Tango in Venice: Canals and Naked Doges

Ada and I woke up around 6:30 on the morning of September 3rd to go to the bus station. I had done laundry the night before (simpler than the shower) and had hung it all out to dry, and as I gathered it up to pack I was treated to a wonderful view of Florence in the early morning light. Unfortunately I was also treated to a few items of clothing that had not dried and discovered that there had been a light rain. After briefly considering drying them out on the stove, I packed them in the waterproof shoe pouch on my backpack and we struck out for the train. As we walked through the city streets, past the Baptistry of St John with its golden doors and through streets wide and narrow, we got to witness the unloading of trucks, filled with supplies for restaurants, shops and gelaterias. Which went a long way to seperate the authentic from the tourist shops. While we saw great casks of gelato being delivered to some establishments, others had crates of fruit being delivered. If you want to find good gelato, walk around the city at about 7:15!

We made it to the train station to find two suprises, one exciting and one more than a little bit unfortunate. The good news was that there were 2nd class tickets that cost half of what we were quoted online. Unfortunately all the tickets were sold out and we couldn’t get another train for several hours. This was terrible, not only since we had deprived ourselves of sleep! I had wanted to have the day to move into the hostel and get to do some serious exploring around the city. It was time to get tricky. Ada had heard that sometimes they sold tickets to stand between the cars of the train. Not the most comfortable, but we would get there. We went up to the desk and inquired whether this would be possible. No, they were not selling these for this particular train. Time to pull out the big guns. “But if we don’t make this train we will miss our flight!” Attention gotten, there is a conference behind the bulletproof divider. After all people have been conferred with we have an answer. “You can buy at ticket for bologna, get on the train, and then tell the conductor that you really need to go to Venice. He will fine you eight euros each for getting the wrong ticket, but can switch your ticket to Venice if you pay the difference (plus the eight euros)” Talk about strange roundabout bureaucracies! Needless to say we jumped on this opportunity and soon found ourselves speeding our way towards “Bologna” (well, I guess we were, in direction, though not intent). The conductor was able to switch our tickets as promised, though I spent much of the journey sitting in a luggage rack. This was not that bad, seeing that everyone else was in confusion about their seats too. The italian trains have assigned seats for some trains and not for others. This leads some people to just sit in random seats by mistake. Usually the other people whose seats those are are too polite to say anything, so they just find other seats that are free. This isn’t a problem until several stations down when the train starts to fill up. Then someone shows up to find their seat taken, with no other seats, and tries to claim it. The person sitting their points to where their seat should be, that person points to another person, and so on. Then everyone gets up and starts shuffling around except one little lady who insists that she is staying put, and everyone has to reconfigure and everyone finally works out a system that is ok…and then we arrive at the next stop. We feasted on figs, peaches, cold cuts, cheese, and red currents as we sat on our luggage rack on top of bags and papers. The intercom interrupted us every half hour or so to announce that up in first class they were having a meal with sparkling wine!  The announcement had a british female voice and you would have thought that this meal was being served on golden plates by trained dolphins from the tone she said it in. We arrived to Venice via a giant bridge and emerged from the train station to the edge of a canal.

Venice, as I am sure you already know, is built on a giant lagoon. It was started by a bunch of people who basically wanted out of the wars and various issues that were going on in italy and decided, “ok, so we are going to go in a boat out to the middle of this lagoon, and try to build houses there.” So they took some pylons and drove them into the lagoon way out in the middle (WAY out in the middle) and built houses on them. And then other folks came along and decided to join them. and before to long they were building bigger buildings and churches and shops and even a friggin’ park. And people came to trade from all over. And since they were so far out and had a good navy, they really didn’t need to worry too much about anyone attacking them, so they grew rich. This drew more merchants who made them more rich but also created a blend of more cultures which made other Europeans suspicious. I mean really, who hangs out with easterners anyway? Plus, the Venicians were terribly immoral and this sort of pissed off all the chuchfolk. Fun story on that note: At one point prostitutes accounted for over 10% of the cities population. They were suffering, however, being put out of buisness by, who else, male prostitues. So a prominent figure in the city advocated that in order to promote heterosexuality, female whores should be allowed to “display their wares” topless in their windows. Oh, did i say prominent figure? I meant the bishop. Anyway, this was made the law, so male prostitutes decided to do the same, and went about topless in their windows too. So as not to be punished for homosexuality (The punishment was the old belt and suspenders trick, hanging and Then burning at the stake) they wore masks. This was because the law also stated that anyone wearing a mask could not be arrested for a crime unless it was violent or causing damage because they were obviously just “playacting.”

Typical Venetian Debauch, In this case by the Doges

Oy, what a city! Eventually a bunch of the mainlanders led by the Pope decided that this whole Venice thing had gone too far. And by a bunch I mean the papal states, France, Italy, the Holy Roman Empire, and various other italian groups. They took over all of the land empire of Venice, go to the lagoon and stood on the edge of the lagoon shooting canonballs that plopped into the water. I assume during this time the Venicians were standing topless in their windows and thumbing their noses at the landlubbers.  Some time passed and now they have cruiseships and bad gelato and more masks than you can count and the thing is basically the most beautiful and unique city ever. Oh, and they got gondolas in there somewhere. They even have police boats, which are sort of funny to see go flashing along the river. “I bet the motorcycle cops are on jet-skis!” I joked.

We got our tickets for the vapporetto (water taxi), find our line and sail (putput) down the canal to find our hostel. PROTIPVENICE: If you are under 25 ask for the 72 hour student pass. They will make you buy a 3 Euro guide book, but then you can buy an all you can eat vapporetto ticket for 18 euros. Not bad when they are 6.50 a pop! Cruising down the canal, I realized that this might be one of the only places where I would be in danger of filling up my camara. Everything screams out “Pick me!! Take a picture of ME!! I”M SO PRETTY!” Passing gondolas and bridges, little water alleys that are lost between buildings where there are houses and shops you cannot reach without a boat, we made our way via the grand canal. I think one thing that amazed me more than anything was the houses that opened their doors directly onto the water. Something about this just shocked me, it was so out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until we had been on the boat for nearly 45 minutes when I brought up the fact that I suspected we weren’t on the right boat. Not that I minded, there are worse things to do that see Venice from the canals, but we did want to go to the hostel. We managed to figure out where we went wrong and made it safely to the Ostello Venezia, a rather huge, boring hostel that cost less than half of any other place in the city. After dropping our stuff, hanging my clothes out to dry and going through the ridiculous process of reserving a second night (“no, we can’t reserve you a room, you have to do that online” “but we are right here!” “I can sell you an hour of internet if you want” “GAAHHHH!”) we set out to see the city. We went by the approach that the smaller the ally, the more interesting things it probably led to. Ada was on a quest to find masks, and so I wandered up and down side streets while she explored mask shops. I would check back on occasion to make sure she wasn’t being too debaucherous (so i wouldn’t get lost) and together we discovered lots of the city. We visited the remains of St. Mark, who the Venetians stole from Alexandria by wrapping his body up and then smearing it all over with pork. The muslims, not allowed to touch pork, basically couldn’t do anything. They also stole basically everything else that they could find to build St. Mark’s Basilica. The place is beautiful, covered in precious stones and mosaics, with added mosaics depicting how they stole the first mosaics. Inside, there is no photography, which is universally ignored by all.

The purple colums in the picture above are made from porphyry, the most valuable rock at the time. The romans had mined it, but with the fall of the roman empire, the mine’s location, along with the tools to cut it (it was super hard! were lost. From that point on everyone else just used porphyry that they looted from other places in the shapes it had been before. In Florence, there are two columns outside St. John’s Baptistry of unequal hight. They didn’t know how to cut it, so they had just put them up outside with nothing on top because it was such a display of wealth.  \

 

Anyway, we continued on, seeing modern art, strange window displays and lots of tourists.

There are only 60,000 residents of the city (one of the reasons I couldn’t find couchsurfing) and so the hustle and bustle along with the whole economy is tourism. No finer window shopping is found anywhere. Perhaps I should say, no stranger window shopping is found anywhere. There were thousands of shops selling masks, hundreds of gelaterias (although only one company supplying them, yuck!) countless gondola stands and jewelry shops, and places selling overpriced food and drink, but there were also hidden gems(?) with strange items that forced you to pause, wonder, and then go “what the heck is that!” True to much of italy, the shops operated on an…interesting timetable.

Italian approach to shopkeeping

We had dinner that night in a restaurant known for its pizza and beer. One could order such delicacies as horse meat pizza, but we opted for a more traditional approach with pizza capricossa and a delicious pizza of thin sliced raw beef with balsamic and rocket (British win this one for naming awesomeness!) We spent that evening riding around on vaperettos and seeing Venice all lit up! What an amazing sight, and how different than during the day! The city is still just as packed with people pouring across the little bridges that serve as the only way to cross the canals. There is only one bridge that joins the two main islands, which makes it quite the focal point at night. There are tons of boats and shops and restaurants around it (well, where aren’t there) and walking across at night is an experience not to be missed. Anyone planning a trip to Venice, make sure you stay for the night! The watertaxis run 24/7 but be warned that they sometimes get irregular in the late evening. One night I had to wait for an hour and a quarter to get one back to Guidecca. Oh yeah, forgot to explain this bit. The city is several islands, some with stories. The most famous island is probably Murano, which was forbidden to outsiders because that is where they made glass (trade secrets). The city had moved all the glass making there because it kept catching things on fire which would then burn down the whole city. This way it would only burn down a small island. The glass makers were exempt from most laws and were totally pampered and loved except one thing. They weren’t allowed to leave and if they did they got their hands chopped off. Sorry! Anyhow, Guidecca was the jewish ghetto and was where we were staying. Back to the story. 

We listened to the various bands playing music outside different restaraunts until it was definitely past time to go to sleep. I stayed up a little bit chatting with hostel folks, but it had been a very long day (remember how early this day started. Yes, way back at the top of the page!)  and I fell into the lower half of the bunk bed rather quickly, curled up in my big purple silk sleep sack and went to sleep. Oh, we also saw monks on the boat. Makes my life better. For some reason monks doing regular things like taking pictures, carrying a backpack and going around on public transportation is strange in my mind. Sort of awesome though.

So! The next day turned out to be the day of the grand regatta along the canal which was to start at 1:00. There were going to be races, along with historical reenactments in boats! Needless to say, we were both rather excited and staked out our spot along the side of the river rather early. There were chairs for sale and even a floating set of bleacher, but we were content with our stoney steps. We had bought some food from the most stupidly arranged supermarket (food and culture anyone?) ever and some figs from the farmers market nearby and sat down to wait. I am going to pause for a moment to rave about how italian figs are the most delicious things ever and I want to eat them always. Unpause an hour and a half later and we have decided that the regatta certainly is not starting when we thought it was. We decide to start wandering again, and get to see such oddities as this house, originally designed to fit in a small ally, but the other houses around it were torn down. The owners, in a display of wealth/compensation for their small house decided to build a big yard.

 

No, just kidding, it was an art installation. But pretty cool and furnished inside too, though we couldn’t actually enter. After several mask shops, lots of figs, finishing the rest of our picnic we made it back to our spot to find the whole place packed with people. We struggled and pushed (in the typical italian style) to the front and found that there were some steps that were free because they were occasionally soaked by a wave. This is an interesting development in the recent past, since Venice is sinking. This is sort of a strange concept to think about, but you can see it everywhere. There are bridges that you can no longer fit underneath because the arch has become too low. This has been happening forever, and they used to just build new stories on top of buildings and let the old ones sink, but now there are “Historically Important Things” that need saving and everyone is sort of in a panic about it. Anyway. we decided that the wet steps were ok and sat down to watch the parade that started the regatta. We heard the music coming around the curve in the canal and then we saw them! Remember what I said about cops on jet-skies? 

Is it just me or is that super-exciting? Anyway the best part was yet to come, as barges and gondolas in historical paint and rowed by people in period outfits came next, with drummers and musicians and even some monks and nuns throwing fruit to the people on the shore into the canal.

One warning about Venice. If you think you have a bad sense of direction, you will get incredibly lost in Venice. If you have a good sense of direction, you will get just as lost. It is the most impossible city to navigate in I have ever encountered, the little alleys, tunnels, and deadends confuse even the locals. I found this out the hard way as I we tried to navigate to a milonga. I had met a french girl at the hostel earlier and agreed to take here tangoing. Luckily she was even more lost than me, so I arrived first to find a beatiful dance going on on the roof of a building. It was threatening rain and there was lightning flashing all around us, which made for one of the most picturesque spots to dance I have seen yet!

I got a call from Soraya and her friend, who had made it to a nearby vapperetto stop but were lost. I managed to go get them and make my way back to the dance without getting lost. They followed behind, not quite beliving that I wasn’t totally lost or taking them somewhere to be mugged, but when I brought them up to the hall, their mouths dropped open with amazment. Soraya’s friend had been bitten by a mesquito the day before which left her limping (I know?) but I gave a brief lesson to Soraya.

They had to head back, and I finished out the rest of the milonga before going to meet them and an italian friend of theirs. We all headed back to the hostel, where they convinced me to play banjo. We weren’t allowed to play banjo near the hostel (apparently the police had been cracking down on noise) but we went along the canal and I played while we all chatted with each other and two finnish filmmakers. 

Check back next time for adventures in Basque country!

Also, check out my Map and In the News tabs on the right hand side!

[Addition to my Florence post: I tried to busk, got shut down in 10 mins, but made four euros. Man, I wish that was allowed!]

Chao!

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About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at JeremyCarterGordon.com
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One Response to Tango in Venice: Canals and Naked Doges

  1. Heather Gladstone says:

    Hey friend, I can’t believe you’ve already been in two news articles – soooo cool. And I’m still reading about your trip and totally jealous. Missing you! Sending love!

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