Venetian Labyrinth From Above

Day 3. 23 June 2006

Friday. I faired better on my second morning in getting cold milk for my cereal; also realised that yesterday I drank my coffee unknowingly straight from the jug which perhaps goes some way to explain the strange looks that I received from signora upon bringing me my (hot) milk.

Setting off back to a, still mercifully quiet, Piazza San Marco, I take the lift (I am disappointed that there are no stairs to climb – and count) up St Mark’s bell tower. The sun is bright, and the sky, the richest of blues; from the gallery beneath the bells, where there are telephones for ‘Calling Home’, a fantastic panorama of the city and of the lagoon is laid out before me with perfect visibility.

Whilst I am up above the city, looking down, as the bell towers below strike out of the hour of ten – some like the Torre dell’Orologio with it’s life size copper men beating out the time – I notice that the queue for the Basilica is already half way round the square and in full sun. As I leave the tower through a back door within the red brick façade, the queue for the lift too, is lengthening.

Walking the length of Piazza San Marco, I leave through the colonnaded arcade, between the fashionable boutiques and expensive jewellery stores, and make my way back onto Frezzaria and to ‘La Venexiana Atelies’ mask shop where I learn which are the traditional, and which the fashion masks. Heading on west towards the Grand Canal I find another bookshop, piled high with books but with a no less agreeable shopkeeper. Sadly this shop does not have a Tabacco #012 map for the area of the Dolomiti for which I am headed tomorrow.

The kindly man does point me in the direction of another map shop and his directions take me straight there. Here, after the locating the local maps upstairs I find #012. Success! I do like to have maps of the places that I have visited.

Retracing my steps to the second bookshop, I continue on west, eventually arriving at Academia. There, I sit by a canal’s edge, and dangle my feet into the cool water and sit and listen to clarinet and piano practicing that drifts out from open windows in the day.

After mind and body have been refreshed by water and music I cross the wooden bridge – only one of three across the Grand Canal – at Academia and board the #1 vaporetta up river to San Marciano. From there it is a short walk to the old Jewish Ghetto. On a tiny island, isolated by canals and once locked at night by gates on its three bridges the 5,000 Jewish population of Venice were forced to live. This was the first ghetto, and the name, in Italian would have been spoken with a silent ‘g’, but the German Jews who came here could not say it and so the pronunciation that we still use today was born. The Jews could only leave the ghetto during the day if they wore a yellow cap, and they were only allowed to have three professions that no one else wanted to do; moneylenders, doctors, or second-hand salesmen. Despite these restrictions it was a relatively good life for the Jews and even kept them safe through the second world war.

In the top of the eight story Venetian skyscrapers, synagogues were built, shoe-horned into the available space. I visit three of the synagogues as part of a tour – the last one of them, with Christian influences of its designers in the cherry wood and cedar construction, is still in regular use and so I must wear, along with all the men in my part, a skull cap.

Quenching my thirst after the tour in the fountain in the middle of the Ghetto Nuova – named so now because it was the ‘new’ ghetto, because there is another one just outside the island that is newer but is called the ‘Old Ghetto’; they were named so, taking their names from the foundries that used to occupy the site. Thus the New foundry was the first to be abandoned and so became the New Ghetto, whilst the oldest, or first foundry was the last to be abandoned and so became the ‘old’ ghetto – trying to get my head around this, I return to the Grand Canal and to the #1 Vaporetto to take me back to the Rialto and to Naranzaria for lunch.

The former orange market is a quiet place to enjoy a simple meal of polenta and baccala montecata (a thick cream made from local fish) and coffee tiramsu. I sit back with a glass of wine enjoy shade over the hottest part of the day whilst watching the traffic on the Grand Canal. It seems surprising how I always forget that in Venice everything must arrive by boat, until I see, as today the local ambulance, the police, a fireboat, and a DHL and UPS boats on the water making their deliveries. Going by water is jus a way of life here.

Somewhere between 4 and 5 o’clock I head back over the Rialto and begin to make my way back to San Marco and to my hotel. Keping mainly to the main street I find a pizzaria/restaurant that looks promising for tomorrow. Beyond this is an attractive cul de sac where I sit for a while by the canal and draw, and eat nectarines and cherries.

Returning to my hotel to shower and cool off I remember the trick that I learnt last night. The switch above my bed operates, a three speeds, the fan in the ceiling. Last night it cooled me down enough to sleep; now it cools me down enough to go out once more.

After a luch at Naranchia I find that what I want this evening is one of the foccacia sandwiches that I have seen around the place, and possibly a gellato to follow. I find a suitable place somewhere on the main drag between San Marco and Rialto. It sit on the terrace outside, and once again, watch the world go by.

Returning to San Marco, and emerging out into the ever-bustling piazza, I walk the arcades surrounding the square checking out some of the other cafes. All offer drinks of about the same price, and all charge the same ‘orchestra supplement’; none offer quite the same class as the Caffé Florian. Still unable to complete a single circuit of the Piazza San Marco without getting distracted down one of the passages and getting lost in the maze of side streets.

Getting lost in backstreets does have its advantages though; you never know what will be around the next corner. And when around the next corner there is a gellateria selling pistachio – my all time favourite flavour – ice cream, then well, getting lost becomes the greatest of pleasures. My spatial awareness and sense of direction seems to be good in these situations and I navigate myself pretty well back onto Fressaria, and so to the mask shop. I know that beyond the uncertainty, I do want a mask from Venice, and that if I don’t get one I will regret it. I decide on a half-face, black and gold musically themed mask with gold leaf decoration.

I return to the waterfront and sit for a while beneath an arcade before moving round the Piazza, finally circumnavigating the whole square and settling in for the evening on the steps alongside the Caffé Florian to listen to the music and eat cherries, as night draws in and daytime sun gives way to night time lights. Nearby to where I sit on the steps, are four posh young girls – Steph, Elspeth, Katherine and Natalie – on a Friday night out in the Piazza San Marco. With them is a young New Zealand guy that they’ve evidently just met. They are drinking cheap wine from cartons on the steps next to me, and eyeing up the violinist playing at the Caffé Florian. Hearing their talk, somehow adds a bit of colour to the evening.

Day Four: Friends, ferry rides and cherries…