We wanted to go to Venice, but it's a three-hour train trip from Milan, which wouldn't leave us anywhere near enough time to see Venice. So we arranged a two-day excursion, leaving Milan in the morning and returning the next day. Narrow streets to back doors
The train ride was generally uninteresting -- rather dirty-looking industry and agriculture, shrouded in grey clouds. We did have one brief spell where the clouds parted to show us blue sky and beautiful sun-spotted hills in the distance, so we know that this area can be beautiful in good weather.
Our route took us through Mantua and Padua and Verona, all of the Shakespearean towns which from the train resemble each other with their business buildings and plants and parking lots.
We thought we'd never get to Venice, but finally we left industrial Italy; our hearts skipped a beat as the train sailed out onto a causeway into the Adriatic. On either side of the causeway were boatmen practicing; they stood at one end of the boat and thrust vigorously on the oars, making a pretty good speed across the water. Santa Maria della Salute
When we stepped out of the train station, we were looking right at a beautiful canal with a bridge over it, like a story book picture. We left our bags at the nearby hotel and set out on foot through the narrow streets and over the footbridges. The city was crowded with tourists in early December; we were grateful it wasn't high season!
We had two maps -- one in the Michelin guide, the other from the Tourist Information office -- and both were useless in figuring out the streets and alleys of the city. Fortunately there are signs directing the tourists to the major attractions (and, incidentally, through all the shopping districts). We had walked several blocks before we realized there were no cars -- what a pleasant area for pedestrians.
Positioned strategically along the footbridges were young, handsome gondoliers in black and white horizontally striped shirts and straw boaters with bright ribbons. A gondolier at work
Our first stop was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. We're becoming rather attached to this saint, whom we first met as Saint Roche at a museum in Canada. He left his rich family to serve the poor, being stricken with the plague (in Canada they said it was leprosy, and that images show a leprous sore on his left leg) but was saved by a dog who brought him some bread. He is considered a patron saint of Venice, saving the city when it was threatened by Plague.
Founded in 800, Venice was the center of East-West trade and grew fabulously rich. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the greatest artists in the world came to study in the art schools of Venice. Every square inch of the walls and ceilings of the great hall of the Scuola is covered with paintings, sculpture, and decorative carved and gilt woodwork. Most of the paintings are by Tintoretto, who was a brother of this Order. The effect is Harlequin masks for sale overpowering.
To examine the paintings on the ceiling, the visitor may pick up a mirror, about a foot and a half in length, and walk around the room. (No one seems to worry too much whether the reversed images are what Tintoretto had in mind.)
Leaving San Rocco, we followed the signs to the Piazza San Marco through a maze of streets lined with stores for tourists. Aside from tourist junk, the specialty items for sale in Venice include Venetian glass (Murano Island is part of Venice) and harlequin masks (Venetians celebrate Carnival before Lent.) We must have passed thirty stores selling glass and thirty more selling masks during our walk to San Marco. There was also a Gucci and a Cartier for the big spenders, a Disney Store and Footlocker, and of course a McDonalds, for homesick Americans. It appeared that all the stores were open on Sunday.
We had pizza for lunch in a small trattoria. Italian pizzas are made with thin crusts, with less tomato sauce and wonderful cheese, and baked in a very hot oven so parts of the crust are blackened. You eat them with a knife Where we ate lunch and fork. There were plenty more handsome young men in typical Venetian outfits enjoying lunch or a glass of wine in the restaurant. We steadfastly resisted the temptation to be photographed with one of these Adonises.
This was the first time in Europe we were refused tap water with our meal (we haven't been affected by our choice.) The waittress indicated they were not allowed to serve tap water in the restaurant. We decided if the local authorities felt that way, so did we, and we bought two large containers of bottled water for the hotel room. (The following morning we discovered that the hotel served only bottled water with breakfast, although there was no sign in the bathroom indicating the water was unsafe to drink.)
Entering the Piazza San Marco is like stepping into the middle of a picture post card. There is the huge square surrounded by a columned gallery; there are the flocks of pigeons interspersed with little stands selling pigeon Columns, Sts. Mark and Theodore food or art prints; there is the variegated and intricate marble facade of the Basilica and the Doge's Palace; and there are the tourists with their guide books and cameras. (We imagine each Japanese family having dozens of scrapbooks showing family members against every possible tourist backdrop on earth.)
We were fortunate to have arrived at low tide; workers were just picking up the wooden platforms which are erected to let people walk around during times of high water. The Basilica has settled, the Adriatic has risen, Venice is gradually losing its treasures to the sea. The city fathers have posted little maps showing which paths to take to keep dry. A couple of buildings are shrouded by protective covers as restoration work is being done, but by and large the buildings here, as in Milan, are grubby and stained, missing chunks of stucco, badly needing sanding and painting on window frames and shutters. We suspect the intense efforts to preserve the major historic buildings drains money from general building maintenance.
The two of us usually have the same tastes -- acquired over 43 years -- but we reacted differently to the Byzantine splendour of St. Mark's Basilica. The floor is covered with intricate tile work, the domed ceilings are glittering with golden mosaic; the pulpit is reached through a staircase, built out of more Mosaic floor, St. Mark's kinds and colors of marble than we knew existed. The staircase makes two circuits before ending up at the pulpit.
We paid an extra fee to see the jewelled gold altar screen, but had to wait for five or ten minutes while a tour guide gave her spiel in Italian. This interested us, because there were signs posted all over the church in four languages which said that no explanations were to be given inside the basilica in respect for the sanctity of the holy place. We did notice the tour guide and the cashier thank each other most graciously as the tour left!
We decided to leave dry land and see more of Venice by water. You have your choice of water transportation in Venice. The beautiful gondolas are lined up next to the Piazza San Marco, gondoliers waiting to scull the craft through the canals. Sleek power cruisers are fitted out as water taxis for private charter. We elected to take an inexpensive but crowded Vaporetto, or Water Bus, Ceiling decorations, St. Mark's through the Grand Canal. We bought one-day tourist passes. One waits for a Vaporetto on a floating bus stop, so the bus drivers can make instant, jolting stops and jack rabbit starts, while the passengers step aboard or ashore at the same level as the deck of the Vaporetto.
Coming from businesslike Milan, we were enormously vulnerable to the charms of Venice, and very happy that we had allowed an extra night for the excursion. The ride through the Grand Canal was another picture postcard experience. Many of the beautiful houses and hotels of Venice front on the water, not the streets; in fact some of them are only accessible by water. The Grand Canal is the water equivalent of Broadway or the Strand or the Champs Elysee.
The gondolas and gondoliers are graceful to watch. Most of them were filled with romantic young couples; the Venetians rode the Vaporetto. All along the Grand Canal are wharves for mooring boats (we saw one boat filled with suitcases) with gaily painted pilings in barber pole stripes, or bold primary colors with gold decorations. Roof of the Basilica
Did we say that we had to come to Venice on Sunday because we couldn't get a hotel room on Friday or Saturday? We understood why as our Vaporetto filled almost to the gunwales with tourists and their luggage on their way to the train station after a weekend vacation.
We checked into our comfortable hotel room and set out again. Next door to our hotel is a wonderful church with a perfectly magnificent marble high altar; it doesn't even rate a mention in our Michelin guide. Down the street a little farther is a clutch of Coast Guard boats, tied up peacefully at the dock. One of the most successful exported American ideas is the racing stripe to identify a Coast Guard cutter.
We liked the water views of the city so much that we took another vaporetto ride, an hour and a half around the outside of the city to the Lido and back to the station. It was growing dark as we set out at 4:30, so we saw the buildings illuminated by evening floodlights. We were impressed that all the gondolas, water taxis and vaporettos avoided crashing into one another, even at night.
The evening boat ride revealed a moody and romantic city; (possibly due to the water-spattered windows on the boat and the general damp grey weather.) We saw occasional street lights, but parts of the city were quite dark. Of course there were no headlights. We saw the silhouette of a man sprinting to catch the boat, and we watched a Dalmatian dog on the loose enter a dark alley where he was soon lost to sight. There was a Vaporetto stop at the hospital, Italian Coast guard boat where lights shone through some of the windows. There are pilings to mark the shallow areas close to shore, lit by yellow warning lights. Disembarking passengers were soon lost in the gloom. As we returned to the area close to the station there were lights of hotels and restaurants and floodlights on some of the buildings; it felt as if we had moved from the nineteenth century to the twentieth.
We changed boats at the Lido, where lots of bicycles were parked at the (one) Vaporetto stop. Of course we didn't get to explore Venice's famous beach, but we can at least say we've been there!
We enjoyed people watching on the Vaporetto. One grand lady of a certain age, heavily made up, well-jewelled and wearing a full length fur coat, read a newspaper. Her fur coat spread out on the bench next to her, and nobody risked trying to sit there. We've noticed lots of fur coats in Europe, especially in Italy. With the temperature mostly in the range of 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, the coats are not really needed for warmth, but they do advertise a degree of personal prosperity.
Lots of Italians wear black; the weather has been so gray we'd have supposed they'd prefer brighter colors, but not so. Also, one can't help noticing the Italian men speaking with their hands, using forceful gestures with fingers together and flexible wrists.
We went to bed exhausted, not so much from walking around as from all the wonderful sights we'd seen in a short day in the city of 117 islands (says Michelin.)