As reluctant as I am to use the adjective crazy, it is the one that immediately comes to mind when I think of our arrival in Venice. The crazy boat traffic in the Grand Canal – the gondolas, the motoscafi, the vaporetti and traghetti. The crush of crazy tourists in the Sestiere di San Marco and lining the Ponte di Rialto. The completely crazy notion of building an entire city upon soft, marshy islands in the first place – its foundation consisting of tens of thousands of long wooden poles driven deep into the mud, topped with slabs of water-impervious marble … materials that had to be hauled in from crazy distances, far, far away, centuries ago. The crazy labyrinth of canals and calli, the countless bridges, the water entrances into nearly every building…
And the crazy, crazy, exquisite beauty of it all.
When we first arrived and stepped out of our motoscafi onto the damp stairs of the water entrance into our hotel, I wasn’t really sure if I could love La Serenessima … a name she was given long ago, the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Upon introduction, she seemed anything but serene. Far too many tourists, too many pushcarts of made-in-China Venetian masks, glass trinkets, tee shirts and souvenirs. The obscenely over-priced designer district – a parade of Versace to Valentino. And even the excess of clichés everywhere I turned – from the singing gondolieri, to the striped mooring posts along every canal, to the crumbling decay of layers of plaster upon brick.
I own a book with some of Canaletto’s magnificent works, and this just looked too much like I had stepped into one of his paintings – and (except for the tourist trappings) so largely unchanged from what he captured in the 1700’s to be believable. It felt more like an artfully crafted movie set than reality.
But then you wander out, away – well away from the crowds and noise and gondolieri. You discover that maps are useless in this place. You find yourself in an empty calle, light filtering down against honey-colored walls. You hear what sounds like an opera singer in the midst of a lesson – a soprano’s scales – from a shuttered window just overhead.
You are finally alone. Away from the tourists, you can breath again – and you begin to see and hear her.
A couple passes by in quiet conversation. Children with books walk home from school. The inflection in their voices, their words, are their own form of music. The most beautiful language… la bella lingua. It truly is.
You get lost crossing small bridges, tiny canals, and puzzle through small crooked calli – some of these small corridors are barely a shoulder’s-width across. Pieces of laundry hang to dry, like a dare, above the green water of a narrow canal.
You stop in the small empty shop of a book binder, eyes drawn to the exquisite hand-bound leather books and journals that line the wooden shelves. And you enjoy an unexpected and smiling conversation with the proprietor – part English, part Italian, heavy with gesture – about books, dip pens and fine Fabriano paper. And also about Elvis… when he learns you are from Tennessee.
As the sun gently comes to rest against the horizon and the tourists of the day make their exit, you feel the serene more than the crazy. You stop at a sidewalk cafe for a glass of wine and listen to the music of a string quartet playing off to the side. You understand Vivaldi’s muse, and imagine his genius being brought to life by the young girls of the Ospedale della Pietà.
Goden-pink light fills the water-edge of the sky and illuminates the domes of distant cathedrals and their halos of clouds. Slender, violet-black crescents – the silhouettes of gondolas now empty of passengers – gently rock against their moorings. It is Monet’s Venise, le Grand Canal before your eyes.
The moon rises and the trattorias glow with candles, wine bottles, and the fragrance of delicious food. Someone laughs and lifts a golden Colombina mask to their eyes. And in this strange, beautiful city, within in the maze of canals and calli, you instantly imagine all of the old stories of intrigues and assignations, of lovers and disguises. La Maschera. It is romantic beyond measure.
Like so many before you, and countless numbers yet to come, you have been seduced by La Serenissima. She has cast her spell – and you know you will never, ever, forget her.