend the remainder of it reacquainting myself with the city. I stroll down to the Ponte Vecchio and across to the Oltrarno for some window shopping, before retracing my steps back to Via Porta Rossa for an early dinner at La Grotta Guelfa—some mixed crostini and a bowl of risotto with mushrooms.

Afterwards, I walk back to the Ponte Vecchio in the hope of finding a street musician named Claudio Spadi there. I’ve heard him play every time I’ve been to Florence, and there he is again, singing a cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” to an appreciative crowd and the setting sun.

As in Venice, some things never change, and for that I am grateful.

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.

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.