Monday, February 2, 2009
It started in Venezia
I had to go to Venice. In my mind Venice was Casanova fleeing down dark allies after forbidden encounters (thanks Heath Ledger), an aging craftsman painting a carnival mask in his tiny workshop (an in-flight Travel Channel episode), and debauchery-ridden carnival masquerades with women in dazzling silken gowns and men draped in velvets (blame The Merchant of Venice film adaptation).
I imagined an enchanting evening gliding under bridges in a gondola, standing at the bar of a rustic restaurant with a glass of wine and plate full of snacks, or ambling along the Grand Canal and through tight cobblestone alleyways in the moonlight.
I tried to uphold my fairytale expectations despite hearing past visitors’ complaints of unbearable crowds, stenches, and prices. And I refused to consider their condescending comparisons of the city to Disney Land.
On the contrary, my introduction to Venice was hushed and lonely, almost otherworldly. The December sun was setting when I discovered the famed Rialto Bridge, and as I gazed out over the Grand Canal I got a bit teary eyed — overwhelmed by the combination of its beauty and my own solitude. As I continued exploring after dark I passed almost no one. I had to practically push the ghosts out of the way while crossing narrow bridges and squeezing through narrow alleys in the chilly mist. Venice has no traffic, which makes for a particularly quiet city with remarkably silent and eerie nights.
In the Castello neighborhood, a few old women came out of their apartments wrapped in fur coats, lugging grocery trolleys behind them. After inadvertently covering quite a bit of the residential portion of the city, I finally came across the famed Saint Mark's Square, which I too found nearly silent and vacant, the lights hazy in the darkness.
Things got even chillier and windier my first full day in Venice but stayed just as empty. Not only did I walk directly in the top sights that my trusty guidebook warned would require a two-hour wait, but I also wandered through most of them alone. I must say it’s a bit jarring to have the mystique of Venice to yourself. A wistful, forlorn air dominates the city. Or as a dramatic type would put it, gallons of melancholy fill the Venetian canals. The city's days as a powerful, decadent merchant republic are now a distant past. Presently, it survives as a sort of living museum with no real purpose besides tourism.
My itinerary began with an examination of the glittering, gold Byzantine mosaics and colorful marbles in Saint Mark's Basilica. The exotic cathedral is an authentic thieves’ lair as a historic law demanded that all merchants trading in the East return with a new embellishment for the church. Next I wandered through the Doge's Palace, perhaps the only visitor in the political complex, crossing the Bridge of Sighs to descend into the darker, clammy prison below. Alone in the silent dungeon, I could see my breath as I examined the graffiti that troubled inmates had carved into the stone walls of their cells. It was more than enough to make the hairs on my arm raise.
Next I trekked to the Accademia, a grand gallery dedicated to high renaissance art. Again, I was almost by myself. As I made an effort to examine each of the masterpieces, I listened to my iPod to keep up my spirits. Admittedly the most memorable works were the horrifically detailed, almost cartoonish demonic depictions by Bosch. I moved on to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in the discerning heiress’ airy, luminous former home, an art gallery devoted to the surreal, abstract, and modern.
That night I set out for my anticipated trip down the Grand Canal. After reading that gondola rides run about 80 euro, I'd decided to settle for a humbler vapporetti, or water bus. I caught the bus late in the evening with hopes that the lights reflected on the pearly water and the absence of other passengers would combat the motorboat's lack of charm. I sat on one of the outside seats to take in the views, and listened to my iPod to stifle the roar of the engine while trying to ignore the fumes. I started to sink into self pity as the icy rain drizzled on my cheeks while I floated by illuminated marble palaces on the way down the world's most romantic canal. Here I was, on my own in Italy, days before Christmas, listening to an ill-timed Weepies ballad on my shuffle.
— How on earth did I end up here now, like this? — I thought.