Monday, February 2, 2009

Into the lagoon

Fortunately the melancholy of my solo journey down the Grand Canal in the rain didn't lessen my resolve to cross nearly every one of Venice’s 400 bridges connecting its 117 tiny islets the next few days. I was in no hurry. Rather than buying a map, I let myself get lost. The city felt less deserted with the arrival of the weekend tourists, so I was no longer self-conscious getting out my camera and flipping though my guidebook. I walked and walked and walked, leaving no piazzale un-photographed or alley unexplored.

I was unwavering in my determination to know Venice inside and out. I woke up before dawn to take a boat ride to the church on the nearby island of San Giorgio Maggiore to watch the sun rise over Venice, momentarily illuminating all the domes with a rosy gleam. Afterward, I had enough time to gawk at the nearly alive fish among the produce at the morning market and take a 60-second, 50-cent trip across the Grand Canal with a dozen other passengers on a retired gondola just to say I had the experience. (Does it count if you're standing?)

I stopped to peer in the windows of small shops with handcrafted carnival masks covering every inch of the walls and shelves and others selling artisanal stationery or richly colored oriental pillows, purposely avoiding the dozens of tacky stalls selling cheap key rings, magnets, and plastic masks. At an antique fair brimming with vintage treasures I checked the gulp-inducing price tag on a ‘40s era Prada clutch. I turned into an alley to devour my first slice of Italian pizza (bigger than some entire pies) from a dusty corner take-away restaurant, only to be disappointed with the burnt crust and bland sauce.

As I wandered around aimlessly, snapping pictures and exploring side streets, I consistently made unintentional discoveries. I peered in a simple brick church to find that Vivaldi had claimed it as his home parish. I took a nighttime stroll through the lovely and quiet Jewish ghetto in Cannaregio, seeing through an open window a cozy dining room where a family stood around the table celebrating Shabbat. I stopped in a quaint wine shop where the chatty owner filled my water bottle with dry, white wine from the barrel in exchange for 1.5 euros. I followed hoards of women in full-length furs and high heels to the elegant La Fenice opera house. I entered another open church and ended up spending an entire hour staring at an exhibition of captivating, absurdly detailed nativity scenes, called presepi (perhaps the most ubiquitous of Italian Christmas traditions).

Sunday morning the sun was shining and I took a boat ride to the cemetery island of San Michele, which resembles a brick floating on the Venetian Lagoon. I found myself in the midst of a small horde of matronly types, the kind who wear thick glasses and wool skirts and orthopedic shoes. They carried flowers or water buckets to spruce up the graves of loved ones, mostly stacked above ground. As the only tourist, I didn’t have the nerve to get out my camera during this sacred Sunday morning ritual among the cypresses.

My gloriously sunny Sunday continued with a visit to another one of Venice's lesser island neighbors, the fishing village of Burano, once famous for its tortuously intricate lace. As I walked the small streets of the outrageously colorful island (out of the rainbow of small block houses I preferred the Barbie-pink and robin's-egg-blue), I saw white-haired men in berets docking their humble boats. Near a small but impressively leaning tower a woman, with her contribution to Sunday lunch in hand, rang the doorbell of purple house where lively conversation already spilled from the open windows. — So this is someone's reality — I thought.

My final stop was the nearly forsaken island of Torcello. Although it once rivaled Venice, now all that seemed to remain were a few bleating goats, a few more chickens, and a couple of paths leading to some lovely overgrown and sunken ruins surrounding a lofty cathedral with 11th-century Greek mosaics. Soon I was on the boat back to Venice, basking in the almost-too-golden-to-be-real sunlight with the breeze off the (honest to God) crystal-brilliant water of the Lagoon whipping my hair.

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