Thursday, January 28, 2010

Italy Day 4: Venice

This is a repost of my 2007 trip to Italy with my mom, brother, sister and Aunt.

Sounds like a long time, right? In actuality, our time in Venice was about 5 hours. Not nearly even a fraction of a time period I'd call long enough.

First, we had about a five hour bus ride down from Assisi. And since (despite my comfortable-shoe precaution) my feet needed a break from the hours (upon hours) of walking we were doing, I welcomed the change! We slept on the bus, stopped at another Autogrill or two, and I made what would be a futile attempt to journal what we'd done so far.

It's kind of cool that before you can go to Venice, if you're a visitor, you have to buy a ticket. An extra step, but one that's fair, as it's the tourists that are overloading the city's very limited infrastructure.

People keep asking me a single question about Venice: Was it smelly? Here's the deal with the canals: When the Venetians constructed the city, they used the area's natural tide structure as a sort of ecological sewer system. The natural ebb and flow of the tides over the years created a suction that pulled all the garbage out of the canals, which were around eight feet deep, if I remember right.

Then, one of the many groups that conquered Venice decided that they didn't like using boats to get everywhere, and dammed up several canals to build streets. This interrupted the natural flow of things, and for a few hundred years, nobody cleaned out the canals.

In the 1970s (again, I think .... all my info is sort of a blur), that meant the canals were about six inches deep, completely filled with muck, sewage and garbage. That's when they started dredging, and that's when it was royally smelly.

Now the canals are dredged regularly, and it doesn't smell at all. So there you have it.

It was absolutely surreal to board that water taxi and motor our way into the city. It's one thing to say "Every building in Venice is built on the water," but it's another thing altogether to see it. We went on a muggy, rainy day, so there was a bit of a haze in the air, and it made everything look that much more unreal. There are beautiful, enormous cathedrals everywhere you look, and homes (now hotels) right out of the movies.

We pulled in a couple blocks from St. Mark's Square (Well, I don't know about blocks. We crossed four bridges.) and made our way through crowds that made Disneyland lines look reasonable. As soon as we'd get to the crest of a bridge, I'd push my way to the railing, and get a quintessential view of Venice. Then to the next one ... and the next one. To look at the Bridge of Sighs (more on that in a minute) and know that's where Casanova was, hundreds of years ago. Wow.

We didn't have much time to marvel, because our tour guide was waiting for us at the Doge's Palace. That was an optional excursion we had to pay for ... either a couple hours of free time in Venice, or a guided tour of the Doge's Palace, Bridge of Sighs and St. Mark's Basilica. The palace was cool (had the original "Rape of Europe" painting), but what I found remarkable was the cold-hearted Venetian justice system. Within the palace are several courtrooms, and the Supreme Court (wherein lies a painting featuring more than 500 faces, one of the most populated works in the world). When a prison is convicted in the Supreme Court, they don't even leave the palace. They go down some corridors and stairways, and all of a sudden: You're on the Bridge of Sighs, called such because it allows views of Venice, and the prisoners would sigh as they were led inside ... or out.

So one side of the bridge led to the prison ... such an Alexandre Dumas sort of prison, too. Dark, damp, stone and iron, that sort of thing. Not like our namby-pamby jails! This kind of prison killed you if your sentence didn't.

The other side the of the two-way bridge was equally sigh-worthy. It led to St. Mark's Square, and is designed so that prisoners could see their families on their way there. I personally think that this side is where the bridge got its name, because when the condemned stepped out of the bridge onto the square, they were beheaded.

It was pouring down rain while we were touring the bridge and the prison. Great for atmosphere.

We had a great guide there, a very Italian woman who called herself "Mama" and said we were her children ... and that if we were good, we'd get an ice cream after the tour. And if we were very good ... two. She had some interesting stories about the lives of the Doges (rulers of Venice) and their families. For instance, the first sons got all the glory: the title, the money, the property, everything. Score, right? Except that they also got to take care of their brothers families ... money, help, position, everything. Their problems became the oldest's problems.

And, while the women married who daddy told them to, they also got to keep up to three playboys on the side ... but no more than that, otherwise people would talk. Pretty scandalous times back then!

So after the Doges Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, we were off and running to a whiplash-inducing tour of the basilica. It was very cool (after awhile, Vincenzo told us that Austrialians who go on this particular tour of Italy call it the 'ABC' tour: Another Bloody Church tour.), particularly the marble flooring. All hundreds of years old, of course, all in different colored marble, and all in designs so intricate and 3D you'd think you were looking at a drawing by Escher. Some of the pices of marble were no bigger than a pencil eraser.

Then we dashed into a glass-blowing shop for a demonstration (I don't care how many times you see it, glass blowing is always really cool!) and an opportunity to buy some real Venetian glass. We were forewarned by Vincenzo that we'd see a LOT of glass in Venice, but that copyright laws weren't the same in Italy than in the US. Anyone can call their product Venetian glass, even if it's made in India. The only way to tell the difference? The price. Yeah, whatever, I thought. All I wanted was one of the small round necklaces. How much can it be?

A lot, as it turned out. That small necklace ended up being my most expensive souviner, even more than the beautiful but modest vase I picked up as well. Itw as nice, because even though I wasn't buying the biggest pieces in the store, I had an attentive salesman at my side, displaying goods I could actually afford, and helping me choose. My vase is heavy, about the size of a pillar candle, and glass with an amber coloring. I just have to figure out a use for it so I can keep it proudly displayed and not in a cupboard, waiting for flowers.

After that business, we had barely enough time to walk a few feet around the square before we had to race to meet our gondola. Anthony let a few pigeons land on him (they're damned smart birds, as soon as they figured out he didn't actually have any food, they were gone ... even the ones that didn't land on him to begin with!).

The five of us climbed into a gondola for an hourlong ride. Most of the time we were taking pictures, but I had to stop after while just to soak it in. About halfway through the ride, our gondolier started to whistle opera songs, almost absentmindedly. It was languid and quiet and, of course, romantic. I'm so glad we had the chance to do it.

And as soon as we stepped out, it started to rain. We had to run to catch another water taxi to our hotel off the grand canal, and were absolutely soaked through by the time we got there. And at the hotel, we had just enough time to change clothes before Sugar, Anthony, Katherine and I headed down to dinner. Mom, believe it or not, had to interview a chef for her new hotel that night. He took her to the Ghetto while we were eating. I totally would have skipped dinner for that. The Ghetto is where the Venetians banished their Jewish population ... literally. There were no bridges to the Ghetto, and no Jews were allowed to own boats. The only time they could leave was when a Venetian wanted them to. Now it's a big spot for celebrities.

Ironic family statement: My mother hates boats. Is terrified of them. The gondola ride almost did her in. Can't get anywhere in Venice without a boat, though!

After dinner, we met Mom and Gianluca, and walked around for a few minutes before throwing in the towel and going to bed. I couldn't believe our time in Venice was over before it seemed like it had even begun. It's definitely a place I want to visit again, for a few days. It was extremely crowded and hectic in the main tourist areas around St. Mark's Square, but it seemed that once we got away from there in the gondola, the crowds thinned to almost nothing. We even passed a playground, which was awesome. Just imagine growing up in Venice. Very few people actually do anymore, so it was neat to see.

It was the first place that I was very, very sad to leave.

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