Friday, September 17, 2010

On Being a Busdriver in Venice

It's about 75 relaxed degrees with a warm breeze, a clear blue sky, good coffee and cigar. I'm sitting at the picnic table in the private back yard, listening to the neighbors begin their day. In the background someone is playing the music from La Bohème (think Moonstruck). It's 8:00 in the morning. You can't make this stuff up. I love it here. Sitting beneath this vine draped pergola takes me back to my childhood and my madrina's house in Newport. The grape clusters are huge, and the fruit has a sweet seeded center with a bitter skin. It brings back a lot of memories and feelings, some as the grape, bittersweet. That's a good thing as I take a few moments to really appreciate being here with my wife, brother and sister-in-law, and memories without feelings would be so hollow.

Thursday - September 16, 2010

Everyone is up and ready to go at 8:45. Rich has already been to the cafe at the corner of Lepanto and S.M.E., where there is a Wi-Fi spot. He was able to use his little laptop computer and send off some emails chronicling our trip so far. He is so good about keeping his kids abreast of where they are and what's going on (unlike us who periodically seem to fall off the earth). We caught the 9:00 boat and moments later were playing chicken with an enormous cruise ship - it had size but we had speed, baby. We docked at St. Marks before it even rounded the Giudecca. I had to take a picture of the bridge of sighs which seemed to float above the canal. There is a big controversy over the advertisement covered scaffolding around so many of the buildings. I kind of liked it.

Kat and I had only two "must-see" sights in Venezia: the La Fenice opera house and the interior of St. Marks Basilica. We had passed the cathedral many times but never been inside. With our early start we planned to beat the ever present lines that extend almost down to the docks. It was a good try, but fruitless. However, we had something that the crowd didn't; a little tidbit Lu or Kat had gleaned from Rick Steves' book. She herded us down a small nondescript alley that houses the bag-check for the church. With the bag-tag in tow, we headed right to the front of the line and entered the cathedral. It is enormous, dark, and probably dusty (too dark to really tell), with an undulating stone floor that you glide over. The most interesting part to me was the gold metallic mosaic that seemed to cover every square inch of the upper registry. After a quick parade around, we exited, glad we hadn't waited in line.

With 50% of our to-do list done, we meandered through pigeon-square and bumped our way through the oncoming pedestrian traffic (probably from the cruise liner). Rich had an excellent city map and proved once again he is able to accomplish the impossible. Lu had read about another church that was of interest, and Rich navigated us there in record time. The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is a plain brick church (you can tell it's Franciscan) in the Italian Gothic style. The main draw is Titian's Assumption on the largest altarpiece in Venice. With the light streaming in the stained glass windows it really is beautiful. Titian himself is buried a few hundred feet away across from an intriguing funereal monument over one of the doors. It is very lifelike and thought provoking. While the ladies looked and read, and read and looked, I struck up a conversation with a very nice English couple who were taking a long weekend in Venezia. With the low airfares they have been able to spend a good deal of their retirement flitting around Europe, most destinations just a couple of hours away. Had to admit I was a little jealous.

While the ladies finished their tour, I joined Rich outside on the piazza, captivated by a young man and his kayak. Like a bicyclist taking a break for lunch, kayak-man carefully pulled his vehicle up the stairs from the canal, grabbed a sandwich and a drink and ate while checking his city map. What a great way to explore this place. When done he nonchalantly repacked his boat, sealed himself in, and paddled away. More than ever before it struck me that people who grow up and live here treat the waterways as we treat our streets. If you want to be a bus driver, there are few better places to ply your craft. Looking down the grand canal from the apex of the Rialto, the "bus" stops stand out in a nice neat row. To the taxi, truck, delivery van, police, or ambulance drivers these are their streets. Nice thought.

Rich and Lu are a dream to travel with. We can have a candid discussion about what we each want to do, and if dissimilar we each follow our own roads with no ill feelings. Easy. We split up agreeing to meet at the boat stop for the return trip to the Lido. Hungry, Kat and I decided on a little restaurant called "Al Peoceto Risorto" (The Revived Mussel). The calamari was done to perfection accompanied by a spicy pasta in olive oil, garlic, and red chili that was exceptional. While Italy is known for it's heavy red sauced pasta, the Veneto serves a lighter variety that I find preferable. It was in this neighborhood that I first tasted peperoncini pasta; the dish that when accompanied by fresh steamed lobster has become a staple of Silveira family gatherings.

By late afternoon with the crowds thinning, Venezia feels different. Maybe it is us more than the location. We are totally relaxed, enjoying the experience of being here. It slows down and you can get lost in the rhythm of the lagoon. As we head back to the Lido we wonder what it would be like to live here.

Friday - September 17, 2010

After a great night's sleep we awakened to a warm, cloudy day. The short walk from our apartment to the Lido boat dock has lost some of it's mystery. The sights are now familiar to us, and we know to avoid the local kids as they bicycle their way to school down the little back alleys. We notice that most of the people who share our boat ride to St. Marks seem like commuters the world over. They are reading their papers oblivious to their very unique setting. Even a barge loaded with two cement trucks garners little curiosity. I guess it's like working in Washington, DC and walking by the Washington monument every day; just part of the background.

There were only two things on our agenda for the day: lunch at a little Jewish restaurant called "Gam Gam" in the ghetto (the word ghetto comes from the Italian word "ghetta" or slag, the byproduct of the foundry that was in the neighborhood), and a look at "La Fenice" the famous Venezia opera house.

The old ghetto area is small, lively and architecturally interesting. The charm of this area makes me think the word ghetto as we use it has been misappropriated. Where most of Venezia's building are two or three stories and horizontal, here we found old buildings of four and five stories with small shops on the ground (canal) floor. I half expected Shylock to slip out of one of the doorways. I know, I know, he was a fictional Shakespearean character, but our plan for Saturday makes this musing amateurish.

A very good friend of Lu's had recommended the Gam Gam and she was spot on. (Read a review here.) Our kosher lunch was plentiful, colorful and delicious. Our waiter (three years away from Tel Aviv) could not have been friendlier or more helpful. I stuck to the vegetarian dishes, Rich had the sardines, all accompanied by our first Israeli beer (Goldstar). Everything was excellent.

We finished our extended lunch off with a cup of espresso from the coffee shop around the corner. You have to walk around the sacks of coffee beans on the floor to get to the counter where for 90 Euro cents (cheap anywhere) you get a cup of freshly roasted and ground heaven.

Agreeing to meet Rich and Lu back at the Lido, Kat and I headed for La Fenice - "The Phoenix." John Berendt (of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" fame) wrote a fascinating book - The City of Falling Angels, which tells the story of this opera house, the fire that almost consumed it, and the trial to determine if it was an accident or arson. The book brings the city and some of it's more flamboyant citizens to life and is a great primer if planning a trip here.

It had just started sprinkling as we made our way into the beautiful chandelier lit marble foyer feeling a little under-dressed. We grabbed our audio guides for the self-guided tour and started off. It was like going through one of the Newport mansions, all sparkly and rich. There really was not much to see, as we made our way through the hallways, some of the back rooms, and up the stairs to the balcony level. Then we entered the main box and was presented with a feast for both our eyes and ears. Before and below us on the stage a rehearsal for that nights presentation of La Traviata was in progress, the voices booming around what must be a near perfect acoustical chamber. It was wonderful and we would have spent the remainder of our time in Venezia there had we not been, rather rudely in my opinion, evicted. Oh well, it was grand while it lasted.

Very satisfied with ourselves, we grabbed the boat/bus back to the Lido, stopping for a pizza and beer at one of the local restaurants. Rich and Lu were home and it was such a pleasure sharing a bottle of wine and the days experiences. We've decided to spend our Saturday journeying west via train to Verona and Padova, so that means an early wake-up and a real test of our boat/train scheduling skills. There's an adventure around every corner.

(Ed. The pictures of the interior of St. Marks and the Annunciation at the Frari are Wiki, the ghetto coffee shop and cement trucks barge were taken by Rich and Lucy.)

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