When traveling I prefer to stay in one place for a while so I can get to know its rhythm, learn about the daily activities of the local inhabitants, and maybe even pick up a phrase or two in their language.
My recent trip to Venice contradicted all the above. It was a nine-day excursion, powering through three of Italy’s most amazing cities: Venice, Florence and Rome, in that order. I could easily spend two weeks to a month in each city. Although I was eager to revisit Italy (it had been 45 years since I first visited Florence and Rome) to introduce my daughter to its wonders, I was concerned about how little time we would actually have to spend in each city; only 2 1/2 days!
Last week I wrote about our first day in Venice (re-introduction for me since I visited 10 years ago). We took it easy our first day (after not sleeping on the overnight flight from the USA). Basically, we settled in to our hotel, had delicious pizza for lunch right outside the hotel, then headed toward the Jewish ghetto of Venice nearby, reportedly the first of its kind in Europe. It was a place I had not visited on my first trip to Venice so I was excited about seeing it.
Though you can still see the recesses in the walls where the hinges of the portals once hung, the Venice ghetto has not been a prison since Napoleon seized the city and tore down the gates in 1797. Today, no barrier or signpost marks where Venice ends and its ghetto begins. Cross a canal on an arched bridge, duck through a sottoportego (an alley tunneling through a building), disappear down a vent in the urban fabric — you come and go just like everywhere else in the maze of this island city.
After an amazing 45 minute ride on the vaporetto, we got off at Piazza San Marco so my daughter could have her first glimpse of this world-renowned plaza and St. Mark’s cathedral.
Piazza San Marco; Wikipedia
It was very crowded and hectic, so after a short stay we reboarded the vaparetto and headed back to the hotel. We ended our first day with a lovely dinner at our canal-side hotel restaurant overlooking the Grand Canal, serenaded by a pianist and singer performing lovely renditions of American jazz favorites!
Our plans for our second day in Venice were a bit more specific. Our first adventure was a morning walking tour through the streets of Venice in the Rialto market area.
Our guide, a native Venetian, was very proud of her city and focused her talk on both the history of the area and how working class people adapted to life in Venice. We eventually walked past the Fenice, the famous opera house, a place I was eager to see. Before our departure for Venice I read City of Falling Angels which begins the night the Fenice burned down. The author who was in Venice at the time delves into all the intrigue involved in solving the mystery of how the fire started. His characterization of certain key local figures and their behaviors during the inquiry was both amusing and informative.
Next on our agenda was a visit to a luthier. In the U.S. my daughter works for a luthier who owns a violin shop on Long Island. When her boss heard we were going to Venice, he immediately suggested we visit a good friend of his, also a luthier, who now lives and works in Venice. His business is located near the Rialto Bridge and market.
We had some difficulty finding his place since it was tucked away in a corner of a busy touristic street and was not well demarcated. After a couple of texts back and forth with the luthier, we located his doorway and entered. We climbed a few flights of stairs to our host’s apartment and were greeted warmly. He led us into a very spacious room which had been freshly painted; paintings were stacked on the floor around the perimeter of the room, leaning against the walls. Although the room was sparsely furnished, there was a comfortable couch for us to sit on.
We exchanged personal information and news from home regarding my daughter’s employer, and then settled into a discussion about why he decided six years ago to live and work in Venice. Our host explained that a few years ago he made a decision to bring his family to live in Venice because he wanted to raise his children in a more cultured and international environment than he felt was available in America. His son, for example, is now fluent in several languages taught in his new school and is immersed in the arts. He said the family loves their proximity to so many different cultures and nations, making it easy for them to go anywhere at the drop of a hat. They would probably find it difficult to return to America and no longer have available to them such diverse experiences. He described their life in Venice as a “rich.” When I asked if he thought he they might return to the USA one day, he paused and said, “Probably not.” I understood and envied his decision.
My daughter was disappointed that his studio had been dismantled for the renovation of the apartment he and his family had recently moved into. She was looking forward to observing how he conducts his business in Venice. At her request, he brought out one of the violins he had made and showed it to us.
Before leaving we were ushered into the kitchen so I could have a drink of water. Members of the family were sitting around an ordinary looking kitchen table, snacking or having lunch. Everyone was polite, but we were not invited to stay. I had hoped for a more intimate look at how an ex-pat and his family were conducting their new life in Venice, but he had an important engagement that day so our time with him was limited. We had caught a glimpse of an American family transitioning to a more established long-term existence in Venice. It gave me a lot to think about.
We said our goodbyes and returned to the hustle and bustle of the streets below his apartment. Our next destination was to find the department store which our tour guide earlier in the day had told us offered the best views of Venice…for free! We entered the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi and found the elevator which would take us to the fourth floor and the rooftop view. We stepped out of the elevator into an unexpected crowd of people waiting on line. Unbeknownst to us, it was graduation day at the local schools and universities and we were caught up in groups of families attempting to do the same thing we hoped to do.
When we finally stepped out on the rooftop we immediately felt the wait was worthwhile. There was a magnificent panorama of the Venice in every direction. We could see all the activity on the streets and canals below us. I wondered what Venetians centuries ago would have thought of this view of present day Venice!
Feeling rather smug with ourselves for having experienced one of the secrets of Venice, we felt we had put in a pretty full day and headed back to our hotel, again by vaporetto.
Although while we were in Venice there were many more people than we had anticipated, making boarding the vaporetto a competitive experience, it was always a thrill to squeeze into a spot and gaze at the incomparable sight of the diverse palazzos that line the canal from beginning to end. I kept remembering a line from the Lonely Planet guidebook which I am here paraphrasing: “Push and shove your way to the front of the boat to get a seat; you will have an incomparable view of Venice if you succeed.” Sounds a bit aggressive, but the writer was right. The view of the Grand Canal was spectacular from the front of the boat.
Back at the hotel, we settled in for a second night of dinner in the canal-side restaurant. And why not! One more day left to spend in Venice. I couldn’t believe how fast time was flying.
Day three: Piazza San Marco: St. Mark’s church and the Doges Palace; a heavenly concert, a surprise encounter with an old acquaintance…and, finally, a gondola ride!