Thursday, June 14, 2012

La Serrenissima

What a luxury – Venice for a full five days! I had visited three times before, for only two nights each – just enough of a stay to get a feel for the city but not really experience its fabric. This time would be different.

Our arrival in Venice was from the Adriatic leaning on the railing over the bow of our cruise ship -- a breathtaking approach by sea in the early hours of dawn. The city slowly came to life as the Aegean Odyssey silently made its way through the outer islands all by its lonesome and then alongside the fishing boats, ferries, water taxis and vaporettos of the awakening city. Our lectures on the ship had taught us much about La Serenissima (the Most Serene Republic of Venice, its formal name) and we were anxious to explore its recesses beyond the madding, camera-toting crowds of St. Mark’s Square and the overrun Rialto Bridge. We had the luxury of strolling leisurely and absorbing the details of tranquil, deserted squares, the Jewish Quarter, the Public Gardens, far-flung streets and the glass-blowing island of Murano. We luxuriated in soaking in the Venice of our imaginationsthe city locked in its glorious past, a place apart from the fast-paced, modern terra firma across the lagoon.

Venice has no classical foundation of its own – no Greek nor Roman antiquity of which to boast or on which to build. Its original settlers fled to the previously uninhabited marshy delta in the Adriatic lagoon to escape plundering Germanic and Hun invaders in the 6th century. Thus, starting from scratch, the Venetians resorted to lifting the ancient treasures of others to establish their own bona fides. The new city arose from the wetlands and despite the fact that it fostered its very own personality and distinctiveness, believed that it was important to create the illusion of links to the beginnings of Christianity. In the 9th century, the new democracy showed its chutzpah by managing to steal the bones of St. Mark from Egypt, thereby proclaiming its very own power and religious stature. Clever marauders, those Venetians...

The so-called canals of Venice are actually not canals at all. La Serenissima is a cluster of over 100 islets separated by fortified passages initially created by de-silting the dividing waterways to allow boats to pass. Each narrow channel evolved over the centuries as the individual islands developed in the muddy waters. Much like a puzzle whose pieces fit together but the resulting image makes little sense because a different artist painted each segment without consulting the others. The streets on one island don’t match up with those across the way and narrow alleys unexpectedly end at a canal with no means for crossing because the various islands worked independently. Comprehensive city planning was not a priority as Venice grew up which is why very few streets actually link together and the overall street pattern has neither rhyme nor reason. As Joe enjoyed reminding me, Venice tests even my normally pretty solid directional abilities.

Hotel rooms in Venice are always dear – it’s a question of limited supply and voracious demand on very tight real estate -- but during our stay they were exorbitant. Soon after our checking into our lovely little (overpriced) B&B just off St. Marks Square we learned the reason why: the Vogalonga (“the long row”) was in town. One of the world's largest and goofiest rowing regattas that invites participants to paddle just about anything that floats through the storied canals for 30 glorious (and I imagine grueling) kilometers, the Vogalonga is a one-day international celebration of “people of the oar.” The colorful event jams 6,000 rowers in 1,650 boats into some of the world’s most beautiful urban waterways. What was launched in 1975 to protest the burgeoning scourge of gas-powered boats whose wakes gnaw away at the city’s antique foundations has revived Venice’s long-held rowing tradition. Gondolas, kayaks, canoes, barges and rowboats of every description with flags of countless nationalities whipping from their sterns formed a colorful pageant as we watched from our vantage point along the Cannaregio Canal.

The hordes of summer visitors can temporarily swell the midday population of Venice to 120,000 twice its normal number of residents. The gelato-wielding crowds crawling the city’s narrow streets were so dense one morning that attempting to exit the tight alley of our B&B was like merging into the choked lanes of the Long Island Expressway. We had to jostle for an opening, jump out decisively and quickly join the flow. There were feral cats lurking all over Venice and all of them looked well fed and content. I suspect that most of the shopkeepers and restaurateurs helped support their presence since I’m sure they share my sentiment: better cats than rats.

We were having breakfast in our satin-walled, yellow brocaded, Italianate B&B and were enjoying the gondoliers crooning "Bésame Mucho" as they passed through the canal around the corner when the earthquake hit. Some minor rocking and rolling with windows jingling, sirens wailing and dogs barking alerted us to the temblor and we later learned that the deadly event centered in Emilia-Romagna had resulted in the deaths of several people. We checked in with our landlord to make sure all was okay and then continued on with the day. Our plans included aimlessly wandering the city followed by a heady dose of culture: a late afternoon visit to the Gallerie dell'Accademia art museum, an early dinner and a night at the opera. While neither of us is a devoted opera aficionado, I do enjoy occasionally hearing those with which I’m familiar. Joe, on the other hand, needed more than a little prodding to agree to attend Puccini’s La Bohème in the famous Venice Opera house, La Fenice. When I told him we could get partially obstructed nosebleed seats for just 25 euros, he acquiesced. He teased me all day about “making him go to the opera” and as the 7pm performance approached, ratcheted up his taunting to such a level that I just wanted the show to begin to silence him. We arrived in plenty of time only to find the square in front of the opera house filled with the buzz of disappointed ticket-holders; the show had been canceled due to earthquake damage inside. I stood incredulous with tears of disappointment clouding my eyes. But Joe, always the jokester and to poke fun at me even further, practically jumped in the air with a celebratory fist pump and an enthusiastic, "Yes!" Well, we didn’t get to see the opera at La Fenice, but we were safe and sound with yet more time to explore La Serenissima 

Leaving Venice was like retreating from Disneyworld to the monochrome swamps of central Florida; we went from Technicolor to black and white in the blink of an eye. One minute we’re in a vaporetto cruising the Grand Canal, the world’s comeliest aquatic boulevard, past romantic salmon, apricot and tawny buildings adorned with flower-spilling window boxes and the next we’ve been disgorged onto the dusty, colorless Piazzale Roma, Venice’s unsightly transportation hub on the edge of town. We boarded a bus and before we knew it were being propelled along the causeway to the mainland. Land is not a premium on the other side of the lagoon and used car lots, dull office complexes and suburban housing projects predominated. On our way to Slovenia, we were back to reality having traded La Serrenisima for black-and-white suburban sprawl.

Pictures of our adventures:

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