Category Archives: Venice


Small wonder that it looks muddy green in the daylight..

There are books I keep in the bathroom, not for the purpose you are all thinking of, but to read while I brush my teeth. Since electric toothbrushes became the norm, with their mandated two minutes of brushing, multi-taskers like me needed to fill that empty space. Two minutes are a very long time to stand by the sink, contemplating one’s wrinkles, or to sit on the toilet at one with one’s toothbrush

The books of choice for this task are small volumes, mostly poetry, that can be opened at random, or short essays that can be digested in a few dental sessions. The current one, that prompted me to sit down and share my thoughts with you, was bought years ago but, strangely, never opened. It’s Joseph Brodsky’s “Watermark” and I say “strangely” because his meditation on Venice and its effects on humankind and himself in particular travelled  with me at least twice, during my pilgrimages to Venice.

My love affair with Venice, the city on water and not its Californian counterpart, started a long time ago and it is by no means over. That I opened this book only now, when Venice’s weather is turning cooler and the city is preparing for another grey, humid and foggy winter while I am still enjoying balmy days in Los Angeles, has turned out to be a gift in disguise.

Short on physical descriptions and depictions and long on literary meditations, personal adventures in the city and metaphysical thoughts on Venice and its place in the collective imagination, every time a particular shade of light, a fondamenta or a feeling are mentioned, images of this wondrous place come alive.

Check out his description of the water:

“[..] For water, too, is choral, in more ways than one. It is the same water that carried the Crusaders, the merchants, St. Mark’s relics, Turks, every kind of cargo, military, or pleasure vessel; above all, it reflected everybody who ever lived, everybody who ever strolled or waded its streets in the way you do now. Small wonder that it looks muddy green in the daytime and pitch black at night, rivaling the firmament. A miracle that, rubbed the right and the wrong way for over a millennium, it doesn’t have holes in it, that is still H2O, though you would never drink it; that it still rises. It really does look like musical sheets, frayed at the edges, constantly played, coming to you in tidal scores, in bars of canals with innumerable obbligati of bridges, mullioned windows, or curved crownings of Coducci cathedrals, not to mention the violin necks of gondolas. In fact, the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra, with dimly lit music stands of palazzi, with a restless chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky. The music is, of course, greater than the band, and no hand can turn the pages.”

It is such clarity and poetry that make me run into a hole and never want to write another word and, conversely, push me to express things as my truth makes me see them.

If you have never travelled to Venice in winter, Brodsky will make you pine for a void in your life you didn’t even know was there. If, like me, you are thinking of Venice as a future place of residence, the book will remind you of all the reasons, good and bad, why such a move would be difficult and transforming. It takes a tortured soul and a literary genius to set aside clichés when it comes to describe a city that has become a cliché in itself.

And, as I unwittingly discovered, there are books that are better read two minutes at a time.




Filed under Books, Venice, writing


Hot priests

A few years ago, the Roman Catholic Church, in what I can only assume was an effort to revamp their stodgy image, asked for volunteers amidst their priests to sit for a photo shoot that would culminate in the release of a calendar featuring “hot priests”. That’s not exactly what it’s called but, judging from the photos of attractive or ruddy young priests in their cassocks, that’s exactly what it is.

I saw the calendar hanging from a newsstand in Venice on my first day there and, since then, I noticed it on sale pretty much everywhere. I sat on the photo and the thought for  a while, needing some time to contextualize it.

In the wake of a devastating scandal that has spanned half a dozen countries and finally pulled the curtain on what everyone assumed was happening, is it wise to portray those who have vowed to lead a life of faith, assistance to the needy, poverty and, not least, celibacy as pin-ups? Exactly, who is the ideal customer? Who will be hanging hot, sexy priests on their walls? Teen-age girls who never read “The Thorn Birds” but find the ultimate taboo attractive? Young boys (the calendar is featured on a number of gay sites)? Housewives  that find solace in telenovelas and unobtainable objects of desire?

Shouldn’t the Roman Catholic Church aim its modernization at accepting the use of contraceptives? Or divorce? Or to finally end that vow of chastity that was notably broken by Cardinals and Popes over the centuries and has led to the unfolding recent scandals?


Filed under Italy, Venice

THANK GOD FOR ITALIAN MEN (and other unusual things to do in Venice)

Just another bridge – ducking required when passing on a boat

The construction workers had been busy around the hole in the ground for a few days, just next to the bridge I walked over, first thing in the morning, sleep still in my eyes, to reach Bar Nico for hot croissants. Two days before my birthday, upon my passing, one of them whispered “Sei bellissima”. With uncombed hair, yoga pants and not a stitch of make-up, I strongly doubted his assertion about my beauty and I kept on walking. On my way back, croissants and newspaper secured under my arm, the same worker, undeterred, asked me if I could stop for a minute. I don’t, I am sure he uses the same lines on half  the women who walk by, thereby delaying the filling of the hole in the ground, but I chuckle internally because this stranger, a good 20 years younger than me, gave me the gift of an uplifting  compliment on the eve of a distracting and slightly traumatic birthday.

And so, here I am, with half a century behind me and an improbable 50 more years ahead. If anything could soften the blow, I knew that Venice could. Maybe Stefano, the genial host of Osteria Mascaron where I spent a pre-birthday dinner (I am known to stretch celebrations for days before and after) is right: Venetians are kind people because they live so intimately with and along the water and because having to walk everywhere robs you of any aggression. Venetians are indeed a patient lot, always eager to answer questions, give directions, unfazed by the throngs of tourists who stop abruptly, trip getting on and off boats and generally impede basic daily activities.

I am celebrating this milestone, this clarion call to change what doesn’t work anymore and to keep forever what stood the test of time, with some of the people I love most in the world, in one of the most mysterious and enchanting locales in the world. The light is not as bright as in California but it is softer, warmer. The full moon hanging over the island of Giudecca looks more playful than the one over my canyon, bathing rows of pretty houses rather than chaparral and coyotes. Maybe this light is the reason I am contemplating a possible move over here, some time in the future: it will be kinder on wrinkles. Or maybe because this is a place acutely aware of its past and, as we grow older, so are we.

The biggest surprise of turning 50, an age that, in my 20’s, was synonymous with demure two-piece suits, strings of pearls and bridge parties, has been the amount of energy I still have and the need for change, as if a different chapter were opening. I haven’t felt this exhilarated in years. Now, if I could only hold on to this feeling for the next 10 years…

Here are a few suggestions of unusual things to do in Venice, places to go or eat, that you won’t find in guide books. Some require a boat, that can be rented but it might be easier to befriend a Venetian – they are all equipped with boats the way we are with cars.

For Art Lovers: Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Ok, you will find this in guide books but it might not be at the top of your list. It should be. This sort of trade union of the past commissioned Tintoretto to decorate their building – all I can say is “breathtaking” View some images here

For Book Lovers: Libreria Toletta is a maze of a bookstore  with different rooms dedicated to different subjects. The staff is very knowledgeable and will help you picking books on Venice in very many different languages – Sacca de la Toletta 1213, a stone’s throw from the Accademia Museum

The welcoming cat taking a break

Libreria Acqua Alta is an extremely fun place. Strictly used books arranged in piles, inside bath tubs or in a real gondola in the middle of the largest room. A cat sort of welcomes you outside while the owner, Gigi, will chat you up and offer you free books for a date (if you are a woman). Small English language section but prints and other fun items are for sale. Calle Longa S. M.Formosa 5176 (near Campo S. M Formosa in Castello)

For Food Lovers: Osteria al Mascaron is a Venetian mainstay. Reservations are recommended. The food is incredible. Try the polenta with squid ink for a real Venetian experience. Osteria Mascaron

Caffe ai Frari – an ancient Cafe that serves cold cuts, sandwiches and salads at lunch. Service is slow but the place is so charming, devoid of tourists and the prosciutto from the nearby Dolomites so delicious that is worth the wait – just off Campo dei Frari in S. Polo

Bar ai Tedeschi – on the tiny island of Sant’Erasmo there is a modest bar on the beach that serves the best spaghetti with clams I tasted the whole vacation. You can also swim. But a boat to get there is required.

Trattoria Le Vignole – on the Vignole Island, this can be reached with a vaporetto and I promise there will not be a tourist in sight (other than the ones who read this blog). You order fish at counter and then you eat in the large garden right on the water. Delicious!

Pasticceria Tonolo – for your sweet tooth. Go early in the morning and get a doughnut or, as we call them in Italian, krapfen. Well worth the inches around your waist – Calle de San Pantaleon, near Campo Santa Margherita

Full moon over Giudecca

For the Romantic in you: Take a walk along the Zattere embankment all the way to Santa Maria della Salute church. Enchanting. You will see the moon rise of Giudecca island, sit on the steps of a beautiful church while staring at San Marco, the water lapping around you. It’s what I always do on my last night in Venice.

La Fenice Theatre. Possibly the most beautiful baroque theatre in the world, it burnt down a number of years ago and was painstakingly reconstructed in every minimal detail. Get a couple of tickets for any of the operas or ballets – your jaw will drop when you walk in. You can also visit it during the day with a guided tour but experiencing a performance is way more chic!

If you happen to befriend a Venetian, ask them to take you swimming in Bacan. They will explain and, hopefully, take you







Filed under Italy, low carbon diet, Travel, Venice


Your typical Venetian street

Venice’s welcoming embrace turned out to be hot and sticky. The pigeons outside the bathroom window of my apartment in Dorsoduro were looking for respite from the sun under the eaves of a rooftop, too exhausted to take flight again.

When the vaporetto turned the corner and I saw the silhouette of Mulino Stucky on Giudecca island, I knew to drag my suitcase near the exit because the S. Basilio stop was near. The Zattere embankment, on the Southern part of the island, drenched in sun at 2 pm, felt like the inside of an oven. No matter. The unprecedented heat wave that hit Italy early this Summer was not going to deter me from enjoying every minute of my precious time here.

It felt important, this year, to celebrate my 50th birthday, such a milestone, away from home and in the arms of my other home. Finally tired of fighting the duality of places and the sense of not belonging in either, I claimed them both home and called it a day.

It’s hard to contextualize Venice when visiting, so wrapped up the tourist is in taking in the sights, especially the ones that have graced paintings and photographs for over five centuries. It wasn’t until I started spending some serious time here that I forgot about the Byzantine art and the treasure troves and started asking myself questions about how life is here, how things work, how living on the water changes your daily experience. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to an extraordinary Venetian, Dr. Vaccher, who has lived his 7 decades in Venice and who is a mine of information, historical and practical, and who willingly will use his boat to show me those places where the tourist will not go or, simply, cannot go because of lack of adequate transportation. He has been my personal Cicero and has opened my eyes to much more than meets the eye.

Venice, once built on trade and the maritime industry, now derives most of its income from tourism. The tourist is revered, catered to and sometimes swindled but that doesn’t mean that every singe Venetian operates in the tourist trade. Public sector employees, doctors, firefighters, they all live here alongside this chaos of cruise ships, multitudes of people from all over the world – they battle high water in winter, keep their cars on the mainland, go shopping trailing little trolleys that will have to be dragged up long flights of stairs (there are no elevators). No such thing as stocking up at Costco’s here, way too impractical. An ambulance will pick you up by boat and a fire will be fought from a boat. But Venice is not just San Marco and the six sestrieri (neighbourhoods) that make up the main island. It’s part of a large lagoon, with a rich and varied history that predates by centuries the birth of the Most Serene Republic of Venice .

Where Romeo and Juliet could have sat – if they had existed

Visiting the other islands will give you a measure of the different facets of this mysterious city that is so easy to categorize as a floating museum: Giudecca, quiet and originally working class, still boasts vast shipyards where all types of boats get repaired. St. Lazzaro of the Armenians hosts an Armenian monastery and library – the Armenians being a protected minority in Venice who used to own vast swaths of land cultivated to feed the main island. Murano is still famous for its glass while Burano’s lace making ladies have all but disappeared. San Michele has a beautiful cemetery and on San Giorgio the wealthy Mr. Cinti opened a foundation in the name of his dead child, with a wonderful garden anyone can visit. Many of the minor islands that dot the lagoon were fortified in Napoleonic times to defend the city and many forts, ammunition depots, cannon ramps and the like can still be seen. The outer isles were the seats of sanatoriums, plague lazarets  and a madhouse where, in centuries past, more than one woman ended up when her husband was displeased with her or, simply, desired to marry somebody else. Like in many other countries in Europe, it wasn’t hard to bribe doctors that would declare a woman mad and ship her off to a lunatic asylum for the rest of her natural life. Or else, there was always a convent at the ready and convents, around here, seem to be a dime a dozen.

S. Michele island

I gave up on maps early on in my time in Venice – too difficult to read. Walking around requires a large amount of faith, a general knowledge of the desired direction and a willingness to get there. Addresses are not helpful as they are distinguished only by the name of the neighbourhood and the civic number – not a street name. Landmarks are given when asking someone for dinner for the first time, whether they be where two canals meet, a church or a bridge. The vaporetto system works pretty much like an underground and it’s very easy (if not cheap) to navigate.

One night, at midnight, munching on an ice-cream cone while walking home from a tango night in a campo I was not familiar with, I just followed the moon to get myself back. Near my door, a couple of youths from Montenegro were staring at a map and, at my welcome apparition, asked me how to get to Campo S. Margherita.

“Walk over the bridge, turn right, make a left on Campo S. Barnaba, left on the Bridge of Fists and keep on walking. You are not far.” They were trying to follow my directions on the map, to not much avail.

“Trust me. Walk over the bridge, make a right and just follow the noise”.

Have faith.





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Filed under Italy, Travel, Venice


Photo –

Was there really a time when I loved airports? When was it? Because this distant memory is getting more and more faded, without the charm of an old sepia photograph. Forget the cattle call of checking in, undressing for security, being scanned down to our inner organs – all obstacles that require fortitude of mind or, at least, an ability to insulate oneself from what’s happening around us.

There used to be a glamour attached to  international travel that has endured since the times of Columbus, until hopping from one continent to the next became even too easy. This easiness has now turned into hassle, or maybe I am growing old and Ottie’s pleading expression is enough to want me to unpack and stay home.

Sitting at the gate, waiting to board my flight to Italy, I am inflicted a series of platitudes  from the elderly Italian woman who just took a tour of the National Parks and is sharing her conclusions that, in America, the population survives on beef, nobody walks and there is nothing worth buying. “It’s all jungle”, she shrieks, meaning junk.  On the other hand, in Italy, according to her, nobody dies of hunger, everyone gets by with their vegetable garden, the chickens in the yard and the social pension of 500 euros a month. In Milan everybody is too focussed on working and Rome is too congested but in Campo Basso the air is clean.

At the risk of sounding elitist, the problem with mass travel is that too high a percentage of those who trudge through National Parks, the Orinoco river or Piazza Navona, do not even attempt to understand what is behind a pretty sight, let alone getting it.  It feels as if people travel for the sake of saying they have done it, because it’s now required of anyone living in the developed world. Travelling doesn’t stem any longer from a genuine curiosity, from a willingness to be opened and transformed. To be changed.

We carry around our prejudices, our attachments, our habits wherever we go, maybe because distances have shrunk and it’s possible to be dropped in a different culture in a matter of hours, without the adjustment of physically crossing time zones, battling sea-sickness and long days of contemplative inertia.

“I would never live in Los Angeles”, the harpy carries on behind me, “there are too many coloured people”, by which she means anyone from Asia to Africa. “Japanese are very polite”, she generalizes, undeterred. Overwhelmed by shame at my fellow citizen, I toy with the idea of either clubbing her with my laptop or just chiming into the conversation and putting her in her place. I do neither – pretending not to speak Italian and continue in my reading.

It’s going to be a long, long flight.

A few days later, to prove my point, an exchange with an American girl trying to find her way to the Rialto Market in Venice, leaves me baffled. After asking me for directions and still riding on the vaporetto next to me, she feels like she should share with a fellow American that it’s too hot: “The locals are used to it but I can’t wait to get back to Miami where everything is air-conditioned and I don’t have to be outside” (never mind that Miami in July is ten times hotter). She also shares she is a lawyer (which might explain her attitude) and that she is staying at the Danieli, the grande dame of Venice hotels, probably costing her upward of $500 a night (and with plenty of air conditioning). There she is, riding along the Grand Canal and whining – she should have definitely googled the pictures.


Filed under Italy, Travel, Venice


With a vet bill that will take months to pay off and a recovering dog that delayed my anticipated trip home, I was left with the minor nightmare or major nuisance of having to change a lot more than just my plane fare. As I pointed out in Part I of this post, I took advantage of the internet to get a leg on a number of tedious purchases that would have required standing in line in the impossible heat wave that is enveloping both Bologna and Venice.

Trying to make changes or get refunds once again pointed out the good and bad of my native country. So, should any of this ever happen to you, here is what you can expect.

I had purchased a weekly vaporetto pass and wi-fi connection from which I was still intent on using but on different dates. What had started as the easiest website to navigate when buying these services turned into an incomprehensible portal when trying to figure out if and how I could make changes. Eventually I realized I could open a ticket with a help desk and, 24 hours later, Lucia answered saying that she had changed my wi-fi usage dates and Marta let me know that I could use my travel pass at any time, up to a year, from the date of purchase. Mind you, none of this was self-explanatory when navigating the site but major brownie points to the Venetians – I suppose they have good business practice in their veins.

On the other hand, if you do want a refund, you are completely out of luck., the website of the national railway system, could not retrieve my confirmation number when I tried to change my ticket. I then asked for a refund and same answer – NOT FOUND. An extremely stubborn and gracious Italian friend, bent on fighting the system, called the 800 number of my behalf. It turns out there are different tiers of tickets these days, much like plane fares: super economy – hard to book because limited and very, very cheap, which clearly state that no refunds are available; economy – which is what I have – that can be changed but only at a train station and with no refund; regular ones, that give you more flexibility. I probably didn’t read the fine print but why couldn’t they state that when I was trying to retrieve my booking? I still recommend travelling by train – in a country where not many things work as they should, trains tend to arrive surprisingly on time and, if your high-speed one is over 30 minutes late, you are entitled to a partial or full refund, pro-rated according to the lateness. All you have to do is to go a ticket counter when you get off the train.

So far so (somewhat) good. That leaves my horrific experience with Alitalia. Frankly, they should just dispense with the whole national airline and let the damned thing go. After changing my outbound reservation for $270 (somehow a sick dog didn’t qualify as a family member, a point I would be happy to argue), I never received the confirmation I was told to expect within 24 hours. 72 hours later I call them again – and I am opening an aside, every phone call requires an average of 10 to 15 minutes wait, listening to some horrid and not very soothing flamenco music – and I am told my credit card was denied.

“Were you planning on letting me know? You have my e-mail address and phone number”

“Well, it’s the week-end” the call center employee ostensibly called Nico replies, while his name is probably Vikram and he is sitting in Bangalore, not terribly caring about my plight. “Call your credit card and let them know to expect these charges”.

Photo –

Not a fan of credit card companies, the bank nonetheless answers the phone in 30 seconds and lets me know that no charges were put through and much less declined. It figures. After 3 more phone calls to Alitalia, different employees in Bangalore, the constant mention of some mythical back office that is handling my case, this morning I finally received my new ticket.

It all sums up Italy: at times convoluted but functioning, at times bureaucratic and maddening, and often inept and requiring patience and knowledge at how to navigate it. All things I tend to forget in super consumer friendly USA.


Filed under Italy, Travel, Venice


How did we survive without cell phones and laptops and i-Pads and all the gadgetry that keeps up connected, a mere 15 to 20 years ago? On vacation, I used to unplug, call home once or twice in the space of three weeks to let my mom know I was alive and I didn’t care one bit about what was going on in the world, much less what was happening at work or in my family or friends’ lives. Now, here I am, getting ready to travel with my i-Pad, my laptop and phone, buying additional data, discounted minutes and the likes. Right or wrong, I adapted to this lifestyle and I would venture to say that it’s not all bad. Instead of packing the customary half a dozen books, they are all downloaded on my i-Pad with just one paperback in case the power runs out. I won’t come home to a pile of unread New York Times or New Yorkers because they will be right there, with me.

In the process of organizing my upcoming trip to Italy, I uncovered a few helpful sites that will make my stay easier. I am Italian so navigating Italy is not something I have to think about but I discovered there was so much I could do from my sofa in Los Angeles that would save me time at the other end.

So, if you happen to travel to Italy, Venice and Rome in particular, here are a few tips.


I feel like Venice has become my home away from home. I rent the same apartment in the same neighbourhood away from the tourist fare, I have my trusted supermarket, my fish monger and greengrocer where I shop, yoga classes I might attend and a vaporetto pass. But even for a native, Venice can be rather daunting. There is so much to do (besides the obvious sightseeing if you have never been there). It’s also a college town with a lot of cultural events taking place at any given time. Figuring out what takes place when and where is a different matter. A wonderful website managed by the City government makes the job easier. You can buy museum tickets/passes, search by type of event or date and everything is there: movies, plays, concerts, exhibitions, I even found a Tai chi class inside the Guggenheim museum I would have never otherwise come across.

On I was able to buy wi-fi for the week I will be there, for 20 euros. You enter the dates you want, pay and you will receive instructions on how to activate it when you get there. So goodbye little “cartoleria” where I used to buy wi-fi from.

Best of all, you can buy a vaporetto pass (or airport transfer) as well, avoiding the daunting lines that will greet you once you step out of the train station. Click, pay and print and validate it on your first trip.

Even if you are not going anywhere near Venice, hop on the site anyway and check out the camera that gives you views of any corner of Venice in real time.

For more in-depth information on Venice, check out my posts in the travel section Random Venice Post


In Rome, staying connected is even easier. The entire city center (a very vast area) is covered by free wi-fi provided by the City of Rome. All you have to do is hook up to it and, if you are visiting, chances are you are staying somewhere central.

Bologna’s city center is also equipped with wi-fi but you have to register. Just go to the Public Internet office in Piazza Maggiore (right next to the pharmacy) and let them know you want to open an account. They will set you up and provide you with a login name and password which you can use on your own laptop or at any of the computers in their office. Totally, absolutely free. And valid for the rest of your life.


If you are seeing more than one place, chances are you will be travelling by train. Unless you are renting a car and good luck to you being on the road with any of us Italians. Train tracks crisscross the entire boot and trains will take you even to the remotest places. You can plan your trip and your fares on High speed trains are more expensive but they will get you there, well, fast but all other kind of cheaper options are available if you have time. You can purchase your ticket on-line (either by opening an account or registering as a guest) and the ticket will be e-mailed to you or else a code sent to your cell phone (has to be an Italian one). When the ticket collector comes by, all you have to do is hand him your phone. And you will have avoided long lines at the ticket counters, travel agency fees or trying to explain in your broken Italian where the heck you want to go – everybody is very nice and helpful but not always English-speaking.

Now that my travel plans have changed, I am left figuring out how to change all the handy-dandy tickets, passes etc that I have already purchased. Will let you know how easy that is or if begging on the phone in Italian is required.

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Filed under Bologna, Italy, Travel, Venice


One step to the left, or to the right, and I am in the water. I keep incredibly still, on my marble raft, perfectly alone and exquisitely at peace. Not to mention a little scared. An unbeliever, face to face with a marble Madonna nobody can get to, short of wading to it. Outside, just around the corner, Russian girls in miniskirts negotiate the tricky pavement on impossibly high heels and map equipped masses waddle their way to San Marco.

The Madonna in the water

Inside the crypt underneath San Zaccaria’s Church, alone and without any hope or belief that I will be heard, I murmur nonetheless a secret wish to the Virgin. The organ above gently announces that Sunday mass is about to begin. When was the last time I attended Sunday mass? The occurrence is lost in the Dark Ages of my youth. Ashamed of my cropped t-shirt, I join the small and ancient congregation, where I stand out more for my relative youth than my inappropriate attire.

To my left, a Bellini masterpiece, restored to its colourful perfection, is floodlit to ease my contemplation.

The priest talks of life without God leading to death as if the end of life was not a foregone conclusion. I linger until it’s time to admit my sins, which I mumble following the pamphlet I found on the bench for absent-minded Catholics like me  but I feel like a fraud. I might be a sinner but I don’t expect any higher Being to absolve me – I only have my conscience to deal with, a master in itself at fuzzing the truth to suit my purposes and let me sleep at night.

To escape the relentless crowds around S. Marco, after briefly considering a coffee at Cafe Florian where the prices are as sublime as the beauty of the interior, I walk against the flood of pedestrians along Riva degli Schiavoni, until it’s time to veer left on Calle della Pieta’. Trying to reach St. Francis of the Vineyard, I enter the Sestier of Castello, where the Arsenale is. Here the houses are more modest, the shops are shuttered and I appear to be wandering in the only neighbourhood where not a single restaurant or cafe is open. Not even a local to ask for advice: they are all sitting in front of their Sunday pranzo. A man shuffles towards me, a plastic bag in his right hand but his gaze is too lecherous and I walk on. At this point I am famished and in need of a toilet. A plain osteria finally comes into view in Campo de Pozzi, run by two charming women, happy to make me a basic ham and cheese sandwich and a coffee.

St. Francis' cloister

When I finally reach St. Francis of the Vineyards, that a Venetian suggested I visit, I am welcomed by a large church dating back to the 15th century (built over a previous basilica) – the smell of lilies, bunches of which are along the nave, is a touch overwhelming, as is the sacred music that plays on a loop. Both elements are incongruous  to the otherwise peaceful refuge, for which I am mercifully not charged an entrance fee. A monk is tidying up mounds of red candles. I nearly venture to ask whether he could show me the famed vineyard but I chicken out, in fear of being questioned on my catechism. I repair to the beautiful cloisters, the only ones I have seen with grass and plants, and to a dark room with yet another Bellini. To see it in all its glory, I would have to switch the light on by dropping 20c inside a box but I am out of coins. I sit quietly and, again, in complete solitude, on a bench along the wall where a black pen sits abandoned. I pick it up – a cheap pen that still writes and, moved to save it from eternal oblivion, I pocket it.

All of a sudden, crying seems the right thing to do, in this dark chapel, under a masterpiece I can hardly make out, the only light streaming from a high window of yellow glass.

A Bellini I can harldy make outTime is running out. My time, that is. The childish morning enthusiasm brought upon by the flinging open of the bedroom shutters and the light rushing in, is being replaced by a low-grade melancholy and the reality of choices to come. Maybe Venice is more like Disneyland than I thought. The magic gets checked at the door when leaving the lagoon.  Could it be that this city of sailors, explorers, libertines and refugees has succeeded in bestowing onto me the courage to just be? If Venice lives and thrives on impermanence, who am I not to accept such a fate?

I sit for a long time before stepping in the sunlight, tiptoeing to a Vaporetto stop that only exists if you will it to be. I press the button that will alert the next boat that a passenger wants to get on.  Centuries have gone by but a blinking light is still heeded by sailors when someone is in need.



Filed under Italy, Travel, Venice

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT – Venice in Summer

One of the proud lions found a bit everywhere

If it’s true that knowing one Italian always begets another, this time I struck it lucky. The first time I see Dr. Pino I am left with the memory of a crisp white and blue shirt, freshly pressed pants and the manners of the old-fashioned gentleman he is. Venetian through and through, an ear and nose doctor and a veritable mine of information on the lagoon and its history, in the course of the few hours we will spend together, I will fall in love with his wit and quick humour, his intelligence and his gentlemanly but straightforward manners.

When we speak on the phone, he suggests we meet for a drink at the Accademia Bar, right under the bridge. I got to him through my best friend’s parents and a convoluted story of relations I will spare you but, when later that day, he comes to pick me up in his little boat, right outside my apartment’s door, the prim and proper shirt has been replaced by baggy jeans, tennis shoes and a polo shirt. I had agonized whether to wear jeans with such a proper gentleman and I sigh with relief when I see his attire.

I slid under that

Dr. Pino is about to show me Venice at dusk, the way everybody should see it, from the water. Every travel book will tell you that is what you should do but, short of renting a gondola for 130 euros that will only buy you a brief tour of the Grand Canal and a few adjacent smaller ones, the alternative is to befriend a Venetian.

Owning a boat is a bit of a necessity here. How else to take home that bookcase from Ikea, or a week’s worth of shopping or run any of the myriad other errands we take for granted when we drop something in the trunk? Boating etiquette dictates that one drives on the left in the canals but on the right out in the open water of the lagoon.

Two things happen while gliding on the murky water – first, the sounds of the city become muffled and distant and, second, the perspective of the buildings changes. Deprived of wide, open views, one is forced to focus on the framed “paintings” at the end of each canal and to look up, coming close to otherwise lost details of buildings whose fronts you are finally facing. The ghosts of Venice are all there  in plain sight. It’s easy to imagine tall torches framing the large doors, casting light on the nocturnal visitors, or merry women being ferried to the casinos. It’s also easy to fathom large rats scurrying at sea level although, to be fair, I didn’t see any.

..and that

Under low bridges and even under a church, the city reveals its true maritime nature, the way it was conceived, and the fading sun dancing on the pastel and golden facades brings back the vestiges of what once was.

Leaving Venice proper, the imposing old Arsenael on our right, Dr. Pino is determined to make me see an unexpected side of the lagoon. Vignole and St Erasmo are the two islands on which fruit and vegetables are grown. Scarcely populated, if not by farmers and the few souls who choose to live in such a bucolic paradise, the islands are a mixture of small sandy beaches, forests and fields. We alight on one side for a glass of prosecco and a walk on the beach and then on the other, for a simple meal of seppie al nero (calamari in squid ink with polenta, one of Venice’s delicacies) and grilled fish. Darkness has fallen and the Serenissima’s lights beckon in the distance. Grappa and prosecco have made us talkative and from Dr. Pino’s mouth pour out the stories I yearn to hear, of how Venice has changed in his lifetime and on how wonderful and different life can be here.

Out on the Grand Canal

As if I hadn’t seen enough beauty, on our way back, we approach the city by entering St. Mark’s basin – from the sea I can’t see the crowds or the posters marring the piazza, only the golden globes of the church and the imposing bell-tower with the lions standing vigil. And I take in what many before me saw when first arriving in Venice, from the Orient or the North, the French and the Austrians who took possession of it, they all saw it first from the sea. Proud, beautiful, exotic and difficult. Come get me, she beckons. You might have me but you will never fully know me. To this day, still.

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VENICE IN SUMMER. NO TOURISTS or things you will not learn from guide books II

There used to be no bridges in Venice

Let’s debunk a myth: Venice in Summer does not stink. A constant breeze flowing through the windows makes the heat, that’s gripping most of Italy, rather pleasant. The only odour wafting into my nostrils is the one of sea water. Early in the life of the city, its inhabitants discovered that the lagoon has a naturally regulated self-cleaning system: every 6 hours new water comes in and stale one goes out. When, in winter, the water coming in surpasses the outgoing, the phenomenon of acqua alta comes to be.

Up until the end of the 18th century, right after the fall of the Serenissima Republic of Venice and the advent of Napoleon first and the Austro Hungarians after, there was no walking in Venice. Wearing comfortable shoes and slogging through miles of calle was not a problem Venetians had to contend with. The life of a Venetian was centered around his or her Parochia (where one’s local church was) and, in turn, around the campo (or square). Everything one needed was to be found in the campo: bread, fruit and vegetables and all basic trades. The only way to get around was by boat, and the wealthy families had a gondolier on retainer who would take the boat out of its “garage” every time a family member had to go somewhere, such as the Ridotto at night, a sort of casino where people would go wearing elaborate masks to carouse the night away.

After the fall of the Republic, the need to get around in a speedier fashion became more urgent and a plethora of bridges were built to link the canals, with no rhyme or reason and, certainly, no urban planning in mind, which explains why many of the bridges don’t link the canals straightforwardly but are perched at funny angles. The Austrians, lacking imagination, built straight  iron bridges, rather than arched, that had to be removed with the advent of vaporettos. The Accademia bridge, for instance, used to be such an iron specimen, now replaced with a temporary wooden one that has been temporary for a couple of centuries. Many of today’s streets were indeed canals that have been filled – every time you see a sign that says “rio tera’” (instead of calle) it means  you are walking on what was once water.

Wandering around it’s impossible not to notice that most corners are filled, at knee level, with a marble or stone slab, placed there to stop men from peeing in corners – I am not making this up. At a time when street illumination was not existent, dark corners were used for all sorts of business. Well, you can now try to pee in one such corner and your pants and shoes will be much the worse for it. Ingenious as ever (let’s not forget Marco Polo came from here), Venetians also devised a strategy to prevent monkey business to  take place under the sottoportego (low and very dark arches, mostly bordering canals) by placing small altars in the middle of them, with a burning candle and the effigy of some saint or other. The reasoning was that peeing or defecating (or worse) in front of a saint would bring bad luck. Think it might still work today??

Forty years ago there were around 150,000 people residing in Venice proper and now they are down to 50,000, making the chance encounter of a fellow Venetian a welcome occurrence. No wonder they all seem to know each other. I always admire their patience in dealing with the throngs of hapless tourists – maybe, rather than patience, it’s their aplomb I cherish.  They call each other in the streets, with resonant Ciao’s which, incidentally, is a Venetian export. Ciao is a contraction of “Sciao” which, in Venetian, means “slave”. To greet someone with Ciao essentially means “I am your slave” which, in a twisted and not politically correct way, is rather romantic. Like the city where it originates: romantic, yes, but libertine first.

Thank you to Dr. Pino Vaccher for the historical tidbits

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