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?