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. 


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. They 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 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. Doges and dignitaries 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 the familiar 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 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 romantic spot near the canal makes it a 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 go inside 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 on 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. 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? What was he thinking? 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. They still drew a small crowd of Bosch fans. 
Like the other big museums in Europe, most of the paintings are on 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 do 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 on 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 wasn’t good, 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.

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