The Floating City

The second leg of our intensive sightseeing trip with Melissa’s mother (May 3-9) took us to Venice, which Melissa had visited before but was new to the rest of us. As in Rome, we rented an apartment in a central, residential part of the city and did our best to live like locals for a week.

Venice seems so improbable, but at the same time familiar and cliched, that it doesn’t quite feel real at first. But there truly are gondolas in the canals and water lapping the steps of great, square, arched-windowed palazzos. The quiet of the narrow alleys, the small canals bending out of sight like side streets, and the ever-present salty, fishy smell of the sea gradually sink in until your brain accepts that this place actually exists. It really does look like a Canaletto painting or a Singer-Sargent watercolor.

We had some magic moments during our time in Venice. One that stands out is attending Sunday morning mass in San Marco (St. Mark’s) cathedral under the domes of gold mosaic saints. With head bowed and eyes on the swirling inlay patterns of the marble floor, you couldn’t help but wonder how many people had stood on the same spot to pray over the centuries.

After the service, the congregation shuffled toward the door in that familiar quiet, post-church mood, but then the familiarity ended. We emerged into the blinding white light and colonnades of the huge, grand St. Mark’s piazza (happy, for a few moments, to have escaped the throngs of badly dressed tourists waiting to get in).

Another memorable moment was shopping in the Rialto market. There’s something so cool about buying groceries in a place that’s been selling them for 900 years. Early each morning, boats pull up to the covered market area near the Rialto Bridge and unload crates of flowers, fruits, and vegetables (from the garden islands of the Venice Lagoon and farther away).

One side of the market is devoted to fish stalls, which are slightly gross and also kind of fascinating. Men behind the ice-covered counters use big cleavers to cut hunks out of whole fish for waiting Venetian housewives. We saw eels, octopuses, translucent squid, huge swordfish, still-alive tiny brine shrimp from the lagoon, bright red tuna—and that’s just the ones we could identify.

By the afternoon, everything in the market had been packed away or swept up, and trash barges were taking away the garbage. But even late at night, if you walk through the empty market buildings, the smell of fish hangs in the air. After so many centuries, it has probably permeated the stones and timbers.

At the insistence of Melissa’s mother, who was determined to make her visit to Venice a once-in-a-lifetime trip, we took a gondola ride one evening through smaller canals off the Grand Canal. Even though it’s hideously overpriced and as touristy as can be, gliding through the water just a few inches above the surface offers a wonderful new perspective on the palazzos, houses, and bridges of the city—the perspective that people were meant to view them from. Just like the #110 tour bus in Rome, it was worth paying a lot to see the city from another angle.

People talk about Venice as an empty shell, with few residents and no life outside tourism. But by spending nearly a week in a residential district and wandering all over the city, we were able to see the living, breathing Venice: barges delivering construction materials to buildings being renovated, the FedEx boat making deliveries, grannies buying their morning pastries, little kids kicking soccer balls in the campos (plazas), older children commuting to school on the vaporetti (water buses), bakers and grocers and printers and boatmen at work, everyone hanging their laundry out to dry.

When you have the time and inclination to wander away from the train station, Rialto Bridge, or St. Mark’s plaza, glimpses of the real Venice aren’t so hard to find. What a magical, unique, and very genuine place.

Oh, and best of all, Melissa’s sprained ankle is finally back to normal. She left her crutch behind for good!

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