Saturday, June 8, 2013

Normally, I like itineraries. It’s the sense of order, I suppose, that appeals to me. But this year, everything is different. Because of the Odd Year Curse and its corollary complications, I was forced to rearrange large chucks of travel at the last minute, and the days have never quite fit back together again. It’s time to throw everything aside and wing it.

My original plan was to go to Vicenza for the day by train to see the Teatro Olimpico and some Palladian villas, but now that I’m here in Italy, I don’t much feel like it. I’m in the mood for lazy exploration, and no city invites that more than Venice.

After breakfast, I walk down through the market again and across the Rialto Bridge, stopping at Antica Murrina to buy myself a Murano glass necklace, with a matching bracelet and earrings. I buy jewelry every time I’m in Venice—it’s too hard to resist—and this set, with its unusual combination of coral, tan and purple beads, is destined to be one of my favorites.

When I reach Piazza San Marco, I circle around the perimeter, peeking in the shops that line that the arcade, then I turn past the Doge’s Palace and join the wide promenade known as the Riva degli Schiavoni. It’s crowded with bodies this morning and with souvenir stands selling T-shirts with slogans like “Keep Calm and Love Venezia.” When I reach the Bridge of Sighs, it’s difficult to push past the bottleneck of tourists taking pictures, but I need to press on. I’m heading for the Arsenale, the city’s naval shipyard, which is the site of still more art exhibits for the Biennale.

It’s a long walk back under the heat of the summer sun, past a pair of cars sunken into a makeshift beach with striped umbrellas perched overhead, but I’m determined to see a performance piece I read about in The New York Times. It’s by an Icelandic artist named Ragnar Kjartansson and it features a small boat, described in the newspaper as “a cross between a Viking ship and a gondola,” slowing sailing back and forth with a cargo of professional musicians.

Much of the art I’ve seen at the Biennale has been forgettable, and some pieces have been memorably ridiculous. This is simply memorable.

There is a captain onboard commanding the rudder of the S.S. Hangover, and a five piece brass ensemble playing the same haunting piece of music in repetition. A sign nearby introducing the piece says that the procession “alludes, perhaps, to the sixteenth-century Venetian tradition of Theatres of the World, among many other of the city’s floating festivities.”

It’s the “perhaps” that I like. The interpretation is open and loose, and there may be none at all. One article I read likened it to a funeral dirge and to sailors “crossing the bar.” All I know is that it’s a moving spectacle, and I’m glad I made the effort to see it.

The walk back to Piazza San Marco through the quiet canals and alleyways of Castello is long and confusing, but intensely beautiful. There are rainbows of laundry hanging everywhere and flower boxes resting on sills. Aside from an occasional dog on the street, or a cat perched high in an open window, Venice seems entirely mine and mine alone. It’s nice to be far away from madding crowd, if only for a moment.

It’s my last night here and I have yet to linger and hear to orchestras play. In the mood to celebrate, I settle in at Caffè Florian and order a club sandwich, a plate of Parisian style macarons, and a vividly red, non-alcoholic drink called a “Skywasser” that passes for an exotic cocktail. The bells in the campanile are chiming the bottom of the hour, and the band is warming up.

A mother and daughter from Florida are sitting next to me and we strike up a conversation, which is pleasant enough at first, but the daughter doesn’t understand why I’m sitting facing the orchestra, rather than watching the people milling about the piazza. Frankly it’s what I always do and it never occurred to me to do otherwise. I was a musician myself for many years and I like to watch the orchestra play. I think it must be strange indeed to perform night after night to the backs of people’s heads, but the daughter doesn’t understand. “But why would anyone DO that?” she whispers loudly.

As the sun begins to set, I walk west through Piazza San Marco and follow the meandering streets all to the way to the Accademia Bridge, where I board a vaporetto for home. I haven’t ticked many boxes on this trip, and I’ve barely used my Venice Card at all. I’ve never felt less inclined to visit churches and museums, but it’s been a deeply satisfying visit nevertheless. The Italians call this wondrous city of canals and bridges La Serenissima, or most serene, and rightly so. I arrived here on a water taxi four days ago struggling under the weight of things, and I leave in the morning for the bustle and excitement of Florence, more at peace with the world than I have been in a long while, and ready to embrace whatever opportunity awaits.

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.