Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Italy: Venice, Our Last Stop

Gondolas crowd one of Venice's many small canals. We did not see or hear
a singing gondolier, but we did see boats in which passengers were
accompanied by singing guitarists, and in one case an accordion player.
In planning our 2019 seven-week Balkans trip, we chose to go south (Greece) to north (Slovenia and Italy), partly thinking that mid-May might be too cool in the north and that early July might be too warm in the south. It turned out that early July was quite hot in the north with warmer temperatures than on the Greek islands. And we found ourselves sort of at a dead-end in Trieste if we wanted an easy flight back to the U.S.  For a one-stop flight, we'd have to go back to Zagreb or go to the other side of the Adriatic and fly out of Venice. We took a train from Trieste to Venice.

Our only other time in Venice was in November, 1999, when the city was chilly, rainy and, on the day we left, flooded. It was not the sort of transcendental experience that many travelers expect the city to offer. So here was a chance to visit during high season, when the sky would be sunny and the sidewalks dry. Unfortunately, Venice in high season has become infamous for its crowds, masses of elbowing and pushing visitors eager to check off every sight worth seeing (and there are a lot). We were willing to dive into this during a three-night stay.

Fortunately, we chose a hotel about as far as possible from the crowds at the Rialto and Piazza San Marco, though it is on the Grand Canal: Hotel Palazzo Barbarigo sur Canal Grande, in the San Toma area, just a few steps from Campo San Toma. It's at a corner where a smaller canal, the Rio di San Polo, meets the Grand Canal. The San Toma square is prominent enough on most maps to make finding the hotel pretty easy, just cross the bridge closest to the church, stay straight and take the second right into Calle Corner, a rather dark and narrow but clean alley that does indeed involve a 90-degree corner and ends at the door to the hotel. Come out into the daylight from Calle Corner, and there are signs pointing you toward the Rialto and to Piazalle Roma (home to the bus station and shuttle buses to airport). Cross the Grand Canal on the Rialto and signs will lead you or you can just follow the crowds to Piazza San Marco. Still, it's easy to get lost and confused in Venice, but eventually a sign will appear pointing you in the right direction. And without getting lost, how would you have found that wine bar, that masquerade shop, that stationery store?

On the way back to the hotel, we twice went in the other direction and crossed the Grand Canal on the Ponte dell'Accademia. A slightly longer walk but much less crowded. And, back at the hotel, we simply had to duck back into the streets nearby to find drinks and dinner at little places near Campo San Toma. We knew we were at a local place on Via Nomboli when the owners were at one of the other sidewalk tables and passersby kept addressing them by name. Although there was a souvenir shop across the street, most of the people walking by appeared to be headed home from work.

We had two full days to enjoy Venice. We got "avoid the wait" online tickets for St. Mark's Basilica, which we had visited 20 years earlier. On that visit, one simply walked in and walked around and enjoyed the magnificent space, just as one does in most large Italian churches. Here, because of the crowds, visitors now stay between rope lines on the periphery of the church, never getting to experience standing in the middle in front of the altar. Signs warn against taking photos. When I took one photo, a tour guide scolded me, ignoring the fact that the people on his tour were taking photos almost nonstop. He shrugged when this was mentioned.

If the basilica was a disappointment, our other destination wasn't. We happened to be in town during the once-every-two-years La Biennale di Venezia, the Venice Art Biennial exhibition. At a mere 20 euros, it's a bargain, presenting more art, more concepts and more ideas than one can possibly absorb. This year the show was titled "May You Live In Interesting Times," and many of the works were indeed interesting. The Biennale takes up two huge spaces on the point of land that extends east from Piazza San Marco. One is called the Arsenale, which centuries ago had a military purpose, and the other is the smaller Central Pavilion in the Giardini.

Inside the Arsenale, unpainted plywood walls divided the space, which felt like several airplane hangars strung together, putting most works in rather intimate spaces that encouraged visitors to move in close. Many countries sponsored exhibitions, usually highlighting one artist and one work, often on themes related to climate change. Much of the other work is probably best described as conceptual, though some were so highly personal that they defy category.

Our arrival in Venice involved a long wait for and then a crowded ride on a water bus because that was the way the directions to our hotel began. Our exit was simpler. We simply took our rolling luggage and followed signs to Piazalle Roma where we caught a shuttle bus to the airport. The alternative, a water taxi from our hotel to the airport, was more than 100 euros.  It turns out that Piazalle Roma is just a few steps from the Santa Luca train station where we arrived. The lesson: Get a very good map of Venice before going so you can see your options. Canal travel is fun, but the backstreets of Venice have their own charms, too, and they're free.

Here are some photos.
A small terrace off the bar at Palazzo Barbarigo offers
a wonderful view of the Grand Canal. The floor below
this, the "ground floor" or "water floor,' had an entrance
for people arriving by boat. Our room, on that lower floor,
had a window looking out at all the boats on the canal.
Not quite the evening rush, but still
a lot of traffic on the Grand Canal.
Gondolas tie up beside a restaurant on one of the
small canals. The motorboat on the right
is a water taxi.

The Ponte dell'Accademia is one of  three bridges over the Grand Canal. It connects the relatively
quiet Dosoduro district with the very crowded San Marco district. The other bridges are Scalzi, which
connects the train station with the Santa Croce district, and the famous Rialto, which connects the
San Polo district with the San Marco district. 

Masks are a big business here. We saw
shops where people could buy a plain
white ceramic mask and paint it however
they liked. One American teenager
turned his into something from
a horror movie.

It's OK, though, because this sidewalk cafe sells
drinks, foods and ice creams. 

The famous Bridge of Sighs connects a building, on the left, where a court condemned
prisoners to die, and the building on the right where the executions were carried out,
usually on the same day.

Basilica di San Marco was begun in the 11th century as the doge's personal chapel. Most of its
celebrated mosaics date from the 12th and 13th centuries. Crowds make it an unpleasant
place to visit, but if you've never seen it, it's a must.

Mosaics adorn almost every surface inside the basilica.

Byzantine touches make for an exotic interior.

The horses are gilt-bronze and date to Roman times. They were looted
from Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1204.

View of St. Mark's Square from the steps
of the basilica.

On the waterfront a few steps from St. Mark's Square, yachts and other
watercraft were tied up. We wondered if they belonged to jet-setters
who had sailed in to see the Biennalle.

This was one of the first works we encountered at the Biennale.
It's called "Double Elvis" and it's by a New York artist named
George Condo (b.1957). 

This photograph in a large group of photos by the Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) artist Soham Gupta
(b. 1988), all of them depicting vulnerable people living on the outskirts of Kolkata.

"For in Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit" by Shilpa Gupta of Mumbai (formerly Bombay)
deals with the "violence of censorship." The microphones suspended above each
paper are actually low-volume speakers reading the protest messages
that have been impaled. Visitors wandered through the exhibit, reading
and listening as much as they wanted.

One not-so-famous church gives an idea of the glories
behind the stone facades of Venice. This is Church of St.
Pantalon in the Dosoduro district. No crowds, no rope line,
just cool quiet and breathtaking art.
The winged lion, for centuries the symbol of Venetian
maritime power, still soars atop a column where
St. Mark's Square connects with the waterfront.

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