Three days in Venice…

My first international flight takes me to Europe and the heart of Carnivale in Venice,  February 2009.

You never forget your first time …

February 14 – Seattle to Frankfurt

I arrive at SeaTac shortly after noon to board my plane for Venice. It’s my first international flight, and immediately it becomes obvious, waiting at the gate, listening to the loudspeaker blasting out boarding calls for Beijing and Paris. I soon board a plane that is smaller than I had expected. I’m really glad I packed light. The luggage stow-away rack is well above my head, and a stranger offers silent assistance with my carry-on. Thank you…

Take-off is uneventful, and the flight has only the most occasional turbulence, during which I watch the interior of the plane serpentine, as though it were a Viking long ship. It’s a little disconcerting. I reset my watch to Frankfurt time, and read until I can fall sleep.

I get two hours of shut-eye before dinner. I fall right back to sleep afterward. By the time the plane lands, I am very ill. I’m the last passenger on the plane, and  the stewards ask me if they need to call a doctor, which I decline. I Do Not Want to start my vacation from a hospital in Frankfurt!

I get off the plane and make it through the security checkpoint and onto my connecting flight for Venice. Once more on the ground, I realize I left my favorite ring and a couple of other things in Frankfurt customs. I resign myself to the fact that they are remnants of the past, and that I will find a new ring in Venice.

I find the bus stop, and find that some things are universal — crowded, standing room only buses being one of them. This bus is a cross between a city bus and an airport shuttle, apparently serving both purposes, outfitted with luggage racks but making stops about every two blocks. I’m annoyed that I’m starting this trip on a bad stomach. I strip down to a tank top to avoid becoming overheated on a bus that has non-functioning windows. I must be quite the sight, on a bus full of people dressed in parkas. 

At last, I arrive at Piazzala Roma. I had thought a vaporetto would be a larger version of a gondola, but they are actually water buses, like the Vashon ferry.  I find the one headed to “Rialto #1.” It seems to be pointed the wrong direction but I get on.The window glass is imbedded with a dot-matrix pattern that makes me queasy. But I look out the window as much as I can, and marvel at how much water traffic there is on the canal. 

The Rialto Bridge is larger and more impressive than I had imagined. Passing under the massive arch of stone is like passing from night into day. Suddenly there are people everywhere, many in costume, but most in just hats or makeup. My brother Payne, in his historical garb, is waiting at the San Angelo stop, a short walk through aged alleys to the apartment they have rented on Calle Dei Avvocati (Street of Lawyers) for the next two weeks. He unlocks a massive, wooden door. I walk in to the grand foyer of what appears to be 15th century manor house.

Unbelievable! A stone-tiled floor, high vaulted ceiling, a thick, tall wooden door with a half-circle of wrought iron work above it. An old lamp hangs from an ornamental chain. Payne unfortunately does not have a key to unlock the back door, an iron gate which steps down to a landing and onto a small, green-water service canal. We go up a two-person lift to the third floor, where Marie, his wife, arises from a nap, already dressed in her harlequin street gown. I set my luggage down, and look out the window onto a vista filled with terra cotta tiled roofs, stretching out as far as I can see. My room also has a view of terra cotta roof tiles and wooden shuttered windows just across the alley. These views are nearly indescribable.

After a couple of glasses of water and a brief sit down, I change into my Venetian gown, and we set off, winding our way through alleyways and onto San Marco Square, the Grand Central for Carnivale. We turn the corner, and the landscape fills with the domes and towers of the Basilica. It takes my breath away.

The Basilica is not as tall as I imagined, but far more ornate than my camera can capture. We walk up to the facade, and within a few minutes, bells start to toll — first from the short church tower on the left, then from the taller tower on the right. Birds fly in a perfect shade-of-blue sky. The sudden transition to an earlier century is so complete and overwhelming that I stop in my tracks and start to cry. Marie, who has walked ahead with Payne, turns around, and comes back and puts her arm around me. “This is why we try to bring people here”…

It is hard to move quickly, or at times make any progress at all in this crowd. Payne is an extraordinary draw and tourists flock to him like paparazzi. Marie and I wait patiently for crowds to clear. We take two more steps, and stop again. We wander through to an adjoining square, where she gets some photos of Payne and I together, sitting at the feet of a bronze Venetian winged lion, at the foot of the statue Payne calls “the man with no hat”.

We wander through the “Italian Garden” that has been set up at one end of the square. It’s a combination of topiary, a small stage, and a perimeter made up of sheets painted with topiary, but with no attempt at tromp-de-toile. There is a larger than life topiary lion at one end of the garden, with eyes that light up, that is being hosed down by a workman. The entire scene is a juxtaposition of historic buildings, strands of twinkle lights suspended in the alleys, and large, modern light-sculptures in the “garden”. We find the Bridge of Sighs, completely boxed in with bright blue banners announcing restoration work, making it look more like a two dimensional billboard than an architectural structure.

At the end of the Doge’s Palace, we watch the sky fade from blue to pink, to deeper blue as the sun sets over the lagoon. Venus is clear and bright under a clear, cold sky. The setting sun hits the front of the Basilica, catching the gold mosaic tiles and turning them to fire. Drums start. And into the Italian Garden, careen three silver dragons — half man-on-stilts, half animatron-puppet — with heads extending 12 feet into the air on articulated serpentine necks, tails that look like a single, man-made feather, extending up another eight feet behind them, dancing in a choreographed drill… playing with the crowd… playing with each other… moving through the garden, and then out into the square for the next two hours.

We find our way to Caffe Florian, a baroque salon in operation since 1720, a favorite haunt of Goethe, Casanova (possibly because it was the only coffee house to admit women), and later, Lord Byron, Proust and Dickens. It is filled with costumed revelers, looking very much the part of 17th-18th century lords and courtesans. We are shown to a small table in one of the ornate and crowded salons, and order hot chocolate, which arrives as rich as though it were a Hershey Bar melted into a delicate, porcelain cup. The windows looking out are filled with people looking in, and it is hard to tell which side of the glass is the more active fish bowl. A man in white Carnivale attire, accompanied by a man in black (dressed like Mozart’s father in Amadeus), start hand signaling somewhat obscenely through the glass with a man sitting near us, and flirting with the man’s wife. Hysterical!

More walking over a myriad of small bridges, past an ornate church which none of us recognize, down a dead end, and back onto a plaza which turns out to be Campo Stefano. Vendors in street booths are selling Carnivale regalia. I buy a black tricorner hat, the traditional headwear of Carnivale. It’s wool, and warmer than the costume piece I brought with me. Dinner is at an osteria near the apartment. I eat half of what I order.

Back at the apartment. I stitch a black and gold veil to the back of my new hat. Marie says it needs a pin. I add that to tomorrow’s shopping list, along with writing paper, a mask, and a train ticket to Florence.

For photos from the day, please visit my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

The Doges Palace

At 5:30 AM, the upstairs neighbor wakes up and turns on their lights, which reflect back off the brick and wood-shuttered windows of the building across the alley from my room. At 6:15, a broom hits the pavement, shooing a soda can down the street. A crescent moon hangs above the terra cotta tile rooftops. At 7 AM, church bells begin. Marie is up, and offers to go for a walk with me.

We set out at 7:30, and snap shots of the sunrise as it hits the buildings. It’s a really pleasant walk. Marie points out rooftop gardens on several of the buildings. There are no plantings at street level. I find the place to buy my train ticket. Marie buys blood oranges from a fruit stall, croissants from a baker who did not speak English, and I have my first Italian expresso “at the bar” to save on the 3 euro table charge. This coffee is dramatically different from anything I could hope to get at Starbucks.

After breakfast, I change into my Venetian gown, determined to dress in historical costume for the duration of my stay here. My tricorner hat, though not historically accurate to the cut of my gown, is teh-cute nonetheless, and I am very glad I bought it yesterday. We set out to find favorite shops, which takes the majority of the morning. We are lost much of the time, but see some pretty incredible ancient buildings and very narrow alleys with iron bridges crossing the narrow side canals. Even being lost, it is a good morning.

The other couple that is staying with us announce their arrival on Marie’s cell phone, so Payne and Marie leave to go meet them, and I am left to my own devices. I go to the Doge’s Palace. 

  • Palazzo Ducale, originally built in the 800’s as a fortress that enclosed both the personal residence of the Doge (the Duke who governed early Venice) and the first church in San Marco, but most of what now exists dates from the 1300’s. It became the seat of Venetian government in subsequent centuries and is an excellent example of Venetian Gothic architecture. Again as with much of Venice, art and details that you look at are reconstructed from original pieces. In the case of this palace, pieces that were destroyed in several fires between 976 and 1577. 

The first thing I see is an ornately carved black gondola with an enclosed box over the seat, apparently to provide both shelter and privacy to the Doge on his excursions on the canal. I then check my bag, which was unfortunate, as I didn’t think to take my camera out first, nor did it occur to me to go back to retrieve it. DOH!!!

The sheer amount of sculpture in the courtyard outside of the Doge’s apartments is remarkable, and I wandered for quite a while. The most impressive section of the courtyard is the Foscari Arch, dating from the late 15th century, topped with gothic towers and ornamented with statuary symbolizing the arts, the work of masters of the Lombard School.

One of the next things I observed on the balcony was a lion face relief on the wall, with a mail slot for a mouth, above a carved placard that read “Denontie Secrete Inmaterie Distato.” It was the receiving box for secret notes from citizens, turning in other citizens for transgressions, although the local magistrates rarely took action on these accusations. There would be a few other, less ornate boxes throughout this building.

I enter the palace via the Scala d’Oro…the Golden Staircase, named after the 24-carat gold leaf adorning the arched, stucco ceiling, built by command of Doge Gritti during the mid-1500’s. At the top of the staircase began the Doge’s apartments, both public rooms, and later, private ones. There are no furnishings because each doge was expected to provide his own, and upon his death the furnishings were returned to his heirs.

The first room, a reception chamber, was filled with maps (the originals dated to the late 15th century), and two 6-foot globes in pedestals (dating to the 18th century), meant to underscore the importance of Venice as a world power. The fireplace here is wrapped in scaffolding.

It was at about the Corner Room, or perhaps the Ritratti, that I entered, oblivious to other people, as my neck was craned back in order to keep my eyes on the ceiling. I heard someone inhale sharply, and looked down to see an Italian couple, wide-eyed, looking back at me. “My god”, the man says, “when you walked into the room in your costume, we were just transported…  Thank you!” I told him I was equally transported, being able to walk around in these buildings in period costume. I offered a humble “Grazie” before they left. What an experience that was, for all three of us.

The next floor houses the chambers of government. Incredibly lavish, every single surface of every room is ornamented with paint, gold, and fresco. My favorites were the Sala del Senato (the Senate Room), and the immense Sala del Maggior Consiglio (the Legislature Room, shown here). It measures 175′ x 80′, feels to be the size of a football field, and remains the largest room in all of Europe unsupported by columns. My least favorite room was the Quarantie (the Tribunals of Forty) where justice was meted out. This room had a distinctly different smell than the rest of the rooms, and was one of the last rooms that an accused person would stand in before crossing over the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) which links the courtrooms to the prisons on the other side of a canal.

The Armory displays a variety of weaponry dating back to the 14th century. Fully armored horses stand in a corner, behind glass. Two sets of tournament armor dating from 1490, and a child’s or dwarf’s armor recovered from a battlefield in 1515. The obligatory array of swords, a pair of exquisite Turkish recurve bows, 17th century guns, and an ornate bronze canon whose barrel could only facilitate shot the size of something halfway between a golf and a tennis ball.

Then a walk over the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1602 but named in the 19th century because it was the last view of Venice a prisoner would have before being committed to a cell for the rest of his life, looking out onto the lagoon through two small glass-with-iron-grate windows. The staircase leading to the prison cells was oppressive, and I was glad that it wasn’t more crowded when I was there. These rooms, considered by standards of the day to be more humane than most, would have still driven me to the brink of insanity had I had to stay in them for more than a few hours. Low, arched ceilings, over nothing more than a bench, originally lined with wood planking, and windowless save for the iron grate across the front. It was interesting to note that these cells continued to be used as an active prison up into the 1930’s.

I find the gift shop/museum store, but it’s woefully inadequate, a problem that would be pervasive throughout my stay here. I am incensed at the lack of photos of the Armory in the museum catalog. The triptychs and icons in the apartments aren’t in the guide either, which is really unfortunate since I wanted to learn more about the one that showed Mary in 13th century garb, crucified, as men in armor fainted away at the foot of her cross.

After a few more rooms, I arrive back out on the second story balcony. I retrieve my camera and find the top of the Scala dei Gigante, (Gigantic Staircase) which was the ceremonial approach to the palace and the place where the Doge was crowned. It is flanked on either side by statues of Mars and Neptune, installed in the mid-16th century. As I stand in that spot, I start to laugh. The butts of both Mars and Neptune are at eye-level — mooning the Doge during some of his most important ceremonies.  It brings me to wonder if the placement of these two statues was politically motivated, and then I start laughing again as it is the last visage I have of this place.

I set out to buy a train ticket, with the intention of returning here to see the Basilica. I am lost for almost two hours before I start asking for directions, every 3 blocks, until I finally find the ticketing office I had seen this morning. I buy a ticket for a 6:30 departure tomorrow night, and head back to the Basilica.

What a maze this place is! I weave my way back to the square, only to find the queue in front of the Basilica is really long and full of tourist groups. I decide to shop for a new ring instead. But women’s fingers here are excruciatingly tiny and my hopes of finding a ring with a florin in it, or in fact any ring that will fit, begins to diminish. I decide I will look for one in Florence.

I return to the Basilica, but now it is 4 PM, which doesn’t leave me enough time to do it justice. So I head back to the apartment. Two hours later, I’m still walking around in circles. No matter which direction I leave San Marco Square, I always end up back here. I try to use a pay phones to call Payne and Marie but cannot figure out how to make them work. Even Italians are coming up to me, asking for help. It’s now dark, and I’m pretty certain Payne and Marie have started to worry. I am determined to figure this out.

I set out again, with my map, certain I have it oriented properly. I look up to see a wedding couple in front of me, and a really cool bank of gondolas as tourists start to book their evening cruises. I go over this bridge, that bridge, and yet another, and turn the corner, and… unbelievably… I am back in San Marco Square! Good God! I haven’t decided if I should laugh, or cry…

Another hour has passed, and the costumes have now come out. I walk around, deciding that since I’m here anyway, I should soak up the ambiance of a second night of Carnivale. I watch two costumed girls engaged in a confetti fight as their parents look on, smiling and snapping photos. I make my way back to a pay phone to try again, and get pelted in the face by a little girl throwing confetti. A piece catches an edge in my eye. Great. Now I am lost, -and- blind.

It is now completely dark. One more attempt to leave the square fails, and I suddenly remember that the vaporetto will take me directly back to San Angelo. I make my way to the dock at San Marco, and hop on board a boat that has just arrived, and realize that I am now seeing the rest of the Grand Canal. How Cool Is This! I stand on the bow for a better view. A gondola takes off, loaded with passengers, its hull completely studded with white twinkle lights. The cathedral dome on the other side of the Grand Canal is illuminated and beautiful. I realize this is the only way I would have found the Accadamia, had I planned on going there. I watch a couple get the famous 30 euro per person fine for failing to buy a vaporetto ticket.

I get off, and try a couple of times to locate the Avvocati, before going back to a hotel near the San Angelo stop. “It’s just across the bridge to your left” the concierge says. Bridge? I don’t even remember a bridge. I arrive home at 7 PM, three hours after I intended to. In retrospect, we realize that we should have made a back up plan. “If you are not here by xyz, we will meet you a designated place in San Marco Square at 7 PM,” says Payne. Yup, that would have been a good plan to have in place. They are impressed that I thought to take the vaporetto back home, and we all have a good laugh about my complete inability to navigate Venice on my own. Payne suggests sending a postcard to my boss, asking, “Have you heard from Heather, last seen in San Marco Square on Monday? Please advise…”

  • Travel tip: I later learn that a lot of people get lost here, even the locals…so if you are planning a trip here, book an additional day or two so you factor in that time-loss. 

It is decided that I am not allowed out on my own for the rest of my stay here. Tomorrow morning, Marie and I will tour the Basilica, (the only other must-see thing on my list aside from the Doge’s Palace) and then additional shopping will probably ensue. I am still looking for writing papers and the elusive ring.

For photos from this second day in Venice, please visit my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

The Basilica of St. Marco

I’m awake at 5:30. It’s bread and jam for breakfast, and packing before we take off sightseeing. Then Marie and I set off to the Basilica. There’s a line, but it moves pretty quickly. We enter, and your eyes are amazingly drawn up to the vaulted, mosaic ceilings. Wow…

  • The Basilica was started in 1063, on the site of the previous church which was destroyed by fire in 976. It was consecrated in 1094 with the reburial of St. Mark, patron saint of the city, who had been buried in the original church in the 9th century. It is said that there are about 2 acres of mosaic covering the surfaces of this church, much of it gold leafed glass tile, dating as far back as the 13th century. The books also go into great detail about the specific iconography of the mosaics, which I will spare you here. 

Marie reminds me to spend half of my time looking at the floor, where incredible mosaics and geometrics meet our every step. The floor is nearly as incredible as the ceiling. I reach down several times to touch the marble, the sardonyx, the lapis. The floor is much smoother than I expected, for it being made up of so many angular cuts of stone.

And then, we enter the Treasury — a depository of treasures brought back to Venice from Constantinople in 1204. An Egyptian vase, 4th century Roman glass, numerous Roman and Byzantine chalices carved from stone and gilded and jeweled, lamps and pails carved from clearest rock-crystal. The piece that made the greatest impression on me was a simple milk-glass plate from China, dating to the 13-14th centuries. I fantasize Marco Polo’s fingerprints being on the edges of it.

I did not choose well when I opted out of going upstairs, which I later realized was the San Marco Museum — the Doge’s banquet hall which now houses tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and on the balcony, the four bronze horses that you can see from the Square. But by that time I had nearly burned my retinas with the details of this place, and was pretty overwhelmed. I light candles for Dad and Chuck, who both died last year, and then exit the building. 

We stop for lunch. I order a mushroom pizza and café correto (coffee ‘corrected’ with liquor). I stumble with the language barrier again, and experience a bit of culture shock as I am trying to communicate with a Chinese barkeep, in Italian. She brings me two bottles — Jaegarmeister and Jack Daniels. Jack it is. When the coffee arrives, it is half alcohol. I don’t finish it, or the pizza. But I will never eat American pizza again.

We go shopping. The first find of the day, is also the best — a second hand store which looks promising for Payne as he searches for hardware for their house. There, in a glass case along the back wall, I find it. A ring with a gold lion head, a symbol of Venice. I ask the shopkeeper to unlock the case. I try it on, and it slips onto my finger as though it was made for me. My ring, found at last. 

We see more Carnivale costume today, nearly always these people are in pairs, who stroll very slowly, with specific poses and sometimes even specific places to pose in the square. We see stacks of what look like really long benches, which Marie explains are set up as walkways during the aqua alta, the street flooding which, fortunately, we do not experience this trip. A French puppeteer, with his marionettes, his waist-high stage set up on the street, with backgrounds that he rolls in order to change the scenery, and a microphone and earpiece that he wears like body jewelry. 

We visit the Cathedral of the Salute (Santa Maria della Salute) where I light a candle for Mischka, who also died last year. About half the outside of the dome is covered with scaffolding. It is also in sharp contrast to the Basilica, with its grey, unadorned interior, and its dome inset with glass panels, which fills the entire building with that beautiful Venetian light. It was built in 1630 by those thankful few who survived the Black Death that year. Outside the Salute, another very old church, appearing to date to the 10th-11th century, which I photograph in hopes of finding the name of it later. Another Carnivale costume, this one, a single Lioness… 

We head back to the Rialto and cross to the other side. A ride in a gondola has been ousted from our plans due to the cost (100 euro), so we step onto a trajetto instead. This boat is not as ornate as a gondola, but is the same basic shape, and you stand in it instead of sitting. For the cost of a single euro each, we board the “poor man’s gondola” and snap photos of the Rialto from water level at the center of the Grand Canal. So much fun! 

On the other side, past the Guggenheim Museum which is closed today, we see the Palazzo Contarinin deo Bovolo, (the Bovolo Tower), the famous spiral staircase built at the turn of the 16th century. I would never have found it on my own because it’s buried in a labyrinth of narrow alleyways. It’s also closed for restoration work, but we admire it nonetheless, as well as the cisterns and large marble tubs that are in the fenced off garden in front of it. 

We walk back to the square and find the vendor where I bought my hat. He remembers us, although I suspect it was Payne that jogged his memory, rather than me. Then it is back to the apartment, to pick up my luggage, to go to the vaporetto, where I narrowly avoid getting on the one going in the wrong direction. Then, to the train station, where my trip to Florence begins.

For photos from this last day in Venice, please visit my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

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