Tuesday, July 11, 2006

la serenissima

Last Friday, I fled the office, fled the city and caught a train to Venice. Everyone I spoke to raved about the city: my mother always returned to Montreal with elegant photos, Angela spoke highly of her time in Venezia, Carly has been back numerous times and Matilde repeated the fact that the Italian city is quite unlike anything else. Here I was on the train to this magical city, expectations whirling in my head, wondering how could it be. I had written about Venice in the Let's Go guide of Western Europe last summer, rewriting the introduction to a city I had never visited, saying it was best to get lost in the city of Venice (La Serenissima, the peaceful one) a town of winding canals, curving streets, and deteriorating stucco palazzi. Getting into the train station I was confused, I had water on one side and cars on a highway on the other. The weather had been overcast and rainy, the air thick with grey and dampness. I walked out onto the platform, not thinking this could be it. I met Carly and we walked out of the train station. It was then that I understood. Before me was a canal lined with rose coloured glass lampposts, a bridge to my left and a domed church right in front of me. My first moments in the city, or my entire first day rather, I couldn't really grasp the concept of this city. I didn't know where I was going, my map was useless, city of bridges, canals and buildings rising out of the water. As I sat in my room the first night, the melody of an accordion teased into earshot and as I looked out my window a gondola passed by and a woman snapped a picture of me looking (perhaps longingly) out my window at the passing boat, a new kind of passing vehicle, waterway traffic. That night we visited the tourist-packed Rialto bridge and went to dinner at Carly's Venetian mainstay La Trattoria alla Madonna where she witnessed the secret to creamy risotto (perhaps the best I have ever tasted) which is not cream but pan-flipping. We proceeded to get lost on the way home, following signs, discovering sidestreets, meeting stray dogs, and finally arriving home to our cave-like hostel. After a licorice-tasting absinth, we went to sleep giggly and happy.


Waking early, we headed out for the Saturday morning markets in Campo S. Margherita and at the Rialto. The streets were empty and the light shone warmly on the buildings as if in greeting. After a cappuccino, we stepped into the campo to see men setting up their fish stands complete with black eel, scampi, octopus and the like.

People warned me that Venice smells bad in summer, gladly, I think we were early enough in the summer to avoid nocive and ubiquitous stench but I could understand that most of Venice smells a little fishy... it is after all a port town on the water. Go figure. We walked around near the Rialto, before any of the shops on the bridge were open and before hoards of tourists flooded the area. The markets for me were magical, buzzing with life and locals.

Arriving in Piazza San Marco, already invaded by tourists, after a winding path from the Rialto, Carly and I headed to the top of the campanile (bell tower) to breathtaking views of the islands of Venice and the packed rooftops unimaginable from the tall and narrow streets below. So much of this city gives you a new view of life as it really should be: the streets you travel aren't straightforward or retraceable (or when they are retraced, they are completely unfamiliar), canals don't make sense, the spaces are varied, from wide open campos to narrow tall alleyways with low arched entrances. I took Venice as an allegory for everyday life, winding, unpredictable, rife with loss, and at times surreal. From the campanile with its wonderful breeze, I saw the Guidecca, a region suggested to me to visit by Daria at the office and the Chiesa S. Giorgio on its own island, that also seemed a point of interest. Wanting to take the vaporetto around town that day and buy a 24hr ticket, we arrived at the vaporetto stop only to discover that there was a vaporetto strike. Quintessential Italian experience number 5, great. Unphased we decided to go on foot, we would see as much as Venice as possible, without swimming.

We headed back to the Rialto to do a bit of present shopping, spending most of our time with Giorgio and Wanda Scarpa at their shop Rivoaltus. Wanda slaves away as Giorgio tends the one-room shop. It was so nice to be warmly greeted and welcomed. The books that are sold in the shop are gorgeous, made from leather and Amalfi paper... entrancing designs. Good purchases. After a lunch stop on the go, we headed for a museum afternoon complete with the non wow-worthy Accademia (although they did take me for an EU student) and the wonderfully peaceful and stimulating Peggy Guggenheim collection. I loved the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, if not for the Angel of the City with the removable erection but for the peaceful and inspired atmosphere that reigns in the museum. You walk into another world, of thought-provoking art, a type of art that you can't understand completely but makes your mind bubble, chatter. Venice is thus a perfect setting for the collection. Beside the cool stone trelis-covered table in the courtyard, I loved the photos of Peggy in her house (because that's what it was) because it gives a personal touch to the spaces, a history. Too bad I checked my bag and camera and couldn't take any pictures... I shall return, one of my favorite museums in a whimsical city. After wandering around with screaming feet to a church and a gelateria (to have a gianduiotto da passaggio, which I would NOT recommend although chocolate hazelnut icecream in dense whipping cream sounded amazing), we headed home on a free vaporetto and collapsed.

Within half an hour I received a phonecall from my dear friend Ayten, she had arrived in Venice and we discovered, excitedly chattering, that we were indeed close to each other and would meet each other within an hour. I had never seen Ayten outside of Cambridge, MA so I was excited to see her and see how Italy was treating her so far. Waiting for her on the street next to our neighbours, the Ristorante ae Cravate (with ties hanging from the ceiling), we were given plastic bowls filled with eye-rolling-with-pleasure scented mussels for free, because the owner of the restaurant had lost a bet that Italy would not make it to the finals and had to hand out free mussels to passers-by. Delicious and hilarious. I spotted Ayten looking around and wandering down the street, I yelled out and ran over to hug her as best as I could with a bowl of mussels in my hand. We wandered the streets of Venice, quiet and tourist-less, stopping to vist her apartment before wandering to finally find a restaurant on a canal in the jewish part of town (complete with chanting hasidim as we walked passed the kosher restaurant Gam Gam on our way to the now functional vaporetto). It was so nice to catchup with Ayten, we get along so well, dream of my future visit to Turkey, talk about our lives at Harvard, wrestle with life problems. We said goodbye as I embarked on the right vaporetto down the Grand Canal to San Marco.

Venice at night is completely unreal with palazzi that look like they are either rising up from or sinking into the water. Magical, ephemeral, peaceful. The boat rocks as I snap pictures in the darkness and catch glimpses of chandeliers, paintings or rich red walls through open windows to lit rooms. I walked off the vaporetto feeling like I had lived a dream, walking towards the music of San Marco, street lamps lighting up the night, silver tipped gondolas bobbing in the water, resting from a day of peaceful gliding. I met up with Carly, ran into some other Harvard folks and headed home on the vaporetto (after getting lost and not wanting to be stuck in the dark, the silence, with no real trusty map and nothing but lapping water). I drifted to sleep after checking out the scene in the student-busy Campo S. Margherita near our hostel and witnessing some more Italian beauties, bronzed, stylish (greek style lace up sandals, aka hotness), and smiling. A nice square to hang out in.
I had wonderfully peaceful dreams that night of rising from the water to witness a panorama of still coloured-stucco palazzi and woke up with the sun. This place really is quite peaceful and so much you have to experience for yourself: the touch of stucco, the narrow tall streets, the gentle incline of the bridges, the visibility of time's passing.

Carly and I arrived at Caffé Florian before they opened on Sunday morning and took in the cool wind breezing through piazza San Marco, the world's largest sitting room. Sipping cappuccino (the trip's best) and a Bellini we bid adieu to Venezia in style along with dipping our hands into the water to feel the soft seaweed growing on the cold marble steps into the water. On the train (although we hadn't validated our tickets, we didn't get fined as I thought we would. unforseen travel expenses: 100 euro I thought as Carly uttered 'For everything else there's Mastercard'), I tried to come to terms with the trip, its unreal quality (throughout the weekend I kept telling myself I was in Venice and afterwards I told myself that I had just been in Venice), like a dream and truly, unlike anything I have ever experienced, feeling much more in touch with life thanks to the city's unrestrained quality, floating delicately on the surface.

2 comments:

Carly said...

What an amazing weekend...

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