Thursday, July 4, 2013

Venice: Alive with Stories and Characters

Arriving to Venice via train is considered the most ecologically sound way to enter this water wonder world.  Built upon over 120 islands, Venice has been surviving and thriving for over 1600 years (at one time it was the richest city in Europe), but despite enduring epic floods, wars, conquest by Napoleon, invasions by Nazism, its biggest threats in the new millennium are twofold: global warming and tourism.  With only 58,000 Venetians living in Venice, and an aging population at that, Venice sees 16 million tourists a year, upwards of 150,000 a day at its busiest.  Would we be able to find a sense of magic and mystery, we wondered, amid all the flotsam and jetsam of the tourist industry?  Would we find that Venice, a city with a long and romantic history, as just a caricature of itself, reduced to a museum instead of a vibrant, pulsating city?  What we discovered was a little bit of both, and a whole lot of inspiration of how to bring its essence and spirit alive for our students.

We made the right choice by staying in the quiet Cannareggio area, in a working mosaic foundry that runs also classy bed and breakfast, Domus Orsoni.  The last maker of handmade tiles in Venice, this foundry was founded in the mid-19th century and produces tiles in more than 2500 colors.  A tour of the facility showed us an authentic side of Venice, one of craftsmanship and artistry, one of handmade in favor of factory or machine made.  It was stirring and reminded us so much of the tradition in Vermont of fine craftsmanship and artisans, still producing items in the face of almost insurmountable odds and economic pressures. 

 After settling into one of the most stylish rooms in Venice, we happily let ourselves get lost.  Wandering into the heart of Cannareggio, we discovered a quiet, residential area of canals and tunnels.  We were awestruck by the sense of elegant decay, peeling paint perhaps hundreds of years old set against a proud windowsill of geraniums.  We loved seeing all of the Italian grandmothers and grandfathers, walking with grandchildren or, more likely, walking their very small dogs.  Hungry and fatigued as we were, we made the mistake of eating not at an osteria, but restaurant along a quiet canal that we soon figured out was more tourist trap than local, but enjoyed pastas and raised a toast of the local sparkling wine, Proseco, to our first evening in Venice.  An after dinner stroll found us happily exploring authentic mask shops, where we tripped the light fantasia, if you will.  These masks, designed to celebrate Carnivale, are a symbol of Venice and are much more than a caricature of this unique place.  Designs are often based on traditional characters from old stories and the Carnivale itself, celebrated on the eve of Lent, is a time for Venetians to mix and mingle with people from all walks of life and social strata.  It is a time to pretend to be someone you are not, and the masks never failed to fill us with awe and astonishment, no matter how many mask shops we explored. There was always something new to see in each one.

The next day, we explored (and tried to get lost) in the Santa Croce and San Polo areas on the other side of the Grand Canal.  Much narrower alleys and canals opened up into both small and large squares, or campos, filled with not just tourist stalls, but fishermen.  Lots and lots of fishermen.  This is the oldest part of Venice, and we discovered again that sense of elegant decay, with crumbling statues adorning window and door frames, and absolutely outstanding works of Gothic opulence hidden behind humble church facades.  We dined on authentic Venetian pastries and cappuccinos (cheaper than Coca-colas, yes it’s true) and Paninis for lunch in a dark tavern that provided some relief from the hot Adriatic sun.

After more explorations of some of the more than 2000 registered artisans in Venice, including printmakers and mask makers, we found the perfect spot to launch out on our gondola ride.  Negotiating a route, time, and price with a gondolier in a quieter corner of Venice allowed us to see secret canals only accessible by boat and to get a little history to boot from our charming gondolier.  We discovered that this trade is one of the most prestigious in Venice, with gondoliers owning their own boats and belonging to a trade association.  Our gondolier was clearly in love with his city and his profession, and we so enjoyed our sojourn from the crowds and the sun as we explored quiet canal after canal in the oldest part of Venice.  A turn onto the Grand Canal and a pass under the most famous of famous bridges, the Rialto, gave us an experience that equaled, and perhaps surpassed, our stroll along the Champs-Elysees.  Lining the Grand Canal are palazzo upon palazzo, with intricate Gothic facades made with gold and marble and a traffic scene of vaporetto (water buses), police and ambulance boats, other gondolas, and more was a feast for our senses.  No cars or trucks, not a one.  Not a one in the whole city of Venice.  The only honks were of the gondolas as they call out when rounding a blind bend.  Nothing has been experienced like that before, and perhaps nothing will since.

A stroll to San Marco Square and St. Mark’s Basilica through the labyrinth of streets made us dizzy.  We’re not sure if the pigeons outnumbered the people, but all were there with us to take in the magical sight of the basilica and campanile.  Taking over 800 years to build, the basilica is a fantastical mix of Gothic, Byzantine, and Renaissance architecture, and glitters in the sun from the 24 carat gold mosaics all over it.  A jewel like no other, we bypassed the long queue by reserving tickets and upon entering, we were again struck with the sense of quiet and stillness amid the crush of humanity just outside the walls.  St. Mark’s Basilica has such an interesting history and perhaps our next visit will afford us the time and stamina to visit its treasury, among its relics including a lock of the Madonna’s hair and the arm that St. George used to slay his dragon.

The Doge’s Palace, next door, was covered from head to toe with Gothic arches and statues, ornate windows and doors, and fully matched the basilica from head to toe in elegance and beauty.  If a building could be an ornate wedding cake frosted all in white, such was this most decorated palazzo.  We can only imagine what people from years ago must have felt upon seeing these sights for the very first time, arriving from the lagoon to the harbor marked by the winged lion on high.  How could one not believe in magic and fairytales with sights such as these?  Of hope and perhaps redemption?  Perhaps most striking of all is this icon of Venice - the winged lion.  Viewed on high from San Marco Square, we found it everywhere, a mysteriously proud lion holding in its paws a book. 

Venice has cast its spell on us.  We might never be the same.

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