Italy Served 3 Ways: Venice


You leave your hotel and head out into a sea of color, light and excitement, making your way along the canals, water winking with as many lights as the vibrant world around you.  Shining storefronts are gilded with glittering, feathered masks, flashy, exotic gowns in a rainbow of colors, and opulent jewels sparkling under spotlights.  Laughing throngs stumble up over gabled bridges, and all around is the sound of excited chatter and skipping feet.  Underneath the laughter and music, you hear the bubble and slosh of oars propelling boats large and small around and below you.  As you wind your way, hand-in-hand, down the chaotic, energy-filled streets, arches and pillars soar above you, lit brightly by the activity below.

For just a moment you duck down a quiet lane, and though you can still hear the thrum of excitement behind you, it’s been muted by the high buildings between you and the main street.  The gentle wash of seawater ebbing and flowing comes to the forefront.  You peer down a quiet, dark canal, where a few peaceful boats are bobbing gently in their mores.  You notice signs of normalcy; clotheslines, children’s toys on one of the balconies, and you are reminded that people actually live here, tucked away from the bustle just a few steps away.  The warm yellow light of someone’s window ripples in the dark green water below, and then goes out.

Back on the main street, you rejoin the carnival atmosphere of Venice; a shiny circus of gaudy extravagance, bubbling with chatter and laughter and music, rolling along joyfully, without a care, just as it has for hundreds of years.  You relax your vision to a blur and imagine this street as it must have been in the 16th century.  Instead of wearing jeans, the people are dressed in hose and gowns, pearls and diamonds, and the same raucous laughter rings out as a group of young people bursts through the crowd, yelling and smiling, pulling each other along hand in gloved hand, faces glowing red with drink and excitement. It’s magical, it’s alive, it’s crazy, and it’s sparkly.

Why go to Venice?

Lots of people leave Venice disappointed, and I hesitated to go there myself initially.  They imagine romantic spins on sleek gondolas, serenades, elegance, and quiet, relaxing, Mediterranean charm.  When they arrive and find a noisy tourist trap, they balk.  But Venice isn’t just any tourist trap; it’s the tourist trap, a hub of frivolity that has endured through the ages.  It’s tacky, but authentically so.  Reading a bit beforehand will give you the back-story to make your experience fascinating; try picking up a copy of Rick Steves’ Italy for your flight over.  Go to Venice for a bit of good old-fashioned revelry!

What’s with all that water?

Venice is really a bunch of marshy islands linked together to form a small city, laced with twisty-turny pedestrian streets, watery thoroughfares, and pretty arched bridges.  The original planners pounded tree trunks into the soft earth to create more stability before building.  You might guess how well this has lasted over the years; little dressed-up Venice is slowly sinking.  As you cruise along the canals, you’ll see once-decadent buildings whose lower floors are completely waterlogged; the windows are boarded up and the entrances are deserted and crumbling.  Along other canals, grand stairways lead eerily from lavish filigreed front doors down into the quietly lapping water, vanishing a few feet below the surface. The city is like an antique wedding dress whose hem has been slowly absorbing bog water for centuries; the bodice still gleams and sparkles, though the silk may be a tad yellowed and a few of the pearls may have come off, but the last foot of the skirt is decaying, coming away in tattered chunks and blackened, mildewed threads.  It’s beautiful, and creepy, and fascinating.

What’s a honeymooner to do in Venice?

Enjoy a drink in Saint Mark’s Square.  Saint Mark’s is the main gathering point in Venice, and it’s headed up by the huge, opulent St. Mark’s Basilica, a church so filigreed and spired it looks like it was designed by a seven-year-old girl looking to combine every fairytale castle into one.  Lit in golden light, it’s an impressive sight by night.  Stroll past the many cafés surrounding the square, and enchanting music will pour out from each inviting façade, beckoning you both to a cozy table for two.

Tour the Basilica.  Venice is sinking, and this big, decadent church is no exception.  When you get inside, take a look at the rolling, uneven stone floor, like plastic that has melted in hot sunlight.

Go for a morning stroll to the market.  The little floating city wakes up peacefully.  Chair legs scrape the cool, damp sidewalk as café owners set up their tables for the day.  Gondolas lined up in the docks bob up and down eagerly as the green-grey lagoon sloshes and gurgles beneath them.  A long flat barge carrying cardboard boxes moves calmly along a canal, setting off on its first delivery run, and the Vaporetto boats (Venice’s water bus system) grind up against the worn cement as they stop to take on the first loads of commuters. Grocers set up on the wider roads, stalls overflowing with fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices. As the sun comes out, the red, yellow, pink and orange walls of Venice’s buildings brighten and reflect in the rippling green surface of the water.

Resist the urge to hire a gondola.  It’s your honeymoon, the most romantic vacation of your life, so why on earth am I warning you against something that this sounds positively magical?  Well, because it’s not.  The gondoliers tend to flock their boats together and chat to each other, largely ignoring their disappointed passengers.  Save some money and tour the canals aboard the Vaporetto instead.

Leave your sense of direction at home.  Venice is the most confusing city I have ever visited.  Tourist maps leave off entire sections of streets, and the address numbers aren’t in numerical order (really).  But Venice is small, and it’s completely surrounded by water, so you will never end up too far from your hotel.  Give yourself time for a nice, leisurely wander.

Add it all to your registry!  That drink in Saint Mark’s square, entrance to the Basilica, your hotel room, maybe even some frilly, colorful Venetian glassware, a souvenir to remind you of your lively trip to little gaudy, melting, gorgeous Venice.

A bit tired from all of the revelry? For our dessert course next week we’ll be dialing it back a bit to enjoy a bit of nature and tranquility.  Stay tuned!

(Photo credit Elescir under creative commons license)

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