This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world: He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

- Maltbie D. Babcock

Friday, June 6, 2008

Viva Venezia!

Venice was one of the cities on our itinerary that I had visited on my much-earlier European tour. My memories of it were hazy, clouded by the fact that I had been feeling very homesick at that point, and distinctly uncomfortable sleeping at a youth hostel in a room full of strangers. Still, on this day, as our train from Rome passed from hilly countryside through much flatter terrain and eventually across a lagoon, my excitement was growing. Venice, just by the uniqueness of its setting, seems somehow magical to me - a tiny island kingdom from another era, complete with palace, its narrow cobblestone streets completely devoid of traffic. Here, after leaving the train station, we dragged our bulging suitcases onto a vaporetto instead of a bus or taxi. We climbed off at our stop right next to the Rialto bridge and made our way along the canal and down a few sides streets to our bed and breakfast. Wrestling our way up six flights of stairs, we finally arrived at our room and met Claudete, perhaps the loveliest and most accommodating of any of our hosts to date. She graciously provided us with maps, directions, and suggestions. As we got ourselves settled in our room, a beautiful, operatic male voice drifted up into our open window. I hung my head out to see man walking along the narrow lane outside our room, enjoying the acoustics as he walked. He looked up at me, grinned widely, and continued singing on his way. I knew right then that I was going to like this place.

We grabbed our map and set out walking, savouring the carless streets and manageable distances. After a short stroll, we found ourselves in the Piazza San Marco. I instantly felt like a kid in a candy store, and I couldn't wipe the grin off my face for the rest of the day. The crowds didn't bother me in the least as I walked around snapping pictures of tourists covered in pigeons, vendors selling t-shirts, masks, and silly hats, St. Mark's Basilica, and the beautiful Doge's Palace. For me, it was another "Somebody pinch me!" moment. It was like being Photoshopped into a series of postcard images. Crossing over the Rialto bridge, we strolled through the crowded market stalls and shops hawking Murano glass jewelry, scarves, or fresh fruit. Eventually we made our way to Campo San Polo. This large square bordered by homes and a few restaurants was recommended to us by our hostess, who told us we would be able to dine here in a place frequented by Venetians rather than tourists. As we sat outdoors, feeding bread crumbs to a sparrow that came and sat expectantly on the corner of our table, we watched neighbourhood children chasing each other around the fountain or kicking soccer balls while parents and grandparents strolled around the square, stopping to chat with each person they met about the news of the day. Gradually, as the sun set, they all headed home for their dinner, or began to fill in the tables at the restaurant where we were, as usual, among the earliest of the diners. It grew dark as we headed back toward "home," and we stopped off at Piazza San Marco on the way. This area becomes quite magical at night, pigeons and vendors mostly gone, and the square softly illuminated by lights atop the buildings that make up the perimeter. Several of the restaurants that face onto the piazza set up tables and chairs, and each of these spots includes a small canopied stage where a small orchestra in evening attire plays throughout the evening. Few people actually sit at the tables, having been forewarned (as were we) by their guidebooks that exorbitant prices are charged for drinking or dining there. But there is no charge to listen, so one is free to wander from place to place stopping to listen to whichever quintet strikes the fancy. Periodically, one or two couples would step back from the small crowds watching the show and spontaneously begin to ballroom dance in the empty parts of the square. Others just stood with their arms wrapped around each other, swaying to the music. Later, we found our way back to our room, crossing canals over small bridges while gondolas passed quietly underneath, carrying well-heeled tourists who had opted to wait for nightfall to indulge in their lamplit tour of the city's waterways. I personally don't know how Niagara Falls ever got its reputation for being the honeymoon capital of the world; in my estimation, Venice beats it hands-down for romance at its finest.

The next morning, we awoke to a lovely tray of breakfast, including my very own pot of coffee, brought to our room by Claudete. Fuelled for the morning, we headed off to check out the morning fish and fruit market near the Rialto. This incredible array of seafood and farm-fresh produce starts arriving by boat before dawn, hauled to row after row of long wooden tables. As I viewed the vast displays of squid, octopus, long eel-like fish, and another variety of fish that looked like it was soaking in black ink, I tried to memorize their Italian names so that I wouldn't accidentally order them from a menu. I'm afraid that my spirit of adventure does not extend very far when it comes to seafood.

Next on the agenda was a lengthy tour of the Doge's Palace, including the so-called "secret areas." These included a torture room, as well as the jail cell where Casanova was once held prisoner until he made a daring escape. We also passed through the famous "Bridge of Sighs" which connects the palace to the prison, so named because its windows offered convicts their last view of the city before their incarceration. We walked for hours in the afternoon, all the way to the train station and back, stopping en route to visit the huge Frari Church, filled with massive and glorious statuary, including a statue of the crucifixion that I found more moving than any other I had seen - and I had seen quite a few by this point.

After all of our walking, Wendy felt like an evening in, so I set out to prowl on my own. Venice is one of those cities where I never felt unsafe for a moment, even when walking alone. I loved to wander along the canals and narrow streets window-shopping, people-watching, taking pictures from bridges, and watching the gondoliers gather to moor their boats for the night. And before heading back to my room, a gelato in the Piazza made a perfect bedtime snack, and the music of the duelling orchestras offered a lovely lullaby.

The next morning, after breakfast, I asked Claudete if there was any way to tour the Grand Canal without spending an arm and a leg. She mentioned that she had heard something about a celebration of some sort taking place that day, where they might be offering free gondola rides for the morning. Wendy had seen gondolas gathering near the Rialto on her early morning walk, so we headed down there to check things out. She talked to a girl who was standing near the dock and she confirmed that it was true - she, in fact, was waiting for her two friends to meet her there for the event. We were near the front of the line and waited patiently there until the appointed time of 10 o'clock, doing our best to hold our own against the shoving of the Venetian matrons who showed up in droves and showed little respect for the concept of waiting in line. When the time arrived to allow people onto the gondolas, we managed to climb aboard one with the three girls, and were handed two Venetian flags to wave. As our new friends tried to explain to us, this was some kind of tourist board-sponsored pro-Venice, anti-motorized boats event. We pulled out into the Grand Canal and then sat there for quite a while, surrounded by dozens of other gondolas. I assumed that this was to be the extent of our free ride, and was content to have had a chance to sit in a gondola. Suddenly, our flotilla began to be joined by other larger gondolas manned by teams of rowers in uniform. Then came two much larger boats rowed by larger teams and carrying what seemed to be important town dignataries. One boat was draped with a huge red banner proclaiming "Rispetto e Decoro per Venezia" (respect and honour for Venice). As these boats pulled past us, our gondoliers all began to paddle, forming one giant procession with the larger boats! We travelled all the way down the Grand Canal to St. Mark's Square. The largest boat had a sound system blasting stirring music such as the "Ode to Joy," alternating with rousing speeches by a man on board and concluding with cries of "Viva Venezia! Viva San Marco!" It was so exciting and moving that I was close to tears. People crowded along the shores and bridges waving and cheering as the "parade" passed. We felt like real celebrities. Wendy and I decided to pretend that this event was, in fact, a belated celebration of our 50th birthdays (mine had just taken a couple of years of extra planning) - and we even got to keep the flags. What a thrill, and it cost us absolutely nothing!

My time in lovely Venice was brief, but so very memorable, and as I took my farewell stroll through the Piazza San Marco later that night, I knew that our departure the next morning would be another one of the sad goodbyes. But Lake Como awaited us at the end of the next train ride - the last hurrah for our month-long Italian tour.