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.