May 7, 2010

HALF A WORLD AWAY — LOST IN VENICE

“Let yourself get lost in Venice,” everyone suggests.  “Walk. Wander. Discover.” Sailing past St. Marks and up the Giudecca by cruise ship is like taking a hot air balloon ride over the city.  It unfolds from above,  the Grand Canal giving way to back canals teeming with gondolas, vaparettos, and water taxis.; grand decaying palaces, small markets, church towers rising from the water.  Like falling down the rabbit hole with Alice, it’s a step back in time.

Columbus was right there, on cue, waiting on the pier as planned.   I know it’s the 21st century and all, but I still find it rather amazing – and terribly romantic – to rendezvous half a word from home, on a tiny sliver of dock.   Us on the ship’s high observation deck, him waving from the guard post at the dock, very cool indeed.

Sacagawea and Dundee were thrilled to show him the ropes, introducing him to our many new sailing buddies and sharing stories of our adventures.  Alan and Noemi, the delightful couple who make marital bickering a conversational art form (think Archie & Edith); Colleen, who’s been homeschooling her kids for 25 years, and her mom, Betty, who clearly planted the adventurous seed years ago; Don, the WWII vet who saw action around the globe – the guy Tom Brokaw wrote about in The Greatest Generation – and now holds a crowd with that mischievous  twinkle in his eye.  Tom, the ship’s destination guru, who’d spent the past 72 hours patiently repeating directions to Piazzale de Roma to worried and confused travelers (forget about the Doge’s Palace, St. Marks, or Peggy Geggenheim’s collection; it’s all about the luggage.)   And so many more…all our new posse from our trek across the sea.  Thanks to the great crew aboard our ship, Columbus got to spend the last night with us onboard, docked in Venice, just a quick glance at the world we’d called home for the past three weeks.

VENICE ITALYBack on terra firma and away from the ship, we settled into the Venetian beat.  From the tiny terrace of our creaky old hotel room , strategically located halfway between St. Marks and the Rialto Bridge, we watched gondolas glide and jostle through the canal sliver below.  Diners lingered over wine in the flower bedecked terraces of the trattoria across the canal, while visitors jammed the footbridges to capture photos of the magic. It’s just as we imagined, yet nothing like we expected.

Chatting up gondoliers until we found just the right one – seasoned (not too old and not too young), promising song, history, and stories – we became part of the scene.  He delivered brilliantly, gliding us under impossibly low bridges at high tide, telling tales of Casanova, Marco Polo and old Venetian families.  Down the Grand Canal at sunset, this old, creaky, smelly decaying city – no bigger than New York’s Central Park – simply shimmered as it’s done for hundreds of years.  The stories from its past — Carnivals of yesteryear, wealthy shipping magnates and scandalous explorers, Peggy Guggenheim and her dogs, Ezra Pound, his wife, mistress and the whole lot – all seem to whisper secrets from the waters lapping the boat’s edge.

We joined the Venetian scene, sidling up to the bar with the locals in a crowded osteria, ordering cichettia and prosecco  as the throngs of day-tourists give way to locals and die-hards here for the night.   We scored that flower bedecked table in the trattoria window, savoring our over-priced pasta and waving to the gondoliers as they glided by.

By day, we discovered the secrets of Doge’s Palace, wandering behind the locked doors and gilded halls into the prisons and torture chambers of another era.  We ducked down to pass through the tiny doorways into Casanova’s cell, peered through the windows high above the canal, and walked the path across the Bridge of Sighs.  Having walked the prisoners’ death path above, we carefully navigated around the two pillars in the Square, heeding the Venetian belief that it’s bad luck to walk between them, the spot of so many executions long ago.  (Ironic, we thought, that it’s between those pillars that the most entrepreneurial souvenir vendors choose to hawk their wares.)

Half a world away, a magical, decaying, delightful place.  It spoke to me, one of those spots a notch above all the other magical, wonderful places we’re lucky enough to visit.   In a crazy, chaotic world – one currently struggling with bomb plots in Times Square, volcanic ash spreading across Europe, and economic collapse around the globe – Venice holds fast.  Carnival masks, Murano’s blown glass, gondolier families, secrets from the past all woven together in a tiny little city confidently shimmering in its own demise.   Perhaps they know something we don’t.