We’re off again, dear Reader; this time to the ethereal archipelago of Venezia! The mere mention of Venice conjures vivid images: a gondolier navigating his boat through low bridges and murky, labyrinthine canals, winged lions perched proudly above Saint Mark’s Square. Often people sigh wistfully, remembering their visit to this famed city or lamenting never having made one. So… what’s the hype about?
A Day in Dorsoduro
William and I are seated below deck aboard the Alilaguna, the water taxi that shuttles visitors from the airport on the mainland to the city of Venice. We spend the hour-long journey chatting with Billy’s coworker, John, who also happens to be in town for the festivities. This is the second visit for both Billy and I, but it is our first carnevale and our first trip together! The boat enters the Grand Canal, an S-shaped waterway that serves as the city’s main thoroughfare. Outside the windows early morning scenes of the Cannaregio quarter glide past on either side – fishermen preparing for a day on the lagoon, vendors setting up in the market. John, becoming boyish, sits up on his knees to get a better view. Venice can do that to a man.
After checking into our Airbnb in San Marco (the center of town), Billy and I head over to Dorsoduro. We encounter few people as we traverse tiny bridges and explore narrow alleys. Even the grey-green waters of the lagoon remain largely undisturbed. The city is quiet, its sounds muffled by the mist looming overhead. We spend an hour or so in the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, a manageable and refreshing collection of modern art. Afterwards, we observe the comings and goings of the Grand Canal from the vantage point of the Santa Maria della Salute. I watch as William explores the far edge of the piazza; the man I love recedes into the fog until he resembles little more than a grey-blue daub in an impressionist painting.
Our first day is leisurely, but not without purpose: Billy needs a mask for carnevale. There are mask shops around every corner of course, but most of those masks are of the Made In China variety. A discerning eye can easily spot the difference between one of these imports and an authentic papier-mâché piece. The masks are unique, wearable pieces of art. I am drawn to the ghoulish Plague Doctor Masks (with the long beaks) while Billy purchases a bauta mask and tricorn hat.
The Usual Stuff and Nerd Dreams
No visit to Venice is complete without spending time in San Marco Square. Whether it’s to feed the pigeons or to break for caffè at the Quadri or Florian, all visitors end up here at some point. The biggest attraction is the basilica, an impressive Byzantine structure adorned in beautiful blue and gold mosaics. To be honest, dear Reader, I’ve become a bit blasé about churches and ancient ruins since moving to Italy. I can’t go two feet without tripping over some sacred, something-or-other when all I really want is a Whole Foods nearby. Even so, the Basilica di San Marco has an undeniable charm. Its balcony offers excellent views of the square. Below us, Italian workers assemble a large stage in the piazza for tomorrow’s carnevale kick-off. But the city still seems quiet… where is everyone?
For lunch we head to Harry’s Bar, a hot spot made überfamous by its prestigious list of clientele ranging from royalty to Ernest Hemingway. The entrance to the bar is inconspicuous and the decor simple, unpretentious. Billy is delighting in his pasta as I sip on Harry’s signature drink: a peach bellini. To our surprise, everything we are served is tasty, a welcome change from the sad pizzas and tourist fare cluttering the city. I had a dream once that Hemingway and I were on safari together – he called me a ‘sissy’ because I refused to shoot the animals and I called him ‘Ernie’ tauntingly. Gosh, we were cute together! The things nerds dream of…
Masquerade! (And The Bad News)
Finally, we found the party: today San Marco is bumpin’! Do people even still say bumpin’…? Revelers don masks and period costumes while curious tourists take photos or simply stand by, waiting to see what unfolds. This baroque carnival began during the 12th century and consisted of over two months of masqueraded carousing. Entirely too broad a window for carousing if you ask me… Since then, carnevale has fallen in and out of favor until its revival was endorsed by the Italian government in 1979 as a “celebration of the city’s history and culture.” (Translation: broke-ass Italy needed some tourism dollars). Billy and I weave through the crowd hoping to get a better view of the costume contest happening onstage. There’s a bit of dancing, a marching band, and a bunch of people in masks acting silly. We sample some traditional carnevale treats, galani and fritelle, and opt to spend more time exploring the city (in our masks, of course).
Somewhere among the endless souvenir shops hawking murano glass and tourist trinkets, we find Charta, a shop that will make a custom binding for your favorite book! I’m in heaven. We speak with the owner and artist, Dario, as we lust over a custom-bound Lord of the Rings trilogy priced at €3,900. Billy asks where Dario manages to find all of these old books. Dario raises his eyebrows, seemingly surprised that a pair of book lovers wouldn’t already know the answer: “Florida, of course! Many people go there to die.”
The following day we rise early for our flight home. The fog is thick, shrouding everything more than a few feet in front of us. We wait at the dock for the vaporetto and I think about Venice. Truly, it is a setting straight from fiction. And yet, it presents some decidedly unromantic challenges. The acqua alta (yearly flooding) is just the start of it… Yesterday we paid almost €5 for one cup of tea. Thanks to tourists like us, the cost of living in Venice is unthinkable for most Italians. The majority have relocated to the mainland while wealthy foreign investors gobble up the real estate. Who else could afford food at these prices and costly renovations of properties centuries-old? It’s a perfect storm that may reduce the city to theme park status. I peer out of the window, hoping to get one more glimpse of this dreamy water world, but it’s no use… Venezia is gone. She’s retreated entirely into the clouds.