Walking on water
Part 3 of a 2007 Italian travelogue
by Thor Iverson
A walk through the past
On our last trip to Venice…in fact, on the day of our departure…we met a woman. She was small, and in the States probably would have been uncharitably characterized as “frail”…but her eyes were alive. We were standing at a vaporetto stop, bags in tow, awaiting the slightly depressing trip back to a car that meant noise and diesel and Italian drivers in our future. But for the moment, with no vaporetto in sight, the usual Venetian peace reigned.
Anyway, the woman started talking to us. In flawless English, of course, which seems to be some sort of birthright among Venetians. For she was, in fact, a Venetian. Not from one of the famous merchant-oligarchist families whose names litter the rolls of The Serene Republic’s history, but a Venetian all the same. As she conversed, she revealed how upset she was that she had to join us on the water taxi system. It seemed that, in the course of fleeing a robbery, some inconsiderate lout had knocked her to the ground, necessitating a trip to the hospital where she was advised to limit her walking.
“I’ve walked everywhere since I was a little girl,” she said, resigned and with the barest hint of a pout. “But I’m going to start again as soon as I can.” She was 81.
A walk through the present
And so, rather than buy multi-day passes that allow unlimited vaporetto travel (something we did on our previous trip), we determined that we were going to walk when and where we could on this visit. The problem, of course, is that any path between points A and B in Venice is, unless those points are one of about four major landmarks, impossible to navigate without an excellent map and frequent stops for repositioning. Which can make a simple-seeming stroll a rather time-consuming slog, especially when one approaches the teeming throngs of San Marco or Rialto. On the other hand, a dedicated vaporetto rider probably saves little or no time between waiting for boats, waiting on boats, and the necessary walking to and from stops (which aren’t all that easy to find without a map, either).
But what finally decides the argument in favor of walking is that street-level Venice is something that really cannot be missed. Just as visitors to New Zealand must be counseled to get in their cars (or on their hiking boot-clad feet) and do the long journeys themselves, because the country’s majestic scenery cannot be properly enjoyed without frequent stops that aren’t possible in a packed tourist coach, so too must visitors to Venice be reminded that despite the innumerable great sights and remarkable historical venues, the supreme quality of Venice is the city itself, from narrow blocks to jagged courtyards, from angled bridges to quiet canals, from hidden paintings to back-alley produce stalls. Tourists who hop the most efficient routes between a half-dozen must-see monuments, pausing only to buy a mask or some (Chinese knockoff) glass on either side of a cheap storefront slice of pizza miss everything that makes Venice so compelling. Add in the sometimes problematic dining situation, and it’s no wonder so many tourists have a skeptical view of the place. Well, their loss.
And so, today, we walk. And walk. And walk.
The rhythm of the past
Venice is Venice, true, but Venice is also Italy, and that means unreliable adherence to schedule. Which is why we’re not even a little bit surprised to find our first destination – San Giorgio dei Greci, with its precariously-leaning campanile – closed, despite its posted hours. For how long? Well, we’re not waiting around to find out. (Unfortunately, we don’t get back. Another time? Almost certainly.)
The Campo Santa Maria Formosa and its artwork-laden church (though in Venice, pretty much all of them are covered floor to ceiling in surprisingly terrific artwork; Napoleon clearly didn’t cart off as much as he could have) is a gentle introduction to the day’s sights, and we find ourselves wandering towards the Piazza San Marco for no good reason. It is, of course, packed to its rather expansive gills, with the usual press and queue at the major landmarks. Getting out and away is not as problem-free as it should be, because stopping for a glance at a map in Venice’s bustling alleys is not always the easiest thing, but we finally manage to escape.
For a while, we’d thought our GPS’s pedestrian mode might save us from repetitive map-gazing. No such luck, for three reasons. First, it can only tell us where we are, not where whatever we’re looking for is. Second, it can’t reliably tell us where we’re going, because it’s over-sensitive to physical alignment and given to frequent dizzy-making rotations of its onscreen map, making it tough when its street names and Venice’s don’t match (which is most of the time). And third, it can’t even tell us where we are, because the city’s overhanging buildings and microscopic byways mean that it only sporadically receives a satellite signal. So much for technology.
In the broad, sunny courtyard facing the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, we stop for restorative gelati (hey, we’re on vacation, and we’ve been walking), admiring the brilliant swaths of marble on the nearby Scuola Grande di San Marco before entering the church itself. Inside is a beautiful combination of Gothic and seafaring, with a hodgepodge of artwork and monuments to doges (not to mention a triumphant ceiling) completed by major Venetian artists. From there it’s on to San Zaccaria and the exterior of the restored La Fenice.
But for the rest of the day, in between the places with a name and an entry in most guidebooks, we just walk, reminding ourselves of everything that we love about Venice. It’s a city (and yes, it’s preserved in amber; and yes, a decaying memory of fading glory; and yes, overrun with tourists), but its rhythms are unlike that of any other city in our experience, and it takes a while to get used to them. The only solution is to live them, which is one of the reasons we’ve rented an apartment.
The rhythm of the present
One of the rhythms that requires some adjustment is that of dinner. Italians eat late, but consumerist Venice and tourist Venice shutter early, so unless one is chasing shadows there’s not much to do in the early evening other than eat.
And so, back at the apartment, I attempt to wrest some flavor out of a few pieces of too-lean beef (Venice, despite its reputation and its excellent seafood, has a rich, land-based traditional cuisine that is, according to some, more authentic than its better-known piscatorial dishes). It’s a lost cause, because there’s just no fat in the meat, but thankfully tiny zucchini from the Veneto and pillowy pumpkin gnocchi (slathered in rich butter and a few herbs) more than make up for it.
Angoris “Vôs da Vigne” 2005 Colli Orientali del Friuli Schioppettino Stabili della Rocca (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – I figure that if one must drink cheap supermarket wine, why not go for something unusual that at least has a chance of being interesting? Unfortunately, that chance is lost here. The wine’s simple, with crispy dark fruit and a not inconsiderable bite (that briefly softens to a light prickle on the midpalate, but roars back into tart life on the finish). It’s definitely not generous, nor is it particularly good, but it is eminently drinkable as long as one has food sufficiently flavorful to mask the spiky acidity.
After dinner, we rest our feet. And tomorrow? More walking, of course.
Copyright © Thor Iverson