We arrived in Rome in the morning of April 27, and spent a few hours in the airport waiting for our delayed flight to Venice. It had been a long cold night on the plane and we were in a dream-like state–despite the sudden delight in having access to fantastic and cheap cappuccinos in the airport (we’d each had 3 within the first 2 hours on the ground in Italy). We were fighting nodding off in our cozy and lovely stretched-leather chairs in the airport. I remember staring at Bryan’s watch face willing my eyes to focus, while trying to listen to the announcements in Italian. “Are we delayed? Are we boarding?”
The flight finally made it to Venice around 4 p.m. and we figured out the water bus easily. For 13 Euro each (including luggage), we’d get transported to San Marco Square. We followed a small stream of people out into the misty, windy Venetian afternoon and boarded a floating waiting room. About 10 minutes later, a boat pulled alongside, threw down a metal bridge between the boat and our waiting room. The trick was in getting the luggage across the divide, along with yourself, in the wind, quickly, because people were waiting; and both the boat and the waiting room were tossing in the waves…in different directions. I gave up on any grace, but made it over with everything in tact.
Little did we know, we’d spend another 2 hours getting from the airport to the San Marco stop. The canals were choppy, so the windows were closed to prevent splashing waves from reaching us. We were so drowsy–staring out those foggy windows. We tried to make out where we were, what we were passing and yet it was like a dream. I remember seeing an island of graves, hearing and feeling the boat-bus wash against the stops and the captain throw down the ramp, smelling the fresh sea air, and a prevailing smell of mint, watching a massive tour ship cross our path, and feeling the sea’s spray on my face when we opened the window for a clear view.
Finally, it’s as if we awoke from one dream and stepped out into a another dream–an ornate little miniature world come to life. We were in San Marco. There was the Basilica di San Marco. It reminded me of that old-timey carousel from Opryland. There was the Piazza San Marco and the long buildings with porticoes. There were the pigeons, the pillars, the tourists.
I’d read in a guidebook that Venice defies description, and so it does. It was drizzling and we followed a small map. Trying to find our way, and yet in awe by the canals, the gondolas, the gelato stands…
Our Hotel al Gazzettino was off a small canal, in a narrow alley. We’d splurged on a room with 2 tiny balconies over a canal–and wow what a room! Gold and blue bedspread, drapes and matching fabric wallpaper, white ornate furniture, a tiny TV that we never got to work (but who needs it in Venice!) and a bathroom as big as the room itself. We threw open the windows and stood out on the balcony watching the gondolas beneath.
It would rain almost the whole time we were in Venice, but the rain seemed to suit the place. With 117 Islands, 150 canals and 410 bridges–water is everywhere. Water stood at the entrance to beautiful old San Marco, easing into the delicate mosaic floor. Elevated sidewalks were set-up to keep the tourists’ feet dry. The wet streets and the sound of the rain hitting the water was becoming to Venice.
There are no cars in Venice–just boats. Boats for everything–police, mail, ambulance, buses, taxis, delivery, laundry… The Grand Canal has been described as the “finest street in the world” with a parade of old buildings now in elegant decay. Hundreds of gracious, ornate old buildings tilted this way and that line the banks…the water at their front doors. Boats are parked, tied up like Old West horses in front of the buildings. There is a smell of mildew and the sea, of old wood and coffee. Laundry hangs, pigeons wait, and Venetians tend to their potted gardens on tiny balconies and roof tops.
Our days were filled by wandering, watching, eating. We found a number of little restaurants–some with just 5 tables–serving homemade tortellini, lasagna, caprese salads, and delicious red wines. Cin! Cin! And there was the coffee, and the gelato. Grocery stores served fresh sandwiches and tasty paprika chips. We found a place selling wine for 3 euro–siphoned out of a giant cask and put into your plastic water bottle. We would sit on the banks of the Grand Canal, or in the coffee shop, watching the world go by. One day we shopped along the double-sided aisles of the Rialto Bridge…buying leather journals in a shop so small that the workshop above had to be accessed with a cedar ladder straight up.
San Marco was a highlight. No pictures allowed. The place is filled to the brim with treasures (from 1075, all ships returning from abroad had, by law, to bring back a precious gift to adorn “the House of St. Mark”): There are hundreds of relics of bones and bits in fancy glass jars, jewel encrusted walls, tiny-pieced golden mosaics on the walls and ceiling, and a loggia where 4 horses keep watch over the piazza before them. The ancient basilica’s floor is incredible with thousands of tiny mosaic tiles and so warped it could be described as hilly. I’m surprised that all the mosaics stay put in the floods and warping. There was so much to look at, it was stunning. That old basilica sits there day in and day out watching the crowds go by, feeling the water seeping into its foundation and holding tight to its treasures plundered and received 800 years ago. It is, by far, one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. I bought rosaries there–old marbled glass to remind me of the colors of the floor and walls.
We took a gondola ride during a clear hour one afternoon. The light in the canals was spectacular–diffused and rose gold. It’s about 90 euro for an hour ride around the area–and worth every single penny. Our gondolier, Ricardo, took us out into the Grand Canal for a pass under the Rialto Bridge. He showed us how the water’s high tide breeched the first floors of many buildings and described how many of the owners were abandoning the first floors of their homes–no longer using the canal-side doors. I imagined rooms with extravagant fabric wallpapers and gilded crown mouldings–standing lonely and empty now except for a few heavy pieces of furniture sacrificed to the flood waters.
On one of our last nights, we stood there listening to the violins and violas play the old songs in the Piazza. There was the tinkling of champagne glasses and delicate cups. We could see the rooms above with their red velvet damask wallpaper, dripping chandeliers and fancy dressed customers. Yet, the water still stood at the threshold of San Marco’s, lapping against those gold mosaics. “It’s like the Titanic,” Bryan said. Grand and sinking into legend.