Saturday, October 20, 2007

Venice: Embracing the Inner Tourist

As everyone is fond of pointing out, Venice has been a tourist destination for most of its existence. In the modern world, it’s a city of rolling luggage. You hear it echoing off the bricks in the narrow sottoportegos, coming up behind you, the rattle of wheels and the ker-clunk as they labor up the steps of bridges and down the steps on the other side.

But early in the morning-- at hours known only to those tourists whose jetlag has driven them out in search of coffee at workman’s Venetian hours—the city is strangely empty and quiet. You can peer into the windows of strange shops and dream about 500 Euro Loro Piana jackets without the continual shove of bodies and cameras against your back and marvel at the alien variety of colors and incredible tastefulness of some of the window arrangements without a stroller running over your toes.

On our first day in Venice we launched enthusiastically--if over-optimistically—out the door at 8 am for our first coffee transaction. We knew it was way too early, but, hey, you’re up and the city is yours. We wandered to and fro, threading our way along silent canals past La Fenice, observing dogs trotting on their own solo missions through the streets, and Venetians, ignoring us as they hurried off to work.

As we drew towards Piazza San Marco, people were beginning to filter into the square, though not in great numbers. We enjoyed gawking at the clock tower and checking how high the acqua alta marker was on the side of the campanile.

“Shall we visit the Basilica?” I asked. A short line was forming at the door, and since the church opened in only fifteen minutes it seemed like a not unreasonable idea. We stood in line reading about the church’s history and gawking some more at the marble and gold tiled lunettes over the doors. Then suddenly I looked back over my shoulder to see a veritable tsunami of tourist groups headed our way.

I guess this is not yet off-season.

When the guards move aside the metal fences to allow entry into the church, there are people piling in from the left and right – tour groups following someone speaking in French with an umbrella held high, someone speaking in Japanese with a fan in the air. Just before we enter the main doors inside the vestibule, I turn my head to the right and notice the sign for the loggia. 3 euros and up a steep but utterly empty flight of steps. It seems well worth it to escape the hordes.

I’m actually astonished that more people don’t come up to the loggia. You walk through the old choir area to come out onto the balcony right underneath the butts of the famous bronze horses (replicas) and not only is it one of the most spectacular views across the piazza, it enables you to watch the movements of the clock tower in total peace.

Inside are the original horses, eyes wild and veins bulging out as if they were live pulsing creatures. We continue past them to walk along the inside balcony of the basilica and take in one of the closest views possible of the golden mosaics. Someone has begun mass and the church is filled suddenly with the sound of voices singing a processional.
San Marco is so old, so alien that it almost seems unreal. But the doge’s palace, which we hit next, is like Disneyland. Room after room decorated, gilded, carved, endless velvet drapers, and hardwood paneling. The rooms are crowded and it’s hard to imagine what the gilded cage must have been like when only the privileged few walked the halls. A glimpse out the window at the Riva offers some perspective.

It’s the same effect, though for opposite reasons, as we continue on to the prisons, where the tourists are hurrying through the prescribed touring pathway from bare stone cell to bare stone cell. What was this like, I wonder, when they were crowded with hundreds of forgotten inmates?

The doge’s palace surely must have been carpeted, or else their little slippers had better cushioning than our feet, because the marble floors have worn out our patience already.

We emerge, a little dazed, and sink down onto a bench in the Giardini to stare at fat, privileged looking pigeons. Fat. Food. Lunch.

My Omnivore and I head back through the piazza and backtrack to a cosy little bar called Vino, Vino for lunch. It's a less expensive offshoot of the 300-year old Antico Martini, which supplies the food from over the bridge. After Da Fiore, though, we’re not looking for anything more elaborate than to test our ability to order in Italian.

Still, I get a plate of penne with four cheeses that is incredibly tangy and tasty. The waiter offers to pile even more cheese onto it and I’m not complaining.

After the morning, we decide that we need to get away from the crowds though, and so we take back streets to the Grand Canal, plow through the Riva to vaporetto 82 and sail across to San Giorgio Maggiore for what is possibly my favorite view of Venice.

As we wait for the elevator up the bell tower of San Giorgio, the man selling tickets taps his watch and warns us in Italian, “Tre minuti – the bells begin ringing in three minutes.” Undaunted we ride up and emerge as the bells just above our heads begin ringing. Forget the Campanile in Piazza San Marco this is the place to come--from here you can see the city laid out in front of you.

It’s exhilarating, and gorgeous, but we are, nevertheless, by now showing signs of the tourist syndrome – aching feet, jet lag and overloaded brains. Venice is getting colder by the minute and, silly San Franciscans, we haven’t brought enough winter clothes. Still, we decide to push on to one last sight – Murano. I figure than at least we’ll have a nice long vaporetto ride over to the island – and with any luck we can sit inside a furnace and warm up.

It’s afternoon by now and things are winding down on the island, nevertheless, the Mazzuccato furnace is still open and we wander into the back of the shop to find a group of Italian women intently watching the glassmakers. I head over to where they’re sitting and at the same moment one of the guys comes within a foot or two of me, bearing a blob of white-hot glass on the end of his pipe like a lance. Standing in front of the furnace--which has a sign warning “Vietato Fumare”—he quickly turns the rod and cools parts in a bucket of water, all the while a cigarette dangling from his fingers.

Okay, I think. I’ll wait.

These guys are at hard at work and have a well-practiced air of ignoring their audience. At least some of them. One or two chat occasionally with the Italians, explaining certain parts of the process, but then another blob of glass emerges and they’re all business. Roll, snip, snip, snip, measure with calipers, blow, tap.

They’re apparently making a replacement section of a chandelier and copying the broken original’s design by only eyeballing it. Blobs turn into elaborate leaves and swirled bulbs. Slowly they begin to connect together to form one of those elaborate lamps that look like undersea creatures that are ubiquitous in Murano glass stores. We had thought of them as fussy grandma’s attic-type stuff, but watching one come together is fascinating and gives you a whole new respect for the art.

But as lovely and warm as it is in the furnace room, we’re tired. And when they finish the lamp, and move on to another project, we leave and head back just in time to catch a sunset over the water.

Like every other tourist who comes to Venice, we’ve done the route – and like every other tourist, we’re utterly exhausted. But really, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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