Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Venetian Rhapsody

About three weeks ago I flew to Venice, Italy, with my mom and a friend. It was the first time I’d seen Italy in about 11 years—a place which, I’m always happy to say, feels like home to me. What prompted me on this visit? Book research. Of course, I needed a break, but I could have taken that anywhere. Yet, researching my story suddenly became paramount to me, although in the process I got so much more than I bargained for.

Our fantastic, low fare, Ryan Air plane landed in Italy’s Treviso Airport around 10pm and from there we took the bus into Venice, which stopped us in Piazzale Roma, not far from the train station. A short walk and we hopped onto Venice’s chosen mode of transportation (besides the traghetti or gondola ferries) – the vaporetto - to the San Marco stop. This is a sort of ferry boat or bus which travels up and down the Grand Canal and the basin around Venice. It does not venture into the small, narrow canals which cannot welcome a large boat in their depths.

I had visited Venice for a day a long time ago, when I was still a child. For all intents and purposes, this was my first time visiting as a mature (I hope) adult who can appreciate all the nuances and mysteries of such a place. Soon after 11pm, I caught my first close up glimpse of The Queen of the Adriatic, or La Serenissima, as the locals love to call this magnificent city.

I cannot describe how I felt when I first stepped onto St. Mark Square at night and beheld the gothic-style basilica looming ahead. My breath caught in my chest and as cliché as this sounds it is hard not to feel humbled when one comes upon such a sight. Close to midnight on a weeknight then, it was empty and quiet with the last strings of a live orchestra echoing faintly through it from the outside area of one of the old cafés. As we crossed the wide expanse, we saw that the number of lingering patrons could be counted on barely more than one hand. The ground was wet, the air humid. My skin felt clammy but I didn't care.

It was magic.

It didn’t take us long to find our centrally located hotel—Hotel Ai Do Mori, which is to be found inside a 15th century palazzo in Calle San Marco—although we did do a couple of wrong turns in the maze of alleys which Venice is famous for. On the next day we discovered just how close to the square we were (past the Basilica into the arch adorned by the large blue clock with the Moors on top striking the hour - called "Do Mori"). At night, it would be easy to miss the hotel’s nondescript entrance right next door to the city’s only McDonalds. So late at night the restaurants were closed and there was sparse activity going on. Woe unto us—we had to haul our luggage up three steep and narrow flights of stairs as the hotel has no elevator. Toward the end of our stay, we were told to ask for the Annex which is entirely on the first floor but only contains rooms for two people (no triples or quadruples). This hotel was fairly priced when compared to the others, and is one of several boutique hotels we considered after stumbling on an article on Venice budget hotels published in UK’s Telegraph. It was also very clean and we specified our need for a private bathroom beforehand (this is always advisable). Only downside: the hotel had no restaurant, but we did take cereal and a mini coffee machine with us which proved absolutely invaluable! Breakfast is not a big thing there and if one happens to find a place which offers a hearty one, it will probably be extremely expensive.

This is the first of a series of blogs where I will be detailing all (or most) of the interesting aspects of my week long stay in Venice. I hope that you will do me the honor of visiting my blog each week to learn about my trip. Each blog will take care of a day, in consecutive fashion, until the day of our departure.

John Berendt described Venice as a city that is “easy to visit and hard to know.” And after a week there I truly understand what he meant by that statement. This is the home of canals, dark alleyways, and long held secrets. The Venetians are nothing like the rest of the Italians. The “municipality” mentality still seems to reign there – it is as though they still cannot accept the idea of being forever linked to the rest of the mainland and letting go of their independence. They cannot see themselves as “just another Italian city.” Despite the fact that the last Doge lost his power upon Napoleon’s advent in 1797, and the Republic of Venice was, from then on, no more, their pride survives—somewhat nicked in some respects, yet, still intact.

Venetians are resentful of the constant influx of tourists to their shore. Although they know that tourism is essential to their survival, they also know what it is doing to their beloved soil—the millions of new faces the city welcomes each year are slowly, but surely, enabling its destruction. Venice sinks a little bit more each year. One day in the future, it will be completely underwater… either that or the whole city east of the area of Dorsoduro (and the Grand Canal) will cave in. This being because of the fact that this part of Venice is built entirely on wood, not on solid soil/ground, as is Dorsoduro (literal translation: hard back). In the meantime, Venice is undoubtedly a tourist trap, but it is so many more things if one knows where to look. Sparks of irritation at this set up are inevitable, but the pouting won't last for long. One cannot but stay enamoured with it, like one may be of a capricious yet, at the same time, undeniably loyal lover. A close relationship with Venice would be a complex one made of constant highs and lows. It is, quite simply, incomparable to anything else I've ever seen, felt, and tasted. It is nothing more and nothing less than Venice.

As a side note - One of the things which struck me most is that Venice is definitely a dog-friendly city. Dogs are allowed anywhere and everywhere. Even in the posh cafés and restaurants. The locals are sometimes more tolerant of our four legged friends than they are of humans. I don't know if that is an entirely good quality - although love of animals is certainly a great thing to have. Residents are mostly polite and very helpful. Wait staff in restaurants is sadly a hit or miss. As is the food. More to come later.

For my historical romance novel, I decided to research an area which signified darkness, loss of dignity and dread in the lives of many Venetians – the years of Austrian occupation in the 1820's. The information I found in my research I know I could never have snagged on the internet, and I’m grateful for that. Again, I hope that you will stay with me as I log my experiences in Venice on a weekly (if everything else permits) basis - starting probably two weeks from now. My accounts will have a dual function: both as a travelogue to record my thoughts and doings, and as a travel guide to those who hope to visit this amazing locale in the future.

I feel so very lucky for having been able to do this and can safely say that this was an experience I will never forget. You will see why.

I say, see Venice and die...

That said, I’d like to ask…what would you do, or how far would you go, to research a book if you had your rathers?

~ Angela Guillaume ~
"Breathtaking Sensual Romance"
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