Top 10 Things to Do in Venice, Italy

Venice, ItalyMore than a century ago, it was the great American novelist cum travel writer Henry James who decided that there was “nothing left to discover or describe” about Venice, and that “originality of attitude is completely impossible.”

But, he said, “it would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say. I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten the reader; I pretend only to give fillip to his memory; and I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme.”

And so I am.

Released from the burden of originality and the guilt of self-indulgence, here is my own To Do List for first-time visitors to Venice.


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Ride a vaporetto down the Grand Canal

Whether you arrive in Venice at Santa Lucia railway station, at the bus depot in Piazzale Roma, or at the small airport across the lagoon, the glorious Grand Canal will be among the first sites you see, and invariably, it will look exactly as you imagined. It will feel at once foreign and familiar, as if you’ve stepped into an 18th century painting by Canaletto, only to find that the world around you has changed little in its substance.

To extend the illusion a little longer, board a public water bus—known as a vaporetto—and ride it the length of the canal, under the Rialto Bridge, by the colorful and crumbling façades of grand palazzos like the Ca’ d’Oro and the Ca’ Rezzonico, all the way down past the dome of Santa Maria della Salute, before disembarking at St. Mark’s Square.

If the Grand Canal seems heavy with traffic today, bustling with motor boats, water buses, and gondolas, remind yourself that it was even more crowded in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the golden age of the Venetian Republic, when it was a major thoroughfare for merchants who traded goods across Europe and the Far East.

BUYING TICKETS:  ACTV tickets can be bought: 1) Online; 2) On site from the Hellovenezia ticket office at the railway station; or 3) From the automatic ticket machines on some landing docks.

COST:  A single ticket on the vaporetto costs €7, so buying a tourist travel card is a wise decision. Cards allow unlimited access for a period of either 12, 24, 36, 48, or 72 hours, or for 7 days from the time it is initially activated. Prices vary accordingly, from €18 to €50. For further details, see one of the websites below.

NOTE:  For the purposes of sightseeing, board a vaporetto on Line 1 (map), or pay slightly more to board the special Vaporetto dell’Arte, which includes a multilingual audio and video system. Remember, you will need to swipe your travel card on the iMob validating machines located at the entrance to the ACTV loading docks before you board, or face a hefty fine.

WEBSITES:  ACTV, VeniceConnectedVaporetto dell’Arte

#9

Soak in the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark’s Basilica

At the eastern end of St. Mark’s Square lies the basilica that was built to house the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, plundered from Alexandria, Egypt in 828 A.D. Legend has it that the Venetians hid the relics in a barrel under layers of pork to slip them past Muslim guards, a scheme they later depicted in a mosaic above the portal that is farthest left of the front entrance.

While Venice is replete with Baroque churches, St. Mark’s Basilica is an exotic outlier, with its massive marble columns, graceful arches, and onion domes clad in lead. Look carefully about and you’ll also see a hodgepodge of ornaments that were brought back piecemeal over the centuries by Venetian merchants who had sailed to the Orient and back.

To see the interior—a “glittering robber’s den” encrusted with gold mosaic tiles, set unevenly to better refract the light—you will have to survive the basilica’s infamous queue, as well as its strict rules for entry, but both are a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing one of Europe’s finest churches.

GETTING THERE:  For directions to Piazza San Marco from various locations, including the train station and Piazzale Roma, click here.

HOURS:  Summer hours for the basilica are from 9:45 AM – 5:00 PM weekdays and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 2:00 PM – 5:00 PM. Please check the website below for hours at other times of year.

NOTE:  Modest dress is required (cover those knees and shoulders!) and photography is not allowed, nor are large bags and purses. To avoid the maddening queue to get in, consider making a reservation online.

COST: Admission to the basilica itself is free, but small and very worthwhile charges apply to enter the chancel, treasury and loggia, areas which include the Pala d’Oro, a gold altarpiece constructed of enamel icons and encrusted with gemstones; an odd and extensive collection of chalices and reliquaries containing the blood and bones of saints; and the original gilded horses of St. Mark, the prize of so many lootings over the centuries.

MORE:  If time permits, consider purchasing a Chorus Pass for €12, which grants admission to sixteen churches in Venice.

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Marco

#8

Visit the Doge’s Palace to walk across the Bridge of Sighs and see the prison cell from which Casanova famously escaped

The Palazzo Ducale, which adjoins St. Mark’s Basilica, was once the residence of the Doge of Venice. To make the most your experience here, book a “Secret Itineraries” tour with a well-trained guide, who will explain the civic and political history of the city and its “Council of Ten.”

You will see where the most delicate administrative tasks were performed, in an attic space far removed from prying eyes, then you’ll continue through the Chancellery, where walls of cabinets once contained secret documents, before arriving in the torture chamber in which prisoners were hung by their arms from ropes. You’ll even get to cross the infamous Bridge of Sighs and enter the prison itself to see the cell once occupied by Casanova, and from which he made his daring escape.

Along the way, be sure to keep your eye out for centuries old graffiti scratched into the window panes by bored clerks.

GETTING THERE:  If arriving by vaporetto, chose either the Vallaresso or San Zaccaria stop. For more information, click here.

HOURS:  From April to October, the Doge’s Palace is open daily from 8:30 AM – 7:00 PM, and from April-March, daily from 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM. “Secret Itineraries” tours in English run at 9:55 AM and 11.35 AM and should be reserved in advance.

COST:  A full-price ticket valid for the Doge’s Palace as well as the Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana costs €16. The “Secret Itineraries” tour is €20. For those tourists who intend to visit many of the city’s churches and museums, purchasing the Venice Card (€39.90 for adults) may be a worthwhile option.

MORE:  In addition to the Doge’s Palace,Venice offers an array of enticing museums. If time permits, or foul weather forces you indoors, consider visiting the following: Gallerie dell’Accademia (pre-19th century Venetian art); Peggy Guggenheim Collection (contemporary art); Museo Correr (collections focus on the art and history of Venice); or Ca’ Rezzonico (a museum of 18th century art).

WEBSITE:  Palazzo Ducale

#7

Gaze out across the rooftops of Venice from the top of the campanile in St. Mark’s Square

While most ancient bell towers in Italy require a sturdy pair of legs, the campanile in St. Mark’s Square has a large and speedy elevator. Ride it to the top for the sheer pleasure of the view. From a height of 324 feet, you can easily see the entire city, with a rim of coastline in every direction. Look for the iconic church of Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal. If you scan the red tiled roofs carefully with a camera lens or a telescope, you might also spy the elegant spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo.

Rest assured, while the original 15th century campanile collapsed into rubble quite suddenly in 1902, the reconstructed tower won’t fall again because Venice recently completed a multi-year engineering project to shore up its foundation.

LOCATION: Piazza San Marco

HOURS:  Summer hours for the campanile are from 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM. Please check the website below for hours at other times of year.

COST:  A ticket to ride the elevator to the top of the campanile costs €8.

MORE:  For another extraordinary view of the city of Venice, take a vaporetto out to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and take the elevator to the top of the bell tower there.

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Marco

#6

Visit the Rialto Market to experience the vivid sights, sounds, and smells of Venetian life

In the morning, the open-air Rialto Market is a feast for the senses, as local farmers and fisherman unload trays of fresh squid, cuttlefish, crabs and clams, as well as baskets of whatever produce is in season, from cherries and grapes to peas and asparagus.

If the old adage about eating with your eyes first is true—mangiare con gli occhi, as the Italians would say—you will stroll about and leave feeling very full and very happy.

LOCATION:  San Polo, Campo de la Pescheria (fruits and vegetables) and Campo de le Becarie, Loggia Grande and Loggia Piccola (fish)

HOURS:  The markets open around 7:00 AM. Note, the produce market is closed on Sundays and the fish market is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

WEBSITE:  Mercato di Rialto

#5

Go shopping anywhere and everywhere for Murano glass

While the fame of Venetian glass extends back to the Roman Empire, all of the furnaces and foundries were moved to the island of Murano in 1291 out of fear that a fire would consume the city’s wooden buildings. Today, the art, craft, and tradition of Murano glass continues and local boutiques sell a dizzying array of whimsical sculptures and ornate chandeliers.

On one of my visits to Venice, the shop window at Pauly & Co. in St. Mark’s Square displayed a series of balloon animals that would surely pass for the real thing, in addition to a green fedora for €7,500, and a folded shirt, complete with buttons, for €8,100. A craftsman even made what would appear to be Cinderella’s glass slipper, although at nearly €11,000 most women would need to marry Prince Charming to be able to afford it.

For a far less expensive option and one that’s easy to slide into a suitcase already bulging with Italian souvenirs, shop for jewelry instead.

RECOMMENDATIONS:  Personally, I like the jewelry collections at Antica Murrina and Le Perle. Here are some other suggestions from Lonely Planet.

NOTE:  If you spend enough and you’re a non-EU citizen, consider applying for a VAT refund.

#4

Escape the crowds for a day and go island hopping

Eventually, even the most ardent admirer of Venice will want to escape for the day to the nearby islands of Murano, Burano, or Torcello. The first is best known for glassmaking, the second for lace, and the third—I suspect—for being seldom visited by tourists.

Start with a short boat ride to Murano, where you can any number of glass factorys for a free tour. In the heat of the furnace, the craftsmen work quickly and deftly with molten glass that is roughly the texture of salt water taffy, just be wary of the salesmen who will follow you afterwards into the showroom. They can turn the subtle art of browsing into an uncomfortable, high stakes game of cat-and-mouse.

Next, make your way to Burano, a tiny fishing village where the streets are a riot of color, lined with houses that are painted in improbable shades of blue, orange, green, purple, and red. Flower pots rest on window ledges, laundry hangs to dry, and in the summer nearly every front door stands ajar, covered only with a striped curtain that catches the breeze, as a sail might on a boat.

If time remains, consider one last jump to Torcello. There is a brick walkway that leads away from the dock, but much of the island consists of open fields and undisturbed wetlands. Follow the path to a cluster of old buildings that includes two magnificent churches side-by-side—Santa Fosca, which is low and round, and the more conventional Santa Maria Assunta, with its solitary bell tower. Both are primitive, peaceful and calm, far removed from the opulence of Venice and its madding crowd.

GETTING THERE:  The islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello are easy to reach using public transportation. Vaporetto line numbers 12, 13, 14, 4.1, and 4.2 make the journey to Murano from Fondamente Nove (on the north side of Castello), and line number 12 continues on to Burano and Torcello.

COST:  Travel to the islands is included with a standard ACTV ticket

WEBSITES: Murano, Burano, Torcello 

#3

Be indulgent and hire a gondolier

Yes, it is cliché, and it is expensive, but you have traveled long and far to come to Venice, and you really should ride in a gondola.

Henry James once wrote that “little mental pictures rise before the collector of memories at the simple mention, written or spoken, of the places he has loved.” When he conjured an image of Venice, it was not Piazza San Marco that he thought about, nor was it the basilica, or the dome of the Salute church, or even the Grand Canal. Instead, in his mind’s eye he saw:

“…a narrow canal in the heart of the city—a patch of green water and a surface of pink wall. The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the gondolier’s cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of splash of stillness. A girl crosses the little bridge, which has an arch like a camel’s back, [and] you see her against the sky as you float beneath… On the other side of this small waterway is a great shabby façade of Gothic windows and balconies… It is very hot and still, the canal has a queer smell, and the whole place is enchanting.”

I rest my case.

LOCATION:  Gondolas depart from nearly every dock in Venice, so wander about and pick a neighborhood that appeals to you. Most itineraries will include at least a short piece of the Grand Canal, but it’s often a ride along the quiet side canals that is most enchanting.

COST:  The rates for gondoliers are fixed by the city of Venice. During the day, expect to pay €80 for a 40-minute ride for a maximum of six people, and €40 for each additional increment of 20 minutes. In the evening, the rate increases to a base price of €100. If you would like to be serenaded by your gondolier, that fee is additional and must be negotiated.

Too expensive? Here are some affordable alternatives:  1) Share a gondola ride with others at Santa Maria del Giglio; or 2) Take a traghetto across the Grand Canal. For a list of crossing points, click here.

WHAT TO EXPECT:  Gondola Rides in Venice: How to Get the Most from your Venice Gondola Experience

WEBSITE:  Gondola Venezia

#2

Spend a lazy evening under the stars listening to the orchestras play in Piazza San Marco

It’s said that when Casanova escaped from prison in 1756, he stopped off for a cup of coffee at Caffè Florian before fleeing to Paris. It’s easy to understand why when you see how lively and pleasant Piazza San Marco becomes at night, once the crowds have slipped away.

There are three restaurants in the square, each with neat rows of tables and chairs, and awnings under which an orchestra plays. Take a seat at Caffé Florian, Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri, or Caffé Lavena, order a cocktail, lean back and relax as you are serenaded with sentimental waltzes and lively folk dances.

No one will blame you if you get up and dance.

LOCATION:  Piazza San Marco

HOURS: 

  • Caffé Florian is open daily from 9:00 AM – 11:00 PM in the summer, and closed Wednesdays in winter (menu)
  • Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch from 12:30 PM – 2:30 PM, and for dinner from 7:30 PM – 10:30 PM
  • Caffé Lavena is open daily from 9:30 AM – 11:00 PM

NOTE:  To avoid an unhappy surprise when the bill arrives, please know that there is a supplemental charge per person whenever the orchestra is playing.

WEBSITES:  

#1

Put away the map and get lost

In a city built of islands, where there are 150 canals and 400 bridges, maps are of little use, and modern gadgets like cell phones with GPS, even less so. For that reason, it can be genuinely difficult to find things in Venice, so resolve to discover them instead. The lack of intention makes all the difference in the world. It allows frustration to give way to serendipity.

In exploring the city’s labyrinthine streets and canals, you may find comfort in periodic signs that read “Per Rialto and “Per San Marco,” but notice how they often they point in two directions at once, creating endless combinations.

Right, left, right.

Left, left, right.

Follow your fancy and see what pleasures await. On one of my tramps around Venice I was treated to shop windows that had exotic spices stacked into powdered pyramids, papier-mâché masks formed into the fanciful faces of cats, hedgehogs and owls, and tiny gold fish suspended in blown glass aquariums of every size and shape.

Walk on, and soon you’ll find yourself wondering what more there is to see just around the corner, and you’ll be tempted to devote the entire day to finding out.

It will be a day well spent.

LOCATION:  It matters not.

HOURS:  Unlimited.

COST:  Nothing.

MEMORIES:  Priceless


Where to stay when in Venice

My personal choice is always the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo at Santa Croce 2063, but don’t just take my word for it. Check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.

Hotel Al Ponte MocenigoHotel al Ponte MocenigoDSC_3323c


A Photo Gallery of Venice

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

It’s half past 9:00 in the morning and I’m at Santa Lucia station waiting for a train to Padua. It’s been a strange start to the day. I had a wonderful breakfast outside in the courtyard of the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo—a steaming cup of cappuccino with a dusting of cocoa powder on top, a bowl of cereal, and a warm apricot croissant. The sky was bright as I waited for the vaporetto at San Stae, but now clouds have rushed in with astonishing speed, swallowing up the blue.

I’ve passed through a dozen or more train stations on this trip, and in most of them there are TV monitors in the waiting rooms or by the tracks. There is one commercial in particular that keeps looping over and over, and I think it’s for a car insurance company. I haven’t paid much attention to the visuals, but the force of repetition has made the music stick deep in my brain. It’s an Ingrid Michaelson song and she’s singing: “I just want to be OK, be OK, be OK. I just want to be OK today.” It’s been driving me crazy for the past two weeks, but all of the sudden it seems like a reasonable request. By the time I board the train leaving Venice, there are raindrops sliding down the windows.

I’m making the trip to Padua primarily to see the Scrovegni Chapel. Built around 1300 by a wealthy family on the grounds of a sprawling estate, the walls have frescoes by Giotto—the same artist who painted the life of St. Francis in the basilica in Assisi.

I’m early for my 11:00 AM reservation and so I spend the time wisely in an adjacent room, exploring a multimedia presentation. Reginaldo Scrovegni was a nobleman of some disrepute. He was, in medieval parlance, a usurer, which is to say he loaned money and charged interest. Living as we do today in a capitalist society, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without such grease for the economic gears, but at the time this was considered a serious moral and religious offense, so much so that when Dante described “The Inferno” in his Divine Comedy, he placed Reginaldo in the Seventh Circle of Hell. He didn’t do it by name, exactly, but he referred to “one who had an azure, pregnant sow”—a reference to the coat of arms of the Scrovegni family. Everyone knew who he meant.

Reginaldo’s son Enrico was worried about his father’s mortal soul, and probably his own, since the wealth he inherited by tainted by usury. To atone for the family’s sins, a chapel was commissioned and Giotto was hired to paint its walls.

When my time is called, I move slowly with a handful of other visitors into the tiny space. I am allowed just 15 minutes here, so my eyes work quickly. There is a barrel vaulted ceiling decorated with gold stars on a field of blue that resembles the nighttime sky, and the walls are covered with scenes that tell of the “Life of the Virgin” and the “Life of Christ.”

At one end, there is the ubiquitous depiction of “The Last Judgment.” At first glance, the iconography doesn’t seem very creative. There’s an army of blue horned devils mutilating a mass of terrified and naked sinners, but of course there is. That’s to be expected. It’s the ring of fire encircling the scene that brings my mind back to the story of the chapel’s creation, and I imagine how intensely personal Enrico’s fear must have been. It is Dante’s vision come to life.

In a prominent and telling scene, Giotto shows Enrico, on bended knee, presenting the chapel to the Virgin—a likeness of this very chapel, precisely matching the details of its windows, doors, and roofline.

As I’m ushered out of the door, I think about how all of this was intended as an offering and a plea for absolution. Yet in the early and often sordid history of the Catholic Church, I suspect that the granting of indulgences was at least as wicked as usury itself.

If Antico Caffè Greco is a historical landmark in Rome, and the equivalent in Venice is the venerable Caffè Florian, in Padua it is Caffè Pedrocchi. Built in the early 19th century, it has long been frequented by professors and students in this university town, and it was the focal point of the riots of 1848. Thankfully, its grand salons are quiet today when I stop in for a sandwich and a cup of caffè alla menta—their signature mint coffee

I’m hiding out, really, biding my time to see if the rain will let up. When it doesn’t, I make the best of things, hopping from one arcade to the next, and when necessary, hovering beneath my umbrella.

I’ve hit an awkward time of the afternoon. I’d like to see the duomo and baptistery, but both are closed between noon and 3:30 for that most august of Italian institutions, the siesta. I consider my options and opt to take a turn through the markets in Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza della Frutta before visiting the adjacent Palazzo della Ragione, the city’s medieval town hall. It’s a mammoth space, unsupported by columns, with a ceiling that stands through sheer force of will. The walls are covered with allegorical frescoes and there is an ancient sculpture of a horse, carved of wood, at one end.

The midday break is shorter at the Basilica of St. Anthony, so by the time I walk across town, its doors are open and I duck inside. I’m soaking wet and the zipper on my bag, already worn by years of hard use, has frayed and broken. There will be no way for me to keep my camera dry. I do my best to enjoy the church, but my energy is flagging and I think—at long last—that I have visited one church too many. I wrap my arms around my bag, pinching it closed, and slog as quickly as I can back to the train station, humming along the way: “I just want to be OK, be OK, be OK.”

When I reemerge from my hotel in Venice in the early evening, I find—much to my amazement—that the morning’s sky has returned, quite unannounced. As Henry James once wrote: “The charm was, as always in Italy, in the tone and the air and the happy hazard of things…”

Feeling renewed in every way, I roam through the city, across the Rialto Bridge, and through St. Mark’s Square to the Zattere, a wide waterfront promenade facing La Giudecca and the Venetian lagoon. I have a light dinner at Ristorante Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili, and find it amusing when a tiny and very brazen bird lands on my table and helps himself to a slice of bread.

I move on to the Accademia bridge and set up for some night shots of the Grand Canal, looking down toward the majestic dome of the Salute church, and then as ever—because it would be unimaginable to do otherwise—I linger in St. Mark’s Square, under a quarter moon, listening to the orchestras play.

I am OK.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

This morning over breakfast, I make an unusual resolution. Today in Venice, I will do nothing. I will read no guidebooks, and pursue no history or culture. I will visit no churches and enter no museums. I aspire only to gaze about, shop, and eat.

I say this is unusual, but I am self-aware enough to know this is what most people would rightly describe as a “vacation”—I’ve just never been one of them. My life at home is routine, bordering on dull most of the time, which has its own comfort and good fortune to be sure. But if vacations are about stepping outside of ourselves, at least momentarily, my wish when I travel is to do more, not less. By choice, I plan itineraries packed with places to go and things to do, and once there I get up early and stay out late. It’s not for everyone, and my pace is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it is for me. Even if 17 straight days of it have left me feeling a bit road weary, it makes me happy.

As the Italians would say: “A ciascuno il suo.” To each his own.

And so here I am, on my last day, venturing out with only the vaguest idea of where to go. The sky is blue and the air is cool and as I lose myself among the canals, it’s hard to imagine that there is more pleasant place on the face of the earth than Italy.

My buoyant mood leads me to open my wallet again and again. I pick out a picture frame for my nephew and a green velvet scarf for my Mom from R.S. Trevisan in St. Mark’s Square. I will add these to my luggage alongside my father’s leather belt from Florence, so that perhaps they will know that I thought of them, that I missed them, and that I wished they were here.

For myself, I also have a souvenir mind. For days, I’ve been scouring Venice for the perfect Murano glass necklace, and I’ve finally settled on something from Le Perle. The shopkeeper and artisan is a woman named Michela, and she is patient and kind in response to my dithering. I settle finally on a long chain of beads set in silver, with a matching bracelet and drop earrings, all in shades of aqua that remind me of the Mediterranean Sea.

I decide to pay in cash, to avoid the hassle of applying for a VAT refund at the airport, so I need to find a bancomat. This particular Le Perle—and there are several scattered about Venice—is just around the corner from St. Mark’s Square. There is, of course, a machine nearby and she directs me to it. But this being Venice, I get lost both in searching and in returning. I’m gone so long that Michela has nearly given up hope on making the sale.

I walk back to the hotel to drop off my bags and then hop on the vaporetto at San Stae for one last trip down the Grand Canal. By the time I arrive back in St. Mark’s Square, a sudden storm has rolled in and it’s pelting rain. I duck beneath the arcade and then into the plush salons of Caffè Florian for a late lunch. It’s said that when Casanova escaped from prison in 1756, he came here first for a cup of coffee before fleeing to Paris. It’s an intriguing historical detail, but to investigate it further would violate my ground rules for the day.

I order a traditional English tea, which seems well-suited to the weather and to my leisurely pursuits. As I sit and listen to the orchestra play, a massive silver tray is delivered to my comically small table, and it draws the attention of the older man sitting next to me. We begin to chat and I learn that he is traveling with his grandson, who is glum and disinterested in holding a conversation with either one of us. The weather has been bad luck, he explains. They bought some inflatable kayaks on Amazon.com for just $99 and checked them in with their luggage on the plane. They’ve been waiting to use them on the Grand Canal.

Honestly, I don’t claim to know anything about kayaks, inflatable or otherwise, but this seems like a supremely bad idea—even if it is legal, and it probably isn’t. “Aren’t you worried about capsizing,” I ask? “Not particularly,” he says, but the mere mention of the word finally stirs some excitement in his grandson. The man notices and raises an eyebrow. “Let’s just hope for the best.”

By the time I finish my tea, the storm has passed and the white marble columns of St. Mark’s Square are reflecting in the puddles on the pavement below. I wander farther afield and stumble across the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, which has a marvelous spiral staircase, guarded (it would seem) by a particularly friendly cat. Nearby, I hear the sound of singing and turn just in time to catch the fin of a gondola gliding past a brick archway, the sound echoing against ancient walls. And further on, as I head toward Rialto, I stand on a bridge overlooking the Rio di San Salvador canal and observe a gondolier at work. He stands with his hands on his hips, and his straw boater is tipped low, shadowing his face.

All of these are fleeting moments—quiet, ordinary, and beautiful. If I can be forgiven a quote by the great Henry James on a day devoted to hedonic pursuits, I would say: “The mere use of one’s eyes in Venice is happiness enough.”

As the day begins to wane, I return to La Zucca for dinner, just around the corner from the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo and the charming Campo San Giacomo Dell’Orio. This was the site of my single culinary triumph in 2008 and the food is as good as I remember, even though the service is as bad as I recall, bitter and unfriendly toward tourists. Still, the miracle they perform on a simple plate of carrots will long be remembered, and in it I find ample room for forgiveness.

I end the night as I have ended every night in Venice, listening to the orchestras in St. Mark’s Square. I take a seat at Lavena’s and order a sparkling glass of prosecco, which comes gently chilled.

I have reached the end of my second trip to Italy. The first had been so fine, so perfect, that I worried about returning again so soon. I worried that the magic I felt then could never be recaptured.

I was wrong.

I think of Republic Day in Rome, antiquing in Arezzo, a parade of color on Corpus Domini, and a lazy afternoon in the hill town of Cortona. I have walked beneath medieval towers and on top of ancient ruins, along streets, rooftops, promenades, and footpaths, from the shores of Lake Como to the ragged cliffs of the Cinque Terre. The memories are fresh, but they have already grown deep.

Henry James—my travel companion from across the ages—writes in Italian Hours: “We can do a thing for the first time but once; it is but once for all that we can have a pleasure in its freshness.” And yet, he says, it is likewise true that “a visitor who has worked off the immediate ferment for this inexhaustibly interesting country has by no means entirely drained the cup.”

I raise my glass, as if in a private toast, and think: “Here’s to many more sips.”

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.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

This is my last day in Venice and my last breakfast in this lovely courtyard. Tomorrow I’m leaving early for home. The day will be given over to a series of small, logistical decisions. What time should I leave the hotel? How long will it take to get to Piazzale Roma? Where do I catch the express bus to the airport? Will my flight be on time?

For now, I would rather think of other things. I make a mental list. I haven’t seen the interior of St. Mark’s Basilica, or the Frari Church, or the view from San Giorgio Maggiore. I haven’t been on gondola ride, or tasted a Bellini, and for that matter, I haven’t had a decent meal. I have one final day to put things to right, to leave nothing undone.

The basilica comes first, but I’m torn between taking the Vaporetto down the Grand Canal or walking to St. Mark’s Square. I decide to go on foot, in part because I like watching Venetians go about their morning business, unlocking store fronts, or delivering crates of olive oil and oranges up and over bridges. It’s also because I never manage to go the same way twice, and I appreciate the element of surprise. The signs that read “Per Rialto” and “Per San Marco” are helpful to a degree, but often they point in two directions at once, creating endless combinations. Right, left, right. Left, left, right.

On one of my tramps through Venice I found a rare internet café, on another the perfect pattiserie. Each time, I resolved to return later, only to discover that they had disappeared into the mist like Brigadoon. I’m just not good at finding things, so I’ve resolved to discover them instead. The lack of intention makes all the difference in the world. It allows frustration to give way to serendipity.

So, on this particular morning, I enjoy a changing rotation of colorful storefront windows —exotic spices stacked into powdered pyramids, papier-mâché masks formed into the fanciful faces of cats, hedgehogs and owls, tiny fish suspended in blown glass aquariums of every size and shape, even a row of faces sculpted and baked out of pizza dough. I wonder what more there is to see, and I’m half tempted to spend the day finding out.

For several days now, I’ve passed the signs outside of St. Mark’s Basilica. There are a lot of No’s associated with entry, including no photography and no luggage. Concerned about their definition of the latter, in addition to the oppressive length of the line to get in, I decide to put one of Rick Steves’ favorite travel tips to the test. There is a free baggage check at the church of Ateneo di San Basso around the corner, and I stop there first to drop off my camera case. I’m skeptical that this will work, but when I show the tag to the guard by the exit, he immediately waves me through into the church. No line, no wait… unbelievable!

Actually, once inside I think that I should have reserved that word for the basilica itself. Some elements seem familiar, only enlarged and perfected. The gold mosaics overhead that begin in the atrium and spill out over every archway and dome remind me of the baptistery in Florence, while the intricate patterns underfoot are reminiscent of church floors on the islands of Murano and Torcello.

Admission to the basilica itself is free, but small charges for the chancel, treasury and loggia open doors to other wonders — the Pala d’Oro, a gold altarpiece constructed of enamel icons and encrusted with gemstones; an odd and extensive collection of chalices and reliquaries containing the blood and bones of saints; and the gilded horses of St. Mark, the prize of so many lootings over the centuries. In ancient times, some believe that the animals graced the Arch of Trajan. They are known to have been on display at the Hippodrome in Constantinople when they were taken by a Doge of Venice during the crusades. In 1797, they were stolen by Napoleon and removed to Paris to be placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel near the Louvre, but they were returned to Venice following the emperor’s exile in 1815. In the 20th century, they were hidden twice to escape the perils of war, first in Rome, then in Padua. Today, it is the threat of pollution that has driven them indoors permanently, replaced on the façade by a quartet of bronze replicas.

My visit has been a joy, absorbing most of the morning. After leaving the basilica, I glance toward the basin and see a mammoth naval warship anchored between shore and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. It’s the L-9893 San Marco, a transport for the Italian marines. I’m not sure how likely it is to block the view from the campanile, so I decide to lie in wait. Instead of heading across on the ferry, I take a long stroll through the neighborhood to the east, down to the armory and back, before stopping for lunch at “Pizzeria Ristorante Ai Leoncini.” With my energy restored by a fresh chicken salad and the San Marco unmoved, I hop the Vaporetto back to San Tomà and walk to the austere Franciscan church of Santa Maria Gloriosa del Frari to see the tomb of Titian and several of his most beloved works, including “The Assumption of Mary,” behind the altar.

By the time I return to St. Mark’s Square it’s nearly 4:00 PM. That blasted transport is still stubbornly moored off-shore, but without the time or patience to wait longer, I head across the channel by boat.

The church of San Giorgio Maggiore is simple and elegant, designed by the 16th century architect Andrea Palladio, whose style later inspired Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. The interior artwork by Tintoretto and others is impressive, but my main purpose for coming is to savor the view from the campanile. After a short and solitary elevator ride, I reach a space far removed from the congested crowds. From my perch I can gaze in all directions, west past the one-armed statue on top of the cupola, over the monastery gardens, and out along the island of La Giudecca, or north to the city itself, where I see the face of Roger Federer on a Rolex ad peering out from behind the deck of the San Marco.

It’s a great view nevertheless. I hold no grudges against the Italian navy. Indeed, I hope that perhaps its crew is in port for a well-earned holiday. Before heading down from the bell tower, however, I make myself a solemn promise that should I ever grow rich, I will never, ever, buy a Rolex. And at Wimbledon this year, I might just find myself rooting for Rafael Nadal.

So far, it’s been a good day for tying up loose ends, and I’m about to tackle another. I’ve dithered on the gondola question for four days now. It’s hard to imagine leaving Venice without a going on a gondola ride, but it’s been difficult to commit to it as a solo traveler, knowing that the system works on fixed fees. To go on my own will cost the same eighty Euros as a group of six. My brain knows that it’s a steep price to pay for a half hour tour, but on my last night in Italy the regret of not going looms larger.

With that basic question settled, the next is one of location. There are gondola stations all over Venice, including here near St. Mark’s Square. But I have somewhere else in mind, if only I can find it. I want to revisit that scene on the bridge, the one where the children leaned out of the window of “Trattoria Sempione” and yelled Ciao! to the gondolas passing by. That’s where I want to go, and in something approaching a miracle, I actually find it again by looking along the road between San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.

The business arrangements are handled neatly. I confirm the price and discuss the general route before paying in cash, then one of the gondoliers kindly offers to take some pictures with my camera. The gondola itself is sleek and black, lined with red damask cushions trimmed in gold fringe. I lean far back, arms spread wide, and strike a pose intended to conform my comfort in opulent surroundings.

Within minutes, we’re on our way, Fabio and I, in a boat named Sabrina. I wonder at first if Fabio is a pseudonym, something cheesy and romantic chosen for the benefit of female passengers, but my gondolier in his red and white shirt seems too earnest and hard-working for such a trick. When I turn around and ask for permission to take his picture, he reaches for his straw hat to complete the effect.

The journey itself is better than I imagined. We pass through several small channels before reaching the Grand Canal, where we merge into the late-day traffic long enough to pass under the Rialto Bridge. From the water, the city looks different somehow, and the gentle rocking of the boat to the movement of the oar is calming. I may not aspire to great wealth in order to buy a Rolex, but to afford a gondola with my own private gondolier would be a perfectly wonderful thing.

By 7:30 PM I’m back in the San Polo neighborhood, just around the corner from my hotel. I have a long-standing dinner reservation at “La Zucca,” a tiny osteria at the foot of the Ponte del Megio. I’m disappointed to be seated in the back room, rather than at one of the canal-side tables out front, but fall into easy conversation with fellow travelers. To my right are Lynn and Alan, a gregarious couple from Bristol, England, and to my left, a pair of young Americans who have just arrived from Germany. In the end, we share around my copy of Eating and Drinking in Italy, compare notes on translation, and admire one another’s plates. I’ve picked a chicken piccata with rice for my main course, but the true standout is the “Flan di zucca,” a creamy pumpkin soufflé with aged ricotta cheese. At long last, I have eaten a good meal in Venice. It feels like a genuine accomplishment, something achieved through will and perseverence.

I decide to end the night at “Caffé Lavena,” sipping a Bellini under the stars in St. Mark’s Square. The accordion player reminds me of an enthusiastic game show host from the 1970s, perhaps Wink Martindale. The orchestra is in top form, and he is playing to the crowd, pleading for even louder cheers.

The waiter has served my Bellini on a silver tray with an unsolicited bowl of salty potato chips. It’s a nice touch, but with an obvious intent. At fourteen Euros for the cocktail and nearly six in cover charge for the music, I can’t afford to quench my thirst with a second drink. I push it gently away to avoid temptation.

For an hour or more I sit and listen, waiting I think for the orchestra to play “Con te Partiro,” as they did on my first night in Venice. This time it really is time to say goodbye, and not just to this beautiful city of canals, but to all of Italy — to Piazza Navona and the Sistine Chapel, to the Ponte Vecchio and San Miniato al Monte, to leaning towers and medieval walls, brick piazzas and soaring bell towers.

As I sit, I think, too, about how travel is filled with unexpected moments and fascinating characters, chance encounters with people you wish you could get to know better — Maurizio, Fabrizio, and Father Rocco, Mario the crazy cab driver, Fabio the gondolier, the mischievous nuns at the Borghese Gallery, the impromptu teenage choir in Florence, the bickering couple from the Middle East in Venice, the children yelling “Ciao” from a restaurant window. I lift my drink and toast them all.

Then, without waiting longer for a sign of farewell, I stand up and make my way back to the hotel in the dark. My thoughts are already turning to next year. I wonder where I’ll go?