Sunday, July 14, 2013

ah, venice

There is really no place quite like Venice. It sits in a lagoon just off the Adriatic Sea in northeastern Italy. It is made up of 118 islands, separated by canals and connected by bridges. Its total size is about double that of Central Park. And for two centuries, it was the most important city in the world; a commercial center, naval power and home to the world's most important printing presses. Today, Venice is, above all, a tourist destination. It has a population of around 60,000 people -- the same number of tourists who flood this city every day of the year. You cannot walk these street without hearing a lot of languages other than Italian -- English and Spanish seem to be the most prevalent -- and you can not look out into the harbor very long without seeing a massive cruise ship sail by. For the last day and a half, we have been part of that throng.

We had a generally good drive from Florence to Venice. I had missed a turn that forced us to drive on the equivalent of a state route that paralleled the Autostrade for about 20 miles as we waited for the next access point. When we finally found it, we saw a McDonalds just before the toll booth. Hoping to make our own lunch easier, we decided to stop there and get something for the kids. As I was waiting in the car, I someone who I thought strongly resembled Alan Garner, the Zack Galifanakis character from The Hangover. He had the same haircut, the same build, and, most importantly, a man purse (I know, it's not a purse, it's a satchel). He even flipped his hair the same way. When Keri and the kids came out, her first words were, "I saw this guy in there; he looked just like . . . . " "Zack Galifaniks," I responded. Great minds.

We got to Venice around three and began the slow and expensive trek to our hotel, the Hotel Sant'Elena, which sits in the Sant'Elena section of Venice (of course), at the east end of the islands that make up the historic city. An old man who spoke no English and looked slightly desperate offered to take us by boat for a small fee (or at least that's what I think he offered), but we opted for the licensed water taxi driver, who charged us an arm and a leg, but spared us the chloroform-aided kidnapping and dismemberment/sale into slavery.

Our hotel is a little over one and one-half miles from St. Mark's Square, which is slightly inconvenient. The area around us is quite nice, though. It is very quiet and there are a couple small, scenic parks nearby that the kids took advantage of a couple times today (pictured here are me, Owen and Lauren walking through one of those parks). After getting settled, we walked into the heart -- and the heat -- of the city. The kids were impressed by St. Mark's Square, with its Venetian Gothic style (a Byzantine-influenced gothic style that is very common here). We told them briefly about the bronze horses that sit atop St. Mark's Cathedral (or at least the replicas do) and which were plundered from Constantinople at the height of Venice's power.

Owen, by the way, remarked many times that it should be called St. Pigeon Square, given the many, many birds that congregate there. Most strangely, we saw several tourists posing with a number of those birds on their outstretched arms and their heads. Ugh.

We continued our walk through the small streets of San Marco, which are adorned by five-star hotels and high-end shopping, making our way to the Ponte dell'Accademia, the bridge that spans the Grand Canal, linking San Marco and Dorsoduro. The bridge is filled with love locks -- padlocks that couples (and perhaps a few plural-person relationships) have left there in hopes of locking up everlasting happiness. Lauren asked if Keri and I put a lock on there during our honeymoon. I said we did "not need that kind of shit" as our relationship was built to last. Keri shot me a look, disapproving of the language, I assume, and not the message.

Pictured here, by the way, is a discussion with Owen regarding the Grand Canal, including how the Venetians are positive this canal is the largest and therefore deserving of that moniker, as well as all of the different types of watercraft using the canal at that time.

After getting some postcards for the kids, we had dinner at a pizzeria in San Margherita Square. We then walked into Santa Croce and San Polo on our way back to the Sant'Elena.

We stopped along the way to take a gondola ride. A total tourist trap, I know, but it is kind of compulsory, and I could not very well have Lauren and Owen leave here without having partaken in the experience. (I mean, just look at that expression on Lauren's face. Well worth the investment.) Our gondolier, Bruno, was quite nice. He drove a good boat and, more importantly, answered all of Owen's questions. When he had a free moment, he shared with us some of he history behind the buildings we were passing under. He also pointed out the Ponte dei Sospiri (aka Sighs Bridge). There are some local legends about lovers getting eternal bliss if they kiss under the bridge at sunset as the bells of St. Mark's toll. I don't know about all that, but I do know the bridge connects the old prison and interrogation rooms at the Doge's Palace, and most of the sighs associated with that bridge would have been ones of resignation and despair. Aren't I romantic? Keri is a very lucky woman.

Keri and I both got our runs in today. We both found the city far more beautiful early in the morning, devoid of tourists. Too bad there are 60,000 here every day.

After enjoying our hotel breakfast -- which included better deserts than Keri had been providing us over the last couple weeks at her delicious meals -- I took the kids to play in one of the park playgrounds a few minutes from our hotel. After they had gotten out an ample amount of crazy, we went back to get Keri and the four of us walked across San Marco where we stopped for a rather unimpressive lunch.

We continued on into Castello and then on to the Jewish Ghetto. The Venetian ghetto was the first in the world. Indeed, the word ghetto probably originates from the first residents of the area (German Jews) and their mispronunciation of the name by which most Venetians called it -- jetto (phoenetic).

The ghetto was organized by city leaders in 1516 as an island separated by two bridges from the rest of the city and in which all the city's Jews had to live. The ghetto ended up being expanded some to include a larger area in the 17th Century, as Jewish merchants from the Levant were allowed to reside here (given their commercial and financial connections with the Middle East and beyond, they were of great value to the city leaders). Like the communities in Rome and Florence, this one was emancipated by Napoleon, only to be put back in the ghetto until the late 19th Century. Today, the entire Venetian Jewish community numbers about 400, only half of which live in the historic city. (Pictured above is the exterior of the German synagogue and its five windows.)

We took a tour of three of the ghetto's five historic synagogues. Our tour took us through the German and French Ashkenazic synagogues, neither of which is used any more -- other than a once-a-year employment of the French synagogue for tashlich as it has windows that sit directly over one of the canals that surround the ghetto making a convenient depository for the small rocks traditionally thrown by Venetian Jews to cast away their sins before Rosh Hashanah. We concluded our tour with the Spanish synagogue, which was built in the 17th Century, and is still used by the predominantly Sephardic community here. We figured it was important for us -- and our kids -- to see these buildings up close, so they have something tangible to connect to the histories they have learned (and have yet to learn).

We then took a long and leisurely walk back through the Castello district, stopping for water, icees and a bookstore to mail out postcards the kids had written to family and friends back home.

After a brief rest, we went out for a nice (and more reasonable) dinner on Garibaldi Street in Sant'Elena, stopping for gelato, and some more playground usage (pictured here are the two of them in some kind of swing/saucer contraption) on the way back to the hotel.

We also happened to be walking back around sunset. Our hotel location, the warm day, and a good photographer (Keri) captured pretty well Venice, at its most beautiful, in this shot (which is at the top of this post). We have not been here a long time, but we have made the most of our short visit here. As I have said to Keri, I would like to come back to Italy at some point and spend at least some time in Rome, Florence, and Venice with some kind of art historian who can help us better understand the artistic treasures that, on our own, we are ill equipped to appreciate. That trip will have to wait.

1 comment:

  1. Reading all about Italy has prompted me to make 2 lasagnes today. It will be in the freezer for Lauren and Owen when they visit me. I am aware that I can't compete with thefood you're getting there but it'll have to do. Love your blogs and adventures. Baba