Venice masquerades as the somber, the romantic, the hidden, the deceptive, the glamorous, the dingy and the divine. There are so many faces to it perhaps this is why it’s Carnival is world famous? What’s so special about this Disneyland of an island(s) when all one sees are superficial impressions of tourists of every shape, size, nationality and color? Besides the ubiquitous gondola (traghetti) ride (well worth doing once in your lifetime) and the inevitable visit to St. Marks Square to see the Doge, Venice is a mystery, which unfolds depending on your length of stay, curiosity and ability to see behind its mask. At St. Marks there are two columns which, if you plan to marry I’m told, brings bad luck if you walk through the center. Unless you have a handy Ghost Buster kit to spook out the boogey men of Venice, don’t walk through the columns.
You will see a semblance of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance architecture melded into a fairytale. Another must-see is the Ponte de Rialto. The whole area near the bridge and leading up to the famous steps is chock-full of Ethiopian and Libyan street vendors selling brand named imitation leather goods. Best buys and quality are Louis Vuitton handbags and Gucci silver watches. I was told to visit the Cannareggio district for shopping. What a disappointment! If you are into Woolworth type cheapo stores, hardware supplies and a smattering of grandmotherly typed boutiques selling furs, please visit. It is here that one can witness the hustle and bustle of typical Venetians during a daily walk. Fat ladies with moustaches (who didn’t sing), skinny mothers with tattoos and streaked hair, swarthy looking businessmen in periwinkle blue ties and dark blue suits, the best dressed toddlers in the world and more are yours for the ingesting.
Another distinction in the Cannareggio district. It is the world’s first ghetto! For Jews, of course. However it is a sad statement on the part of the local Venetian government that not one single sign indicated where the actual ghetto was. When I arrived in a shabby squat courtyard, I found a plaque discreetly hidden behind overgrown weeds on a concrete wall announcing that this here was the ghetto. To worsen the mood, one lonely tangled basketball hoop on a pole stood solitaire against what once was a temple. A balding man leaned out his window in his Fruit of the Loom sleeveless tee shirt, tired of the monotonous scene below.
GAM, an Israeli Kosher restaurant was recommended for lunch however I was so depressed at the lack of respect for Jewish history I went walking to the northwest. It was along a puny canal where the main attractions were freshly washed laundry hanging on lines outside residential windows and motorboats, that I stumbled upon Cicchetteria Hostaria, Address: Calle dell’Oca 4367. Tel: 522 8609. Great seafood. I ate grilled octopus and lightly fried sardines. Inexpensive and well worth a lunch even if you are not on a budget.
I heard from various sources that the canals have been cleaned up compared to a decade ago when it stank to high heaven. Indeed they were clean however, the buildings are crumbling, decrepit reminders of days gone by. Corny as it is, Death in Venice, the book and the movie, flashed across my mind’s eye more than a few times. First impressions of the city conjured images of melancholy vanity. If “old-world” charm, as in, extremely crusty, appeals to you fine. Knock yourself out! Otherwise this may not be your cup of tea. Or Cafe Latte (a larger version of cappuccino sans the chocolate dust).
To get around, it will be quicker to walk believe it or not, rather than wait for the canal boats, although not more pleasant. This of course depends on the time of year you are visiting. Because throngs of tourists clog the narrow cobble stoned alleys and paths making it an irritating experience. Compared to other cities and regions in Italy, Venice’s high season is loooooong! It begins 15 March – 15 November. You do not have to pay for water taxis along the Grand Canale. No one does and the conductors seem lax in asking passengers for tickets.
Rather than take you through the hundreds of churches and museums or tours of the homes of Casanova, Marco Polo and other notables, here are a few good websites. http://www.realitaly.com, http://www.doge.it, http://www.italiantourism.com and finally http://www.itwg.com (the Italian tourist board). On this trip to Venice, my second, I spent more time viewing people, walking the whole island and drinking great cafe at Cafe Florian in St. Marks Square than any other activity. If for no other reason than to watch the myriad crowds feed thousands of pigeons, Cafe Florian is a perfect locale. The waiters are world-weary and have been there forever. Some worked for more than 40 years and menu-speak to you in any language including Japanese.
Bello, a Venetian of assorted origins living in The Hague recommended to visit his friends – an impenetrable bunch of locales. By friends he meant ‘those who own restaurants and clubs who might remember him when he lived there in the early nineties’. For those of you who are denizens of nightlife I will warn you: Venice has practically no nightlife so to speak. Restaurants are basically finished serving at 10:00pm and the occasional one may be opened till 11:00.
There are 3 or 4 spots worth visiting. If you call Alfredo or drop by his jazz club, Bacaro Jazz at: S. Marco, 554 difronte poste centrali, you’ll sign his massive book, write your address and scribble graffiti on the walls. There you can drink large generous margaritas or sangrias and chat with locales and tourists alike. Use my name or Bello’s and Alfredo will welcome you as if you were a long lost friend. It’s opened till way after 2:00am. That is laudable in this sleepy city. Alfredo will be happy to inform you of the other behind-the-scenes-happenings at night.
The few Venetians we did meet were from Murano, the island famous for it’s glassworks and kitch glass chandeliers that you see in practically every other restaurant. The owner of the trattoria named Busa Alla Torre (Da Lele) was efficient and friendly in a professional manner, despite the fact that we mentioned Bello’s name. Address: Campo S. Stefano no. 3. Tel: 041-739 662. Yet the meal was superb and service tops. We were offered free bellini’s, a typical Venetian drink made from fresh peach pulp and mixed with champagne, whilst sitting outside amidst olive trees in the concrete square overlooking a small drawbridge. The sun beat down at a good 35 degrees, as we indulged in pasta linguine with seafood and a radicchio salad.
Recommended glassworks factories: Vetreria Artistica – TFZ at fond. Ta venier 38/a. Tel: 041-736 603. For exclusive glass art sculptures made from original artists paintings or drawings make a detour to Berengo Glass Art Gallery. Ask for the Mr. Berengo’s son who spends his time between the factory and a small town in Holland where he lives with his wife and child. The help at Berengo is professional and friendly. They offered me a choice of liquors or cafe and made sure to run down the street to pick it up fresh from the local bar. Now that’s what I call service,
Venice’s beach, Lido is a great getaway. Taking a water taxi leads you there. On Lido I rented a contraption built for two – a type of bicycle where the handlebars are horizontal. More of a cart than a bicycle really, with a shady top trimmed in red tassels. I rented it for an hour and drove to the beach. What fun. Eating gelati has to be one of the most pleasurable experiences in Italy. The gelateria serve ice cream as well as all sorts of soft drinks and coffees.
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