Posts Tagged With: canal

Venice Day 2: Doge Day Afternoon

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The fearsome, delicious mantis shrimp

Well, we did not have a gondola ride last night after all. We were exhausted, and simply walked down to the waterfront (less than a block from our flat) and had a typically excellent Italian dinner at a seafood restaurant aptly called Pesado. I had — wait for it — mantis shrimp with pumpkin flowers over pasta. Mantis shrimp? You mean you’ve never heard of the deadly mantis shrimp? Well, I will have you know that if you are a small sea creature then the mantis shrimp is one of the meanest badasses around. About the size of a large crayfish, it sits and waits until you are within striking distance, then lashes out a barbed claw at a speed of 50 mph (23 m/s), accelerating at 100,000 g’s (!) to turn you into a kebab. I am not making this up.

Aren’t you glad you asked?

Anyway, given our state of exhaustion, the terrifying but tasty mantis shrimp was an entirely adequate substitute for a nighttime gondola ride (which we will try for again tomorrow), and so we spent our last remaining dregs of get-up-and-go walking along the edge of the Grand Canal taking some nighttime photos, e.g.:

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Venice is beautiful at any time of day and in any weather, which is fortunate since today’s weather was on the chilly, gloomy side with an occasional very light drizzle. But before I relate today’s events, I would first like to regale you with two pieces of Italian trivia:

  • 13 is not an unlucky number here, but 17 is. Alitalia has no 17th row on their airplanes, and people get all hinky because today is Friday the 17th. I have no idea why this is so. (No one really knows either why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky elsewhere; the superstition is only about 150 years old and contrary to popular wisdom has nothing to do with the Apostles.)
  • Gondolas are not symmetric. Alice pointed this out to me, and it is very definitely true. The gondolier’s oarlock is of course at the rear and is always on the starboard side. Since he is always rowing on the right, in order to help keep the boat moving in a straight line instead of a wide counterclockwise circle the starboard side of the hull is flatter than the port side. That is, if you look at a gondola from above then it looks a bit like a backwards “D”. Who knew?

Now that you can win a couple of bar bets with the above information, let us carry on. Jet lag having had its way with us, we slept in this morning and then set out to a couple of small local stores to buy breakfast stuff (cheese, eggs, bread, etc.), returning to the flat for a meal before setting out on the day’s peregrinations, which turned out to be seven straight hours of walking.

Our first destination was back to St Mark’s square which, today being Friday, was significantly more crowded than yesterday. (I can only imagine what a Saturday in July looks like; an ant colony perhaps.) It’s kind of obligatory to see St Mark’s Basilica, and the line to get in moves very quickly, so we checked off this particular obligatory item pretty quickly. I suppose this sounds insufficiently respectful; the basilica is of course huge, famous, decorated with enormous elaborate paintings of the saints who appear to be covered with gold leaf, and so on. For me (whose appetite for pre-Renaissance religious art gets sated very quickly), the most interesting part was the architecture: the domes are ornate and elaborate, and the marble colonnades intriguingly complex, with every column seemingly made of a different type of marble.

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St. Mark’s Basilica. It is very Catholic.

Our next stop, immediately adjacent to the basilica, was the Doge Palace. The Doge, as you may know, was the chief honcho of Venice, the office having been created in about 700 AD and lasting for a mere thousand years. It was an elected position although for a period of a few hundreds the practice was to allow the Doge to name his successor, which in practice made it largely hereditary. In 1172 everybody had had about enough of that, and the position became determined by a council of 40 elders, rather analogous to the College of Cardinals. (Fifty years later the number was increased to 41 because of a deadlocked election.)

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Hercules at the Bat.

Anyway, the Doge was highly influential, even powerful, but under a number of constraints. He could not, for example, conduct official business without having a member of the council present; he couldn’t even open official mail in private. (Hillary Clinton, are you reading this?) But he was still a big deal. When granted an audience with him, the honored visitor was required to climb a specially reserved staircase — the Giant’s Stairs — to meet him. He would never descend those stairs to meet you; even the Pope had to climb them. The stairs are named for the two “giants” at their apex: Hercules and Atlas. Atlas is of course shown shouldering a globe in the traditional fashion. Hercules, however, is depicted clubbing the Hydra to death, apparently with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat as you can see in the photo. (It is not widely known that Hercules batted right, but threw left-handed. He hit .522 in his best season with the Delphi Deities but was eventually traded to Thessalonika.)

The Doge Palace is enormous and ornate in a fashion that Versailles would echo centuries later. Every room that we visited was limned in gold, the walls and ceilings virtually tesselated with the great artists of the era, notably Tintoretto. This will give you the idea:

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And that’s just the laundry room. (Not really.) But there is room after room much like it.

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Don’t cross this bridge when you come to it.

The palace is connected directly to the adjacent prison (convenient!), the connection being the famous Bridge of Sighs that you see here. Legend has it that the bridge gets its name from the sighs that the prisoners would breathe as they crossed the bridge and beheld the beauty of Venice for the last time before being incarcerated. I am skeptical of this. It’s easy enough to believe the sighing part, but personally if I were being marched off in shackles to a 13th century prison cell then no longer having a nice view would be the least of my worries.

Because of this historical association with the Doge Palace, the Bridge of Sighs is considered one of the go-to sights of Venice despite being architecturally less interesting than many of the other bridges throughout the city (and there are many, crisscrossing the spaghetti network of small canals).  But having toured the palace, we did in fact cross the bridge. No, we didn’t sigh. But if any of the prisoners who crossed didn’t either, they probably did by the time they got to their cells, which we also saw, and which I can pretty much guarantee would have gotten zero stars on TripAdvisor had it existed at the time.

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Worst. B&B. Ever.

As it happens, in one section of the palace there was a temporary exhibit of Henri Rosseau’s art, for me at least a welcome change from endless gold-leafed crucifixion scenes. We spent a relatively idyllic hour or two looking at Rousseau’s paintings, very cleverly and informatively displayed alongside his contemporary artists whom he influenced. (These included even Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.)

But when you’re in Venice, you are never very far from a crucifixion scene, and my pastoral neo-impressionistic relief was short-lived. After leaving the palace, we walked across town to the Accademia Museum, a particular goal of Alice because of its large and impressive collection of Tintorettos, Bellinis, Carpaccios, and Mozzarellas. (I’m not sure about that last one.)  By this time we had been walking for over five hours, and while I will be the first to admit that it was a very impressive collection — in some cases due to the sheer wall-sized immensity of some of the works — and that Alice very greatly enjoyed it, I was by this time pretty much crucifixion-ed and Madonna-ed out. Oh, and also St. Mark-saturated. As you may have already inferred, San Marco is pretty much the iconic figure of Venice in much the same way that Ben Franklin is the local deity of Philadelphia. We admired many paintings of Mark the Evangelist being martyred by the Alexandrians by being dragged through the streets for being a tad too evangelical.

After an hour and a half of this I reminded Alice of the wise words spoken by our almost-three-year-old grandson after an hour and a half at the National Aquarium: “I’ve seen enough fish now.” So I’m a Philistine. Sue me.

We walked back across town to our flat, by which time we estimated that we had hoofed roughly ten miles over the course of the day. Venice is a very walkable city, but you will walk a lot. It is a maze of medieval alleys barely as wide as your outstretched arms, a spiderweb of crisscrossing tiny streets and canals, and it is no coincidence that the first question one of my friends asked me after our first day here was, “Did you get lost yet?” But we didn’t, and I will tell you how. Download the wonderful app called “City Maps 2 Go”, which loads up your phone with a very highly detailed offline map of whatever city you want. It doesn’t need a cell or wifi connection to operate, just a GPS signal, and it guided us through the 10th-century street warren without a hitch. Highly recommended!

We went out for another late dinner on the Grand Canal — salmon gnocchi for me, seafood soup for Alice, both excellent. Which was a fine way to end the day, as well as this blog entry.

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Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Venice: The Incredible S(hr)inking City

You may have read on occasion that Venice is slowly sinking — more about that shortly — but may not have been aware that it is shrinking dramatically in population as well. As recently as 1952 the official population of the lagoon city was over 200,000; today it is roughly 50,000. It has shrunk by 9% in the past 15 years alone, and the fear is that soon it won’t be a “real” city at all, with actual residents, but rather solely a tourist enclave populated entirely by tourists, gondoliers, restaurant owners, and souvenir vendors. In other words, it may become the Colonial Williamsburg of the Adriatic.

But at that, it would still be pretty charming: Venice is one of those places whose appearance comports very nicely with your mental image of it. Which is to say, that it looks like this:

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Venice, appearing as advertised

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Venice-7Despite the charm, it’s pretty clear that the city is in decline, struggling to maintain its physical infrastructure.  Venice the city-state reached the peak of its influence quite some time ago — the Venetians basically dominated the Western world from about 900 AD to 1300 AD — but, well, what have they done for us lately? At least a bit of this decline is a consequence of the aforementioned sinking, whose signs are everywhere. Basically, the water is lapping at the front door of every canal-side structure, and the “ground” floors of many dwellings are unusable as a result, as you can see here.

So when will you need scuba gear to tour Venice? It depends on who you ask. The “official” rate at which the water is said to be encroaching is roughly 2 mm per year, but those self-same officials ascribe that number mostly to the rise in sea level of the Adriatic rather than the city actually sinking. (The Republican Party may not believe in global warming, but the Venetians, Dutch, Seychellians, and other low-lying peoples know better. And if you, gentle blog reader, also disbelieve it, then you are a willfully ignorant idiot and can stop reading now, pausing only to leave some stupid comment that I will delete.)

Where was I? Ah, lapping canals, yes. The official line is that, sea level rise notwithstanding, Venice used to be sinking on its own but isn’t any more. This may actually be true. Venice used to be studded with many artesian wells whose effect on the water table was exactly what you’d expect, and as the underground water was drawn off the city subsided to fill the gap. For that very reason artesian well drilling was halted about 25 years ago, and the subsidence has supposedly stopped as a result.

Maybe. A recent study by a geology group at Stanford claims that the city is in fact still sinking, at a rate of 8 mm per year. That is a lot: a foot every 40 years or so. The city fathers of Venice do not like this number, and there is quite the roiling controversy as to whether the study is correct.

Be that as it may, we will only be in Venice for 5 days, meaning that even if the Stanford study is correct the water will gain only about 0.1 mm on us, which is roughly twice the width of a human hair. And since we are staying in a third-floor apartment, our electronic equipment is probably safe.

We landed at Marco Polo airport at about 8:30 AM today (local time) and took the vaporetto (“water bus”) from the airport to the famous Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, from which we could walk to our apartment. It’s a third-floor walkup that we found through AirBnB, nicely appointed and well-situated maybe a 75 yards from the canal. Although its entrance is an obscure doorway in a tiny grey stone medieval alley, the flat itself is modern and comfortable: 3 bedrooms (though we only need to for ourselves and our traveling companions Jim and Elaine); 1 1/2 baths, a small living room with TV, and a large well-equipped kitchen and breakfast area.

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The maid was cleaning the place when we arrived at about 10:45 AM, so we dumped our luggage in the living room and set off to explore the city for a few hours before exhaustion and jet lag felled us altogether. As it happens the particular part of the Grand Canal that our street abuts is the home of a large outdoor produce and fish market, which made for  some pleasant wandering. The fish offerings in particular were plentiful and diverse, showcasing a number of creatures that we have seen rarely or not at all, including (a) gigantic black-and-white mottled and blobby-looking cuttlefish about the size of bed pillows; (b) buckets of whelks in their shells; and (c) a variety of unfamiliar crustaceans.

Some further wandering revealed that there are essentially three kind of souvenir vendors in Venice, found in about equal numbers. The sketchiest of these are the African guys who operate off a blanket thrown down just about anywhere on the street. They are everywhere, and they clearly all get their inventory from the same place, because they always all sell the same thing. (I have noticed this in previous trips to Italy and in Paris as well.) The “thing” that they sell is whatever happens to be the fad this year, which in April of 2015 happens to be selfie sticks for about 5 bucks each. Every last one of them was selling selfie sticks, and God knows the market was there because a lot of tourists — especially the Asians — were using them. Despite the availability of ready customers, the vendors were not at all shy at coming up to me and offering to sell me one as well…as I stood there holding my SLR with its soup-can-sized lens. Really? Does this camera look like you could attach it to a selfie stick and hold it at arms length?

The next-least-sleazy species of souvenir vendor is your garden-variety storefront selling plastic gondolas, teeshirts, snow globes…all the traditional tchotchkes. There are approximately one billion of these stores in Venice, and their density increases exponentially with proximity to a major tourist attraction such as Saint Marks’s Square. (Indeed, there are now so many selfie-stick-sellers and teeshirt vendors in Saint Mark’s Square that the famous pigeons have apparently been squeezed out; there were surprisingly few there.)

Venice-5Venice-6And finally we have the actual cool souvenir stores: the mask vendors. Venice is famous for its masks, as you may now, ansd there are many stores selling many beautiful ones. Some are whimsical, some grotesque, and many would be right at home in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. The nice ones of course are handmade, often out of papier mache, and one patient owner let us watch her for a while. You can see her at work and one of her simpler creations in these two photos.

We spent the rest of the afternoon variously walking our feet off our getting around on the vaporettos. (Question to my Italian friends: is the plural “vaporetti”?)

Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify the type of water traffic on the canals. The Grand Canal is positively choked with boat traffic which, remarkably, seems to manage itself quite handily with few or no collisions and not even any obvious near-misses. Anyway, a quick glance at the canal immediately reveals:

  • Vaporettos, i.e., water buses that hold perhaps 40 people.
  • Water taxis, which are much smaller and more expensive teak-paneled speedboats that hold perhaps 4 passengers
  • Utility boats delivering supplies and construction, dredging, and other equipment from one point to another
  • …and of course hundreds of gondolas, mostly filled with clueless seniors like us or Japanese schoolgirls with selfie sticks

…which pretty much sums up our day so far. The weather today was beautiful — sunny and in the 60s — but is supposed to turn sour tomorrow. So we are considering going out tonight for an obligatory gondola ride, which should be especially nice at night. Perhaps I will buy a selfie stick.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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