Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 18, 2006

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Friday, September 15, 2006

September 15-18
It was THE place I started dreaming of as soon as I made the decision to go on sabbatical. We've all seen the pictures - for 34 years in my case. And they did nothing to prepare me for the reality of this enchanting and beguiling town. Venice. Venezia. Although...there were problems.
The train from Florence had been easy enough, but when I went to the Bigliateria to secure a reservation on the3 overnight train to Vienna in three days time, I encountered a bit of a line. Nothing to severe though. Finally I was able to get on one of these night trains. I'd hoped to do more of them when I started the trip so I wouldn't "waste" my days en route from city to city. But as I believe I've mentioned before, I was very much enjoying my time on the rails.
In any case, when I set foot outside the station, that's when the fun began. That is, after I picked my jaw up off the ground. I don't know, maybe I'm just a sucker for the water. Amsterdam, with her canals, had a similar affect on me, but certainly not to this awe-inspiring degree.
I walked up tote first set of boats I saw that looked like they were involved in commercial transport of people (read = tourists) and asked how much it would cost to get to my hotel. It was a water taxi, I later found out, and he told me 50-euro. Yes, 5-0. "Hell no, buddy!" Then I saw the bigger boats. The water buses or Vaporetto as I also later learned. Just my luck though - once at the ticket counter I was informed that on this very day, for these my first 24 hours in Venice, the public transport workers had decided to strike. "You dirty Degos!" (Sorry Caggiano).  Ok, looks like we're walking.
At this point in the trip, in addition to what I had brought with me initially, I had acquired the aforementioned useless cel. phone and charging apparatus (which I should have just ditched by now), the poster from the bull ring in Sevilla, the painting from Rome, a beach towel I got in Barcelona and I think eight more books. I'd only abandoned two of the books I'd finished because I liked the others so much I wanted to keep them. So with, what? 80 maybe 90lbs. on my back I began the silliest walk of my life.
It was beautiful at every turn, but that's the problem. There is no direct path to ANYWHERE in that town. Two days later I would surprise myself by rounding a corner and thinking, "Oh yeah. I've been here before. Twice." So I went left and I went right and I went straight and I crossed over a canal and then another and another. At certain points I walked the equivalent of five city blocks out of my way simply because there was no bridge near where I needed to go or because the lane I was on just dead ended at the water and I had to back-track. Later I found this all quite charming as I had in Santa Cruz. But just now with the sun beating down, lugging my gear, not sure I would be able to navigate the labyrinth, I was not amused.
I'm pretty good with maps, but this was a tester. I made one or two little wrong turns, but I was pretty proud of my navigation in the end. The hotel was by the Fenice et des Artistes (a famous theater), which is only a matter of blocks from St. Mark's Square. I did the trek from the rail station in around 40 minutes. I was drenched with sweat when I arrived and I'm sure the desk clerk thought I was some hippie freak that was gonna try to skip out on the bill. So the first thing I intended to do, once in my room, was have a quick shower.
So, let's take a minute here to comment on the fine art of bathing on the Continent. I do not know from whence the aversion to shower curtains arose. I am, however, certain that more than a few Europeans have traveled to North America. Enough, I would suppose, for a sizeable contingent to have recognized the inherent value this invention provides; namely, keeping one's entire bathroom from becoming a bedraggled, accident investigation site waiting to happen. Point #2 - while it may be handy for some people to, at some point during a shower, use a hand held shower head to get at those hard to reach places, it is a near impossibility to do everything one needs to, with soap, shampoo, etc. (pre-supposing the implementation of those items in the process. Of course) while still holding onto the nozzle, making sure you don't accidentally spray the sink, mirror and floor. So why not provide a cradle at shower (real showers) height so we can put that blasted thing somewhere? Oh yeah, no shower curtain. I forgot. Wouldn't help anyway.
So, looking at my "shower" in this particular hotel room, I quickly realized I was going to do something over the next few days that I hadn't done since I was nine years old. I was gonna take a bath. It was ok. I mean, they had hot water and all, but the tub wasn't quite long enough for me to fully submerge myself (and I'm not a tall guy). Oh well. Other than that, the hotel was nice. A little creaky, but in a charming way and it came at a decent price - by Venetian standards anyway. I think Venice was the most expensive town I visited. Venice or Rome - not sure.
After bathing, I beat a path straight back to a place I'd seen on the hike in. There were these amazing looking slices of pizza sitting in the window. I hadn't seen pizza that looked that good anywhere in Italy, so I had to see...could it take down Chi-town's pie? And I'm sorry to say, Pat's Pizza is no longer the king. I had the best slice ever topped with artichokes and red & yellow bell peppers along with a can of Beck's. I sat down in the Piazza nearby and it made for a great light lunch.
As I said, I'd seen the pizza joint on my way to the hotel and a lot of other really cool stuff that I couldn't focus on at the time. So I basically just re-traced my steps that afternoon now that my hands were free to operate the camera.
Though the terrain is nothing like the rugged beauty of the Andes mountains in Peru where I once trekked with my friends Sean and Otis, there is a certain similarity none-the-less in the way every new turn provides for stunning visuals. We joked on that trip that the photo album should be called, "Ain't a Bad View." The same title could be applied to Venice. Down every little lane, over every little bridge, around each new corner lay another photographic masterpiece. Later that night as I lay in bed editing the day's photos, I found that I had released the shutter over 120 times. And that was just the first afternoon!
After a couple of very enjoyable hours taking in the utterly foreign, but without question winning scenery, I stopped in at a little wine shop on one of the smaller canals. They also served cichetti there - essentially Italian tapas (who knew?). I picked out three, just pointing at whatever looked good in the glass case by the bar. The owner seemed to be indicating that four would be better and insisted I try the baccala (a Venetian original). These little bites and a nice glass of Prosecco provided a welcome afternoon snack and the baccala (a kind of creamy, garlicky codfish-salad affair) did, indeed, kick ass.
It was beautiful at dusk and I enjoyed the sun setting in the distance. The heat had faded, but it wasn't chilly either. I walked the canals some more, primarily exploring the Dorsoduro and San Polo quarters. I probably ventured up into Santa Croce as well, but its hard enough to tell where you're going without worrying about neighborhood boundaries.
Over an Aperol spritz at a little bar called Orange, also the color of this their signature cocktail, I perused my guidebook for restaurant recommendations. It just so happened that there was a rustic, little family run joint just around the other side of Campo Santa Margherita from where I was. It was called L'Incontro. What a find. They start you off with crudités accompanied by a spicy mustard and oil combo along with Sardinian flat bread (and I'm talking wafer thin) that is out of this world; crispy and salty with some kind of herb combination baked onto the top. My primi was orichette with tomato meat sauce. It killed. The best sauce since my lunch in Cinque Terre. For my secondi I ordered the house specialty; suckling pig done Sardinian style. It was unbelievable. Pure melt in your mouth salty goodness. I washed it all down with a 5-euro ½ litre of the house red.
I couldn't believe I'd been buying bottles of wine up to this point. The house wine was so good! And I know I got a tip about this from somebody too before I left, but I'd forgotten until this evening when nothing on the wine list jumped off the page for me and my waitress insisted I try their house selection. Live and learn - after all, that's what this trip is about, right?
Being that Venice is only slightly less easy to get lost in than the Santa Cruz neighborhood of Sevilla, I figured I'd better head for my hotel while still relatively sober. I found my way with no problems. I wasn't quite tired yet and so decided to head over to St. Mark's square for some nighttime snaps (see pics). I spent a long while getting the angle I wanted with my little tri-pod and then trying to keep everything steady long enough for the exposure without a flash. I finally got what I was looking for though and decided it was time for bed as the drizzle had started to intensify.
Saturday morning, after an early bath, I headed out to see St. Mark's Cathedral. I was greeted by a familiar sight as I stepped from my hotel; rain. It was just a light drizzle at this point, so I shrugged it off and donned my rain jacket. The wait was considerable but, nothing in comparison to the summer months I was told. There were four very nice 50-something ladies waiting in line ahead of me. We made some small talk to pass the time. They were from Texas and had been to Tuscany, like me, before arriving in Venice a few days earlier. Once we made it to the entrance, I was told, rather unceremoniously, that my backpack was too big to be brought inside. I thought about making a stink, but instead just informed the guard that I wouldn't be waiting in line again upon my return and that they should really post signs or something somewhere along the line to let people know, I mean, what are we, psychic? I went across the square to where he indicated the bag check was and quickly strolled back to the front of the line ignoring a few quizzical looks and faint complaints. I didn't take the time to explain my situation to those folks though and just strode past the security guard, and the next family in line, up onto a little wooden plank one had to cross to enter the church. Odd.
So I entered the dark structure. There was considerably less natural light in there than most other churches I'd visited and the design was very unique; more squat and shorter in length. The paintings along all sides and on the ceilings had tons of gold leaf and were just amazing. Very impressive, indeed. The whole thing combined to give an intimate feeling of opulence somehow still grounded in serious penitence. I climbed the steps and went out onto the veranda that overlooks St. Marks square; quite a view. I took some great shots of folks covered in pigeons, zooming in nearly as far as my camera would allow. Why people let those filthy things crawl all over them I'll never understand, but it does make for an interesting photograph. I made my way back downstairs after a good long time up there taking in the view from several angles and it took me nearly as long to exit as it did to get in (well, not quite, but longer than it should have). They set up a similar plank system as they had at the entry and near the end of it was the obligatory gift shop. One could barely squeeze by the hoards buying their cheap little tchotchkes creating a bottle neck. Again, I somehow stifled my desire to point out the errors in traffic-flow-management.
When I emerged, the skies had cleared a bit. It was still grey, but no longer raining. I boarded the Vaporetto intending to only travel up the Grand Canal; one stop, to the Rialto, but once on board I found myself in one of the outdoor seats right up front in the bow section. I broke out my camera and rode the big boat all the way to the Stazione di Santa Lucia. This ended up being roughly equidistance as the Rialto from my eventual destination, only on the other side of it. I had never been to a Michelin starred restaurant before (and if by reading these travelogues you haven't picked up on the fact that I'm kinda into food, then you're a moron) and there happened to one in Venice called Da Fiore.
The humble shop front appearance concealed a surprising art deco interior. The cuisine is traditional and upscale-inventive at the same time. I had read it can be booked-out for dinner weeks in advance, but that a table was usually easily secured for lunch. Upon arrival, I wasn't sure they'd seat me despite wearing the best I had with me. The backpacker's wardrobe is somewhat limited, ya know. As it turned out, there were no problems. Except for what to order.
As I read, every dish on the menu looked better than the last. I settled on risotto con scampi e funghi for my primi (I'd read about this dish in my guidebook), turbot in a potato crust for my secondi and a glass of the house white. I was informed by my waiter, to my disappointment, that the risotto was only available for a minimum of two persons. "Blast!" I looked again at the menu. The dish was listed at 38-euro. An expensive plate of rice to be sure, but not that bad for a double portion I thought and only 6-euro more than most of the other starters, so I decided to order it anyway and just not eat it all. After explaining my decision to the waiter, he was incredulous. He explained to me just how big the portion was. Again I said I just wouldn't finish it and rationalized the small price difference telling him that was indeed what I wanted. He acquiesced, only to return a moment later to inform me there was a seafood pasta on the menu that was very similar and would I care to change my order to that? Persistent, this one. "No thank you. I really did have my heart set on the risotto. Thank you."
I should have taken the hint at this point. IN any case, when the rice, shrimp and mushroom concoction finally arrived it was heavenly. Quite possibly the best risotto I've ever hade. The rice was firm, but not too dry nor too soupy. Neither the mushrooms nor the scampi overpowered one another. All the flavors were in perfect harmony. The fish that followed was also without flaw. A very thin blanket of potatoes had been wrapped around the fillet and fried crisp (a preparation some of you will recall from another lifetime). That blanket contained a tender and flaky, perfectly cooked piece of fish. It was served with a white porcelain cylinder that contained a sauce which seemed like a cream of spinach and made for an outstanding pairing. On top of that was a small bunch of crispy fried greens (spinach or kale - whatever the sauce was made from I presume). The whole affair was just marvelous and the house white was better than most bottles I've ever purchased, save a handful.
I took my coffee and noticed the restaurant had filled-in somewhat while I had been lost in another world. Then the bill arrived. I gave it my customary glance before handing over my card. But this time the total caught me off guard. "Did I break something!" I mean, I'd been expecting a substantial sum, but this seemed a tad excessive. I quickly scanned the itemized portion and in an instant it hit me. The price listed on the menu for the risotto had been per-person, not the total for the 2-person minimum order. Yikes! "The most expensive plate of rice I'll ever eat," I thought to myself. "Should have asked for a doggy-bag at that rate." Ah, well. They had a Michelin star after all.
A slow stroll back to the hotel brought me home at the perfect time of day for a short nap. Afterwards, another bath and then out to see more sights. I'd read about Harry's Bar so, I made my way over to the Grand Canal intent of having a Bellini at the famed watering hole. But when I go there all I saw was a crowded, rather unremarkable room. And, how shall I say, it didn't seem like my kinda crowd. Lots of tourists in stretch-waistband trousers and flowery blouses and far too many Texan accents for my liking. So I left. That's when the rain began. It had been drizzling or overcast all day, but now it was morphing into something else. I made it over to the west side of the Castello district and ducked into a little Enotecha just as it really started coming down.
I took refuge with a glass of Prosecco followed by a glass of red as the rain continued to come down in sheets. It finally let up enough for me to get out of there and make my way back toward my hotel. I tried to go to a restaurant my guidebook listed as a Venetian classic, Ristorante da Ivo, but alas, no room at the inn. Given the rain, I settled for the first decent looking place between there and the hotel and had a rather unremarkable meal in a back room. The only other table in the room with patrons was occupied by an aging couple who apparently had less and less to say to each other as the years passed. They were remarkable silent throughout the meal. The sparse comments, more often than not, related to the firmness of the fish or the lovely curtains hanging in the windows. I would rather eat a bullet. God, please never let that happen to me.
The next day when I got up it was still raining though not terribly hard. So after a leisurely bath, I made my way to the bridge at Ponte dell'Accademia, crossed over the Grand Canal and then looped back around to where the Peggy Guggenheim Collection resides. This is an amazing assemblage of modern art; Picasso and Pollack and Miro and on and on. I spent a little under two hours poking around the paintings and sculptures before heading off. However, the rain drove me indoors before long.
I spent the better part of the afternoon with CNN World as my companion. I did venture out again around the cocktail hour. My friend Claire had insisted, via e-mail, that I go back to Harry's for a Bellini and to soak up the history of the place. So I did. But I must say, I don't understand the fascination with the place. As I said before, it is an unremarkable room and it was filled with boring people and disaffected waiters and bartenders. It has become a place trading off past glories from what I could. But they say having a Bellini there is a must and it was a tasty cocktail. I only wish I had looked at the prices before ordering; 14-euro, or roughly $18, for a breakfast-juice glass filled with Prosecco and frothy-peachy pink liquid. Rip-off of the trip! Claire, you and I will have to agree to disagree about this place.
Later that night I settled on a restaurant on a little side canal midway between St. Mark's square and my hotel. I had a lovely Brunello di Montalcino, Castello Banfi 2000 that was everything an Italian wine could be. I started with gnocchi in a Roquefort sauce with tomatoes and for an entrée had loin of veal with sage and brown butter. Yummy.
When the sun next rose it was Monday, my last day in town. It was one of those perfect September days where the sun shines brightly, its neither hot nor chilly and you feel the day was just made for walkin'. The rain had dampened my spirits a bit the previous days, but not enough that I couldn't see the magic of this place. I know I will be returning someday. There's so much I didn't get a chance to see. Not to mention I could just walk those streets forever and not get bored with the scenery. This city is such golden disrepair.
I decided to see the Scuola Grande di San Rocco that morning. A religious confraternity, the school also helped artisans newly arrived in Venezia to find work. I'd read in my guidebook that the artwork adorning the walls and ceiling of this building, especially in the upstairs Sala Grande Superiore, were a bit overwhelming. What an understatement. The artist, Tintoretto, worked 23 years (the same amount of time Michelangelo spent on the Sistine Chapel) to complete the school's decoration.
Perhaps because it is housed in a rather small space as compared to the Vatican, wedged into a little piazza in the San Polo district, this building and its collection of paintings gets less recognition than Michelangelo's great achievement. It certainly is not because the work is any less breathtaking though. I sat and just stared upward for for far longer than I thought I was going to. They actually provide large, rectangular, hand held mirrors so you don't have to crane your neck like I did. But I didn't mind. It really makes you think about what we're capable of, any of us, if we put our minds to it.
The wood carvings that panel the lower third of the walls in the Sala Grande were every bit as impressive as the works in oil above. Such detail, right down to the faux book cases that looked as if you could pluck a volume right off the "shelf." I pulled myself away from the place as there was more to see on this my last day in town.
I jumped on the Vaporetto and headed north. I was making my way to the Ghetto. The first records of Jews in Venice date to the 10th century. In 1516 all Jews were ordered to live in one area (a story oft repeated throughout Europe). They could move freely by day, provided they wore a yellow cap. At midnight, the gates around the Ghetto were shut by Christian guards, who were paid for by the Jewish community (huh?), and re-opened at dawn. It was tiny and overcrowded. It still serves as the center of Jewish life in Venice today (sans the gates) with several kosher shops, three Schola and the Museo Ebraico. It proved very interesting.
I got a tip for lunch by inadvertently eavesdropping on a breakfast conversation at my hotel earlier that morning. Well, not really eavesdropping. A 60-something matron from the States was holding court with her travel companions who had obviously never been to Italy as she had. Apparently they were in desperate need of having her wisdom showered upon them lest they attempt to make their own way through the labyrinth of Venice. Well, good for me.
She spoke of a Rosticcerio near the Rialto. I found it easily. Their specialty was Baccala, which I'd enjoyed two bites of as a cichetti on my first day in town. I ordered one of the preparations not really able to tell the difference between the three on offer. I think my waitress sensed this and recommended that I instead try the combo plate which included a sampling of each of the three different preparations. When it arrived with a carafe of the house white, I recognized the version I'd had the other day, but aside from being based on cod, the other two had very little in common. I was glad for the tip (both from my waitress and from the Venetian expert at breakfast).
I tired to walk back a different way than I'd been before to see new parts of town, but had no other real goal for the rest of the afternoon. As I did so, I was thinking about the value of friendship. I'd met some interesting people on this trip and its fun to make new friends or even fleeting acquaintances. But its not like sharing experiences with true friends. That is always better, deeper, richer for the shared history that binds you together. Now, this wasn't a repeat episode of Valencia. I was perfectly happy - having a great day. Its just an observation I thought worth mentioning. And although at this point I still had a lot more time on the road in front of me, I already knew just how good it would be to be back home sharing these stories (and a few others not recounted here) with the large group of people I am lucky enough to count as my friends.
Well, now it's hard to tell in the chronology here, but some time had passed since lunch as I wandered around and I figured if I ate something light now I could get on the overnight train and make it until breakfast (with a couple of drinks to help me sleep perhaps). So, I stopped off at the place I'd been the first day (it had so much character) because I also knew I needed a gift for my host at my next destination. I bought a bottle of Prosecco and a bottle of Bellini for the gift and sidled up to the bar for a double espresso to start, then a glass of Prosecco and a couple of cichetti. After that, I scooped up my gear, which I'd stashed behind the desk at the hotel, and headed for the Vaporetto.
I had started reading Kerouac again. "The Subterraneans," this time. His style takes some getting used to again. He described it as, "spontaneous prose." Its not the easiest read at first, but once the reader (re)adjusts, its pure genius (or raw talent, I'm not sure - maybe a bit of both). For certain it is original.
So, my final report card on Venice (in good weather) - it is the most enchanting city I've ever visited. No number of descriptions from others and no volume of photographic images can ever fully prepare one for what awaits around each corner, in the next piazza, the next campo. It could be explored (even repeating avenues multiple times) for years and never lose it's charm. It is a great triumph of engineering and artistic spirits blended. Next time I'll stay at Hotel Bauer or the Cipriani. But I'll always remember the way I first saw it. Rain and all. Next stop, Wien.
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