Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Three train rides, one bus ride, and a water bus later, we arrived in Venice. We had an unexpected change in travel plans, for some reason the train was not traveling as far as we thought. The conductor explained in German mixed with a little English that we would need to disembark and get on a bus for an hour and half and then get back on the train about 10 stops down the line. After confirming this several times to make sure we got it right, we decided to trust him and found the bus at the next station. It dropped us off at another station, where a train took us a few more stops, we changed again, and then finally got to sunny Venice.

The landscape really changed, from mountains and alpine lakes to flat fields, grapevines everywhere (it seemed like they grew in people’s backyards, not big, huge, wine-producing fields but a tiny little supply for that houses’ inhabitants), and houses covered in peeling plaster. Venice was crazy. We arrived later than scheduled and hungry, spilled a coke on two of the backpacks in the train station, wolfed down some fabulous pizza, then waited on a dock with a million other people for our water shuttle. The water bus, called a vaporetto, is a lot like a subway, there are advertisements running along the tops of the boat walls and it makes stops every few minutes.

It felt like a cattle car, and we hit people with our backpacks every time we turned around, but it was still amazing to peek over shoulders to see the buildings lining the canals. There really aren’t any cars here, boats bring everything from the mail to television deliveries, it felt like we stepped into a picture postcard (along with a thousand other people).

We got to our stop and pushed our way off, and there we were. The street was quiet, our duffels rolled along the cobblestones, and we turned down a narrow little alley to find our pension. Up three flights of stairs we came to our apartment, flung open the windows, opened the shutters, and let Venice in. We found a quiet street below, and a canal to one side. After a little rest and a little clothes washing (washing clothes in a kitchen with the window open nearby, hearing someone whistling down below, was a real pleasure), we set out to do a little exploring.

We found that by turning off the main road (we were close to Rialto Bridge where souvenir vendors and tourists cram together) we found ourselves in a maze of narrow alleys that were practically empty. We lingered on bridges while gondolas glided silently below us. Each gondola is painted shiny black, but they all have special touches that make them different, from the seats to the “hood ornament”. There are no cars, it was nice to let the kids run all over these pedestrian streets and not worry about them being hit by a car/motorcycle/bike. Everyone walks. It’s quiet near the little canals, while the Grand Canal bustles with activity, vaporetti and motor boats and lots of people.

We got a huge dinner at a cafeteria-style place where you go through a line with a tray and pick out what you want. We ate it all, and earned ourselves two scoops of gelato on the way back to the hotel. The kids played another hour or so while Clay and I did the laundry next to the open window and sang along to music off the computer. It was a beautiful first night in Venice.


Wednesday, 17 October 2007

When we woke up this morning and opened our windows, there were colorful fruits and vegetables lining the square below, the square that was empty when we arrived the night before. After breakfast we went down to explore, admiring the beautiful fresh veggies and fruits, and then moving into the fish market, which was almost as good as an aquarium! Most of it was dead, but we could get up close and personal with flounder, eels, octopi, crabs, oysters, trout, salmon, swordfish and more. We did see one very large lobster with its claws rubber-banded together that was still alive, it moved its antennae every now and then. Alayna and I thought about buying it and then freeing it in the canal after admonishing it to live smarter and not to get caught next time, but we feared the ridicule of the Venetians and abstained ourselves from Operation Lobster Rescue.

While our plan for Venice was mostly just to walk around and enjoy the city, there were a few things we did want to see. We headed for St. Mark’s square, where the kids enjoyed the famous pigeons. Alayna had saved a roll in her jacket pocket from our dinner the night before, and she fed the pigeons with it, sharing with her brothers. We finally dragged them from the pigeons and we went to St. Mark’s Basilica, a huge church on the square, where St. Mark’s bones are buried (they were stolen by a pair of Venetians from a Muslim country long ago, and brought here to bury and earn Venice prestige as a powerful country). It is chock-full of amazing mosaics, reminding us of the ones we saw back in St. Petersburg, which makes sense. The Venetians aligned themselves with the Byzantine Empire instead of Rome, and built their church in a Byzantium style on purpose, to show the world where their allegiances lie.

We went to the second story, where we got a closer look at the mosaics and could look down on the church below. I explained to the kids that this was where women would have stood during church services, they weren’t allowed to sit with the men downstairs. Benji was baffled by this, I told him that women weren’t considered as important as men back then, and he said, “But they thought Mary was important, and she was a girl.” Pretty smart for a six-year-old. Those wheels are always turning.

This morning over breakfast we were talking about Apollo 13 and space craft in general, which led to a discussion on black holes. How they are dead stars that are very dense and draw all matter that comes close into them, becoming more and more dense. When we saw some jewelry on the street today that consisted of several pieces of colorful glass all together, Alayna said, “Just like a black hole.” I’m sure black holes will become a part of the games the boys play. “Let’s play black hole,” and then they all cram together in a giant wrestle.

After leaving St. Mark’s, we enjoyed looking for winged lions all over the place (they are the symbol of St. Mark) as we wandered down from the square to the lagoon. We also pointed out gothic Venetian arches to each other, after Clay explained what they looked like. At the top they come to a point, like an onion with the shape of a three-leaf clover cut out inside the arch. Then above two adjacent arches, there is a circle with a four leaf clover in it. Clay said you can only see these in Venice and Vegas (at the Venetian Hotel), for some reason we found that impressive.

We hired a gondola to take us back to the Rialto Bridge, and hopped aboard our sleek, black boat with cushions to sit on and a gondolier who navigated us through those quiet canals we had admired. They have an amazing ability to get very, very close to things, but never hit them. The gondolier stands on the back of the gondola and only rows on one side, but because of the shape of his oar, he stays straight.

I read that there are only 400 gondolas in Venice today, and when a gondolier dies, his job is given to his widow, who may pass it on to a son or someone else. It is a real privilege to be a gondolier, when we asked ours how long he had done it, he said since he was a bambino. His father was one before him. He chatted in Italian with other gondoliers, and every once in a while he would say, “Scuzi, lady, here, look, Marco Polo’s house.” Then he would point and smile and I would admire whatever it was he had pointed out and point it out to the kids. Then we fell back into our cushions and just soaked it all in. I was the only one he addressed during the ride, always calling me “lady”, I thought that was pretty funny.

We passed lines of laundry, white sheets drying in the sun. We passed peeling plaster revealing ancient bricks underneath, wooden doors that were rotten on the bottom from where the water lapped, front windows where we got peeks of what was inside before gliding by. It is a quiet, mysterious way to travel.

After it was over, we shook ourselves out of our gondola-induced stupor, and headed down the narrow, twisting streets, in search of a church that features Tintoretto’s works, someone Clay admires. We found it, and stepped into a dark building where huge paintings covered the walls and ceilings. This is not a church. It was once a place where people came to read and discuss religious ideas, today it is a place to admire Tintoretto’s works and enjoy concerts. He spent the last twenty years of his life adorning the walls and ceilings of this building, free of charge. He was a deeply religious man who could have been another Rafael but chose to move to Venice and raise his family of eight children and paint what he loved (not paint for patrons).

The paintings were huge and powerful. The kids enjoyed using the mirrors provided to study the paintings on the ceilings, and we tried to identify the scenes being depicted from the Old and New Testaments. After a while we looked around and noticed the wood carvings that covered the lower walls. One section was carved as if it were a bookshelf, books actually carved into the wood. I loved that one, of course. Some were puzzling, almost modern. One looked like a cowboy, with a cowboy hat and a holster. But then others were saints, the serious next to the silly. It was strange, and I didn’t listen to my audio guide so I have no idea what they were all about.

We headed back to the hotel in the afternoon for a little siesta before going to dinner. The kids really love “hotel time”, where they can take out all their little things and play a while. There is always a groan when they have to stop their game and leave, and while it drives me crazy that they would groan about going out to see Venice, it makes me happy that they are able to have so much fun together. I hope it lasts when we get back home in May.

Clay is having a little trouble with windows these days. Yesterday, he was deeply studying some gelato from outside a shop and he mistakenly thought there was a window separating him from some people right in front of him that were buying some scoops. When they turned to leave he just stayed put, thinking there was glass between him and them, until they were right upon him and he realized he was having his personal space invaded. He said it felt a little like a Harry Potter book, where the glass suddenly disappears and Dudley falls in with the snake.

Then today, we were examining some sandwiches in a window, and Clay was trying to point something out and he smacked his face right into the window, not realizing it was there, as he tried to get a little closer. He left a nose and chin print on the window, and looked a little dazed. Clay pointed out that I can’t seem to keep myself from laughing hysterically when he gets hurt (reference earlier elevator head injury in Village of the Poodles) and I had to agree. The kids were with me on this one, we all cracked up.

We found a great place for dinner and then wandered back to St. Mark’s Square after dark. Two orchestras took turns playing at different restaurants with tables that spilled out into the square. My plan had been to get a table and linger over a glass of wine with Clay while the kids sipped sodas, but that big open square was so tempting to the kids and we had just as much fun just watching them chase each other around. After they wore themselves out we headed back to the hotel for one last night in Venice, tomorrow we head to Vernazza in Cinque Terre, where we’ll stay in a hotel we’re a little unsure of. When we called last week to get a reservation, all of our choices were full and we ended up calling someone’s cousin who has a large room for rent. That cousin didn’t speak English, but we figure we can’t go too wrong in a tiny Italian town on the Mediterranean, right?