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Visiting Venice: old friends reunite to experience a favorite city’s sights, sounds and flavors side by side
My friend Elizabeth flew into Venice from Paris for our reunion. We hadn’t seen each other for several years and wanted to make up for lost time by spending a few days together. Our plans for our visit to Venice included a day out on the lagoon, first to Murano for window shopping and then to my favorite spot, the island of Torcello.
We left Hotel Antiche Figure, our hotel fronting the Grand Canal, after breakfast, crossing the Ponte degli Scalzi to hop on the Number 42 vaporetto (water bus.) The temperature was already rising as we took seats in the prow, the better to see the incomparable sights. The Venetian-style rush hour presented a kaleidoscope of daily life.
A fire boat, siren blaring, swerved through the confusion; a police launch followed; gondoliers rowed smiling tourists, a barge filled with luggage and another piled with laundry moved from stop to stop. New cabinetry destined for an old palazzo slid by. A floating vegetable market tied up at a side canal, shoppers ready with their bags and baskets. And then a boat with a glorious shining black grand piano tipped on its side, glided on its way to some concert hall. I hoped to see Vivaldi and his orphaned girls dressed in their brocade gowns playing “Autumn” from The Four Seasons on the next boat as they made their way to the same salon, but they were lost in the 18th century, their place taken by the less colorful elements of modern life.
Soon our vaporetto turned left into the Cannaregio Canal. The scene became residential: laundry hanging from balconies, and small shops and bars lining the narrow walkway. Some buildings were in disrepair, a sign that Venice is being emptied of its populace as it slowly sinks back into the sea where it arose some 1200 years ago.
Now the open lagoon spread out before us. We passed the cemetery island of San Michele with its brooding cypresses rising over the red brick walls of the burial ground, a setting for so many novels of love and death. We continued on the water highway – a row of pilings topped with lights – to Murano, bustling with tourists shopping or gazing at the marvels of glass still being produced after 700 years. The sunlight on the shop windows lit glittering and tempting bijoux, sculptures and chandeliers. But reflecting the island’s struggle to maintain its artistic heritage some of the shops had placards in their windows: “Our glass is not made in China.”
It was nearing lunchtime and shopping was making us hungry. After stuffing modest purchases into our handbags we caught the next boat to Burano further out in the lagoon. With time pressing, rather than strolling around the pretty pastel town, we boarded the little connecting ferry to Torcello without stopping.
We were quickly deposited on the swampy island now mostly a nature preserve. It was settled in the 400s to shelter nearby landside populations when the Roman Empire collapsed in the face of Barbarian hordes. In the 9th century it hosted a population of 10,000. Now less than 20 remain.
A red brick path led us to Al Trono di Attila, a restaurant named after a worn marble throne where Attila the Hun certainly never sat but all tourists do. The waiters were still serving lunch. The mellow fall sunshine warmed us as we dined on zuppa di cozze e vongole, mussels and clams fresh from the lagoon, followed by a salad of radicchio di Chioggia, tomatoes, carrots and lettuce, so crisp that they must have been picked as we sat at the table. The pleasure of slowly of sipping our after-lunch espresso delayed our explorations – but then what are reunions for but to catch up on the news?
We finally drained the tiny cups and strolled to our goal: the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta standing on a grassy piazza with another church, a small museum and the supposed Throne of Attila – all that remains beside a few other restaurants and the Locanda Cipriani where Hemmingway spent time writing in 1948.
The cathedral, founded in AD639, reflects Byzantine tastes in religious art. The floor of colored marbles set in geometric designs drew my eye downward for a moment before I gazed upward to the apse dominated by a serene blue-robed Virgin with Child set against a glittering gold background.
Then I turned to the back wall filled with another enormous mosaic. Somewhat faded after a thousand years, the gold background still sets off the figures of Christ flanked by two flat angels dressed in jeweled robes and wearing pointy-toed shoes. The Virgin appears again in her usual blue with red shoes. Other figures are made of more subdued colors with black outlining the contours of their robed knees, hips, elbows and bellies, giving them a muscular aspect.
At the bottom is “The Last Judgment,” where the souls of the dead are weighed by an angel and a blue devil to determine their fate. When the scales tilt toward the devil the losers are tossed into the fire and poked at by stick-wielding angels to ensure they remain for eternity. While the sinners are tortured the lucky ones on the opposing side look on in satisfaction. Not so real to us today as at the turn of the first millennium when they were made, the mosaics are still useful for contemplation of the past, present and future in the solitude of the nearly empty church.
While visiting Venice we had hoped to climb the campanile near the church of Santa Fosca but it was under repair. Instead, we walked around the exterior of the 11th-century, Romanesque-style church with its five-sided portico and Greek cross plan topped by a round dome, all done in intricate brickwork. Built to house the rescued remains of a local girl, the now obscure Santa Fosca who was martyred in Libya in the 3rd century, the interior is plain and peaceful.
The sun was well past its zenith as we emerged into the light. It was time to float back to Venice. The Caffe Florian, facing the Piazza San Marco near the Campanile since 1720, was our destination. We sat inside by an open window looking at the opulent interior surroundings while listening to the white-jacketed musicians playing Volare outside on the piazza. We talked of Casanova and courtesans whiling away their time with cards and coffee and gossip while they hid behind masks, and of Byron, Proust and so many others who have been drawn to the sensualities of the Venetian scene. The music and our dreams of the past were a pleasant accompaniment to glasses of prosecco and plates of chicchetti, the small Venetian snacks.
It was sunset and our day in Venice was coming to an end. The crowded vaporetto took us the full distance from San Marco back to Scalzi. The final rays of the sun lit the facades of elegant palazzi as the canal waters gently lapped at their ancient water gates.