Sunday, April 13, 2014

Getting Lost in Venice

After seeming months of logistical preparation by my wife Stacey, I was finally embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime cruise on the eastern Mediterranean with my father and eldest son Thomas, book-ended by visits to Venice and Rome. Stacey's reward was two stress-free weeks without me agitating over something.

We wait in Frankfurt for the flight to Venice. The terminal at Frankfurt instantly made my list of the 5 most idiotic airports, defying common sense at every turn. And there were lots of turns. Of particular interest were the glass-enclosed (but leaky) smoking areas filled with a blue haze.

After a short flight on Lufthansa, a hop over the alps from Frankfurt's labyrinthine terminal, we arrived at Leonardo da Vinci airport about 1 pm on Saturday, August 3. After a long wait for our baggage in the hot, stuffy terminal, logistics thereafter proceeded like clockwork. We'd heard from close family who had just visited that it's impossible to find a free city map in Italy, so we recycled one we'd found trampled next to the luggage carousel. Departing the terminal, we took a sweat-inducing walk to the Alilaguna ferry service, located essentially at one end of the airport, and picked up pre-purchased one-way tickets for €14 each (€15 at the counter), which came with a complimentary map. After a 10 minute wait for the next ferry (they depart every 15 minutes) we were on our way to Hotel Ala, making several stops along Venice's grand canal over the next hour.

Venice's grand canal from the Alilaguna

Tom and Dad plan out the day on the Alilaguna (water taxi) from the airport on the way to Santa Maria del Giglio and our hotel.

It was sweltering in the cabin. The enclosed space, designed to keep the water of the canal from splashing on the passengers, only prevented the brackish canal water from diluting my sweat, which was sloshing around with that of other dripping passengers on the cabin floor. I hoped the mate was ready to bail if necessary. If we'd been at a spa, we would have only paid for the cleansing detox; the Alilaguna sauna came with transportation included. Still, like a kid for whom the airport bus is the highlight of an all-expenses vacation, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride and our slow introduction to Venice.

The linea arancio (orange line) Alilaguna route took about an hour to reach our destination at the end of the line. Our stop was at Santa Maria del Giglio, maybe 150 meters from the Best Western Hotel Ala. After the crowded boat, an air conditioned hotel was a relief. We took short naps and freshened up from two international flights and the floating oven before venturing further afield. Exiting the hotel, we picked up an additional complimentary city map from the concierge.

Hotel Ala.

An overnight flight can set your body to "exhausted" at the onset of a vacation. A quick catnap can help.

I arrived in Venice with low expectations and was soon converted to an enthusiast. It's the kind of place that could take a lifetime to know every corner, but needs only a day to build a reasonable appreciation.

By this time it was early evening, maybe 6:00 pm, and the heat had dissipated to mere broiling level. Following an initial reconnoiter, we had 7:00 pm dinner at the nearby Ristorante da Raffaele. The occasional serenading gondolier glided past our outdoor table facing the Canale delle Ostreghe, while I enjoyed an excellent gnocchi. Thomas had his first Italian pizza, margherita-style. We then peeked into a church that's already blended with several others in my memory and made our way to the famous Piazza San Marco at sunset.

Ristorante da Raffaele. Thomas ate, surprise, pizza. I had gnocchi. Dad had a porkchop.

It was much busier later on in the evening, the more traditional dinner time in Europe.

English is prevalent everywhere in Venice; it may be the official language. I did not need to rely on any standby Italian phrases beyond "mi scusi" and "buona sera" throughout our visit. The locals looked puzzled when I dusted off my rusty beginner's Italian; maybe they needed a translation. I almost felt like a cheat. Even the menus are multilingual -- at least where we went anyway. It seems the only places you won't hear or see English anymore are Quebec and American mass transit.

But Piazza San Marco is the heart of the city. Here, you realize that though Venice may cater to the tourists, it was not made for them. Here is the spiritual and administrative center of the historic republic. The atmosphere is one that encourages lingering, not moving on. A large open plaza would be considered "wasted space" by today's standards and the quality of the building materials "overkill." But I don't think the commercial stadiums and arenas we build to bring people together today will have near the same permanence. Chamber musicians entertain patrons of open-air cafés, couples wander and talk, laughter drifts over the air.

Standing in the Piazza San Marco is the Campanile, or bell tower, of St Mark's church, rebuilt in 1912 after collapsing in 1902. The current tower does have a slight list, but what's seen in this image is mainly an optical effect. Venice isn't particularly built on terra firma, so it's easy to conceive how seismic events wreak havoc.

The Byzantine-style Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco, the Chiesa d'Oro (Church of gold).

Sunset brought only a slight decrease in temperature. I didn't complain. It could have been a Minnesota winter.

Dinner and a show.

We loitered for a time in San Marco, admired the Campanile (bell tower), dodged vendors of "pigeon food" (white rice) and cheap Chinese toys and took some pictures by the waterfront until dusk. Then we ate a gelato just off the square and slowly wandered a maze of back alleys all the way back to the hotel. There are innumerable twists, turns and dead ends if you don't know where you're going, but it is somehow easy to keep a sense of direction in Venice, and the city doesn't cover enough area to really risk getting lost. Dad forgot his reading lenses, and I need them, so map reading was a challenge under the film noire street lamps, but we were back to the room by around 10:30 pm. I gave Stacey a quick FaceTime call, and my lids were drooping by the end of it. I slept like the dead. Happily, that wasn't a permanent condition.

Eating dessert, Thomas contemplates a second dinner. Not all hobbits are round.

The first of many, many gelatos we consumed over two weeks. You had to eat them quickly in the heat.

Thomas would not wake before 10 am if left to his own devices. And for our body clocks that was long after lunch local time. It took a while to bring him to on Sunday morning, and a 6-foot fourteen-year-older is difficult to physically pull out of bed, but I wanted to get some touring done. Breakfast at the hotel was a surprisingly American-style buffet. Normally I'd prefer something more continental, but after the long travel and with a full day ahead I needed the fuel.

After breakfast we returned to Saint Mark's square, where we toured the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) and adjoining prisons across the "Bridge of Sighs." I've read complaints about the long wait in line, and the line was tremendous at the front (western) side of the palace, but we went around to the south entrance and got right in. It continued to be hot, but the large open rooms of the palace gave some sliver of comfort, and the somewhat smaller, damp and dark prison cells were cooler still. Those condemned wereapparently the lucky ones in summers past.

The Venetian gothic-style Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale), residence of the Doge, the elected leader of the Republic of Venice. Much of the legal and administrative business of the republic was conducted in this building. Entry fees were €16 for adults and €10 for school-aged children. There are also family rates.

The Bridge of Sighs links the Doge’s Palace to the New Prisons. The name of the bridge dates from the 19th century English romantic poet Lord Byron, referring to the supposed sighs of prisoners seeing the last light of freedom before entering the prisons forever. It was built after the secret condemnations though, so it's a romantic misnomer. But don't let reality get in the way of a good story.

The Giants’ Staircase is topped by Sansovino’s statues of Mars and Neptune.

The audio self-guide was worth the extra five euros each. Thomas is backed by the courtyard of the palace; the Giant's Staircase is beyond his left shoulder.

The new prison across the canal from the Doge's palace, built for a lighter, more pleasant prison experience.

It was worth 55€ for the tickets and audio self-guides between the three of us. For some reason the detailed woodwork--doors and benches--really brought the history to life for me. I pictured some Doge plotting in the same corner where Thomas sat nearby the chamber of the Council of Three, and I wondered how many times history makers had run their hands along the same wall before passing through a doorway, or reached within the same lion's mouth. Some has changed in five centuries or more, but enough remains the same that would ground a time traveler from the past in reality. The ghost of the last Doge may still be able to find his chewing gum under some bench.

It's hot in here too. Thomas has the face of one of the condemned, facing the wrath of the Council in the "Chamber of the Council of Ten." After three hours in the baking palace, a teenager used to sleeping-in will be hinting for a break.

The golden staircase near the Doge's apartments. A small amount of malleable gold can be beat to cover a tremendous surface area, so I wondered if this even represented much more than an ounce.

Dad at a "Lion's Mouth" (bocca di leone) postbox for anonymous denunciations at the Doge's Palace, just outside the Compass Room. This wasn't the kind of ballot box you'd want your name put into.

There were many impressive paintings throughout the palace, especially by Tintoretto, but like Mark Twain I was not held in rapture by works of the old masters, their obvious great skill aside. Centuries of soot have dulled the luster of what were largely just high-end political cartoons promoting the serene republic. But the darkened canvases did seem appropriate to the history of the place. Contrast that with the gilded opulence of the golden staircase. Thomas was particularly interested in the armory, but the enormity of the collection there was overwhelming. After the first gasp of appreciation, all I could think was there's just another sword or lance. The suits of armor made me realize just how stunted our medieval ancestors were before modern medicine and growth hormones in our nutrition.

All told we spent about three hours at the Palazzo Ducale, including about twenty minutes finding our way out of the maze of prisons to the exit, before we headed back to the hotel. I could easily have spent all day at the museum. We checked out of the Ala just before noon. Dad kept whistling a feedback loop of "Arrividerci a Roma" while we settled accounts at the hotel desk. The clerk had a pained expression.

Early Sunday afternoon was spent boarding the Ruby Princess, which was a quick and uneventful process, if a bit hot. For 8€ each, we took another Alilaguna ferry from San Marco direct to the cruise port on linea blue; a breeze through the open windows of the cabin kept it bearable while the boat was moving. This time we didn't pick up a complimentary city map.

Getting ready to board another Alilaguna water taxi to the cruise port.

We familiarize ourselves with our new accommodations aboard the Ruby Princess. We had two little beds and a pull-down cot from the ceiling for Dad.

The first thing I noticed on Ruby's embarkation line was the distinct shortage of personal scooters, tattoos and morbidly obese people compared to a Carnival cruise I took out of Miami a few months previous. This was going to be a more active itinerary, but with an older clientele. Almost all the excursions we researched before our trip stressed a lot of walking, uneven ground, and the need for good footwear.

But for now, the boat was just our hotel for another night in Venice. In the later afternoon Dad swam in one of the shipboard pools while Tom and I took the "People Mover" tram from the cruise port to Piazzale Roma on the west side of the city for one Euro each. This time we very efficiently--though with no set destination--navigated along the grand canal and back alleys to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, where we had some time for quiet reflection and a quick thanks for safe travel before heading back to the boat. It was an impressive gothic structure, though we'll see bigger on this trip. The pyramidal monument to Canova particularly caught my attention. The famous sculptor's heart is kept there in a tomb he originally designed for the late Renaissance painter Titian, who is interred elsewhere in the church. The balance of Canova's remains are laid to rest in his hometown, fairly far to the north by pre-twentieth century standards. It's a bit of an undertaker's soap opera.

Thomas on the "People Mover", for the short tram to Piazzale Roma. The one-way ticket price for a couple minute ride is 1€.

A nice church where we caught a quiet moment. The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, usually just called the Frari. This is one of the major churches of Venice.

Monument to Antonio Canova in the Frari, originally designed land sculpted by Canova for the tomb of Titian. It contains the sculptor's heart.

We headed back, stopping frequently to take mood photos using shadows from the low afternoon sun. No map was necessary by now; we navigated with our senses. Tom was tired out after dinner, so only Dad and I went to the evening shipboard performance by the Venice Chamber Orchestra. Each of the two cellists spent much of the time trying to outperform the other or elicit a laugh from his partner, which added to the entertainment. It was a pleasant end to a full day in Venice.

Lions are the symbol of Venice. And we saw this influence throughout the Adriatic and the Aegean.

Coming next, we sweat through another day in Venice and "set sail."