“Does anyone live here?” It’s a common refrain from tourists. More like a Disney park with well-crafted antiquities than a real city, one sees the similarities. No vehicles save for boats passing through canals, miles of paved streets lined with gift shops and cafés. Add the thousands of tourists who flock here and you could be in Epcot.
The buildings are very much real and not facades. The history is rich, once the connecting point for trade with the East before the development of the New World focused on the West. A Republic reigned by an elected council and doge. The Jewish quarter for which the name ghetto was coined and the story for Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It was the home of Titian, Casanova, and Palladio (whose architectural achievements rose in other parts of the Veneto, but not his home town). In the early twentieth century, it was a mecca for artists and collectors like Peggy Guggenheim. It is the home of Murano, the epitome of hand-crafted glass.
Venice hides the new from view. The Fondaco dei Tedeschi, displays along the Grand Canal a facade built in 1508. Inside is a modern shopping arcade with a breathtaking atrium reaching several stories and a rooftop observation area. Even our own apartment hid behind antiquity. You enter a building, hundreds of years old, through an iron gate, down a path to the door for the lobby. Inside, the lobby glows white with a modern lift illuminated in soft blue edges like a movie set for a space film. We took that lift to our second-floor apartment, what we in the US consider the third floor, but in most of Europe, the ground floor is level zero.
The apartments in this building are owned by MyPlace, an American name applied to an Italian company who owns short-term rental apartments in Italy. The company took over, either by ownership or lease, several buildings in Venice and other major cities, then renovated the interiors top to bottom as short-term facilities. MyPlace finished this apartment just a few months before we checked in.
The apartment was roomy, with a kitchen area done in white Ikea style with a small dining area, couch and TV. The bedroom included a whirlpool bath set in a teak platform, and the bath offered plenty of space including a large shower. Traditional accommodations here contain curved tubs, with a shower wand and plastic curtain to contain the spray. It’s nice to have a flat, tiled shower with a glass door.
The most pleasing feature remaining from the old days were the tall glass doors opening onto the Campo Santa Margherita. Were there any question as to whether people live here, it was answered by late afternoon when the campo flooded with children fresh from school their energetic voices filtering through open windows. We felt at home here. Although tourist filtered into this area, the restaurants surrounding the campo and tucked away on small side streets, belonged to the locals.
With that said, even though you might find a restaurant frequented by the populace and raved about as authentic, you may be disappointed. To be sure, there is a long list of Michelin-rated establishments in Venice. But I’ve gotten great food without need for the guide in other parts of the Veneto. Our best meal, and at a low price, was from a middle eastern restaurant on our own Campo.
Few sights are burned indelibly into my memory. Among them are the Grand Canyon, a solar eclipse, and passing by Piazza San Marco through early morning mist aboard a ship. Someone said that entering Venice any other way is like entering a cathedral through a side door. By ship was once the way for all to come into the city and the Piazza with the Doge Palace to one side is the iconic view offered. Today, we use the side door. Trains and cars cross a causeway from the northwest, the opposite side of Venice from San Marco, where they stop upon touching the city, entry forbidden.
Ironically, it is the most modern of transportation, the jet plane, offering the most traditional approach. From Marco Polo Airport, we walked to a pier and took a water taxi across the Launa Veneta, past Murano Island, and into the canal system of Venice. Passing under the lavish Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, the taxi pulled up to a dock and let us off at a vaporetto dock near our apartment. Setting foot on pavement, our time machine had taken us from the jet age to the middle ages. Although denizens of that time did not wheel Samsonite luggage across canal bridges.
Venice was once much larger in population. 150,000 people lived here in the middle 16th century. More as late as the 1930’s. But since World War II, the precipitous decline left little more than 50,000 there today with others commuting in by train to help with the flood of tourist overwhelming that number each day.
Visitors a few years ago complained of the water’s smell. None was detected over the several times I’ve been here and when I looked closely, the water even seemed clear. The city may have a herculean task in standing against the rising sea levels, but they have made the canals cleaner.
In Venice, you tour the Doge Palace (Palazzo Ducale) on Saint Marks Square (Piazza San Marco). We had done so before. So that was a ticket punched. But we returned to take the “secret tour.” This tour took us from the lowest cells in the prison, through the better appointed one of Casanova, and up into the attic where weapons were stored.
We walked back to our apartment. Venice is not that large. Walking from one side to the other is like walking from one side of Manhattan to the other. With the exception that every avenue is a canal crossed by a bridge. We made a point to pass the Teatro La Fenice, the opera house where we had tickets to see Madama Butterfly that night. The theatre occupied an entire Venetian block, meaning there was water on all sides, making it difficult to find the front. I had to estimate which bridges to cross to get there.
Since it was a special night of some elegance, we decided to take a water taxi to the theater. With canals leading right up to the venue, we would arrive in style. However, tides affect travel. After getting the taxi, we found the high tide prevented the operator from taking his sleek motorboat under some of the bridges. We ended up with a costly crossing of the Grand Canal. Were we in a gondola, we could have passed under those bridges. The old way has become the most dependable way.
We took a private tour of Venice led by Elena, a tall young woman with green eyes, an exception to the stereotypical image Americans have of Italians. Yet the exception was everywhere. The Veneto boarders Austria and perhaps that alpine influence explained all the tall people we saw.
Our walking tour ended with a water taxi ride to a glass factory on Murano. The factory floor was furnished with a row of comfortable chairs and couches like a combination of industry and living room. Although a dozen people could sit there, it was just us this time as we witnessed the making of a custom designed vase from beginning to end. In the showroom, I took a fancy to a $12,000 chandelier for our beach house, but sanity returned and we settled for photos.
We walked to the historically Jewish part of town, the original Ghetto, so named by the Italians as ‘geto,’ which means foundry, the location of the quarter. The pronunciation and spelling we now know was the Yiddish treatment of the word.
On a wall in a small piazza, hang iron relief works depicting scenes from the holocaust and opposite that on the other side of the compo was the Jewish museum where you were led to two different rooms serving as temples for many years.
We left the ghetto and wandered the streets. Our mission was to find Venetian masks for a Halloween party. We wanted the theatre masks of comedy and tragedy. Although we saw such masks in several shops, we were after the best price. In a shop we almost passed by, the owner was at work plying his trade in creating new masks. Ellen chatted him up in her best Italian. Although the masks here were the best price we found, the owner took time to adjust the fit and ties for us.
We couldn't leave Venice without taking in art museums. Two of the most important were near us, the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim. The Galleria contained a vast collection of medieval and renaissance works and Peggy’s collection, modern abstract. They were polar ends of the art world. We learned that Peggy bought most of her collection when the Nazi’s threatened France and the artists were holding fire sales before they sought safer territory. What we saw was considered degenerate by the Third Reich, but masterpieces today by the art world.
The terrace of the Peggy Guggenheim opens on the Grand Canal with the statue of a horse carrying a man with an erection saluting passing boats. Besides the erect equine statuary to which women point and share whispered comments with their friends, the terrace offered another interesting feature. It’s the same size and shape of the first floor of the palace on the opposite shore. The rumor goes that the owners intended to duplicate the other palace in mirror fashion, but the soil beneath was found to be too weak. Plans abandoned, Peggy found it to be a great buy and built a less weighty one-level house upon it which is now her museum.
The paved streets of Venice branch into small capillaries from the main arteries favored by visitors. Interesting shops and cafés line those small areas. If you need to get from one main area to another, say from San Marco Piazza to l’Acadamia, wander until you find a main artery defined by the large flow of people. In other words, follow the crowd.
Venice, despite the allusion to a theme park, remains a peaceful refuge. To live away from motor vehicles, the tower of cranes erecting new structures, and emerging into the quiet of life hundreds of years ago, is delightful. Water is a peaceful resource to which humans seek proximity and Venice is paved with water. Although the larger canals are thick with boat traffic, water remains the dominant force, the essence of the city, making it like no other.