Friday, April 8, 2011

Venice Day 1: Welcome to the Sinking City

Friday, April 1

After a quick (partial, more like) recovery, I muscled an early morning flight and weekend getaway to Venice.  Salima, Nicole, and Clara (all from IU) accompanied me as we all set foot in Italy for the first time.  I came with few expectations; I did not even check the weather.  What we experienced was once again a perfectly-executed and care-free weekend of comfortable temperatures and cloudless skies.

We were most interested in observing the character of Venice.  As we discovered, Venice is not only physically decaying, but culturally as well.  High tide floods the central island, forcing residents and tourists to walk on boardwalks.  Government restrictions on building renovation discourage any new construction.  Besides, getting materials for renovation to the island is difficult enough.  That coupled with high real estate prices prevents Venetians from staying and raising families here.  Basic needs are unmet; I saw few banks for instance, and even fewer commercial businesses.  Today only 60,000 people live in Venice, and people leave at a rate of 1,000 per year.  We were lucky to see the city before further decline. 

During the day, Venice seemed to us like an amusement park for adults.  One main people highway directs tourists to all the major sites.  Along the way, stores alternate between food (overpriced sit-down restaurants, gelato, sweets, pizza), and postcard/tourist shops, Venetian masks/memorabilia, etc.  Gondoliers hustle for $100 rides through the sleepy inner canals.  Considering Lara and I had not seen one postcard shop in Basque Country a week earlier, we now entered the one place at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. 

Despite the touristy dominance, we had a promising cultural introduction to Venice.  We exited the bus station and made our way to the hotel.  Nicole had made reservations for a Bed & Breakfast in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice.  Navigating our way there, we passed a rather lively Venetian scene.  We heard Italian being spoken; we saw a local seafood stand with neighborhood patrons.  Yet, we also got our first indication of the Venetian flight.  Buildings looked run down and partly abandoned, like a ghost town. 

Upon dropping off our bags, we funneled into the tourist highway, as it was the sure way not to get lost.  Our natural first stop was Rialto Market.  This area combines the local food and craft markets; and at midday when we arrived it was the center of the action.  Assuming vendors would understand similar Spanish vocabulary more than English, we received warm responses (at times tongue-and-cheek, as if to suggest, "you are in Italy; please do not confuse Italian with that other language," but all in good fun).  When a seafood vendor showed off his shark for us, Clara gasped "tiburón" (Spanish for shark) to which the Italian mocked, "muy bien" in Spanish.  The girls were and continued to be in a shopping frenzy.  Clara was intent on finding the perfect Venetian mask (of which there were many possibilities).

We arrived in little to time to our ultimate destination: St. Mark's Square.  Though we had seen it in pictures, we were immediately awe-struck, especially with the Basilica.  When we arrived some children were playing with pigeons, typical here.  If you have bread the pigeons are quite friendly.  Some tourists like to cover themselves in bread, lay down and have pigeons swarm them for a perfect photo.  However, it is technically illegal to sit down in the expansive square.  Rather, you must stand or pay $20 for a seat and coffee at the famous Florian Cafe.  Knowing we would be taking in the square the whole weekend, we continued on to the St. Mark's Basilica.  

I had expected another version of the Catholic churches I had been seeing in Spain.  I got it wrong with St. Mark's Basilica.  Known as something like "the church of thieves,"  the Basilica steals its design and objects from other cultures.  The style itself is Byzantine, as if this church were built in Constantinople and plopped in Venice.  Venice Merchants stole the bones of St. Mark from Alexandria and put them in Venice's Basilica where they remain today at the altar.  The horses adorning the balcony were stolen from Constantinople as part of the Fourth Crusade.  Inside, gold mosaics (typical of Islam) depict biblical scenes.  The domes themselves borrow from Romanesque architecture.  Together, the church seemed like a hodgepodge of relics.  The level of detail was striking, nothing repeated, all figures and forms unique. 

From the balcony we admired St. Mark's Square and the section that juts out to the sea.  Just before you reach the water, two pillars suggest a grand entrance.  Atop one pillar is the lion of St. Mark; atop the other the former saint of Venice, Theodore.  We read that the space between the two pillars had an interesting history: (1) it was the only place Venetians could gamble, and (2) public executions (burying people alive) took place here.  Clara, being superstitious, insisted that no one walk between the pillars throughout the trip.  The pillars shed light on a new side of Venice.  It had not only been the trade center of Europe, but at the same time, it was the Las Vegas/Sin City as well.  Merchants donned Venetian masks (hence, the tourist shops selling them) to protect their identity as they cheated on their wives at masquerade balls.

Next, we shot up the famous Campanile Bell Tower to admire Venice from above.  Good thing we did this on Friday; there was at least a two hour wait for the view on Saturday (all for the ten minutes of pictures from the tower).  We arrived just in time to see the famous St. Mark's clock tower below at the hour, where bronze men pound a bell. 

We made our way back to the Jewish ghetto to check into our hotel and relax.  On the way, we enjoyed some cheap, but delicious Venetian street food.  I picked up seafood risotto and later some gourmet pizza.  Later that night, our hotel directed us to a nearby bar where Venetians hang out.  There we enjoyed the Venetian drink of choice: Spritz al Aperol (part Aperol, Prosecco (Sparkling wine), soda water). 

For pictures of this day, see "Venice Day 1 - 4-1" at

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