Venice. Bella Venezia. La Serenissima. What can I possibly say about her that has not been said by millions of others over the years? My love affair with Venice is well documented in my "other" blog but as we prepare to leave Italy in a month or so, I wanted to reflect on the little island that has captured my heart during my years here.
Venice is a mere 40 minute drive from Vicenza and upon arriving here in the summer of 2000 I was extremely anxious to visit the city that had always existed for me as a picture in a storybook I'd had as a child. I made my first foray to the island in September of that year and I don't remember too much about that first trip except my first gondola ride. There were four of us that day and of course the one thing everyone just HAS to do in Venice is ride a gondola so we found a gondolier and he gave a us a price of 120,000 lire which was about $60.00. Splitting it four ways meant each of us only paid $15 so we happily agreed. The gondolier took us down a small canal into the Grand Canal and back, the entire ride took about 40 minutes and he even sang "O Solo Mio" during the ride however I was so completely underwhelmed by the experience that upon disembarking the gondola I distinctly remember looking at one of my friends and saying "I cannot believe I just paid fifteen bucks for THAT...". All these years and several dozens of trips to Venice later, it remains the one and only time I've ever taken a gondola ride. In each subsequent trip I have not once had the urge to ever do it again. Nowadays the average price of a gondola ride is around 80 euros (about $110) and tens of thousands of tourists happily pay it every week. For my part, I'm glad they do for despite my disdain of how the ancient tradition has been turned into a mere tourist trap, the ubiquitous gondolas have provided me with some fantastic photos over the years.
I quickly developed a fascination with the island and its history and since it was so close I would often go spend a day or a weekend there. I very seldom visited the usual "tourist" places like the museums and such, always preferring to just meander the back streets and little walkways that often lead to dead ends or quick drop offs into the laguna that has protected Venice all these years yet now threatens to destroy it through flooding and erosion. Eventually Virginia and I made friends with some locals who we remain close to even today. No trip to the island is ever complete without a visit with our friends Theresa and Michelangelo (who own a cute little glass shop near San Marco called Atmosfera Veneziana). Theresa is an American from Chicago who has lived in Venice for many years and has helped me tremendously over the years with recommendations and tips for enjoying the island. Another of our friends managed apartments around Venice and would occasionally allow us to stay in them on weekends when they weren't rented out. On these special occasions we would take full advantage of the opportunity to explore a side of Venice that some people never see; Venice at night and in the early morning. Venice has some surprisingly fun nightlife if you know where to look and for a few years I became a master of the impromptu Venice Pub Crawl. As I've written about, Venice pub crawls are unique in that they are not about the pubs or the drinks; it is the walk between pubs where the island itself takes center stage in all of it's late night glory. Venice at night and early morning is a completely different city than during the day. Gone are the hoards of tourists and day trippers. If you want to see Venice - the true Venice - you need to walk around the island in the wee hours of the morning, in the time between the sun coming up and the tourists starting their daily invasion. In that time Venice is transformed back into what she was in her heyday, back when she was "La Serenissima", the most powerful republic in the known world. There are no tourists, no day trippers, no Indian vendors trying to con your kids into badgering you to buy their cheap toys, no Africans pawning cheap knockoff Gucci and Prada bags....there is only the occasional scuffle of a native Venetian out buying their daily produce or enjoying their morning cappuccino and brioche. Venice is a special place when you have it all to yourself, even if it's only for an hour or two.
Over the years I visited many other places around Italy but I was always drawn back to Venice. It has always baffled me how so many Americans living here in Vicenza will never once venture out to see Venice. Living so close to one of the world's greatest treasures - a mere 5 euro train ticket away - yet not once bothering to even step foot on her. I've lost count of how many times I've visited Venice over the years and every single time has been like the first time. There is always something new to discover, some new corner of the island I've never seen, some little hole in the wall trattoria or unassuming wine bar to while away in. At some point I became so familiar with the island that I wouldn't even bother bringing a map or guide book. I knew my way around so well and had so many favorite little places that Venice started to feel like mine, at least in some small way. The many people I've met or known over the years who simply could not appreciate Venice have been completely lost on me. Venice is not for everyone. It cannot be discovered in a day, a weekend or even a week. When you fall in love with Venice, you accept her as she is despite her many faults. You cast a blind eye to the exorbitant prices of things and focus instead on the uniqueness, the character, the ambiance.
The memories of Venice come flooding back to me now; my first Carnivale when it was so frigid that Kevin Kuss and I had to keep ducking into bars and cafes to get a drink and warm up...the first New Years Eve that Virginia and I spent there in the nameless wine bar with locals who welcomed us as one of their own...the New Years Eve two years later that I spent there alone atop the Ponte Rialto with a bottle of Chianti toasting Virginia and the X Man who were in the US visiting my mother...sitting at the edge of a dock with Virginia eating fresh cherries that we bought from a local vendor and spitting the pits into the Grand Canal...Me, Virginia and Steve-O carving our names into the table in the back of the Inishark...two years later, carving our names into the same table with my college roommate Ed and his wife Vanessa...my first pub crawl where I met Ian and Allison who remain good friends to this day...The weekend where the guy jumped to his death from the campanile...taking our car on the ferry to Lido to spend time with our friend Denise...my Hemingway Weekend after reading his brilliant novel "Over the River and Into the Trees" when I toured the Gritti Palace where suites start at 3000 euro per night and spent 18 euro on a Bellini at Harry's Bar just to say I did it...the day I spent showing Steve-O and his friends around the island after which they surprised me with a 1997 Poggio d'Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, the most expensive bottle of vino I've ever owned...The day Virginia almost caused an international incident by taking a picture of one of the illegal African immigrants selling knockoff bags...getting stuck at an outdoor cafe in a two hour rainstorm and not even caring...the out-of-the-way mask shop Virginia and I discovered by accident selling homemade masks dirt cheap (still have them!)...my favorite little wine bar, since gone out of business...the time I saw a girl trying to beat the heat by dangling her legs into a canal and yelling "I hope you've had your tetanus shot!"...stepping outside of the Bacaro Jazz on a pub crawl and running into a lost tourist who happened to be a fellow Red Sox fan...discovering La Zucca...watching Luca Toni score his first ever goal for Italy against Norway in a World Cup qualifier at the Inishark...cicchetti - tons and tons of cicchetti...shaking hands with Dino De Laurentis at the Venice Film Festival...Giustia Rossi (anyone who has gone to Venice with me should remember her but probably won't)...the BBQ at Denise and Mauri's house on Lido where Michelangelo got a little drunk and FINALLY let his hair down :)...every caffe we shared with Theresa on our many trips to the island...so many memories, they could fill a book.
I haven't been able to spend much time in Venice lately with the third child arriving and other duties which have come to occupy too much of my time and maybe it's just as well; Venice, I've noticed, is starting to turn on itself. These days it survives wholly on the tourist dollar yet it is becoming more unfriendly to tourists every day. Gone are the pigeons in San Marco since the city suddenly and inexplicably decided to start enforcing the years old ordinance of not feeding them. Now they actually have security guards whose sole job is to patrol the Piazza San Marco and tell tourists that they are not allowed to sit down anywhere on the Piazza except on designated benches. Chinese entrepreneurs have slowly but surely taken over many of the shops and cafes. My favorite pub, the Devil's Forest, raised the price of a pint of Guinness almost overnight from 5 euros to a whopping 8 euros, the most I've paid for a pint anywhere in the world. Despite my love of Venice, it gets harder and harder to enjoy it as I once did as I see the things I loved about it disappear, little by little. And yet the tourists still arrive daily in droves, oblivious to the blight they are paradoxically helping to feed and blissfully unaware that the Venice of their imagination does not fully exist anymore. I've delighted in playing "ciccerone" (tour guide) to friends and family over the past several years, showing them parts of Venice that they won't find in guide books. Perhaps that's what I'll miss most of all, seeing the wonder in peoples' eyes as we make the last turn off Bocca di Piazza and they take in the magnificence of the Piazza San Marco for the first time. Or when they gaze up at the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo as it appears out of nowhere. No place in the world has been as big a part of my life during my 16 years in Europe as Venice.
It's still difficult to accept that soon Venice won't be a part of my life anymore except in memories and dreams. To think that when I wake up in the morning and feel like going to spend the day in one of my most treasured places, it won't be there. I will come to terms with it because I must but it won't be easy. As the one true ring was to Gollum, Venice has become "my precious". I will miss her greatly. I'll be forever grateful for all she has given me these past 15 years and for my part I've left a small piece of me with her every time I've tread upon her calle and campi so I consider it an even trade.
Bella Venezia, 2000-2014.