Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Fish, Rialto Market
People have told me that you either love Venice or hate it.  I don’t think that’s true; After spending 3-4 days there I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either.  Venice is a tremendously unusual place, so was totally worth a visit.  On my birthday, after a night-train from Germany, we didn’t do anything particularly noteworthy, we just wandered around for a few hours, went to the Rialto market (it was my birthday, and looking at tasty food makes me happy), got lunch, then caught our train to the mountains. 

After hiking, though, we had a much better chance to get to know the city.  Chris went up to visit friends in Munich, but Chris and Ann joined us in Venice, because they definitely fall in the category of people who love Venice.  Which may, actually, contribute to my own impressions of the city, for when you are with people who are excited about a place, it is easy to catch their excitement.  I am, however, left with the feeling that Venice is largely a historical park remembering the times that were, and at times feels more like a tourist attraction on the scale of Disney land than a living, working city.  But times change, the past is worth remembering, and as one of the hordes of tourists myself, I would be hypocritical to complain too much about tourism.

I have to say, I can’t decide whether to admire or find crazy the people who decided to drive poles into the mud and to build paved walks and large houses and churches on mosquito-y swampy islands, where the roads are canals and the vehicles are boats, but it is a singular place, no doubt.  It is strange to think about Renaissance Venice, where money was king, and it seems that sins of all sizes could be repaired by an appropriate donation to the church, and my feelings were definitely mixed while crammed into the front of a Vapporeti (basically the boat equivalent of a bus) motoring down the Grand Canal, looking into the windows and doors of beautiful, decaying, sinking mansions, and watching the chaotic, vaguely ordered movements of the gondolas of tourists, the delivery boats heading towards restaurants, the vapporetis and water taxis all trying to get past one another without being held up (or colliding) in the narrow waters. 
Even in mansions that are being used and kept up, the changing water levels and the wake from the boats make the ground floors useless and largely abandoned.
We did a mix of the standard tourist things to do while visiting Venice (we toured the cathedral of St. Marco, the Doge’s palace and prisons, went to a museum chock full of paintings by famous Italians like Titian, and poked our noses in various other churches), things that are touristy but not what Everyone does (Chris and Ann and I went out to the islands of Torcello, Murano,  and Burano to look at an old Romanesque church, glass makers and sellers, and colorful houses, respectively) and then things that fewer people do, but were still totally worth it (we actually bought seafood and vegetables at the Rialto market to cook in our Air BnB apartment, and we took a kayak tour). But really, some of what is memorable about Venice for us was just wandering around in the evening after all of the shops had closed and all of the day tourists had gone home, just trying to get from point A to point B (which is not easy with all the canals and dead-ends) and finding cute little squares and bridges and shrines on the walls, and just feeling the history at every step.
The Venetian lagoon is actually full of tons of islands; many small, and very few are still inhabited, although many show signs of human use at one time or another.  Some were used as quarantine islands during plague years, others more recently than that.
Colorful houses on Burano, traditionally known for lacemaking, although few people still hand-make lace there.
Public art on Murano, the island of glassblowers.  It seems very clever to sequester your glass blowers and their furnaces far away from your giant mansions made primarily of wood.
These are bricks on the wall of a pretty if unspectacular church in Murano.  All of the different colors and wear patterns on the bricks makes one think about the history of the place.  If bricks could talk, I feel like every brick in Venice and its neighboring islands would have different and fascinating stories to tell.
The Doge’s palace was cool, and was very different from all of the other castles we’ve visited so far.  It was also interesting to learn about the Doge and the various counsels in Venice in general; I hadn’t realized that he was elected, or that the city was effectively ruled by the top tier of merchants.  I think that was the first palace we’ve seen that didn’t belong to someone who ruled just due to luck of birth.  

The outside of the Doge's palace
The courtyard of the doge's palace, looking towards the adjoining facade of St. Marco's cathedral
Thrones and murals in the Senate Chambers. 
The kayaking was pretty interesting, too.  So, you can’t just rent kayaks and paddle around on your own, which is good, because the canals are a maze, and the other boats are all bigger and have right of way, so we went with a guide (, but it was just us in our group.  Our guide was perhaps not the best of personalities for a guide; she didn’t always say things politely, and often expressed her frustration at us, but I think it makes sense when you think about what it takes to be a woman on the water in Venice.  She was from the area, and Italy as a whole (and Venice for sure) has pretty strong gender roles, and the water is a man’s world in which she doubtless has had to fight constantly for her own place (in our paddling, we saw several high-heeled, well made-up women standing around waiting for the men to pull the motor boat up to the door, and I can’t remember seeing a single motor boat, vaporreti, or anything with a woman steering).  In any case, I should start by saying that we are not inexperienced water people; Ann and I grew up canoeing a ton, and we’ve all canoed and rowed and kayaked to varying degrees.  But Venice is different.  We’ve mostly paddled in rivers and lakes and bays, and it is very different dealing with heavy boat traffic, and then having to navigate around sharp corners in narrow canals; steering maneuvers that work in a large body of water don’t always work when it is very important that your boat not shift laterally.  Also, our guide made the men sit in the stern (we paddled tandem boats), which is the opposite of what both of the couples in our group usually do. But we did get the hang of it, and once we did, it was really amazing seeing Venice under our own power from water level.  We stuck to the area around Arsenale, which is largely a neighborhood inhabited by actual Venetians and not just tourists, so I feel like we got a view of a very different Venice from what we would have seen from a gondola around St. Marco; we saw boats bringing in deliveries, and laundry drying over the canals, and there were moments of stillness that showed us a very different side of Venice from the more frenetic tourist areas, so despite the frustrations, I'm glad we did it.  Also, we stopped for a pasta lunch after finishing our kayak tour at a restaurant on Certosa, the island that the kayak tours leave from, that is completely away from any tourist areas, and it was probably my favorite meal in Venice.  We had simple, perfectly cooked pasta with delicious, fresh toppings. Yum.  
With a kayak you can go places that are impossible by any other means (pictures curtesy of our guide)

Seriously, with tons of boat traffic and sharp, narrow corners,  Venice is NOT an easy place to paddle, but I still think it was worth it (pictures curtesy of our guide)
Sasha's lunch on Certosa after paddling...YUM!!

The last thing that I think was really great about Venice was the Gelato.  OK, so Gelato isn’t Venitian so much as Italian, but we ate a lot of it in Venice, and it is delicious.  I do like black currant, but chocolate is also good, and we sampled many other flavors in the name of cultural understanding. And we don’t regret a single scoop. The only regret is that no shop sells cones of it in Marburg in January!!!

Sasha agrees. Gelato: a "cultural experience" not to be passed up!!

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