Prone to Wander

Venice in the Wintertime

I didn’t like Venice very much when I visited it on my first trip to Europe in 1999. It was hot, in the middle of the summer, jammed with tourists, and our tour group got stuck on one of those “come visit the glass factory” trips where they cheat you into buying fakes. Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing that I got to go, but I was a bit disappointed by it.

That said, I was willing to give Venice another shot last year when we visited Italy. I knew we’d avoid the summer heat and tourists, and I absolutely love Europe in the winter. It’s typically quieter, slower paced and easier to navigate. Plus, bundling up to walk through snow in Paris or ducking into Roman cafe to savor a warm cappuchino or a glass of wine is quite cozy and romantic.

Venice was the coldest place we visited in Italy last year, probably amplified by the wind coming across the water. But our hotel was perfect – hidden somewhere in the maze-like pedestrian streets of central Venice, snug and warm, with heaps of Venitian decor and charm, including a circa 1930’s wine bar in the basement. In fact one of the most charming aspects of the place was the elderly Italian owner, who would enthusiastically sit down with you at breakfast and tell you stories about the people he had met and places he had travelled.

I find Venice extremely dream-like. It’s a place that seems to grow in your memory in a way that makes you wonder whether you dreamed part of it or not. You don’t go there to sightsee. You go there to wonder that a place like that exists in the world, and to wander through the maze of the city and get utterly lost. If you go to Venice, my advice is to simply “get lost.” Walk out of your hotel, and keep walking. Take turns that look interesting. The streets are pedestrian only and they criss-cross each other like a bowl of spaghetti, with dead ends, bridges, and no street signs to speak of. Don’t even try to use your map… it will only make you upset.

I find Venice a bit creepy at night. I blame the 1973 movie “Don’t Look Now” with Donald Sutherland for that. I had to watch it for a film class in college, and it’s been a while, but from what I remember, the city almost takes on a life of it’s own as Sutherland’s character goes crazy over the death of his daughter, gets lost in the maze of the city, and starts seeing things. It’s a really freaky movie. But Venice is the perfect setting for a creepy psychological thriller.

We did a few things in Venice though that were very memorable, other than just simply wandering around the streets:

1) Murano. I love really digging into the local art and craft of a place. And in Venice, art = glass. Murano island is about a 20 minute boat ride from central Venice, and well worth it. You can wander shop after shop filled with glass in all shapes and sizes, wrought into all sorts of items and jewelry pieces. I bought a few beads – mostly hollow blown glass, and I also jotted down ideas in my notebook about things that I could make on my own. Last year Josh and I took a glass fusing class, so we were able to identify the pieces that looked particularly impressive. I loved everything about Murano – the quiet streets and canals, the brightly colored glass in every shop, and the little Italian seafood cafe that we ate lunch at.

2) San Marco. I’ve always loved this church. It reminds me of a particularly large heavily frosted cake, both inside and out. It’s thick stone and marble layers from ceiling to floor are colorfully covered in tiny gold glittering mosaics and swirling marble in every color of the rainbow. The decorative arches and spires give it that decidedly Venitian style that recalls a middle eastern or Turkish flair. I recommend paying to walk upstairs along the balcony for great views of the square, the inside of the cathedral, as well as some close-up encounters with some really great mosaic work. You can feel the weightiness of the church… and in fact, like many grand buildings built on ancient waterways (Mexico City’s Cathedral was also built on top of a lake bed similar to Venice)… it is sinking and tilting. Quite a bit of work is being done to keep it from crumbling or slipping sideways which is fascinating in itself.

3) Harry’s Bar. This was Hemingway’s favorite bar in Venice, as well as where the famous drink, the Bellini, originated. We obviously had to try one, but it certainly came at a price – it was arguably the most expensive cocktail I’ve ever had. However, we had a great time, mostly due to the conversation we struck up with another couple at a table near ours. They were from London and the Netherlands – he was a writer and she was an ambassador – meeting for a holiday in Venice. I find people fascinating, and I love the way people are more open to chatting like that when they are on vacation.

Overall, I’m glad that I gave Venice another chance. It was cold in early January, but it held a fascinatingly quiet, wintery, mysterious feeling that seemed to suit the city well.

Venice seems to take on a life of it’s own in my mind, with it’s own unpredictable, lovely yet menacing personality. Contrasted against all of it’s picturesque loveliness, from gondolas and bridges, painted doorways against the water’s edge, to twinkling street lamps with rose-colored lights, Venice also seems to keep dark and mysterious secrets, perhaps hidden down deserted, maze-like streets or within echoing, cavernous cathedrals. It’s the kind of city that sparks imagination and haunts dreams.

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3 comments

  1. Deb

    I love how you really captured the feeling of Venice and not just the locations. The way the city is a labyrinth that has built on top of itself over and over and you find your own truth as you try to find your way.

    This is my favorite thing about travel – the experience and the feel of being somewhere else and how the best cities really have a sense that is all their own. While I might not ever buy venetian air, I sort of understand the idea behind it.

    I too was marked by Don’t Look Now, which I also saw in college after reading the short story it was based on. And by this book I read as a teenager about a guy who believed he was the reincarnation of someone who died in the canals there. Add in an overactive imagination stirred by a city that lives comfortably with legends of ghosts and vampires and I agree there were times I felt a bit spooked walking around alone – especially at night. And that just made me more intrigued by the city overall.

    Whenever I travel, I like to read books written in or set in the places I go. And while Merchant of Venice, or Death in Venice are obvious choices – the two that come to mind for me now are:

    Suite Venitienne/Please Follow Me by artist Sophie Calle, about a woman who follows a man all around Venice. You can see some of the book and an explanation of the central theme in this blog

    The Floating Book, a book that manages, like your post, to really capture the essence of Venice while telling a fascinating story about the impact of a new printing press and the German brothers who arrived with it in in 15th century Venice.

    Thanks for the inspiration. I’ll leave you with an image from one of my favorite artists, MC Escher – The Drowned Cathedral. It always reminds me of Venice.

  2. Michael Flores

    Thank your for sharing this, I felt like I was there for a moment. Very good post! I hope to travel someday, and would definitely like to visit Italy. Perhaps, one of the coastal towns. Who knows?

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