I realized something you’ve never felt in a city like this: it’s absolutely quiet. When you look across the rooftops you note that the lights are off. Here and there, a window glows, but when the sun goes down it drapes a caul over the rooftops. Light below, though; thin streams pooling in the corners. People still stroll up and down - the vendors still stand stolid before a line of fake bags, and to your delight there’s a fellow playing an accordion.
By "delight" I mean "hold my belt while I lean out of the room with this slingshot." Around midnight, a few groups returned to the hotel, and demonstrated the extent to which angry Italian voices penetrate through stone walls; they were accompanied by a gush of drunks pouring out of bars and cafes, a parade that seemed to last forever, and coincided with something peculiar: a single melodic phrase from the Godfather soundtrack, played over and over on a small accordion. At Midnight. Over. And over again. Best I could figure it was someone who set up along the street to get the odd stray Euro from someone touched by the melody and he wandered home in a loose and sentimental mood. Since the rest of the piece might not have the same emotional impact as the first few plaintive notes, that’s all he did. He started the second phrase, with promise and determination, but abandoned it instantly and went back to the opening notes. I don’t know when he stopped. We fell asleep.
It began at home, and ended here. What day? What time? How many hours? No idea. None of that mattered.
If you're curious about the neighborhood: explore all you like. The hotel is right on the left.
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NEXT: In which we take to the waters, streets, and sepulchers of Venice.
VENICE DAY 2
Glory be: we slept until 7:30. Refreshed. Without jet lag gnawing at your brain and weighing down your eyes. Took breakfast in the charming little cafe in the hotel:
Explored in the morning, looking for an adaptor. Didn’t bring one, and the hotel clerk said that whenever they got one, well - he made walking gestures with his fingers. But I could find one at Raffi’s, which had everything. He also drew some suggestions for the morning walk, circling a large area on the island and labeling it GL.
“Get lost,” he grinned. But not to worry. Ask anyone the direction to San Marco. I thought “but everyone’s a tourist.” Well, we weren’t going to get lost. We found Raffi’s, thanks to his big paper map, and I had to laugh: I had a pocket fold-out map and a big laminated map and of course off-line maps on my phone, and I was staring at a folded piece of paper.
After I had the converter (thus assuring power: I’d been recharging all the devices off a battery pack I brought, which had duly fed four units before expiring in the morning) we walked along the Quay until we came to a garden. Forgotten statues by forgotten hands:
The tour met at the Royal Gardens at 11, and we were gathered by a young Italian woman with commanding diction and a bubbly style that produced a tremendous amount of information in a constant stream; she knew her city, and was not just reciting a script. Walk to San Marco, and inside, skipping the interminable queue.
Daughter blanched: this is . . . creepy. And it was. The pre-Renaissance churches always seem on the cusp of being utterly foreign. You recognize the architecture, the styles and what they mean in context, but there is a bright line between Gothic and Renaissance, and the former gives you feeling of a culture redefined so utterly that it became something almost unrecognizable to anyone who was born in one and died in the other. As we’ll see.
The entrance was uneven, the ground sunk; the ceilings were lined with mosaics and innumerable patrons and Biblical stories; I think I recognized the story of Drunk Moses. Inside: faded heaven.
The decoration dazzles, not the architecture; the stones lift up the stories.
Afterwards, the walk. Oh the walk. From Campo to campo, learning stories. (The Campo is the field, the gathering place for the island; back before the city was consolidated, each Campo had the church, the palazzo, the cistern. As you thread your way from campo to campo you sense how the place was divided, now many fiefdoms were eventually stitched together. Connecting each, a bridge; from each a narrow street that takes a dogleg, thins to almost single-file, opens to another collection of church, palace, buildings. The water doors were still in use for many buildings, which is just fascinating: pull up your boat, drive in, get out. You can imagine gouty old men struggling to get out the gondola, waving off efforts of assistance from the fussy servants with plumed hats; elegant women more than happy to take a proffered hand to alight to the stones.
The tour ended far from San Marco’s: you’re on your own; good luck getting back to your hotel. We took the bridge over to the Rialto to the Fish market. It had been thus for centuries. Imagine a half-millennia of fish smells.
A stop for lunch at a cafe with a view of the canal, and then back to the room to collapse into deep and dreamless sleep before the boat ride. I woke before everyone else, and went down to talk to Andrea, the tirelessly cheerful and helpful desk clerk. I said I was surprised not to see a lot of places where one could get an espresso, and he seemed shocked: to him, they were everywhere. I was thinking of the places that weren’t full ristorantes, but cafes with pastries in the window and il Grande Macchina visible from the street, the golden tank a sign of deep rich delights. He got out The Paper Map, and sketched directions to six places within four blocks - that being a relative term, of course. “This, Florian, in San Marco,” he said. “Is said to be the first bar in Europe, and this -“
Say no more, Andrea. That.
“If you want it Venetian style, standing at the bar.”
I want it Venetian style, my friend.
I walked up the street to the great stone gape of the plaza, sidled along behind the colonnade to the restaurant behind the vast array of tables - didn’t know there was a little bar behind it. And so. And . . . oh. Decorum prevented me from whipping out the camera and taking pictures like an uncultured tourist. It had to date from 1890. It had not changed. There was no reason to change. A tall and sepulchral bartender, no doubt long accustomed to turista garb - the days of men knowing that a suit and sharp-creased trousers was expected, long past - accepted my request with a nod of deep solemnity and conjured from La Macchina a cup of the most exquisite espresso I have ever had.
A vacation presets moments great and small, sweeping and specific; having that espresso in that bar in that place is one of those things that just lights up everything, and you know that if the plane goes on the drink on the way back, you can content yourself with that. You never knew you wanted to have an espresso in the first bar in Europe until you were there, but now you have seen a new way of looking at your mortal allotment. It’s not the walk to the dais to get an award. It’s the quiet anonymity of this ageless room. Byron drank here, I’m sure. There are no plaques to suggest that was the case. In a place that measures time where decades are a tick of the second hand, such historical grace-notes are simply assumed, and to say THIS HAPPENED HERE means the place does not deserve to hold his memory.
IT’S JUST A CUP OF FREAKING COFFEE you say. Go there and report back.
(Note: if there is a plaqu for Byron, I take it back, and it’s a reverential account of an important moment. See? I can be flexible.)
So: collect the family; back to the Royal Gardens for the boat tour. No one there looks like they’re official. Another couple looks a bit confused, and I ask if they’re here for the boat tour. They are. We get to talking. Where you from? I ask. “A place outside St. Cloud, Minnesota,” the fellow says. “And you?”
I shrug. “A little town called Minneapolis.”
Can you beat it? Fellow Gophers. Wife and child arrive, and we all chat; I find the guy’s in the oil business, and we’re deep into blends and distributors and refinery talk. Then eight of our group is assigned a boat, and off we go -
And here you realize you had been thinking of the city entirely backwards. It’s not a city of streets with bridges over canals. It’s a city of canals first, with the streets as the backside. It can only be told like this.
The Canals of Venice from James Lileks on Vimeo.
There was a time when getting a ticket to a boat to another island, and trusting only my rudimentary Italian, would have been a source of anxiety, since I am not by nature adventurous, and like to plan things. But in this case: after the boat, we took the water bus (not a water taxi; difference is as you’d imagine) to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, home of a church of the same name, because the tour guide had pointed to the church and said the magic words “Palladio.” Well. I’ve never been in a Palladian church. Never seen one, as far as I know. The bus dropped us off by a nine gold-covered rectangular objects arranged in a square, with a plaque nearby to inform you that this was art, and daring art, and important art. It seemed significant that the only modern work on public display was on another island, as if it was being quarantined.
The church had a sober, restrained facade. Inside: sublime. Deserted, as most of the churches were.
After, what? Wife and child went into an art installation next door; I followed. A movie. Shots of a desert, with a voice-over intoning portentous statements. My breath, dry as a scorpion and so on. I backed out as quickly as possible and sat outside, taking pictures, until they emerged, no doubt admiring my capacity for snap judgments.
Down the embankment to another gallery, this one devoted to the glass-blowing work of a brother-sister team of abstract artists. Room after room of glass in varying shapes and reflectiveness and opacity. Behold! Art:
Our era, compared to theirs: not advisable in Venice.
Waterbus back; family went back to hotel, and I explored a bit down the street. Turned into another campo, and another church:
Walk a few paces, and again:
I went into the one above. In the corner, a mass for tourists. Four people. Sonorous drone of ancient Latin.
Back to the roof to have a small cigar and a drink, and look at the gulls. They expect nothing of you. They know you will come and go and come and go. You matter nothing to the gulls.
For dinner we walked to the Ponte L’Academia, to find a restaurant on the canal. The walk there was the usual labyrinth, and if you wonder how you’re going to get out you trust the signs, which were put up in 1912 or 1884, or 1791; it’s all of those years at the same time. They point towards an eventual large destination. That’s all you need to know. The trip across the bridge was beautiful . . .
. . . but more so on the way back, when the lights were on. It’s a remarkably under illuminated city, which is the charm. I’d asked our tour guide when the streets were electrified: “1883,” she responded promptly. They don’t seem to have added much since the original plan, and why should they? It’s perfect. Down the old stones, through the streets, over the bridges, the gondolas gliding silently below - except in the case of one, which you could call the Party Gondola, filled with young women with enormous drinks in hand and VENICE WOOOOO.
One last nighttime trip to San Marco, and we got there just as something lovely happened.
Fourth from James Lileks on Vimeo.
(Pardon the shakycam; I was walking with the camera open.) That’s right - it was the Fourth of July.
And so to bed.
NEXT: The Palace of the Doge - and leaving Venice for the sea, and the islands beyond.