Thursday, June 29, 2017

Venice II

There was plenty of time before the afternoon tour, so I splurged at a nearby cafe with a view of the canal. I knew it would be more expensive, but I paid up for the view and the unique ambience. The waiters watched the tables like hawks. Cafe time here was at a premium. 

There was a stone bench near the entrance to The Doges’ Palace. Three middle aged Italian women sat there taking a break. It was a rare spot to sit near the square.  A ragged, older looking woman came up and sat down. She was probably a gypsy. The other women moved away from her. They held their noses. There was real contempt in the air. 

The VIP Tour of Venice continued after lunch. We would meet at "The bridge with the view of the Bridge of Sighs" again.  
Susan Steer was our guide. She’s middle aged, blonde and speaks with a British accent. She has a degree in architecture. It’s the familiar tour guide story. Susan tells us how she came to Venice and fell in love with the city and wound up marrying a native of Venice. She’s lived here for twenty years. She has a charming British accent. 
It was starting to clear up. Susan told us we were lucky. Yesterday’s downpour had ruined a tour she ran yesterday. She said there was something special about the sunlight in Venice after rain. “They say no light is clearer.”

Susan was counting heads and getting ready to start the tour. A group of young guys with carnival masks crashed their way through our group. The carnival masks gave them some anonymity and obnoxious bravado. Susan was irritated at their rudeness. At least they left and barged their way across the Square.  
Radios are synchronized and we walk a short distance to the Doge’s Palace. She brought our attention to the marble carvings on one of the arches of the Palace. They were close to where I had been sitting. The column tells the story of a family’s life. One relief shows the couple meeting, “Boy meets girl.” In the next image on the column they kiss and cuddle. “Between the sheets,” Susan says. This is the first flash of her saucy sense of humor. “What happens next? What happens after kissing and cuddling? ... It’s a bundle of joy.” There is a relief of the proud parents looking at their baby. In the last image, the parents grieve over their dead child. 
The story ends in unexpected tragedy. Was this typically Venetian? Did every story here end in tragedy? Susan says that people were still reeling from the effects of the plague when the column was built. That may explain the abrupt, tragic ending. 

We walked over to the large pillars. The Doge’s Palace had been built to impress. The pillars and palace were designed to be seen by approaching ships. Some of the marble arches may have been gilded. The Doge’s Palace would shine in the sun. The pillars and palace would be seen far off at sea, long before ships landed.  
The columns were part of the show. The first pillar is topped by St. Theodore, the first patron saint of Venice. He’s standing on a dragon that looks like a crocodile. The column that is closer to the Doge’s Palace is topped by the winged Lion, the symbol of St. Mark and Venice.   

We walked toward St. Mark’s Basilica. The facade of the Church is covered with ornate symbols and mosaics. It’s in Byzantine style. Venetians were heavily influenced by their trading partners from the East.  
One fresco above the doors tells the story of the rescue and smuggling of St. Mark’s body. In 828 Venetian merchants stole the body of St. Mark. To get it by searching Muslim guards the body was hidden in a barrel of cabbage and pork. In the fresco, one of the guards holds his nose. A barrel of pork was very offensive to Muslims. They allowed the barrels to go by without searching them.  

The line to get into the Basilica is long. The VIP tour gets us right through. Susan warned us about the steep stone stairs. It’s not that far up the stairs, but on the ancient staircase you have to watch your step. The steps certainly are not cut evenly. We enter what would be a choir loft in a Western church, and get the full view of the inside of the Basilica from above. It is breathtaking. Some sunlight is entering and it catches on the gold tiles in the mosaics. The light makes the interior of the basilica change throughout the day. There is mystery in this Byzantine, Eastern style church.  

The terrace level that we’re on has a new exhibition area. The original Four Horses of St. Mark’s are here. The Quadriga. It’s amazing how lifelike they are. Their origins are lost in antiquity. It’s believed they were made in Rome. They look bronze, but they are mostly copper. They were taken from Constantinople by crusaders in 1204. The horses were displayed on the facade of the Basilica. Susan says that it’s a miracle they weren’t melted down. In the past many great pieces were melted down for any precious metal they might have.
Napoleon took the Quadriga to Paris. He put them on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. (I had just seen the replicas over the Arc in Paris.) After he was toppled the peace treaty insisted on their return to Venice. Later, it was discovered that air pollution was taking its toll on the horses. They had to be protected from the elements. The horses outside the Basilica now are replicas. The ones inside on the terrace are the real deal.
We were able to go out onto the balcony that looked out over St. Mark’s Square. It was quite a unique view. The Doges sometimes used the outdoor balcony to keep a wary eye on crowds.  

We walked around the inside of the Basilica. Susan pointed out that the floor was uneven. Areas had been replaced over the years. The more uneven the floor is, the older it is. We walk around and get a look at the Palo d’Oro, the golden main altar. 
Susan talks about some of the mosaic frescoes above our heads. The Harrowing of Hell shows Christ liberating worthy souls from Limbo. He’s standing on a dark, grotesque Satan.
A large figure of Christ Pantocrator looms over us on the dome. He’s enthroned above the patron saints of Venice. The mosaics form scenes from the life of Christ and the twelve Apostles. 

The Doge Fostatis survived a vicious murder attempt in the square. In gratitude he had a chapel built to the Virgin Mary. Fostatis was later deposed. We will pass his Palazzo on the boat tour later. 

One area that even this tour can’t enter is the crypt of St. Mark’s. The body of St. Mark was kept there, but it was later moved upstairs to the main altar because there was fear of flooding. Susan gives us a tip. The crypt is opened for a mass on Sundays. If you’re respectful and a bit reverent you can enter with the locals going to mass. It’s the only way to see the crypt. 
We walk from the Square to the Rialto Bridge. Here we will board a water taxi and get a tour of the Grand Canal. 
As we walk to the Rialto Bridge Susan gives us a lesson on shopping in Venice. The more aggressive the shop keeper is, the worse his merchandise is. “Real” Venetian merchants don’t stand outside their shop searching for customers. They don’t do the hard sell. Their merchandise guarantees that they will get enough business. They wait in their shop. Avoid shops with discount signs. It’s usually a ploy. “Besides, fifty per cent off of what?” Susan asks.
Susan pointed out some good restaurants. I should have copied down those addresses. Another tip is to look for restaurants that you see locals with their families at.

Venice had problems with flooding even before global warning. Many of the old buildings are starting to crumble. Susan talks about another problem Venice faces. Natives of Venice have been leaving. The skyrocketing cost of living here has created an exodus of those born in the city. Some fear that Venice will just become a Disneyland for tourists. Like San Francisco, the very nature of the city is changing.
Unbelievably, they will be opening Venice’s first shopping mall soon. Local shopkeepers fought against it, but after long battles the mall will open. It will be inside of an old restored building. It just doesn’t seem right.

We stop in a square for a bathroom break before getting on the boat. It’s my familiar guidepost  square with the statue of Goldoni. We walk to a pier near the Rialto Bridge and get into a water taxi. We’ll take turns sitting outside, and I get to sit outside first. 
We go up the Grand Canal and pass the Vaporetto stop that is close to my hotel, the Ca d’Oro stop. The Ca d’Oro was a family palazzo. Susan tells us some of its history. Now it’s a museum. It’s named for the gilding that once decorated its exterior.

Some gondolas pass us. Susan says that the gondoliers are very well trained. They start by learning how to navigate the canal on the Targetta. Targetta are more like water taxis. They are cheaper than the gondolas, but you don’t get serenaded.  
The gondolas have a flat bottom. They can be hard to steer. The gondoliers have their own system for the maze of canals and bridges. When they approach a blind corner they will cry “Oii!” They can’t see each other, so they communicate by sound. 

It’s great to see the sights of Venice from the water. It’s said that water has a calming effect. Maybe that’s why Venice was called the Serene Republic. It is a city that is not only on the water, it seems to be floating.
We pass the Pescharia Fish market on the other side of the canal from the Rialto Bridge. There are also produce markets. Venice is famous for its fresh produce.
There’s some interesting graffiti on walls of the canal: “No Mafia!”     
Susan points out the Cannaregio, the Jewish Quarter. It’s a sad part of Venice’s history. This was the first modern ghetto. The word “getto” is on an early map of Venice. This is the first known use of the word. 

The boat leaves the Grand Canal and goes up one of the canals that cuts through the city. While we were passing under a bridge Susan said, “There’s no one under eighteen on this tour,” So she can give us the real story on the “bridge of tits,” the Ponte delle Tette. It was one of two sanctioned areas for prostitution. Susan says that single men trying to return here later this evening will be disappointed. It hasn’t been a red light district for years. 

Susan makes sure that we get a look at the Campo S. Maria Formosa. The large square is one of Venice’s busiest. The Church of St. Maria Formosa is the first church built in Venice that was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It has a campanile and a bell tower. 

Venice is full of mysterious and romantic spots. The Santa Maria dei Miracoli, St. Mary of the Miracles, is a church that was built right next to the canal. It’s known for the reflections that its white and purple marble cast on the water of the canal. Susan tells us how a statue of the Virgin Mary was credited with miracles including bringing a drowned person back from the dead. The church has been renovated recently. Its a romantic spot near the canal, and is a very popular spot for weddings.  

Susan asks if any of us have wondered what happens when things go wrong. An ambulance can’t make it through the streets of Venice. She points out ambulance boats waiting at the entrance to Venice’s main hospital, the Ospedale, SS. Giovanni e Paolo. She assures us that response time is swift. We see the nearby Basilica. 

We’re back on the Grand Canal and float by the Ca Rezzonica. It’s another family palace that is now a museum. We pass the Accademia Gallery. I’ll be back to visit it later.  

We’re making our way along the Dorsoduro siestri on the Grand Canal. Susan has a special interest in the Guggenheim Art Museum. She interned there. “Peggy Guggenheim was a great woman.” She bought a family palazzo to house and display her collection of modern art. 
The Church of Salute stands guard at the entrance to the Venetian Lagoon. It was built in 1630 after prayers to the Virgin Mary to end a plague were answered. It’s a big feature in views of Venice.   
We’re on the Lagoon now and pass some of the sights we’ve explored earlier. We see the Doges Palace and the pillars that stand guard before St. Mark’s Square as they were meant to be seen, from the water. 
The boat goes out onto the Lagoon. We see the cemetery island, San Michele. Napoleon insisted burials take place outside the city. Apparently there was not a shortage of corpses. Local Venetians are still taken for their last boat ride before being interred on the unusual island cemetery. Just past it is Murano Island. Many tourists take the boat ride out there to see the home of Venice’s fine cut glass. 
The tour wasn’t a gondola ride so we didn’t get serenaded, but it’s great to see the sights of Venice from the water.   
It was time for a break. There were several outdoor cafes on the walkway next to the lagoon. I walked into one. “Do you want the restaurant or the bar?” Do Leoni is the restaurant and bar for the Londra Hotel. I ordered a glass of wine and the waitress brought a generous plate of olives, marinated onions and potato chips! There was a great view of the lagoon and the passing packs of tourists. This was the place!
There’s a constant menace here. Pigeons. Some lurk until people leave and swoop in on the remains left on the table. Bolder ones land on chairs or tables near dining customers. The staff came out and sprayed them with a water bottle. The pigeons fly away, but they are persistent. Eventually the water bottles are just left on the tables for us to defend ourselves with.    

I wandered the La Nuovo Strada again in search of sea food pizza. I had seen a sign for it earlier and now I was determined to get at least a slice, no matter how touristy seafood pizza is. I saw my greaser girlfriend was working at La Tappa Cafe so I had to stop in and have a Campari. Then I returned to my search for sea food pizza. 
I couldn’t find that sign again, and I was running out of gas. There was a restaurant on a corner and I got a table outside. The waiter steered me to the sea food risotto, the special of the night. It was a little dry, but still great. There were plenty of crustaceans.    
At the table next to me was a friendly young couple that was lingering. They were watching the same tourist scene. They were from Australia. I had met people from Down Under on almost every tour I had taken. It’s a long trek to Europe from there. Venice was one of their last stops on their epic journey that had included the Holy Land. 
We talked about traveling in a world of heightened security. What about terrorism? They told me there had been incidents in Australia. “It’s starting to happen there too.” I admitted that the incident at Bataclan had been a strange motivation for my trip. They said it was a consideration for their travels too.  

On Saturday night I was navigating the maze of bridges and narrow streets towards St. Mark’s Square. I heard them before I saw them. There were eight young guys. They were led by a young guy with wild, frizzy hair. It was a colorful Afro wig that reminded me of Crazy George. They all looked like they were on a mission. They didn’t look inebriated, but it looked like they might be headed in that direction. 
They were in front of me on one of the small bridges. They greeted a guy going in the opposite direction. He must have been a celebrity, probably a football star. They all went nuts! They jumped up and down singing what sounded like a football fight song. I don’t know who the other guy was, but they loved him. They made quite a scene, and it was clear they wanted him to join them.   
The football star was with a couple of young women who knew frizzy haired guy. One of them said, “His wedding day is October the first!” This made things clear. It was a bachelor party. There was a time I would have at least bought them a round somewhere, but I kept going on to St. Mark’s Square.   

Sunday. September 18. 
My last tour was scheduled for today: A day trip to the Dolomites. I was supposed to have confirmed my reservation two days in advance. I knew I was missing another great experience, but I certainly didn’t mind spending the last day of my trip in Venice. This would be the day of the museums! 
The first would be the Accademia Gallery. It was across the Grand Canal, but the  large Accademia Bridge made it walkable.  
On the way I came across “The Museo Della Musica Vivaldi.” It had been the Chiesa di S. Mauricio. The church has been converted into The Music Museum of Venice. There has been a church here since 1000 AD. At one time it was a basilica and it has been renovated several times. This “version” was finished in 1806 by Giannantonio Selva, who also built La Fenice Theater. 
Taped Chamber music plays inside. This place really drew me in. It looks like a church for music. Stringed instruments are displayed: violins, cellos, mandolins and harps. Most of them are in glass cases. Venice was known for violin making. 
It’s a magical place. There are statues of Vivaldi and other great musicians. Violins and a large cello are enthroned in the altar area. Maybe I liked the place because it was unexpected. I had discovered it on my own. It was a pleasant surprise.

The Gallerie dell’ Accademia is in the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria della Carita, “One of the most ancient lay fraternal orders of the city.” It was once the gallery for the nearby school, the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, the art academy of Venice. Before that it had been a convent.  

It’s early and there is no line for tickets. I notice an Asian man who has just exited the museum. Suddenly, he turns around and goes back in over a turnstile he has just walked through. This triggers alarms and a security alert. Guards come running. What is this guy thinking? Maybe he forgot something. There aren’t that many people in the area, but there is some fear in the air. Staff are running around like crazy. They only hear the alarms and don’t know why they’re going off. 
The errant visitor is confronted by guards, and things quickly calm down. Did he forget something inside the museum? In today’s high security environment it was a very stupid thing to do. I’ll admit that I just didn’t want it to delay my visit to the Accademia.  
The Accademia shows art from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The collection is heavy on Tintoretto and Titian. Among the many large, impressive canvases were Tintoretto’s St. Mark Frees the Slaves and the Stealing of St. Mark’s Body. 
There are some familiar works: Titian: The Presentation of the Virgin. Giorgione’s Old Woman and The Tempest. There is a portrait of St. George by Andrea Mantegna.  
An exhibit on Hieronymus Bosch was a bit odd. Photographic reproductions were shown of works that were being restored, including the Triptych of Santa Liberata. Just the photos still drew a small crowd of Bosch fans. 
Like the other big museums in Europe, most of the paintings are of religious themes. Many of the canvases are very large, like the Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese. Two fleets battle below the Holy Virgin, who is the one really determining the outcome of this historic battle.
There are two more by Veronese: the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine and the Feast in the House of Levy. Nearby is the Creation of the Animals by Tintoretto.  
The Accademia features Venetian artists and paintings. The Procession of the True Cross by Gentile Bellini gives us a look at St. Mark’s Square in 1496. It’s amazing to see parts of Venice that look almost exactly the same as they are today. 
I left the Accademia and bought some postcards at a shop under the bridge. It was a quiet morning at the Accademia Vaporetto stop. I started towards St. Mark’s Square and my next museum, the Correr.  

I couldn’t pass a Catholic church named after an Old Testament figure without taking a look inside. The Chiesa di San Moise has a white, Baroque facade. The facade is covered in sculptures by Heinrich Meyring. The interior is covered in Baroque furnishings. A painting on the ceiling shows Moses drawing water from the rocks, but the main altar draws the most attention.   
The base of the altar is a pile of rocks representing Mount Sinai. Angels playing long trumpets surround God the Father as he hands the tablets of the Ten Commandments to Moses. There is a lot of action in the largely black altar. 
It had rained during the night. Now I would see the acqua alta. Large sections of St. Mark’s Square were covered in a couple of inches of water. It wasn’t a very threatening flood, but I remembered being warned about it in guide books. People gathered at the water’s edge. It made for an odd, impromptu beach front. 
A huge puddle covered about half the square. It was still easy to get around, but some people walked through the water barefoot for the novelty of it. People took photos of their friends walking on water way out in the middle of the flooded square with the Basilica in the background.      

Near St. Mark’s Square was the Museo Correr. The guy at the ticket counter sold me an admission package that included the Correr, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, (The National Archaeological Museum) and the Doges’ Palace. Three museums for one low price!
The Correr Museum was begun with a collection bequeathed by Teodoro Correr in 1830. It must have been some collection. The building was “redesigned” in the 1990s. It has long halls displaying artifacts from Etruscan and Roman times.
There was a special exhibit: “Between Venice and the Orient.” I made a beeline for it. A vigilant guard stopped me. She told me I needed a special ticket for the special exhibit. I thought the guy had sold me the whole package. I could just go back and buy another ticket, but it’s a funny thing about many of the big tourist sites in Italy. The ticket area is always far from the entrance. I just went into the Correr.   
The Imperial Rooms are recreations of rooms from the 1800s complete with furniture and art. It reminded me of Versailles. Each room was a little world, a little time capsule. I walked through the Neoclassical Rooms. There was a large Ballroom. It was still hard to imagine what life was like back then. The Napoleonic Loggia had windows with a great view of St. Mark’s Square below. 

The National Archaeological Museum is in the same building, but it has a separate entrance. The rooms go in chronological order. The first room has large stone reliefs hung on the wall. There are statues from Fifth Century B.C. Greece, but most of them are Roman copies. There is a fantastic Numismatics Collection. A coin collector’s eyes would pop out! There were halls full of sculptures of Roman figures of history.

It was another hot, sunny day. I went back to the Do Leoni bar at the Londra Hotel. Tour guide Susan Steer had mentioned that we had been getting a break from the cruise ship crowds. Now I knew what she meant. People had left the ships and were now being guided in large groups by tour guides. Most of the groups followed a leading guide who carried a bright flag. Hundreds of people were pouring into Venice from the cruise ships.  

I was right in the neighborhood, so I stopped in at the Doges Palace again. It was a part of my Correr admission package, so I couldn’t resist. I didn’t spend as much time as when I saw it on the tour, but I did take an hour to walk around and get another look at the fantastic palace. 

I went back to the hotel to recharge my batteries. It was my last night in Venice, and I headed to the Square again. 
When I entered the square one of the cafe bands was playing The Godfather theme. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. It just seemed appropriate.
There had been wedding parties posing for photos every time I went through St. Mark’s Square, but there seemed to be more of them today. Maybe it was because it was Sunday.  
I wound up standing next to an obnoxious young woman juggling two iPhones. She was filming the band in front of the cafe with one phone. With the other she was talking to a girlfriend on Skype. Let’s hope that using two phones in this manner will eventually be illegal. 

I still wanted to get sea food pizza. I found the sign outside Osteria Con Cucina. I had to get a whole pizza, but that wasn’t much of a problem for me. The pizza was OK, but the crustaceans were great!  
I thought I knew the route back to the hotel, but the short streets can be confusing. I found the Baccari Jazz Club. I knew I was on the right track when I saw it. The Baccari blasted Jazz and Blues music in front of the club. When I go by it tonight they’re playing B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” I stopped for a couple of minutes and grooved. Maybe it is time to go home.

I hate to admit it, but I stressed a bit about the start of my trip home. I wasn’t as anxious as during the trip to Europe, but the flight was ungodly early, 6:15 a.m. My real concern was how I would get to the airport. You just can’t call a cab or take Super Shuttle. 
Then it dawned on me. I wasn’t the first guy who ever had to catch an early flight from Venice. The woman at the front desk at the hotel had been very helpful and always asked if I had questions. I mentioned that I would be leaving and flying early. She suggested the Bucintoro Viaggi, a company that offered shared water taxis. 
I called the company and they said there was a place where they could pick me up near the hotel, but there was a catch. To come to that spot there was a minimum of two passengers. I’d have to pay for two! It seemed like a screw job, but I went with it. It was still cheaper than getting a taxi to the airport in U.S. cities.   

I got up in the middle of the night and went to the square. I was to meet “Paolo” there at 4:15 in the morning. I assumed he would meet me in the piazza and take me to wherever the water taxi was docked. It was dark and foggy. This really made the medieval buildings around the square seem a bit menacing. I felt like a sitting duck. The streets were empty and quiet. It was a bit eerie. Early morning Venice is strange. 
The sound of a motor broke the silence. There was a water taxi stop at the bridge that I had crossed daily to get to St. Mark’s Square. The boat picked me up right there. I might make it back to the USA after all.      
There were two couples in the boat. No one really wanted to leave and return to reality. It was foggy, but it was still a scenic ride across the Grand Canal to the airport. Venice is a city that hypnotizes you. Like San Francisco. Its people live in a different urban reality. My European trip was almost over. I was on my way back to the USA.

Venice I

Venice Friday September 16.
Florence was relaxing after Rome. Maybe it was me. After I got some of the big tours done I had relaxed a bit. The trip wasn’t as intense. I was very glad my sister Joan had insisted I add Florence to my itinerary. It’s still a big city, but it was laid back compared to Rome.  
It was a short train ride from Florence to Venice. All seats on these trains are reserved. I had a hard time finding my seat. It shouldn’t be too hard to find seat E25. A young Italian couple helped me figure it out. There were some great views of the Italian countryside. As we pulled into Venice it started raining hard.  
The Venice train station is hopping. I walk out of the station and get my first view of the Grand Canal. It’s gray and overcast and it’s raining. It wasn’t like the downpour at San Gimignano, but people were scurrying to get out of the rain. It looked like mass confusion out there. I wasn’t in a big hurry. I had a couple of hours before I could check into the hotel. Water lapped at the docks. There were a few boats navigating choppy waves. There’s something dreamlike about this city.      
It seemed a bit bizarre that I couldn’t just grab a cab to the hotel. Just jump in a cab, right? It was dawning on me how unique Venice is. The medieval streets had been laid out about a thousand years before cars were invented. The city is a maze of bridges, tunnels and canals. I figured out later that I could have taken a water taxi, but the Vaporetto had come highly recommended by tour guide Freddy. It’s the public transportation of Venice.  
It was raining hard enough to force me to buy an umbrella from one of the street vendors for five Euros. I rushed a bit. While walking away I realized he had stuck me with one that had a broken strut. It was too late to turn back and track him down. I joined the scramble. 
They weren’t selling tickets on or near the boat. Where did they sell tickets? Maybe it was the rain, but I started feeling some travel anxiety. I spotted the sign: “Tabac. Tickets.” At least I could get directions. The proprietor sold me a ticket and directed me to “Water Bus E1.” 7.50 Euros. The Vaporetto stop closest to my hotel was “Ca D’Oro.” I almost know where I’m going. I was very glad I was only rolling one bag around. Rick Steves had been right. The one bag limit really made things easier. 
There was a bit of a wait to get onboard. People seemed tense. It was probably the rain. Maybe it was because it was public transportation. The boat was crowded, but there were a few seats in the back.  
Two black women were sitting together. One suddenly got up. It looked like she was checking on where they would get off the ferry. I could see that the Vaporetto didn’t linger long at scheduled stops. You have to be alert, or you’ll miss the stop. 
An old Italian guy tried to sit in the empty seat. The woman’s seat mate was outraged. She told the guy off in French accented English. “She’s coming right back!” He gives her a little back in Italian. Now it’s a terrible injustice! She points out that there are seats in the back of the bus. The two calm down a bit and exchange unpleasantries in three languages. 
I get off at the Ca D’Oro stop. The Golden House. I will learn more about it later on a tour of the Grand Canal. At one time it had been a gilded palace.    
I’m looking for the Locanda Novo hotel. I have it pinpointed on the map. The street it’s on is very short, the Calle dei Preti. I head off in the general direction. I know it’s near a piazza, the Campo Santi Apostoli. I don’t hesitate to ask for directions. Most people are great about it. I found the piazza. It started raining harder. I go under a shop’s awning. I debate stopping in a cafe and sitting out the rain, but, how long will it rain? It looked like it could be a while.

I know I’m very close. It starts pouring. Should I call them? I just want to find the hotel, drop off my stuff and start seeing this crazy city. I take refuge under another large awning.  
A young Italian guy is also under the awning. He’s staring at his cell phone. I ask if he knows where the hotel is. He’s enthusiastic. “I will go with you!” I get a little suspicious. It’s the old paranoia. Why would he take me there? Is he looking for a tip? That would be OK with me if we found the hotel. Then I realize he wants to test and show off his GPS. The screen on his phone is smashed. He plugs in the address and we take off. We go around a block, but he still can’t find it. He’s a bit puzzled. “Something is wrong with my GPS!” I thanked him for his efforts.
This was turning out to be one of my biggest challenges on the trip. Finding the hotel. I go into a butcher shop. Someone in here must know where it is. The two guys behind the counter speak English. They look puzzled when I give them the address. They ask Mama. She knows where it is, but the sons will have to translate. After some dramatic discussion they point the way. 
I had passed the street it was near several times. That street led to a very narrow street. I had thought it was an alley and assumed there couldn’t be a hotel down there. I don’t know how old the Locanda Nova hotel is. It looked like it was run by a family. I checked in and went up to my room on the second floor.
It was the best hotel of the trip. There were nice furnishings and a big table in what looked like a common area. The floors were polished stone. There was a big chandelier over the table.
Each room was named after a figure in Venetian history. I was in Room 8, the “Caterina Cornaro” room. There are also rooms named after Marco Polo, Casanova, Vivaldi, and the Doges. I was curious enough to find the Wikipedia entry. Cornaro had been the Queen of Cipro. She “gave” her kingdom to Venice in the fifteenth century.    
My room is large. It had stone floors and a big chandelier! The windows looked out at the building next door and there was a little view of the street below. I can hear it raining hard outside. I’m not as eager to get out there. I had found the place. Might as well relax and give the rain a chance to stop.  
After I get settled there’s a break in the rain and I head out. I would have gone back out again even if it was pouring. A lady at the front desk gave me some directions and a map to start me off. I think she was the owner. Venice looked like a maze. She showed me the route to St. Mark’s Square. 
Rick Steves suggests that the best way to navigate Venice is to figure out the route from your hotel to St. Mark’s Square. “Just follow the signs to San Marco Plaza.” Everything else will fall into place after that. I had my doubts about the signage. When you’re traveling in a foreign city, there just aren’t enough signs.  
In Venice there are signs! At almost every corner! Did the local shopkeepers get sick of giving directions? I really could “follow the signs.”  

I’ve been in cities and towns that were built in the Middle Ages on this trip, but Venice is different. The water and bridges give it a fairy tale effect. It’s a medieval Atlantis. As much as I’ve read or seen about Venice, the reality is fantastic. It’s just hard to believe it’s real sometimes. I had the medieval Disneyland fantasy again. Maybe the bridges were made of plastic. No, they really were stone. My first gondola floated by. Those guys look like they really know what they’re doing.  
I wandered until the street I was on met the canal. I walked a short distance to the Rialto Bridge. It was under renovation and covered with scaffolding. The bridge would be an important landmark for me. On the way back I knew that if I found the bridge I was on the right track back to the hotel. I really was tired of getting lost.

Florence had a medieval, historic atmosphere. It was amazing that so many old buildings had survived. Venice was even more of a time capsule into another time. I went through the Goldoni Piazza. It has a large statue of him. I don’t know why, but it struck me. This is the real Venice. The piazza is surrounded with buildings that have been here since the 1400s. I thought of the Hall of Maps in the Vatican. The map from seven hundred years ago showed the same buildings that are here today in  Venice. Every building in Venice had a long history. I kind of floated down to St. Mark’s Square. 
It seemed like every building had a shop of some kind on the first floor. There are some classy looking souvenir shops and many boutiques. Murano glass shops. Victoria’s Secret. Prada. They sell a lot of hand bags in Venice! 
The rain had stopped. The streets are narrow and you can’t see that far ahead. The medieval buildings form a kind of tunnel. I went under a portico and was surprised to find myself on the edge of St. Mark’s Square.   

How many times have I seen pictures or film of this place? It’s like stepping into another time. There was still a long line of people waiting to get into St. Mark’s Basilica. I got my first looks at the Campanile and the Clock Tower.   
The sun was coming out from behind some clouds. It made my first look at the Basilica more dramatic. I walked along the front of the Basilica and studied its Byzantine exterior. It seemed oddly familiar, but it’s darker and more ornate than I had expected. I knew Venice’s buildings and art had been influenced by their Byzantine neighbors and trade partners.   
The stone looked a bit dark, but the mosaics and colored stones shone in the sun that was coming out from behind the last clouds. Up on the balcony were the four horses!  

There was a network of plywood ramps held up on aluminum risers. 
It was about three feet above the ground and formed a runway. It was almost like a little stage. You could walk along it to the entrance of the Basilica. The line for the Basilica snaked around it. This puzzled me for a minute. Was it so people could get up on them and take pictures? I’d heard of the “acqua alta.” The square really does flood. I would see more of this later. The boards and ramp were to keep people in line out of the water.  

I walked around the square. Napoleon called St. Mark’s Square, “The drawing room of Europe.” One corner of the square under the portico had many jewelry stores. It looked very high riding. This was a heavy jewelry scene! I wondered how much money was being made here.   
Outside the Cafe Florian an excited woman told her friend, “This is a famous one!” This was the place that Charles Dickens and Lord Byron had a cup of coffee at.   The vintage red and black interior was tempting, but I kept walking.  

I’ve lived in a city that has seemed fantastical at times. Venice also seems unreal, like it couldn’t possibly exist. A city that can make life a dream. I was seeing the fantasy, the tourist Venice. The city does have an intriguing and dark history. What had it really been like in the past? Even mighty Rome had its dark days.  
The hotel was about fifty yards from the Campo Apostoli piazza. The piazza was like a small town square. People lounged on benches in the shade of a couple of trees. There was a kiosk that sold newspapers and souvenirs. The awnings of shops and restaurants lined the small square. On the other side of the square there was a bridge. A smaller canal led to St. Mark’s Square and the rest of the city. 
There was a restaurant tucked under the bridge, the Trattoria Da Rino. I had to try that place! I got a table near the window. The bridge made for good people watching. Most of the people passing by looked like tourists. It was mid-afternoon and people were wandering.   
  I tried to order some fish, a turbot. The waitress talked me out of it. “It’s a minimum of 500 grams.” OK, how much? “It’s 10.50 for 100 grams.” So, I might spend over fifty Euros for a fish? I was still tempted, but I spotted “Cuttlefish with Polenta” on the menu. That would be unique enough! The cuttlefish was like calamari. The pasta was black from the cuttlefish ink. 

How the heck do they get all the food, drink and merchandise into the city for all these tourists? I read later that there had been people who lived their whole lives in Venice, and they had no idea where their food came from. They had no idea of what a farm was. Everything must be brought in with few delivery trucks. The canal and dock system probably worked in the past, but I had to wonder. I saw some of stevedores at work. Most deliveries are done in the morning, but it looked like these guys were hustling some kind of special delivery along. They use long hand carts to navigate the crowded streets. The long carts are piled high and they can carry a lot. The stevedores are very skilled and make it look easy.

I took the O’Shea nap at the hotel and was ready to roll again. I went down the Nuovo Strada. It was a wider, boulevard size street. This is rare for Venice. The street was lined with cafes, shops and other tourist attractions. Since it wasn’t on the route to St. Mark’s Square it seemed a bit off the beaten path. It was early on a hot Friday night and people were getting tables at the local cafes. 
Most of the cafes offered a special on Campari Spritzers. I stopped at La Tappa Cafe. My waitress had her hair up like the greaser girls used to do in the old neighborhood. You can take the boy out of the West Side, but ... She looked a little rough, but she really turned on the charm. I got one of the tables facing the street and watched the parade.   

I was scheduled to take the “Wine & Appetizer Evening Stroll” in the Cannaregio district, the Jewish Quarter. The tour offered a look at “the most authentic Venice.”
I would have to rush back to the Vaporetto and figure out how to get to the Cannaregio stop. I took a look at the map. When it started raining again I blew off the tour. I just wanted to walk around and not get lost. I also suspected that the tour could be rained out. This was the first tour on the trip that I had missed.

It was still early on a Friday night. It stopped raining. I headed back to St. Mark’s Square. When I got close to the square I could hear music. In front of the Gran Caffee a band was playing a waltz by Strauss. A small crowd had gathered. The band went on to play popular hits from the past. This was real Lawrence Welk stuff. 
Each band has a piano, violin, sax, a stand up bass and an accordion. The musicians sound and look very professional. The violin player is usually the leader and acts as MC. It must be a great regular gig for them. The accordion stood out on the old Italian folk songs. People clap in time and some sing. It’s all very corny and people love it. Maybe it’s a break from all the art and culture we’ve been seeing during the day. O Solo Mio is a big hit with the crowd. Many know enough of the words to sing “Libiamo,” the drinking song from La Traviata.

People sit at tables in front of the cafes, but most stand and wander around the square. When one band ends a set the band at the next cafe starts. How old is this tradition? There is an innocence about it. It takes me a minute to recognize one song. It’s a rocking “Live and Let Die.” There are other surprises mixed in with the traditional Italian songs. The “Gold Finger” theme is a rousing crowd pleaser.   

The square is plagued by the selfie stick street vendors. They seem to be more aggressive than during the day. They were certainly more aggravating. There were also the omnipresent “Anti-Drug” Petitions.
I got off track on the way back to the hotel. I was glad to spot the familiar Goldoni statue. Even with the signs, it was still a little tough to figure out what medieval street led back to my hotel. Another familiar landmark was a Jazz club named Baccari. I was tempted to go in, but it looked crowded and I called it a night. I would have a big tour the next day.    

Saturday. September 17.    
Today is the “Skip the Line Full Day VIP Venice” tour. There would be a morning tour, lunch, and then an afternoon tour. “Meet at the Bridge facing the Bridge of Sighs.” The Ponte de’ Sospiri. It was easy to find. This was my first look at the historic bridge. Legend has it that convicted prisoners got their last look at Venice from the bridge. We would tour the Doges’ Palace during the morning. After lunch we would go into St. Mark’s Basilica. Then we would get a boat ride on the canals of Venice! 

Roberta is our guide for the morning tour. She’s another excellent guide. She’s friendly and personable. The guides have to be knowledgeable and entertaining. It has to be said again. All the guides I’ve been with on this trip have been excellent! 
We enter the courtyard of the Doges’ Palace. One side of the courtyard had been restored in the 1600s, so there were two different types of architecture on the buildings around the courtyard. The Grand Entrance had Gothic architecture on one side and there was more modern architecture on the other. The Grand Entrance was built to impress. Important guests were greeted here and then guided to the Golden Stairway.
We went up the Giants Stairway. It’s named for the statues of Mars and Neptune at the top of the stairs. Newly elected Doges had their coronation ceremony here. Roberta told us that the statues were large enough to remind the new Doge that he was still a man like anyone else. 
Roberta talked about the corno dogale. Instead of a crown the Doges wore these peaked caps. Venice was a republic, not a monarchy. Crowns were inappropriate. Venice had a complex political system. The Grand Council elected the Doge, who took office for life. Most of The Grand Council were rich merchants. It was an oligarchy.    
We went through a modern area of the museum that looked like offices. There was a barred entrance to an older part of the building. Roberta had a large, ancient looking key. She struggled with the lock before we entered the prison area of the Doges Palace. 
It was cramped and dark. A stone stairway wound up to our left. There were small holding cells. These were the dreaded “Pozzi,” the Wells. Five to ten prisoners would be crowded inside each cell. These cells were for “the worst of the worst.” The cells were next to the canal. They were dark and wet. “It was a horrible environment.” There was one bed in the middle of the cell. There was only a bucket for waste needs. Prisoners would go mad and kill each other. It was hard to imagine such cruelty. It happened right here. It made Alcatraz sound like a summer day camp. 
“Upper class inmates” were sent upstairs to the Piombi cells. We went up the winding staircase. The low overhead was another reminder that people were smaller back then. Roberta reminded us to use caution going up the steps. The old steps were not cut evenly. It was an awkward climb. We ducked under low beams and stone.
Many of the prisoners in the Piombi were being held on political charges. The cells did look more humane. They are larger, and there was more light and air. It was away from the stench of the wet cells below, but there was a catch. The Piombi were named after the lead tiles that covered the roof. The tiles made the summer heat intense inside the cells. These were cells “Like the one Casanova was in.” We’ll get to see the cells he was kept in later.

It made me wonder about Venetian justice. It was known to be harsh. They didn’t exactly read you your Miranda rights back then. Later we would hear about false accusations and their consequences.   

Casanova was a political prisoner, so his imprisonment wasn’t as brutal. He still  made a daring escape. He had dug a hole in his cell. His jailers planned to move him to a better cell. His new cell would even have a window with a small view, a very valuable perk for any prisoner. Casanova realized that when he moved, his tunnel would be discovered. He had to make a break for it. Another prisoner, a priest accused of adultery, escaped with him. 
They got onto the roof. At that time the Doges’ Palace still had working offices. Guards thought that Casanova and his cohort were scribes who had gotten locked in. They let them out of the prison and onto the street. Casanova claims that they stopped at St. Mark’s Square for a cup of coffee before completing their escape!  
Historians are doubtful. They think he might have had more outside help. His guard was charged as an accomplice and imprisoned. It was suspected he just let Casanova free. 

We go up some stairs and enter a set of small offices. They were “working offices.” The desks and rooms are small. It was not a place for ceremony.  From there we enter some court hearing rooms. One of the rooms had an ominous trap door. 

We enter a larger room. It looks like a larger courtroom, but this is the Copy Room.  Large chairs carved into the woodwork ring the floor. Three copies of all documents were made here. There was always the fear of fire. One copy was moved to another location in the Palace. Another copy was moved off site. The only archives larger than those at the Doges’ Palace was in the Vatican.  
Roberta points out the shape of the doors. The bottoms of the doors are wider than the top. They look like they won’t fit. It looks like they wouldn’t close. The hinge is bigger at the bottom. The floors never really settle in Venice. The bigger hinge allows the door to close. It doesn’t look right, but it works for Venice. 
Along the walls are forty-four coats of arms. They are the coats of arms of the Doges. Roberta says that, “Venetians are optimistic.” There were blank coats of arms waiting for the next Doges when Napoleon ended their rule.

Next is the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, or The Higher Council Hall. “It’s one of the largest rooms in Europe.” Two thousand could meet here. Like other parts of the Doges Palace it was damaged by fire many years ago. Most of the walls and ceilings of the Doges Palace are covered in art. It’s stunning.
Much of this ceiling is covered with The Deification of Venice by Veronese. Another huge painting is Paradise by Tintoretto. It’s the biggest oil painting in the world. His son Domenico had to finish it. Above three sides of the hall are paintings of the 76 Doges that ruled Venice. There was a Doge who was a traitor. A black cloth covers his image. 

There are other works on the frescoed ceiling: Doge Ponte Paying Homage to Venice by Tintoretto, and Venice Welcoming the Conquered Nations around her Throne by Palma the Younger. 

The three floors of the Palace are connected by the Scala d’Oro. The Golden Staircase. Gold stucco covers the ceiling. It’s another part of the palace that is designed to impress and intimidate visiting dignitaries with the wealth of Venice. 

The Sala del Senato, the Senate Hall, is another large room. It has a raised area with choir style seats. It’s more like a church. The chairs are part of the woodwork. There are other chairs set in the woodwork around the room. The room has frescoes by Tintoretto and Jacopo Giovane. They are connected by painted, golden “frames.”  

The Sala dei Collegio is the where the most important visitors to Venice were greeted by the Doge and his cabinet. All of the Palace is ornate, but here every inch of wall and ceiling space has art on it. Above the Doges’ Throne is Veronese’s Thanks After the Battle of Lepanto. An antechamber holds the Rape of Europa.  

A courtroom next to it is the Sala Degli Inquisitori. The Inquisitors Room. The Inquisitori were three specially appointed officials. Their duty was to protect state secrets. Those accused of treason were brought here.  
There is a relatively optimistic fresco by Tintoretto on the ceiling. It’s bright and colorful. The accused might feel a little relieved. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all. The floor was marble and has a square design. A large armoire in the corner has a door that leads directly to the prison cells. There were many judicial rude awakenings here. It was right below the “Casanova cell.” 

We go through the Hall of the Compass, the Sala dela Bussola. The walls are covered in large paintings. Veronese painted the ceiling. This room holds the “mouth for secret accusations.” Venetians could rat each other out anonymously by just dropping a note in the still visible slot.
This made me wonder about Venetian justice again. Our guide said that making a false accusation was a serious offense. The accuser would be sentenced to whatever sentence his false accusation may have led to! How did they figure out if an accusation was false? Would it be too late for someone who was falsely accused?  
Next is the Hall of the Council of Ten, the Consiglio dei Dieci. The Council of Ten was created after a conspiracy failed in 1310. The Ten were elected by the Grand Council, the Doge and six of his councillors. The Council of Ten’s deliberations were secret. There was no appeal against their judgement. 
Every ceiling is covered in frescoes. The ones in this room are the work of Gian Ponchino with help from Gian Zelotti and Veronese. The frescoes were meant to show the power of the Council of Ten. One shows Juno offering the Ducal Crown to Venice. The work by Veronese is Jupiter Hurling Thunderbolts Against the Vices. This is a copy. Napoleon removed the original to the Louvre.  
After Napoleon took Venice he invited Venetian citizens to come in and take whatever they wanted from the Doges Palace. He had already shipped many art treasures back to France. People took anything they could carry. It was a democratic form of looting.   

We entered the Interrogation Room. This was not a place for the weak of heart. A rope hung ominously from the high ceiling. Prisoners were hoisted on it causing much stress to sockets and joints. Limbs were dislocated. Other prisoners were waiting in cells above. They could hear, but they couldn’t see what was happening.  They could be waiting to go next. The acoustics in the room amplified the screams and terror. It was very persuasive. 
Roberta told us that, “Women were not involved in politics in any way.” The sensibilities of the day would not allow even the threat of torture for women. “Politics were just too rough for women.” 

We enter another section of the Piombi and see Casanova’s cell. “His jailer was Lorenzo.” It looks like luxury compared to the damp and wet wells downstairs. We’re shown the second Casanova cell. It’s the one his jailers wanted to move him to. The cell was a bit of a trade off for Casanova. Casanova was very tall for his time, six foot three. The ceiling was lower than his first cell, but there is a view. 

We go through a door that leads us into an attic. Below us we can see the wood beams that support the ceiling of the rooms below. If something were dropped in here it could ruin priceless masterpieces on the ceiling below. An attic like this is navigated by Richard Langdon in Dan Brown’s Inferno.
Weapons were stored here and they are now on display in glass cases. It’s a great collection. Many of them were captured during Venice’s conquests. There are large lances and swords. Roberta says that, “The people were small, but the weapons were large!”
We leave the attic and enter the armory. We’re leaving the secret tour and entering a public area. There is a set of armor that Henry IV of France wore. 
I’ve seen collections of weapons before, but this might be the most interesting display ever. The history of Venice is laid out in pikes, lances and cross bows. Venice had to be a military power to defend its territory. 
Many of the weapons were the spoils of war. Some were taken from defeated Turks. A large banner hangs in the middle of the room. It was captured at the Battle of Lepanto. It’s an amazing piece of history.     
One weapon that stood out was a twenty barrel harquebus. Twenty barrels were  rotated on a carriage and fired one at a time. It’s an obvious precursor to the machine gun. Was it ever used?   
We’re nearing the end of the tour at the entrance to the Bridge of Sighs. The Ponte de’ Sospiri. We will be on our own to go across the famous bridge. They’ve learned that people tend to linger here. You can look out the small windows at the water and get the last view condemned prisoners got. 
The Doge’s Palace is a grand sight. The history of Venice is preserved in this magnificent building. Like many sights on this trip, I wondered if I’d ever see this wonderful place again.