Saturday, April 19, 2014

Venice - A Desert on Water

Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1797

Venice. It's hard to write a self-contained impression that's not as segmented as the city itself. But one thread is common to any experience of Venice, water. Crossing it, gliding along it, and sweating it--water is everywhere. This City of Water is a desert, where all you can think of on a hot day is drinking it.

Monday, August 5th was our last day in the City of Bridges and the first scheduled ship-to-shore excursion from our base on Ruby Princess. After a couple days getting lost on our own, we now followed the more structured agenda of a cruise tour. Following what will become the ritual of waking 14-year-old Tom up, we ate a big breakfast and made our way to the staging area in the Ruby's theater. Strategically-placed staff near the exits hustled bottled water at prices that would make a gas station owner blush just before a summer driving holiday. We brought our own reusable bottles I carried on a hip pack, temporarily filled with water from the ship's tap.

The 4-hour excursion started with a tender ride to Murano Island to see a demonstration of the glass-making that's still important there. There are a number of glassworks. We specifically visited Fornace Estevan Rossetto, which I suspect cut the best deal with the cruise line. Tellingly, our scheduled time in the showroom was longer than the factory tour.

The complex didn't look like much from the outside, but the showrooms were spectacular. I bought some requested adornments in the shop for Stacey, so my major souvenir requirements of the vacation were fulfilled, though I'm sure I could have gotten the same for a better price off St. Mark's square. After seeing the exquisite detail of some pieces and the fine work required, I now understand the value of Venetian Glass. I kept my protruding backpack close to my body with a paranoid determination. 

There was no real pressure, and Tom lingered in the blazingly hot glassworks, while Dad took a short walk around the island and observed a series of other small glassworks. One of the artisans at Fornace Estevan was wearing a Corning Glass t-shirt; apparently there is some espionage in the industry. We watched his colleague shape the molten glass into a horse with a few twists of his pliers. If a piece broke, it was placed back in the glowing gas blast furnace for repair or melted completely. Upon departure Tom said that a Glass Master would be a "good job." If I'd known beforehand he's considering a trade, I could have bought something more expensive from the shop with the college money.

The next part of our excursion was the obligatory Venetian gondola ride. A young woman and her parents filled out our party of six. Her father eyed us three trim males, who looked vaguely like a nuclear family, with some suspicion. That, or he worried we were eyeing up his daughter. But without Stacey to put my clammy arm around, it was more like rafting in a convection oven than romance. The gondolier hastily volunteered he was looking forward to October.

I enjoyed the ride despite the heat. My engineer side appreciated watching the gondoliers navigate a corner traffic jam. There was some animated argument in Italian, waving arms and a few shrugging shoulders, then a sudden, effortless unraveling of the packed boats like a tricky knot that finally, smoothly unties.

Our gondoliere has been doing this for 32 years. When we asked, he flatly stated he "only sings in the shower." Apparently he didn't get the memo when he apprenticed. Dad, who will whistle a show tune tune at the drop of a dime, thankfully did not proxy. That would have reinforced the errant suspicions of our fellow male tourist.

Those little stickers you get for shore excursions are a dead giveaway that you're a cruise tourist.

The city is slowly sinking thanks to plate tectonics and soil compaction due to building and past groundwater pumping. I asked the gondolier the depth of the murky water in the canal. About eight feet. I don't know if we could see down 8 inches. I am amazed there isn't more shoring up of buildings required considering the ceaseless lapping of brackish water at their foundations. An inch of water in my basement for no more than a minute would be a domestic disaster; Venice has endured a slowly rising deluge through centuries. Finished basements are in short supply here.

The seahorse is appropriate. The gondola is, at first glance, an ungainly boat.

Meanwhile, it continued to be brutally hot, but this is a city where sunscreen is almost irrelevant. Unless you travel the wide grand canal or park yourself in a public square, you are just not in the sun enough on the more typically narrow streets and canals. Our gondolier mostly navigated these smaller constricted byways, probably to keep from fainting, and we were largely in shade. However, I began to miss the relative cool of Fornace Estevan's gas furnace. By this time, Tom regretted three over easy eggs and the rest of a huge shipboard breakfast buffet, and he was beginning to wilt in the heat. I made him buck it up. I wasn't carrying two backpacks in an urban broiler. Venice is probably a very holy place in August; Satan has packed up and headed north.

There was a short walk between the gondola and a tender to our next stop. Exactly when most required we passed a public water fountain. The Venetians have a strategic sense of where these are needed, and there are dozens in the city. We refilled our supply while others eyed the fountain suspiciously, clutching their dwindling reserves of tepid water from flimsy bottles they'd purchased at extortion rates on the Ruby. They didn't do their research. Clean, clear water from the fountains is the same as what comes out of the taps.

It's free (except to the taxpayer maybe). It's clean. It's cold. Such water fountains are everywhere in Venice. There's no need for clogging up landfills with millions of cheap plastic bottles.
En route to San Giorgio via tender, we had a good view northwards towards Piazza San Marco, including the Palazzo Ducale (r) and the Campanile (bell tower).

Our last stop for the day was the island of San Giorgio, a short tender across from Saint Mark's. The San Giorgio basilica was coupled with an incongruous contemporary art display featuring an 11 meter tall, inflatable and naked pregnant lady with no arms. I could appreciate that. Inside was a more traditional return to the 16th century. The tour description focused on the island's monastery, but we really only visited the adjacent basilica. Bones from just about every saint were interred in the church it seemed, some of dubious veracity I think. A little tribute to St. Stephen caught my interest, though I unfortunately couldn't read the Hungarian inscription. The main draws of the church were two paintings on opposite recesses in front of the altar, Jacopo Tintoretto's Last Supper and his Fall of the Manna.

The true story behind this inflatable "sculpture" was quite interesting and inspiring. The artist has a friend, herself an artist, who overcame her disabilities to become a mother and raise children. The work honors her at this contemporary art display. Before that I just referred to it as the "giant, no-armed, naked pregnant lady statue."
The basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore is a 16th-century Benedictine church designed by Andrea Palladio, and built between 1566 and 1610.

There is a Hungarian connection to the church, which piqued my curiosity (I'm mostly of Hungarian heritage), but I couldn't decipher it at the time of my visit. Google Translate is a very useful tool that shows how very prescient Star Trek's universal translator was, but much is sometimes lost in translation:

When, however, the foundation of the kingdom of Hungary and frenetic nine centuries celebrated the anniversary, the holy place where the Hungarian nation great apostle, martyr St. GerardBishop of Csanádi first brought up and Dad wore a position of Christianity. 25 September 1900 year, made ​​a pilgrimage to one of his memory, held in festive divine respect and have written this text and replace it tarkeöi DESSEWFFY SANDOR Csanádi Bishop Saint Gerard ir with no successor to the priesthood and heat in káptalanaval

Oh holy Bishop Gerard

Bless our country

We are at home in Hungary

And a holy house

Intervenes ...

God's mercy ...

From what I can tell here, St. Gerard was a good guy. Other sources say he was a Venetian-born bishop and martyr, once prior at San Giorgio, who helped establish Christianity in Hungary.  If anyone can translate this better, it would be appreciated.
This banner doesn't look like it's been cleaned since Pope Pius the VII was commemorated by it in 1800. Though it's in pretty good shape after two centuries of incense.
Another view from San Giorgio towards the main part of Venice.

Upon entering and exiting the church we passed a man begging for money. I never know the right thing to do in that situation, particularly as relatively well-to-do tourist. What does the least harm and most good?

The ship left Venice at about 6:30 pm accompanied by recordings of Pavarotti. I didn't bother getting the perfect camera shot from up high above the city, or of Tom and Dad rail-side. Like a parade, some people had parked in the prime real estate hours before. Every inch of rail was occupied by folks that were not going to budge until we were on open water. And I don't fancy photos of the tops of stranger's heads. But I stayed and watched the city slowly pass by, and as I sipped my cool drink I was a little sad to leave this desert on the water.

What picture book of Venice would be complete without the serene view of the cruise port? You can go there for 1€ by taking the People Mover from Piazzale Roma.

Departing Venice proper, we also had a good view of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where we had visited earlier in the day.

Today we were "at sea," which means wasting gas while idling along the Adriatic. There's little more to say about a day dominated by eating and naps. I did have a tight game of chess with Thomas, who pushed me to the limit until I managed to convert a pawn into a Queen.

Playing chess on the promenade deck of the Ruby Princess.

Tomorrow we berth off of the medieval town of Dubrovnik, Croatia.


Agness Walewinder said...

What a great day! Everything seemed to be planned perfectly. If I ever made it there, I will follow your advice to have as great adventure as you did ! :)

Michael Orobona said...

Thank you Agness. My secret was having a wife who didn't mind planning for a vacation she wouldn't be on! Venice was great. I went there on the fence about visiting and I came back a fan. I'm sure you'll have a great time when you eventually go there.