With any luck, dekeOnline feels like it’s been humming away like the seamless beast that it is. In which case, I cheerfully admit, it’s been doing so largely without me. Last week, I was away on one of my rare vacations. This time in Venice. You may know Venice from tales of its canals and Mediterranean sun. But latitude-wise, the city is roughly even with Mongolia and Nova Scotia. Toss in lots of water, copious fog, and a few Adriatic winds, and you have one of the coldest Winter cities I’ve ever visited.
Which was a good thing. Witness the HDR composite of Ponte Rialto below (captured with an Olympus E-30 and merged in Photoshop’s HDR Pro). I count 14 people on the south side of the bridge. Based on my experience traversing that bridge, there’s a very good chance every one of them was Italian. In the Summer, the Rialto is jam-packed with tourists of all stripes. But in the Winter, it’s just you, a few Nativi Italiani, and the indigenous denizens of Venice. Which means, for a few heavenly days, you can rid yourself of Americans.
Nothing against the Dear Old U.S. of A. I’d sooner live on the moon than anywhere else. But charming as Americans are in the wall-to-wall box-store opulence of The 50 States, they tend to be boorish imperialists abroad. As if to supply proof, the one American at my hotel: A) asked the dining crew if the complimentary breakfast included waffles, B) woke the housekeeping staff late at night to request fluffier pillows, and C) inquired of me one day if I had been to the “Doag’s House.” (He meant the Doge’s Palace.) Once I got to know him, he was a great guy. But I really wanted to take him aside and entreat him, on behalf of Our Great Country, to stop being such a dumb shit.
If you take my advice and go to Venice, here are a few things you should know. First, everyone likes to pretend Venice is shaped like a fish. Witness this nicely designed logo from the Venice transportation service:
But in truth, Venice is shaped like two grotesque mitten puppets grappling with each other, as I’ve helpfully illustrated on an actual amp of Venice below. Remember that and you’ll find it much easier to make your way around.
You enter Venice through the train station, which resides in the nose of the top, more aggressive mitten puppet. After that, say goodbye to ground transportation and hop aboard a vaporetto, which is a boat-bus that comes every ten minutes. Buy the week-long vaporetto pass because, from now on, the vaporetto and your legs are your only means of locomotion.
Venice comprises seven districts, or sestieri. The thumb of the top puppet is San Marco, which is the touristy part with all the gondolas. This is my second trip to Venice and I have never been in a gondola. The locals do not ride in gondolas so neither do I. Do I sound like an ass? Forgive me. I meant to say that gondolas are pretty and magical, like unicorns and care bears. Look at these generic people. Aren’t they having fun? But, hey, why is that mysterious man holding a silver briefcase? Click the image to find out.
The other thing San Macro has is Piazza San Macro, or Saint Mark’s Square. That’s where the aforementioned Doag’s House is. Generally speaking, I’m not all that fond of The Piazza. It’s full of tourists, panhandlers, and belligerent pigeons. But there are two things to recommend it:
1) I’m a big Roman Empire buff—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, the whole lot. One of my favorite chapters occurred in the 3rd Century AD, when the Empire collapsed into Roman, Gallic, and Palmyrene fragments. Desperate to reunite the territories, the emperor Diocletian divvied up the known world between himself and three co-emperors—Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius—together known as The Tetrarchy. Strangely—for indeed, San Marco has nothing to do with The Empire—the south corner of the Basilica features a freeze of the co-emperors grasping each other in an all-is-well, no-need-to-worry embrace. Carved at the time of The Tetrarchs’ rein, this porphyry sculpture is one of the world’s most ancient relics on perpetual public display. And because there is no label or signage, a passerby just thinks they’re rust-colored lovers ironically affixed to the wall of a Catholic church.
2) Visit the balcony of the Basilica. For a few euros, you get to relax on the best balcony in all of Venice. (Look for the image of the four horses to the right of the basilica entrance.) The upstairs museum sports fragments of the original basilica mosaics. (Those in the church are mostly forgeries.) Then go outside for a breathtaking view, like the 11-shot pano below. There was no guard when I visited and you could stay as long as you like. For the best experience, sneak in a mezzo of prosecco and drink it with a friend.
Otherwise, you can make quick work of San Marco. The much cooler sestieri are Santa Croce, San Polo, and Dorsoduro, which combine (from north to south) to make up the bottom mitten puppet. I stayed in Santa Croce. And I spent many hours lost in my neighborhood (below). This is key. If you hope to experience Venice at its finest, you must be comfortable with—if not absolutely revel in—getting lost. The city is a giant jigsaw puzzle and its labyrinthine streets and canals are its hard-to-identify pieces. Your job is to find peace inside each piece.
I also recommend visiting a neighboring isle. Murano for glass, Burano for lace, Torcello to get away from it all. All north of Venice, best done from the Fondamenta Nove vaporetto stop along the top mitten puppet’s neck. (If you walk, there’s an Irish pub on the way!) My favorite island was Cimitero di San Michele, the Island of the Dead. Of special interest are the Protestant and Orthodox cemeteries, which are quite spooky and in fantastic states of disrepair, as seen below.
If you’re feeling restless, take the vaporetto to Ferrovia and catch a train out of town. For my part, I went to Vicenza, a spot where my dad used to work about 20 years ago. Vicenza boasts Teatro Olimpico, the last work by Palladio and the world’s oldest enclosed theater. The theater’s surviving wood-and-stucco backdrop depicts the streets of Thebes for a 16th-Century production of Oedipus the King. Amazingly, this work of Vincenzo Scamozzi features a forced-perspective montage that declines in five directions from the audience. And it remains in mint condition 500 years later.
No guide to Venice would be complete without some culinary advice. There are two kinds of food in Venice: truly wonderful and spectacularly awful. How do you tell the difference? First, don’t go into any establishment where a guy hustles you off the street, no matter how hungry you are. (At one place, such a guy served me a single-serving microwave lasagna.) Second, if you hear more than one table speaking English—whether they’re British, Australian, doesn’t matter—leave immediately. That means only the rubes eat there. And keep an eye out for the mascot of Venice, the canocchia, also known as the cicada of the sea. Below we see it as part of an antipasto (that’s it to the left of the shrimp) and writhing with some family members. While actually a member of the crab family, this animal can taste every bit as rotten as its name suggests—at one restaurant, I wished for a piece of sandpaper with which to remove all vestiges of the animal from my tongue—or extremely tasty. Try this test: Ask your waiter what the creature is. If he can’t tell you, don’t eat it. And always order the house wine. It’s cheap, it goes with everything, and it delivers a happy buzz, especially when consumed in mass quantities at lunchtime.
Here’s another tip: Don’t drop your camera. I don’t know what my problem was—possibly the wine—but I dropped my camera three or four times. Problem is, Venice is all cement, brick, paving stone, metal, occasional wood, and water. (With the exception of the Peggy Guggenheim museum, I didn’t see a garden or tree on Venice proper.) That means when your camera lands, it lands hard. Or, you drop the camera and the lens cap pops off and flies into the canal, as happened to me. Fortunately, my E-30 came through like a champ, permitting me to capture the 10 photographs required to create the following panorama. For the record, I’m standing on Ponte Accademia looking east at Santa Maria della Salute (which is located on the bottom mitten puppet’s lower lip).
Just for reference, here’s a 1-second exposure from the other direction, captured at night from the balcony of the Peggy Guggenheim museum (another spot I highly recommend). That’s the wooden Ponte Accademia behind the posts.
For those who may question whether Venice was really all that cold—these images have been so sunny!—or whether I was even in Venice at all, I offer this documentation of me crossing Ponte Rialto. Didn’t my traveling companion do a great job? I’m thinking of taping this image over the one on my passport.
So to sum up, go to Venice in the Winter, dress warmly, get lost, eat some great food, and wear a scarf that matches your eyes. Oh, and one last piece of advice: Don’t go around saying “gracias” or “bonjour.” Contrary to many Americans’ beliefs, Italians have their own language and it isn’t Spanfrench. I’m not lecturing, I’m confessing. That’s the kind of idiotic stuff I did myself. Ciao!