I’m old enough now to join the ranks of Baby Boomers who are traveling everywhere on the planet. Two weeks ago my daughter and I traveled to Venice, Florence and Rome in celebration of her 35th birthday. Although I visited Venice 10 years ago with a group of teachers, it had been 45 years since I’d been to Rome and Florence. I had fuzzy memories of my first trip when I was in my mid-twenties; this journey would reacquaint me with a few familiar places.
Although I would have preferred to end our trip in Venice, the travel arrangements had us going to Venice first. I jumped on the chance to join a group of teachers doing an art tour of Venice, Vienna and Prague a decade ago, and I loved it so much I hoped to return one day. My daughter’s pending birthday was my excuse to make plans to return with her to Italy.
To me, Venice is a mirage floating on water. It was even more glorious than I remembered it to be.
It doesn’t seem possible that a city built on wooden pilings pounded into the clay below the surface of the lagoon almost 1500 years ago could still be standing intact. As I learned from our tour guide in Venice, the wood used to build the impressive palazzos along the Grand Canal was brought from as far away as Croatia and Slovenia by boat. Then hundreds, sometimes thousands of wooden posts had to be pounded into the clay with a wooden platform placed on top of the pilings to support each palazzo. Since wood does not deteriorate when it is completely submerged and has no contact with oxygen, but instead becomes stronger through a salt-water petrification process, these pilings have allowed the ornate buildings of Venice to continue to appear to float on the surface of the Grand Canal since the fifth century.
Yes, the sea level is rising and Venice is scrambling to deal with that problem since 2003 by constructing three strategically placed floodgates at entrances to the Grand Canal (the MOSE project) to hold back the occasional flood tides, similar to the flood gates in Amsterdam and London. Most people, however, believe this is a temporary solution and that Venice will eventually slowly sink into the sea which surrounds it.
And, yes, the quantity of cruise ships entering the lagoon over the past decade was doing irreparable damage to the Grand Canal which has now been addressed by new regulations preventing the cruise ships from anchoring inside the Grand Channel lagoon.
On the final day of our 2 1/2 day visit to Venice we did see a cruise ship being towed through the Grand Canal out to the Mediterranean. It was a ghastly sight; the ship loomed over the palazzos along the Grand Canal as it slowly made its way out to the Adriatic Sea. I was so grateful our vistas of the Grand Canal had not been affected by the presence of these ships (as they had been when we visited Greece last year), except for the hordes of tourists that would invade the city every day.
This second time around in Venice I was struck by the constant movement of water in the Grand Canal, caused by the ebb and flow of the tide. This is accentuated by the constant traffic of boats of all kinds plying the waters of the canal. Since the city is criss-crossed by canals and foot bridges that connect the countless islands (originally 118) that make up the city, trucks and cars are not a viable means of transportation. We watched flat-hulled work boats carrying among other things, jugs of wine, water bottles, construction equipment, and fresh produce throughout the day, starting early each morning.
The constant movement of water and boat traffic creates an overall feeling of restlessness in the city. Things quiet down after midnight when the work boats are docked and the tourist gondolas and ferries are at rest. I ended each exhausting day of sightseeing by opening the shutters and the windows of our lovely room facing the Grand Canal to be greeted by the sight and peacefulness of Venice at night, under a full moon. Only then can you actually hear the water lapping at the foundations of the buildings, reminding you that this city is unique in the world and is a survivor.
I know I haven’t even mentioned the usual tourist attractions of Venice: St. Mark’s Cathedral, the Doges Palace, the Rialto Bridge and market and the hundreds of churches and squares that are pervasive. I will address them in a future post. But for me, this second time around, I found I wanted to know more about the structure and inner workings of the city and how Venetians actually live their daily lives in this magical place.
Next time: A meet-up with an American violin-maker who moved his family to Venice and a reunion with a master engraver who is still capturing the beauty and timelessness of Venice in his engravings.