While the weather has oscillated back and forth between glorious and dismal, the flooding has been a nuisance, the hotel’s internet worked less than 12 hours during our four-day stay, and the cost of meals has consistently been budget breaking, Venice is still wonderful. I think it is impossible not to love this city.
On Friday, once the tide started to recede, Josh and I went out to explore the city. First we went to the distinctive stone Rialto Bridge. Built in 1588, not only was it an amazing engineering feat, until 1850 it was the only bridge that crossed the Grand Canal. Even during this rainy, off-season, day - the area is packed with tourists. During high tide, they put miles and miles of 12” high, 3-4 feet wide, platforms down the center of the narrow streets. The locals, with knee high rubber boots, splash along at ground level, and the tourists, mostly without boots, creep along on top of these platforms and hop off here and there to check out the shopping. The markets around Rialto are really a mishmash of cheesy souvenir shops and cool little boutiques. There are many, many mask shops and Josh and I spent some time speaking with a traditional mask maker who had been to Minnesota. He had visited our fair state to make masks for Circus Juventas in St. Paul. We also spent some time in a great little bead store, Perle e Dintorni, which was raved about on tripadvisor reviews. In route back to our hotel, Josh sampled the gelato from the shop in our neighborhood.
After a brief rest at the hotel, we went to dinner at Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili, a classic little canal side restaurant just down the street from our hotel. It is clearly off-season, and only one other party came in while we were having dinner. Josh had a steak and I had fish soup – both a welcome break from all the pizza we had been eating.
Saturday morning we awoke to bright sunshine. A water taxi picked us up right outside our pensione and whisked us across the lagoon to the island of Murano. Bouncing across the choppy water, under the clear blue sky, with the lavish palaces and other remnants of what was once the world’s richest city lining the horizon, was one of those “pinch me so I know I am not dreaming” moments.
Murano is known for its glass factories. Almost all of them offer free 20-minute tours. The one we toured, the Mazzega Glass Factory, specialized in making chandeliers and had been in the same family for over 400 years. After the tour we leisurely walked through the nine retail showrooms, and two small gift shops. I bought Josh a pair of Murano glass cuff-links, we explored a number of other glass shops, then caught vaporetti #42 back to the main island.
|The view from the bridge in Murano.|
After taking care of some business at the train station (booking our overnight train from Rome to Paris for the middle of December) we decided to enjoy the sunshine for as long as we could and set out for St. Mark’s Square. This is often listed as the number one sight to see in Venice. I was interested in seeing St. Mark’s Basilica just because of its size and Eastern (Byzantine) style architecture. Only a few thousand other people had the same idea for this sunny afternoon, and, without thinking, we arrived amid the throngs right during high tide. Before we realized it – we were standing ankle deep in water, shoes and socks getting soaked and with few easy ways to escape the crowds. Once you are wet, you are wet – so I decided to take a photo of Josh in front of the Basilica and then try to find our way to higher, dryer land. We had wanted to find Café Florian, supposedly the most famous Venetian café and the first place in all of Europe to serve coffee – but I just couldn’t attempt to read the itty-bitty print on my map while standing ankle-deep in cold water and, in the end, we just made our way back to the penisone in search of dry shoes and socks.
After brief chat with the front desk, it was clear that there would be no working Internet at the hotel until sometime after we checked out on Monday. We also knew all the listed Internet cafés are closed on Sunday, so we set out to find the closest Internet café that was still open. After completely overshooting the square with the Internet spot, we stumbled on to a very fun flea market with all sorts of treasures we could never fit in our suitcases but nonetheless were fun to look at. Since it was getting dark, we asked a “looks likely to speak some English” suspect for directions, backtracked the way we arrived and found our teeny-tiny combination Internet spot Toy Store. (There was no “café” element at all, that is why it was called an Internet “hotspot.”) The entire space was about ten feet wide and 12 feet deep and packed with Legos and Playmobile. Along one wall were four computers. For two Euros you got 30 minutes of Internet time. I paid my two Euros, sent off my last blog, uploaded my most recent photos to facebook and was out of time. By then it was completely dark, but thankfully Josh has a really good sense of direction and navigated us back to our familiar neighborhood.
Sunday morning the weather pendulum had swung back to dismal with “Heavy rainfall” predicted for much of the day. In spite of the bleak forecast, we set out early with only two items on our agenda - the Jewish ghetto in Venice, and the DaVinci “Machine” exhibit.
The Jewish Ghetto was really interesting, aided in part by our very articulate tour guide. There were Jews in the Venetian Republic as far back as the first century of the “common era.” As the number and importance of the Jews in the area increased, up to almost 5,000 by 16th Century, the Republic decided they needed to “organize” their presence and designated an area of the city where the Jews were required to live. It was in the area where the ancient foundries had been located. The Venetian word for “foundry” is “geto”, pronounced with a soft “g” like “gelato.” Many of the Ashkenazi immigrants had come from Germany and could not easily pronounce the soft “g.” They pronounced it with a hard “g” – leading to the pronunciation we now associate with the word “ghetto.”
Because space was so precious they build six-story tenement style apartments and built their synagogues on top of these buildings. There were five synagogues in this area and we were able to tour three of them. From the outside of the building the average person would not know it is the location of a synagogue. The Jews of the region could easily spot a synagogue because they knew to look for a top floor with five windows in a row. The five windows were code for the five books of the Torah.
|The five windows indicate it is a synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto in Venice.|
There were large gates on the only two bridges in and out of the Jewish Ghetto and they were locked at midnight every night. The only Jews allowed to leave the Ghetto during the night time hours were the physicians, being called to treat wealthy Venetians. Our guide told us the current Jewish population is only about 250 and only two of the synagogues are still active. In spite of the small population, there is a vitality these days in this area. There are numerous kosher restaurants, many small art galleries and a steady stream of tourists in and out of the museum. I loved the art work I saw everywhere.
One random fun fact we discovered while on this journey and digging into family history was that Bob’s great grandmother (and Josh’s great, great grandmother) was Italian. She married a man from the Austrian province of Galicia, so their immigration papers listed them as “Austrian.” We also discovered that Bob’s great uncle (Josh’s great, great uncle) Max Zweifach, was a hard core gangster on the Lower East Side of New York. You can read all about him at www.j-grit.com, the Internet Index of Tough Jews.
After a quick lunch, we splish-splashed our way to the Church of San Barnaba to see the “Exhibit of Interactive Machines reproduced from Leonardo da Vinci’s codices.” Josh is a big da Vinci fan, so this exhibit was right up his alley. Each display had copy of da Vinci’s original drawings, and a model of the realized machine. There were 60 models of machines ranging from bicycles to multi-cannon war ships. I promised Josh I would buy him a book about da Vinci’s machines once we were back in States.
|The bicycle at the da Vinci Machine Museum.|
Tomorrow we will be leaving Venice and heading to Ravenna for a few days. I am incredibly glad we spent this time in Venice and would strongly encourage anyone who has visiting this city on their “bucket list” not to wait too long. Sadly, Venice is a city that is “dying.” The population of Venice is half what it was 30 years ago, and is losing about 1,000 residents a year. It is simply too expensive for people to live here. Travel guru, Rick Steves, writes, “Even the most hopeful city planners worry that in a few decades, Venice will not be a city at all, but a museum, a cultural theme park, a decaying Disneyland.”
However, for my last day in Venice, I would prefer to hold on to the image painted by Joseph Brodsky, and quoted by Rachel Donadio, in the travel section of the New York Times today. “In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china tea set were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky,” Brodsky wrote. “You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.”
And for these two travelers, Venice/ Venezia, has been a damp but wonderful place to spend four days in November.