19 September 2008

A Grand Day on the Grand Canal

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Morning came early today, and we were slow to greet it. Once we made it downstairs, we had our fill of breakfast pastries and breads at our continental breakfast. Rex and I were pleased to learn that the fancy coffee machine also made hot chocolate, so we enjoyed a cup. Those of you who know me well are probably wondering if I was suffering any ill effects from having neither iced tea nor ice since leaving New York. I am happy to report I'm not, but that first glass on board ship this afternoon will taste good!! Lack of ice and having to pay to use the bathroom are two European things that I can do without! One of our luggage casualties was Judy's big suitcase, which lost its wheel, so John's first priority of the day was to get it fixed. He borrowed a couple of screwdrivers from the front desk and set about his task. While he was working on that, I was transferring all of our digital images from memory cards to my laptop and Rex was snoozing (and snoring) away. Unbeknowst to us, John even made a trip to the hardware store in search of screws and washers. I was very impressed that he found his way to a hardware store (and back) and that he got what he was looking for. Before too long, that suitcase was ready to roll!

By now it was noon, so we decided to grab a bite to eat at a nearby trattoria before leaving for the ship. We went to a small place across the street and near the post office, not expecting that the servers there would speak about as much English as we did Italian. Even though we were linguistically handicapped, we were able to order vino, birra, sopa (the soup of the day, which we saw someone else eating) and I bravely ordered what I hoped was chicken curry with rice. Everything was delicious! The soup was hearty, filled with orzo (or some pasta like that) carrots, potatoes, celery, and maybe some ham in it. The chicken curry was just as advertised – chicken covered in a curry sauce and served with rice. It was good, too. So now it was one o'clock and all we'd done was eat two meals and get our things packed and ready to go. Good thing this is vacation! We called for a car to take us to the cruise ship terminal in Venice, and we had a nice ride over in a Mercedes van. We boarded ship with no problem and found out that the Youngs and Smarts had made it there, too, but they were nowhere to be found. I did all of the important things – signed up for internet service, went up to the top of the ship to survey Venice from there, and got a few (okay, three) glasses of iced tea – and then we left the ship for more time in Venice.

We caught a vaporetto at the terminal and rode over to San Marco, hoping to get there in time to see the basilica. We learned a neat trick about waiting in line there – if you have a backpack, you have to check it in a little room around the block, but they give you a card there that sends you to the front of the line. We're guessing this is an attempt to pacify all the tourists who either can't read (unlikely) or don't read (probably) the MANY signs (in four languages and with pictures) saying that backpacks are not allowed in the church. Somehow, they all think this does not apply to THEM, so they stand in line, hoping to be let in anyway. But no, at the door, they are turned away and told where to leave their backpacks (that's on the sign, too) and then they are angry that they've lost their place in line. So, Judy and I left John and Rex in line, checked our packs, and waltzed right in the door. Rex and John were up to the door by then, too, so that worked out well. The other thing that was really appalling was that even though there were LOTS of signs, in and outside the church, clearly stating that NO PHOTOGRAPHY (flash, no flash, video, NOTHING) was allowed, LOTS of people blatantly took flash, no flash, and video pictures inside. I will report that those that I noticed were mostly not Americans, but it was still interesting to see how many people just disregarded this simple request. The monitors were unable to stop everyone, but we did see one fellow get escorted out after he got caught a second time... Okay, so much for my complaints about our fellow tourists. The mosaics in the basilica were AMAZING!

The basilica is the third church to stand on this site; the first, built in the 9th century to entomb the body of St. Mark, was destroyed by fire. Its replacement was torn down in the 11th century so that a more spectacular church could be built, better representing the new power of the Republic. This building has been remodeled over the centuries, and since 1807 it has served as the cathedral of Venice. Until then it was the Doge's private chapel, used for State ceremonies. The domes, walls, and floors of the basilica are covered in mosaics – over 40,000 square feet in all – with the oldest ones dating from the 12th century. Those decorating the walls and ceiling are gold in color and depict stories from the Bible. The mosaics on the floor are made from marble, clay, and glass, and they are varied in design – some are intricate geometric patterns and some are allegorical scenes of birds and animals. Because the tidewaters often come into the church, some of the floor and lower parts of columns have been damaged over time. We were intrigued by the statues on the iconostasis – Christ flanked by Mary and the disciples, all carved out of marble in 1394 by the Dalle Masegne brothers. Judy seriously wanted to get out a dust rag – it did appear that it had been a long time since things had been cleaned well! Since it was late afternoon when we were here, we made a note to try and come back at noontime the next day so that we could see the mosaics in the sunlight.

After leaving the basilica and retrieving our backpacks, we ambled down the streets of San Marco and did some window shopping, and I found a pashmina that I couldn't live without (it was getting chilly and I knew we'd be getting on a gondola soon!) even though I bought a Duke blue one instead of a purple one. We went back to the docks at San Marco in search of a gondolier who would give us a great ride. John attempted to bargain with one, who wasn't having any of it, but who did agree to give us a ride. His name was Moreno, and he has been steering gondolas for thirty years. Since he appeared to be a fairly young man, I asked him if he started when he was twelve – and he told us that his father taught him when he was eleven! He has lived in Venice his whole life (and he told us he was lucky to live here) and bought his apartment 25 years ago, back before real estate prices went crazy here. Our ride began in front of the Doge's Palace and the first bridge we went under was the famous Bridge of Sighs, which was built in 1600 to link the Doge's Palace with the prisons. I think I would be doing more than sighing if I were going to visit the Inquisitors...

Along our ride, we learned that the ferro is what the piece at the front of the gondola is called, and its six 'teeth' symbolize the six sestieri of Venice while the shape represents the Doge's cap, which is of course over the six teeth. On each side of the gondolas is a golden hippocamus (sea horse) ornament. All gondolas are painted black, and it takes three months to build a new one. At the bow of our gondola was a decoration honoring Dante, the first Italian to write a book in Italian (rather than Latin). The gondolas are also asymmetrical, which you don't really notice when looking at them from the side. The prow curves to the left and is wider on the left than the right to counteract the force of the oar (on the right). As interesting as it was to watch the intricate 'dance of the gondolas' from land, it was much more exciting to see it and be a part of the action. Certain canals were marked for gondolas only; there were mirrors strategically placed for the gondoliers to be able to see someone coming from a side canal, and the gondoliers yelled back and forth to each other. Even then, there were a couple of times that I can't believe we didn't hit something! One of the most fascinating things about this ride through the canals of Venice was seeing the palazzi from a different perspective and seeing where boats were housed (in little boat garages) along the way. It is astounding to me that most of the buildings we passed have been in existence for at least 400 years! One thing we noticed as we walked the streets of Venice was an absence of children. Turns out that the average age of the Venetian population is 50; schools and maternity hospitals here have closed for lack of use. The main reason why the city shuts down so early at night (as we noticed!) is so that cooks, waiters, shopkeepers, etc. can catch the last bus home, usually to Mestre. Mestre was founded so that Venice could 'overflow its banks' as land is a decidedly finite quantity in Venice. Oh, and the reason there are so few lights on in the homes of Venice at night is that many of the palazzi now belong to wealthy foreigners who are only here for a week or two each year... But back to our gondola ride! We passed many beautiful palazzi, but the most famous were the homes of Marco Polo and Casanova. We also went by Hell's Kitchen, Venice, but our favorite part was entering and cruising down the Grand Canal! We went right under the Rialto Bridge and even got Moreno to take us down as far as Bancogiro so we could see it from the water. It was such fun to be in the center of all of the Grand Canal's frenetic activity! Our ride was over all too soon, but we got out and made our way to the water taxi for our ride back to the ship. But not so fast...the next vaporetto was not due for another 45 minutes!

To pass the time, we decided to duck into a bar, and Harry's American Bar was close by. Alas, Harry's, with its white-coated waiters and hoity-toity reputation, has a dress code which did not include “gentlemen in shorts” so we bounced out as quickly as we bounced in. But we can say we got kicked out of Harry's! The people at Piccolo Martini probably wished they could have kicked us out when we ordered only wine and limoncello (mine had three ice cubes in it!) but they didn't, so we enjoyed our drinks, their bread, and their free toilet facilities. We made it back to the dock in time to catch our water bus and soon we were boarding the Zuiderdam, our home for the next 11 or 12 days.

Our luggage had been delivered to our staterooms and we had still not seen the Youngs or the Smarts, so we headed up to the Lido deck and the food waiting for us there. Since we'll be eating LOTS of cruise ship food from here on out, I'll only tell you the details if it's something really special. After dinner, we went up to the internet cafe and library, where we checked out a few books and John got his internet minutes, and then we had a drink in the bar next door. We were about the only people there, so we sat at the bar and got to know Louie, our bartender, and listened to the piano player. We made plans to meet for breakfast and hoped that we would meet up with the rest of our party in the morning. It was a good ending to a grand day!

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