18 September 2008

Exploring the Merchants of Venice...and Beyond!

16 September 2008

Exploring the Merchants of Venice and Beyond...

Okay, I will confess now that I officially belong in with the generation that uses their cell phones for clocks, and since my cell phone doesn't work over here, that means I am without time.  Or at least a time-keeping device.  So, despite our best intentions of waking at 7 AM without an alarm or wake-up call, we didn't.  But, we were up by 7:40 and dressed in a jiffy and when Judy and John knocked on our door for breakfast, we were ready.  The deal at the Hotel Centrale is that a continental breakfast comes with your room, and for only 5 Euros more, you could get the full breakfast buffet, so of course we opted for that.  As I keep reminding Rex, though – we are not in the States any more!  So our full breakfast buffet had nothing hot on it unless you are a coffee drinker, but it did have a couple of kinds of cereal (Judy says they will be great roughage! And no, Kim, they did not have those 'yummy' Cocoa Krispies that we experienced in Florence); hard boiled eggs (brown, of course), thin slices of ham and cheese, lots of hard rolls, cookies (!?), other biscoti, honey, jams, yogurt (really good, but different from ours), some OJ (blanco, not rosa like we had on the plane), and coffee from a machine that dispensed everything from lattes to 'regular' to hot chocolate.  Everyone but me decided the continental breakfast was the way to go – I really enjoyed my ham and cheese, egg, and yogurt...

Once we were fortified, we went in search of a bank so that John and Judy could cash some travelers' checks and get some Euros.  Easier said than done!  Even getting INTO a bank proved to be a test – they have these double airlock doors, and only 2 people can go in or out at the same time.  But John got plenty of practice, since bank after bank turned down his request.  Finally, someone suggested that he try the Post Office, so we went there.  That, too, was another uniquely European experience.  After getting in (the same as the banks) they employed the “take a number” system (reminded me of Baskin Robbins) and then they had an elaborate electronic system that automatically put the next numbers up and which window (there were about TWENTY windows, something the Shannon Road PO in Durham could surely learn from!) was up next.  There were even seats for people to sit in while they were waiting for their numbers to be called – it was such a civilized system!  Unfortunately, they could not help John but directed him to the American Express office in Venice.  So, our next adventure was buying bus tickets for a ride into Venice.  We went to the little store next door for that, and after unsuccessfully trying to open the door, we decided the place must be closed, even though it looked like there were people inside.  Until the package delivery guy came and PUSHED the door open.  DUH.  Okay, so we are still jet-lagged - it could be a long day!  The proprietor did not speak English, and neither did the nice women who tried to help us, but somehow we managed to get four one-way bus tickets to Venice.  Our next trick was to get on the right bus, and after a couple of false starts, we did.  Frick and Frack times two go to Italy!!  The bus was crowded, but it's no surprise, since there are only a few ways to get to Venice – bus, water taxi, water bus (vaporetto), or regular taxi – and all of those drop you off and then you walk, or ride on the water on a taxi, bus, or gondola.  The major vehicular drop off point is the Piazzale Roma, which is just outside the city of Venice. Once off the bus, we started our self-guided walking tour beginning in the sestieri of San Polo and Santa Croce.  This quarter of Venice became the commercial center since markets were established in the 11th century.  Today it is filled with local bars and trattoria, small shops, and market stalls.  The window shopping alone is worth the trip!  Our “official” destination on this day was San Marco Square, where we needed to be by 2:30 in order to catch our boat for a tour of the outlying islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello.  The man at our hotel had told us it was about a 20 minute bus ride from Mestre to Piazzale Roma, and then a 23 – 25 minute walk to San Marco.  He obviously doesn't know us well.  Let's just say we were very thankful that we had not purchased tickets for the 9:30 AM tour!

Even though we were armed with maps and books about Venice, being on the actual streets and exploring was a totally different experience!  We quickly found the yellow signs saying “per Rialto” and “per San Marco” and we just started following them and not worrying about where we were.  If we had been paying attention, it would have been like being in a maze!  Judy and I found ourselves stopping at almost every other shop, exclaiming over each new discovery – glass beads, necklaces, bracelets, and other jewelry and items of blown glass from Murano, exquisite papers, quill pens and ink, leather goods (I really wanted some polka-dotted leather gloves!), high fashion, lace, shoes, scarves, pashminas, ties, handbags, chocolate, baked goods, and on and on!  This must be what women's heaven (and men's hell!) is like!  We were so intent on the shops that we hardly noticed the fine palazzi, but we were intrigued by the brick walkways and narrow alleys that led to courtyards, squares, and private dwellings.  Before long we found ourselves at the Rialto markets, where you could buy gorgeous cups of fresh fruits for only a Euro or two, or pick up a package of chocolate farfalle, or buy fresh fish, or select a silk tie for 8 Euros.  The crowds really picked up here and we were excited to know we were nearing the famous Rialto Bridge.

The Rialto Bridge is the geographical center of Venice and is one of only three bridges that cross the Grand Canal.  What an amazing structure it is!  The bridge was built between 1588 and 1591 after the commission for it was awarded to Antonio da Ponte, whose design beat out others submitted by Michelangelo, Andrea Palladio, and Jacopo Sansovino.  Until the Accademia Bridge was built in 1854, this was the only way to cross the Grand Canal by foot!  The bridge is a single span stretching 48 meters (157 feet) across the Grand Canal, and it is  7.5 meters (24 ft) high at its apex, which allows galleys to pass under it.  We walked up the balustrades and just flat out gawked at the scenes below us.  I can't begin to describe the bustling activities taking place on and around the Grand Canal!  Fully loaded vaporetti, dozens of gondolas, water taxis, police boats, barges unloading supplies, construction barges, and even fire boats filled the waterway.  The hotels, ristorantes, and shops lining the banks of the canals were full of people, and the shops on the bridge were doing a brisk business, too.  Tourists lined the steps of the bridge, and people of all nationalities took turns taking pictures of each other on the famous bridge overlooking the fabulous Grand Canal.  We could have stood there for hours, just watching the people and boats come and go!

Since it was almost noon and we were only halfway to our destination, we now started following the “per San Marco” signs.  Since we had crossed the Grand Canal, we were now in the San Marco sestiere.  Shops here were bigger and had bigger names (Bruno Magli, Dolce and Gabanna, Ferragamo, Pucci) and decidedly bigger price tags!  We made a quick stop at the American Express office for John to cash some travellers' checks, and Rex, Judy, and I waited for him at the Campo San Fantin.  We finally wound our way through the streets and alleys and found ourselves at the Piazza San Marco; alas, it was high tide, and much of the piazza was covered in water.  As much as we wanted to go inside the Basilica and look around the rest of the area, we were not inclined to slosh through the brackish water to do so.  We set off to find another path that would take us to the vaporetti docks.  Easier said than done!  By now we were getting hungry, but it seemed more important to at least get to the docks first, and then worry about eating.  We took several routes that left us dead-ended at canals or courtyards, and we stopped and asked lots of directions.  We are pretty sure now that many Italians have the words for left and right mixed up.  It couldn't be us!  Anyway, we finally made our way down Calle Vallaresso and found we were almost to the docks – alleluia!  Right across the street from Harry's Bar (of Hemingway fame) we saw a lovely al fresco ristorante at the Monaco and Grand Canal.  Although the water was covering parts of the floor here, too, we were too hungry to care, so we asked for a table.  We should know by now that we have champagne tastes – we can pick the most expensive places in town with no trouble.  But, we later learned that the restaurant on the terrace here by the Grand Canal is one of the best in Venice!  And you get what you pay for!  We were thoroughly entertained by the comings and goings of the gondolas at what must have been one of their major terminals.  It was truly like watching an elaborately choreographed dance as gondoliers and water taxi drivers came and went into this small area non-stop.   I know you're wondering what we ate, so I won't keep you in suspense any longer.  Judy was being good and had a lovely plate of fresh fruit, John had some tasty looking scallops, Rex had tagliatare and shrimp, and I had a shrimp and zucchini salad.  And we devoured the crusty breads.  Yum!  And since we were paying top Euro, we opted to use the 'water closet' there (men's and women's rooms off the same main room, an interesting experience) and save our one Euro it costs to use the public facilities.  We lingered over our lunch as long as we dared, watching people and boats and just absorbing the strange sights of Venice.  We left before our white-coated waiters had to ask us to!

By the time we left, it was only about ten minutes before our boat tour was to leave, so we quickly walked over to the dock and made sure we were getting on the right boat.  We were surprised to learn that our tour would last almost four hours, but we were excited to go see the famous Murano glass being made.  And Murano, which has been the center of the  glassmaking industry since 1291, was our first stop!  We were herded into the 'fornace' (I was a little leery of following that crowd...) and we were given a demonstration of two different glass blowing techniques.  The first man made a glass vase (in about 30 seconds) and the second man made a horse, which maybe took a whole minute!  It was fascinating!  We were led into a store full of blown glass objects, but Judy and I were pulled aside by Marco, the handsome young man who had been emceeing the demonstration, who invited us upstairs to see his etchings.  Wait, I mean he invited us upstairs to see the EXPENSIVE glass objects – the ones where calculators and chairs were placed, kind of like at car dealers...  We thought that Rex and John were following us, but no...we were on our own.  I can't begin to tell you how GORGEOUS and exquisite these pieces were.  And HUGE!  Stingrays, nudes, chandeliers, wine glasses, religious icons, animals of all kinds, clowns, fish, big discs, statues – of all colors, sizes, varieties – it was like being in a glass fairyland!  Thankfully, we were saved by the bell, as it was time to get back on the boat before we could do the kind of damage that we wanted to!  We found Rex and John wandering around outside, having explored a bit and wondering where we were.  Boy, were they glad it was time to leave!

Back on the boat, it was nap time for me.  As my sister has learned on our road trips, if I'm in a moving vehicle and I'm not driving, I'm asleep.  So now you know why I always drive!  Our next stop was Burano, the lace island, which turned out to be the most colorful and picturesque place we saw all day.  The campanile (bell tower) of its church tilts dramatically, and the canals of Burano were lined with brightly painted houses of all colors – bright blues, neon greens, hot pinks, deep yellows and oranges – it was spectacular!  But before we could stop to take that all in, we were invited into a lace shop to see a demonstration of lace being made.  A little old Italian woman was sitting in a small chair sewing on a partially done piece of lace atop a pillow in her lap.  She had a slight tremor but she was sewing the tiniest little stitches on the lace.  On the piece she was making, four other ladies would add their handiwork to it to complete it.  One of the parts of it was a tiny rose, smaller than your pinky fingernail, that would take over an hour to make!  Upstairs were beautiful tablecloths, blouses, baby dresses, towels, framed pieces of lace, curtains, and more.  Unbelievable!  But not being a dressy person, I couldn't wait to go back and take pictures of the pretty houses and the tilted tower.  And did I mention we had passed a gelato stand on the way into town?  Guess where John and Judy found Rex and me...

The more desolate island of Torcello was our last stop.  It took about ten minutes to walk from the boat dock into town, which seemed to be a handful of houses, a few bars and trattoria, a church, and the ruins of some old churches.  I wasn't far from the truth.  Established in the 5th and 6th centuries, Torcello once was home to 20,000 people and a Byzantine cathedral; now it boasts of a population of 60 people, at least 6 swans, a pomegranate tree and the church of Santa Fosca.  The present basilica (Basilica di Santa Maria dell Asunta) dates to 1008 but still has many of its earlier features intact.  Evidently, silted canals and malaria caused this once vibrant island to become almost extinct.  We did notice building going on, and the tour boats do come here, so there is still a chance that the community will survive.

On the way back to Venice, we passed the Lido, which is home to the rich and famous.  The Venetian film festival was just held here a few weeks ago, so we missed George, Brad, Angelina, and the rest of the gang.  Oh well.  The Lido reached its heyday as a seaside resort in the early part of the 20th century, but it is still crowded in the summer months.  Soon we were back at San Marco, where the crowds were much thinner since it was after five and the Basilica and Doge's Palace were closed to visitors.  While the crowds of people were gone, the crowds of pigeons were in full force.  One flew right at Judy, a la The Birds, but instead of pecking at her, it landed on her arm and made friends with her for several minutes.  Too funny!  

We were starting to be hungry again, so we went in search of one of the osterias that our friend Dana had told us about.  Given that we had names and addresses of several establishments in Italian, we thought it would be easy to find one.  Ha.  Remember my earlier remark about left and right?  Well, we got completely WRONG directions from no fewer than four Venetians! But we persevered, and found our way to Bancogiro, a delightful osteria on the banks of the Grand Canal.  We sat outside and rewarded ourselves with a few carafes of wine.  It had taken us over thirty minutes to find this place, which was on the main drag of canal... did I mention that the places Dana had recommended were NOT the tourist places?  No wonder no one could tell us how to get to this gem!  We shared some first courses – Rex got a raddichio, grape, and goat cheese salad (huge chunks of goat cheese!) and I got fusili with duck, dried fruit, and pine nuts.  Both were delicious.  We had just finished that course when it began to rain, so our waiters quickly hustled us inside and up a steep stairway and into a secluded alcove.  An arched window overlooked the area where we had been sitting – it was so cool!  Our entrees came – Judy had ravioli with gorgonzola cheese and zucchini, John had sirloin with potatoes and a watercress salad, and Rex and I had the “racommended dish” of fish cooked in special paper with vegetables and aromatic herbs.  The fish were whitefish and sea bass with zucchini, carrots, and tomatoes and it was delicious!  Everyone loved his/her dinner, so we figured desserts would be good, too.  Judy had a berry “soup” with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, John and Rex had Venitian crème, and I had crème brulee infused with green tea.  Double YUM!

It was almost 9 o'clock when we left Bancogiro, and we wandered through a dark and desolate Venice.  It was nothing like the Venice we had strolled through in the busy daytime.  Although we attempted to follow the Piazzale Roma signs, we got turned around and kept hitting dead ends.  We finally found a young couple going there and they got us to the ticket office so that we could get a bus back to Mestre.  Rex bought our tickets and we got on a bus that the driver had just gotten off.  As we watched him cross the New Bridge over the Grand Canal, we weren't sure we would ever get home...but he eventually came back.  By the time we left, the bus was standing room only, and again, a nice young Italian man had showed us how to punch our tickets (different from the morning, when we just ran them across a magnetic thing...)  We missed our stop at the hotel, so we had a few more blocks of walking to do before we could call it a night.  For all of you who thought I might not be getting my training in, don't worry.  I am catching up fast!  We were sure we would all sleep well tonight!

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