Friday, February 18, 2011

Travels In Italia - Venice

Venice's Grand Canal
My friend, K, and I completed our 12 day trip through Italy last week. She was returning to the States and wanted to see a little more of Italy than just the Campania region where we live. I invited myself along on her trip, and our adventure began. We found cheap flights to Venice, and this being the off season, we snagged a fantastic room at Palazzo Guardi in Venice for a nightly cost that was cheaper than a dinner out. To our delight, our hotel room was Venetian luxury, with fabric covered walls, gilded and scrolled furniture, and we were given a two room suite. Amazing!
A couple of gondoliers waiting for customers
Venice is basically a whole bunch of small islands in a marshy, saltwater lagoon. Every piece of land is paved. K noted several times the complete and utter lack of greenery. And yet, for me, Venice is still one of the most magical places in the world. Canals abound, and bridges over those same canals occur every few yards. All of this build-up is set atop wooden piles that do not rot underwater due to lack of oxygen. You may have heard that Venice is sinking...apparently, this sinking began in the 1900s when artesian wells were dug on the edges of the Lagoon. Once the wells were banned (in the 1960s), the sinking rapidly slowed, so now Venice's inhabitants just suffer from high tides - so high that at times, plank walkways must be set up for people to get around the city. As an effect of the prior sinking, you can see, walking around the city, many palazzi have front doors boarded up and partly underwater. These residents have had to abandon their first floors and move on up.

Venice "streets" can get crowded, too
Venice seems suffused with calmness. I actually felt my body relaxing as we wandered through this old city. After a day or so, K pinned down for me exactly what Venice lacked...traffic. No cars. No buzzing motorcycles roaring up behind you while you're out for a walk. No stoplights or traffic jams or roundabouts. Just walking. We've been on vacations where we don't use a car, but how rare is it to visit a place without even that constant, low, underlying buzz. Many towns in Italy have a car free center, but there are always exceptions - police driving through, the occasional taxi, or even just the sounds floating in from the edges of town. With narrow walkways and even narrower bridges abounding in Venice, motor vehicles are not a possibility. Boats it is.

Venice has a Grand Canal bisecting the city, a quite wide and a busy waterway full of water taxis, gondolas, vaporettos (little ferries), traghettos (a type of gondola), and many workmen - we saw furniture movers with a boatload of luxury chairs and sofas, builders with a small crane, wood, bags of construction materials, etc., and everything in between. Operating in Venice means getting on the water. We used the vaporettos for the most part. They run up and down the Grand Canal and along the perimeter of the island as well, with many stops just like a regular City Bus. Riding the vaporetto up and down the Grand Canal, especially at sunset, has to be one of life's crowning moments. The palazzi lining the Canal glow with the sunset light and a hush seems to cover the water for just those few moments - a chance to take in the golden light and the romantic gondolas swirling around.

As a travel note aside: Vaporettos are expensive taken singly, and even the daypasses aren't cheap. For anyone visiting Venice for five days or more, I purchased an imob card, 40euros, and good for five years. It allows me to load vaporetto tickets at only 1.10euro each rather than the typical 6.50euro per ticket. K opted for the three day pass, then a one day pass. The passes are worth it, especially if you plan to visit one of the outer islands, such as Murano or Burano.

The traghetto I mentioned is yet another mode of transportation. Only four bridges cross the Grand Canal. So pedestrians (generally locals) wishing to get to the other side head for the nearest traghetto stop. A traghetto is essentially a gondola without a sofa. Riders stand up while the operator rows folks directly across the canal to the stop on the other side. Traghetto stops are a bit hidden, and sometimes found only by paying attention to the discreet, dark brown, "Traghetto" and arrow painted on the sides of buildings in piazzas. They were certainly not hugely used, but we found our two rides delightful. I mean our three rides. On our way out of town, we so wanted to ride one again, yet had no need to cross the Canal. And we trundled to the nearest traghetto, hustling to the boat as the operator caught sight of us rounding the corner and waiting for us. We paid our .50, rode across, disembarked on the other side and promptly got in the back of the line (of three people). The operator didn't blink an eye as he accepted our .50 each again and rowed us back to our start.

Yet another Venetian surprise was the sheer volume of artisans plying their trade. I suppose Venice can't help but attract artists. Most follow a specific theme - paper, glass jewelry (and/or beads), masks, or painting/photography - but there are some surprising bits of uniqueness. One mask store, Rugadoro, makes each mask by hand using scraps of fabric to cover the form - and the forms taken their own unique shapes. Animal faces, suns, and moons fill the store, a refreshing change from the beautiful, ornate, and ubiquitous masks filling other shop windows. Venetian Dreams was my favorite jewelry store, with a co-proprietoress who makes all the jewelry and sells the beads she uses, too. We found the artists manning their stores as much fun to visit as the stores themselves, with almost all of them wanting to engage in conversation and tell us about their craft.

And a little note on language here...K and I found that in the nord (north), we could both speak and understand Italian. What a relief it was for us to find out we did not, in fact, waste the hefty bill we paid to our language school. And our teachers did, in fact, teach us Italian. The problem is that we live in Naples. My best analogy is a Japanese student learning English, then visiting Louisiana, where the dialect is so strong that it obscures the actual language. We did learn Italian. Unfortunately, Napoletanos speak Napoletano, a dialect that even other Italians don't speak. Our landlady speaks more Napoletano than Italian, and at one point at the Housing Office during lease signing, her son (our landlord) told Nathan that he was speaking Italian with the base Housing Office so his mother wouldn't understand him. That's how different Napoletano and Italian can be. So...relief for K and myself and a great deal of fun as well.

More to follow...
Venice is all faded luxury and grandeur - this is a building facade on the Grand Canal


  1. Sounds like a fun trip!! I laughed out loud when I read your conclusion that your language school did in fact teach you Italian! Napoletano HAHA!
    Happy weekend!

  2. It was truly an amazing discovery the first time someone spoke to us and we actually understood them, and even more wonderful to speak and be understood!