Sunday, April 18, 2010
Venice: a living museum
Phew, I’m tired. I could probably pass out right now if I let myself, but I have a lot to catch up on after two weeks of vacation, so I’ll just jot a few things down before I hibernate for a few days and regain my energy. Five cities is a lot to handle in two weeks, especially for a country bumpkin like me. So where was I…Italy?
The Easter celebrations in Florence were spectacular, but the city itself didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped. Venice, on the other hand, is another story.
Monday morning (April 6) I got a real treat in the form of my very first train ride. The journey from Florence to Venice was a luxurious roll through the Italian countryside, and I’ve vowed to ask Obama for more trains in the States as soon as I get home, because train travel is a hundred times more convenient than the hassles of plane security and less stressful than driving. And the seats are pretty comfy too.
Immediately after getting off the train in Venice, I was impressed. With the Grand Canal in front of us, Bre and I paused for a moment to take in the scene. Throngs of tourists rushed by us trying to find the most direct way to their hotels (which is an impossible feat in Venice). Because it was a cloudy day, there weren’t as many boats out, but the ferries and cargo vessels still steamed by the sinking canal-side palaces. Gondoliers in striped shirts and straw hats paddled tourists down the canal, and everywhere stood people taking pictures. All of this we saw from the steps of the train station.
After catching our breath we took out our handy dandy itinerary and tried to decipher the directions to our hostel. In Venice, there are no streets, rues, avenues, boulevards, or highways. Just calles and fondamentas, little pathways along the canals and in between buildings. This new lingo coupled with a lack of proper signage and lack of Italian knowledge made our quest for the hostel rather challenging. But eventually we arrived at the door of “A Venice Museum.” We’d read some interesting reviews about this hostel, mostly that the living conditions were pretty subpar, but it was a ton of fun, so we figured this would be our “true” hostel experience on the trip, more social than convenient. This risk paid off, because the hostel ended up being my favorite, and we met some amazing people there. It’s situated in an old building on the Canal, and we were told that Michelangelo once lived in one of its rooms, hence the “Museum” name. Parts of it certainly looked like a museum, with gilded mirrors, a large main hall, and Venetian painting designs on our room’s ceiling. Aside from the fact that we had to pay for our sheets and there was one bathroom (with no shower curtain) for about twenty girls, it was a great place to stay. The staff were pretty casual and made us pizza one night and pasta the next for dinner and served free sangria. The whole hostel ate together at one table, and we got to know each other pretty well. We met a French Canadian girl who had been on the same bus as us to Florence, and who is also studying in Aix. Because she speaks French better than English, we conversed in French during dinner, and it was a great feeling to finally be the person who speaks a second language better than someone else. We also met a lot of Canadians, and at one point I’m pretty sure Canadians surrounded me and we got into an interesting discussion on socialized health care. Of course, there was also a group of Americans there, who ended up staying in the same hostel as us in Rome. Everyone was traveling to similar places, and although we were from different countries, we all had similar stories and lack of funds, and got along pretty well. I digress a little, but hostels can make or break an experience, and I wouldn’t have had half as much fun if I hadn’t met such interesting people during my travels.
Our first day in Venice, after checking in to the hostel, we took the ferry down the Grand Canal, and while listening to Rick Steve’s commentary (via a shard iPod), learned about the glory and doom of Venetian life. The city is rich with a history of …riches. Once the richest city in the world and a crossroads between Turkey and Italy, its huge palaces along the Canal have unique and extremely ornate architecture and decoration, with both Italian and Byzantine influences. Putzing down the Canal, we also learned and witnessed how these beautiful buildings are slowly sinking into the water, and due to flooding; most of the first floors are vacant. The decaying grandeur of Venice was haunting, and made it all the more beautiful.
The ferry let us off at St. Mark’s Square, which was packed with tourists. We toured St. Mark’s Basilica because it was free, and well worth the wait in line. I have never seen a church decorated with so much gold mosaic, and it was cool to learn that St. Mark is buried beneath the church. It’s also interesting to note that the floor of the church was buckling in rolling waves because of the sinking foundation of the building. I try not to think of what will happen when this beautiful building succumbs to the sea. After the Basilica, we walked around for a while and window shopped in the stores selling Venetian Carnival masks and Murano glass, but soon tired of the press of tourists, and returned to the hostel for dinner.
After dinner, a bunch of us went out to what looked like the only bar in the town (I guess Venice doesn’t have much night life.) Unimpressed with the scene, Bre, myself, and another girl decided to explore the city some more and take a look at St. Mark’s Square sans tourists. In my opinion, midnight is the best time to view the Square, because we could stand in the middle (do a few cartwheels) and look at St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, and the other buildings without being jostled by a thousand other people with cameras. We lay down in the middle of the square for a few minutes and then realized it was cold, so headed back to the hostel. Getting back was a challenge, because the streets make no sense, but we made it eventually.
The second day in Venice, Bre and I got up early to beat the line at the Doge’s Palace. In Venice’s heyday, the Doge was the top dog, and important enough to have his own secret entrance to the Basilica and a beautiful palace. In reality, though, his life sounded a bit dull. He didn’t have real legislative or judicial power, or any kind of official power, and was only allowed to leave Venice for two days at a time, with permission of the Council. Nevertheless, his palace is impressive. After a while, walking through room after room of gilded ceilings and magnificent paintings got to be overwhelming, and I couldn’t imagine anyone actually living and working there. But everything in Venice is over the top, so I guess at one time it seemed normal.
In the Doge’s Palace tour, we got to walk through the famous “Bridge of Sighs,” so named by poets because it supposedly afforded prisoners crossing from the jail to the courthouse one last look at the water before they were put on trial and probably sentenced to death. It was a beautiful day, and I couldn’t help sighing myself as I looked down at the canal below, wondering when the endless tour of fascinating but overwhelming historical chambers would end. (Note: the Bridge of Sighs may sound romantic, but to our luck, it is currently undergoing renovation, and most of it is covered with scaffolding on the outside. Better yet, the scaffolding is covered in an advertisement. Nothing like a historical landmark sharing space with a “Bulgari” ad.)
To take advantage of the sunny day, we took a ferry to nearby Murano Island, the island of glassblowers. This island had simpler, brighter buildings, still with a Venetian style, and considerably less tourists. We sat by the water resting and listening to a bad accordion player and then found some studios where we watched some glassblowers at work.
The rest of Tuesday we got lost in Venice trying to find the Jewish ghetto and a place to fill up our plastic water bottles with wine (for less than a euro!). When we left for Rome the next morning, it was with reluctant feet and a wish to come back some day before the great city disappears. Before it sinks in the sea, it will more likely become a huge museum. As Rick Steves explained, the city now only has about 60,000 inhabitants, and 1000 leave each year. A town built of bridges, steps, and boats, isn’t a great place to raise kids and make a living, apparently. (It is, however, a great place for celebrities. Rumor has it that Angelina Jolie & Co. were staying in the palace across the canal from our hostel, and Johnny Depp was supposedly roaming the island doing a film shoot. Sadly, we saw neither, but I took some pictures of the Branjolina Palace just in case.)
So it took a lot to explain my trip to Venice, but I truly loved this city. The gondolas may only be ridden by tourists at exorbitant prices and the city’s real inhabitants may be disappearing with its buildings, but it is still a beautiful place rich in history, and like no other place I’ve been.