Travel: There’s No Place Like Venice

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Venice was by far my favorite leg of this trip; I think that’s part of why I’m having such a hard time coming around to writing about it.  I’m not quite sure how to put Venice into words.

It is extraordinary.

Typical street scene, Venice. Complete with gondolier.

My boyfriend had been there once before, and he’d tried to explain.  The streets don’t follow a grid, they just follow the water.  Streets don’t necessarily go straight through to where you want them to go, they may just end.  No cars, just boats.  These are all words I understand and I could follow the concepts syntactically and theoretically, but I didn’t get it.

I followed the sidewalk to its watery end, and...

Here are a few facts about Venice:

It is comprised of both the series of islands for which it is famous, and real estate on the European mainland. We stayed on the mainland, in Mestre, which is one of the boroughs of the larger Comune of Venice.  Where we stayed isn’t cool, it’s kind of like saying you’re going to New York City thinking you’ll be in Manhattan but instead, you end up in Staten Island.  Technically it’s part of New York but really..?  No.  However, I will say this in retrospect: with not realizing what Venice was really like, not understanding that getting to a hotel in the historic and romantic idea of “Venice” would mean dragging luggage down twisting and not-readily-marked streets, lugging it over bridges and humping a ten-days-of-vacation-size-suitcase on and off vaporetti, which sit on water, which can be choppy…and, that getting to our hotel in Mestre was an easy cab ride from the train station, that our hotel would be beautifully appointed and was a short, easy walk to the incredibly reliable, clean, efficient bus that was a mere ten minute ride to the first vaporetto stop (note: make sure, when the bus you want nears the stop, you stick your arm out to signal the driver you’d like to get on board; if nobody on the bus wants your stop and nobody at the stop signals the driver, the bus will not stop, and yes, that is experience talking)…I realized about an hour after first setting foot in the relentless tangletown that is the Venetian islands that I was so very, very relieved to be staying in Mestre for this first trip.  When I go back (and I will), I would like to stay in the historic, romantic section.  But if you end up in Mestre, it’s so not a problem.

The Venice most people think of–the cool part–is made up of 118 (or 117, I guess it depends on what website you read) marshy, low islands, nestled into a lagoon at the top of the Adriatic Sea, and has been formally “settled” in one way or another since the 400s A.D. (I say “formally” because there is a historical record of the founding of a church at Rialto island in 421, but people have been living on the Venetian islands FOR. EVER. And I digress.)  When Venice as an engineering marvel was being planned and executed, their clever architects created foundations for their buildings by sinking trees into the islands’ marshy soil, leveling them off and capping them with stone from nearby quarries.  They found that larch and oak worked best for their needs, and deforested much of Slovenia to create the Venetian ground.  Doesn’t that wood rot in all that water?  Nooooo, it’s not exposed to oxygen and is in water that’s so mineral-rich, it petrifies.  Also, Venice only has a handful of “canals”, even though we like to say they have canals everywhere.  Venetians, generally, reserve the word “canal” for larger water thoroughfares; the Grand Canal winds its way through the center of the islands, and there are canals at the north and south end of the main body of Venice, but the smaller waterways?  They’re called “rio”, river.  Yeah, it was a surprise to me too.  This map (click to enlarge so you can see the river names clearly) shows what constitutes river vs. canal by Venetian standards, though I tend to defer to popular (and ingrained) knowledge in what I call them here.

Note the sign on the bridge: it's not Canale Chiuso, it's Rio Chiuso. And it's pretty.

These feats of engineering were able to be pulled off because the Adriatic has virtually no tidal shift.  Of course there are some tidal dynamics, but the tides generally don’t fluctuate more than a meter.  Venice is sinking, this is true, but it’s doing so at the rate of one or two millimeters per year.  Its larger and more immediate threat, however, is from the rise in water levels due to global warming.  The incidences of “acqua alta“, or high water, have steadily increased since the 1950s and have skyrocketed in the last decade.  Interestingly, the first sign of acqua alta isn’t the Grand Canal jumping its banks but rather, water that will start bubbling up from the system of underground cisterns that had been sunk hundreds of years ago to harvest rain water.  On the one hand I’m sort of sorry I didn’t see the acqua alta and on the other…far be it from me to wish flooding on the good people of Venice for my weirdo bemusement.

Oh, yeah, one more thing.  Venice?  Not smelly.  If someone tells you the canals reek, then politely nod with the understanding that they are, sadly, misinformed.  And then move on.

I was going to say the first thing we did in Venice was get on the #1 vaporetto line and tour the Grand Canal, but NO! That is not what we did.  The first thing we did was buy transportation passes that covered our time there, and believe me, this is something you want to do.  It’s not that it’s a tremendous time-saver, though having a prepaid card always helps in that regard.  Rather, it’s a huge (as in, enormous) financial savings.  A three-day unlimited-use-vaporetto-and-bus pass, which also entitled us to discounts at several museums, cost something like 33 Euro each.  A single-use, one way vaporetto ticket costs €6.50.  Each.  So each and every hop on-hop off, see what’s over here/hey! I want to do this thing! type of touristy bustle, every time you set foot on a vaporetto, would cost €6.50.  It’s your money.  You can certainly decide how you want to spend it, but I’m just trying to help.  And no, I didn’t go on a gondola ride.  They are, indeed, expensive, and while I certainly wasn’t afraid of spending my money there, it’s not in infinite supply and I decided I wanted to focus on other things.

Anyway.  The first thing we did was get on the #1 vaporetto line and take a tour of the Grand Canal.  Vaporetti are, essentially, water buses, and the #1 line is the Grand Canal local.  It stops at nearly every stop along the Grand Canal, so it’s effective at helping you get your bearings in this twisty city and is also, quite relentlessly, a feast for the eyes.

Looking out the back of the vaporetto.

I couldn't make up my mind where I should look, because this sort of thing was everywhere.

The #1 line would eventually take you to the Lido, the beachfront that borders the lagoon and looks out onto the wider expanse of the Adriatic, but we pretty much always stopped at the Piazza San Marco, a hub of activity that attracts about a bazillion tourists (rightly so, as there are amazing sights to see) with things like the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica di San Marco.  We couldn’t take pictures in the Doge’s Palace, but here’s the courtyard:

I chose this shot instead of the one with the hipsters in it wearing large striped raver Cat-in-the-Hat hats. You're welcome.

And this is what’s right across from it.

Adriatic Sea, thisaway.

We saw a college graduation in Piazza San Marco, so that was kind of fun.

Nice, impressive backdrop for your college grad photos, with the Basilica to the left and the Doge's Palace to the right.

And the red building right in the middle is a giant clock tower, completed in 1499.

Clock tower, Piazza San Marco, and the Venetian flag unfurling in the wind.

Venetians seemed, to me, to be a little bit awesomely cracked.  They’re not as aloof and sleek as Romans and they’re not as competitive as Florentines.  They’re funnier and a little more brusque.  Venice is packed with tourists, I mean…jammed…but once you go three or four blocks away from the Grand Canal you enter a quiet city that non-locals don’t seem to care that much about.  That sort of inherent quirkiness in the city is reflected in the people.  We left one bar where we sat at a table for ten minutes and didn’t even get looked at by the staff and went across the street to the bar we’d been at the day before, the one frequented by gondoliers and waiters getting off their shifts, where the bartender recognized us and greeted us like old friends.

Meet Mina, who ran that bar like a champ.

Attention music nerds, we also went to this bar:

And it pretty much looks the same, minus the presence of Steve Winwood.

Which was appropriately rustic but not nearly as musically interesting as this bar:

We were lured here by the sweet, sweet sounds of a nighttime tuba.

Which is apparently the swingin’est place to have a birthday party in all of Venice, and gives me yet another reason to want to go back.

I’ll say one more thing about our Venetian bar tour: we did, indeed, go to Harry’s.

Of all the gin joints in all the world...

For those who don’t know, Harry’s is among the upper echelon of famous literary-type hangouts, in all the world.  Gertrude Stein used to go there, Somerset Maugham used to go there, apparently Hemingway nearly lived there for a year.  It is cozy and incredibly welcoming; I walked in with crazy, giant, windblown hair, in my grotty denim jacket that I realized doesn’t do a single positive thing for me, and the gracious host was unquestionably ready to seat me right away and ensure I would have a top-notch dining experience.  I was just coming for one drink, but I appreciated their nonjudgmental effort.

So I had the Bellini.  I had to!  Harry’s invented the Bellini, so going there for a beer would be like going to see Willie Wonka and choosing to get a turkey club instead of chocolate.  Anyway.  Said Bellini was delicious but travelers be warned: it is expensive as ass.  I mean, it was my vacation so why not get splurgey, right?  But…

You may now kiss 33 Euro goodbye. At least you get some chicken croquettes.

I’m kind of at the point where I think I need to let Venice speak for itself.  It’s not that I don’t have a lot to say about the place; I do, I do indeed.  I could make this five times as long and not talk about all that Venice has to offer.  But the thing is, I spent most of my time walking around in a total cocoon of amazement.  Yes, we did things, like went to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum (well worth it, though no pictures allowed), we saw an exhibit on Armenia at the Correr Museum (no pictures) and went to Murano Island and saw glass-blowing.  Mostly, though, we walked, and looked, and looked, and walked.  I’ll post a few more pictures, but if you want to see more, please feel free to go here.  Enjoy!

It is the greenest boat in all of Greenboatville.

At the lighthouse on Murano Island.

Glass blowing!

From Murano, looking towards Venice.

Along a random canal, this is what it's like, oh...everywhere.

Nighttime at the Rialto Bridge.

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14 responses »

  1. Love the way you photographed David who was apparently not having his best day……..Everybody prefers to make him look clean and shiny…..so I laud your decision to photograph him as you saw him….

      • Someone once told me that in Florence they use big waterguns (think blastoise) every morning to clear the place of guano because in Kathmandu our temples are totally covered in pigeon feces…..

  2. Venice was also my favorite. Rome had been so noisy and crowded. Florence was wonderful but when I got to Venice and was faced with the Grand Canal it was so stunning and also so quiet. Water instead of roads. Everyday business all done with boats or on foot. I loved it.

    • Indeed. It sounds like you and I had similar experiences. For all those reasons, Venice blew me away. (Especially because of the lack of noisy traffic, which was starting to make me a little edgy.)

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