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A POSTCARD FROM VENICE

by Robert Ferre

After visitng my brother in Germany, Linda and I arrive in Venice three days prior to our cruise on Crown Princess. Reading many hotel reviews on Trip Advisor and checking prices, I chose a place with the best combination of high service rating and reasonable price. The location met our requirements -- on the Grand Canal and not too far from Piazzale Roma, the bus terminal and parking area on the edge of town, which is also near the cruise port. It's there that the shuttle bus arrives from the airport. After rain and gray skies in Manheim, the sun welcomes us to Venice -- but it won't last. The Riviera in France is experiencing 100 mile an hour winds, while snow bears down on the Continent from the north.

Hotel Antiche Figure. That was my choice, and it turns out to be an excellent one. Our reservation was prepaid through www.venere.com, a website with which I have had excellent results in Europe. Two days earlier, I had emailed my concern about flooding in Venice, which had received wide coverage in the news.

"Oh, the news is exagerated," I was assured in the prompt response. "When the wind is from the south and the tide especially high and the moon full, we sometimes experience high water (we don't use the word 'flood') at this time of year." The hotel remained high and dry and our arrival was anticipated without difficulty.

Except for the stairs, that is. Not a huge number, mind you. Not Mont Saint Michel. But unavoidable as one crosses some of the 150 canals on some of the 400 bridges built high enough for boats to pass under. Up one side, across the top, down the other side. Napolean once said that Chartres Cathedral was no place for an atheist. Well, Venice is no place for anyone in a wheel chair or who can't handle stairs.

How was it that they decided to build a city in the sea with streets of water? I think it had something to do with escaping the mainland for safety from the Huns or the Franks or someone. I think of Venice more during the Middle Ages, making a fortune as transporters of the crusaders to points east, and as money lenders to royalty. Many people don't know that Venice is an island, connected to the mainland by a causeway.

We easily follod the directions to the hotel: cross the small green bridge and turn left, staying along the canal until reaching the hotel. Five minutes' walk, they claim. Linda takes all three carry ons while I have a suitcase in each hand, dragging them by the handles up one step at a time. After resting at the top, rather than banging them down the other side, I pick them up and carried them. Quickly I am reminded that 68-year-old knees don't like the combination of stairs and 100 pounds of dead weight.

They made the sidewalks in Venice from stone. The good news is that they are rustic, functional, and will last forever. The other news is that the many irregularities assure a loud and distinctive complaint from the cheap plastic rollers on our luggage. You can hear us coming from quite a distance. Would it cost the manufacturers that much more to give us soft rubber wheels? The only sound louder is that of leather high heeled boots clomping down the narrow alleys in the still of night. Deafening.

Then comes the second bridge. We repead the same routine -- Linda with the small items, me dragging the suitcases to the top. At that moment, two young men -- clearly scouting out such opportunities -- offer to help. Not waiting for a reply, each took a suitcase from my hands and saunters down the stairs as if they were carrying bags of feathers. Linda expresses concern, aware of reports of theives disappearing with one's valuables. True, they are dressed in dark clothes and have swarthy complexions. Gypsies maybe? Indian? I, on the other hand, feel greatly relieved. And old beyond my years. It doesn't even occur to me to protest that I would rather do it myself. Who would I be kidding?

I give the name of the hotel, which proves to be only another hundred yards away, with no more bridges intervening. OK, so I could have done it myself. I figure I have reached a point in my life where I no longer accept formerly routine discomforts and inconveniences as necessary. Forget anything less than a three star hotel. Upgrade when possible. Take it easy. Most of all, hire porters. My Sherpa days are over. In my appreciation, I may have over-tipped my rescuers, although later I learn the accustomed fee for porters, which I hadn't exceeded.

Of course, the young men offer further assistance in providing tours of the city, but we decline. "We'll be around. Just look for us," they promise. During the next few days, we notice young men hanging around bridges and public areas, carefully observing passersby. Whether their intent is admirable or malevolent, we can't tell.

We pull our bags into Hotel Antiche Figure, whose modest appearance might not attract a second glance to the uninformed. In front, several unattended gondolas bob neglectedly, Two long narrow speedboats are tethered to a dock -- a style of craft utilized as water taxis, with open cockpits and enclosed passenger areas holding 10 people or so on facing banquettes.

After two weeks of German, the melodic cadence of Italian comes as a welcomed relief to the ear. Even more pleasant is the sound of fluent English with just the right inflection of Italian accent. Lovely. We decline an opportunity to upgrade our room to a canal view. Instead, our windows look out at a wall six feet away, across a narrow alley (which proves to be a main pedestrian thoroughfare).

I always knew I would end up in a room with padded walls, I just didn't know it would be a hotel room in Venice. When I reach out to touch the ornate flocked gold wallpaper, I find the walls have an inch of foam padding. It probably reduces noise as well. I can't remember the last time my hotel bathroom had crystal sconces mounted on the mirror above the sink. The heated towel rack will become very useful.

Naps are in order. We have arrived at our departure port -- always an important event. Ahead of us await three days of becoming aquainted with Venice. Linda has never been here, and my last visit was in 1965 as a college student. Below are some of my observations.

Water Water Everywhere

As a labyrinth maker, I'm familiar with meanders. That's the precise shape of the Grand Canal in Venice -- like a big backwards "S." You can make this shape with your hands. Form a C-shape with each hand. Move them close together so that the fingers of your left hand are halfway inside the "C" formed by your right hand, and the thumb of your right hand is halfway into the "C" formed by your left hand. Voila, the space between your hands forms the shape of the Grand Canal.

The knuckle of your left index finger marks Piazzale Roma, the bus depot where we arrived. Across the canal from it, at the tip of your right index finger, is the train station, and just beyond that, the first of three bridges across the Grande Canal, the Ponte di Scalzi. The tip of your left index finger indicates the location of the famous Ponte di Rialto, the bridge with shops on it. At the knuckle of your right thumb sits the third bridge, Ponte dell' Accademia. Finally, where the canal empties into the Adriatic Sea, at the base of your right thumb, you find Saint Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace. I have made a drawing of my hand map. This isn't to scale, of course, or the canals would be two miles wide. It just shows the relative location of the places we have come to know.

When high water arrives, it takes the easiest course -- into Saint Mark's Square, a vast plaza surrounded by arcades filled with pricey shops and cafes. To assure dry access, the city installs a series of raised platforms, positioned end to end, that serve as walkways through the water. During our stay, the water remains about a foot deep. Locals and prepared tourists wear high boots enabling them to walk through the water. Many shops feature boots in their windows.

Elsewhere in the city, the water invades some of the walkways nearest the largest canals. People take alternate routes, walk on raised platforms, get their shoes wet, or wear boots. We find the ramps a fascinating response to nature. Merchants and residents whom I thought should be irked by the inconvenience take it all in stride. When flooded, sell boots. Eating in a small neighborhood cafe that seems safe, we ask if the restaurant has ever flooded.

"Oh yes, in the front door and also from the back, where the bathrooms are, because there is a canal just behind our building." Later we meet someone whose hotel smells musty and moldy from similar flooding. Only once dd we step through a few inches of water to enter a passageway. Linda wears a layer of plastic bag between two pairs of socks, so that her shoes and outer socks get wet, but not her feet or inner socks.

Sirens sound periodically with a code system indicating the height of the impending tide. One person told us the high water now comes 100 times a year, and is slowly increasing in depth. Plus, the city is actually sinking at the rather rapid rate of one inch per year. When global warming raises the sea levels of the world, Venice is going to have yet a bigger problem. Authorities have been discussing solutions to these water issues -- for about a thousand years.

Mostly, for us, the water comes from the sky -- cold and miserable. We walk huddled under one small fold-up umbrella, dodging the deeper puddles, seeking out protective awnings or covered passageways. That heated towel rack comes in handy for drying out socks and pants legs.

A Pedestrian City

As an adjective, pedestrian means boring and monotonous. Happily, in Venice, it is a noun, meaning those who transport themselves on foot. No cars. Not even motorcycles or bicycles. There is simply no access for them. The entire city is accessible by water or foot. Perhaps so much walking explains why in the land of pasta there are so few fat people. And why people walk so fast. (Or maybe we're just slowing down.)

In the eight or so dry hours that we have in Venice, we spedt every minute walking, witht no particular destination. Our general direction is easily referenced by signs indicating the direction of the three main areas:
----> Per Ferrovia (the train station -- the route we follow to get back to our hotel)
----> Per Rialto (the shopping bridge and adjacent market areas)
----> Per San Marco (Saint Mark's Square)

Sometimes the lanes we follow dead end at a canal. More than once it seems a plaza had no outlet, only to find in the far corner a tiny passageway -- typically six feet wide -- that leads us further. A few passages are barely wider than our shoulders. (See photos.)

From tiny bridges we look down narrow canals to see laundry hanging on precarious clotheslines, flowers in window boxes, small boats covered with canvas tarpaulins, and myriad signs of daily life. We marvel at high balconies and rooftop gardens, private yards (a rarity) and even a few -- very few -- trees. It's not a green city, it's a place of stone, architecture, art, and history. We make a game of chosing places in which we would like to live. "How about that one, with the gable window looking out at the little square."

Everywhere churches. Bell towers, domes, cloisters, sanctuaries of all sizes and descripton, of which even the most modest has walls and ceilings covered in medieval paintings. We don't attempt the museums, a neglect that would outrage any art historian. People we encounter are neither friendly nor unfriendly, simply attending to their private lives despite the tourists who represented a different kind of flood with which to deal..

Boats of all descriptions

Cars have not been replaced by individual boats. There is no morning rush hour of boats waiting at stop lights, looking for parking places, one person per boat. Rather, they provide mass transit on the vaporettos -- a name that sounds to me like it should be a kitchen appliance, but is in fact a water bus. Water taxis offer an alternative, but at considerable expense. We see garbage scows, barges, police boats -- a flotilla of craft of every size and description, all of which have consistent characteristics: They are narrow and low, so as to fit under the bridges.The exception is the vaporettos, which operate only on the Grand Canal and sea.

Our hotel offers free transportion to visit a glass factory on the island of Murano. During my hippie years, I made a good living selling handmade wire and bead jewelry. I accumulated a large collection of beads, many of them the old African trade beads made in Murano. The designs feature a distinctive and recognizable pattern of concentric circles.

Linda and I ride alone in the back of a water taxi, while the pilot and an assistant brave the rain and wind in the open cockpit. They obey the slow speed limit on the canals (large wakes would be damaging) until reaching open water. Plowing through the waves, the boat throws up spray past our windows and over the roof. In just minutes we arrive at the glass factory, from which we return on a similar craft that deposits us at Saint Mark's Square. It takes an hour to walk home in the rain, my arm ready to fall off from holding the umbrella so long.

Commerce

They tell me that in the summer, tourists are so thick as to provide plenty of business for the thousands of stands and stores selling the same postcards, glass beaded bracelets, and bobbing gondolas. At this time of the year, they look forlorn and depressed -- especially the outdoor stalls, braving the rain and cold. The busiest stores are the cheapest ones -- selling glass and masks made in China, greatly undercutting the market for the "real thing."

We pass dozens of stores with nothing but intricate masks, some with long noses, others with filligree and feathers. Along one small passageway, we encounter an artist making a mask at a workbench in the window -- each work costing hundreds of dollars. A sign in the display window requests no photos. Store after store sells only leather purses and shoes. I don't understand how they can make a living.

I expected to find few restaurants capable of accommodating my gluten-free diet. On the internet, I locate the name of anobscure store selling gluten-free items, and a description of two distant restaurants with such offerings. As we walk down the main streets, indicated in yellow on our map, restaurant personnel hawk their goods, inviting us to eat there. In response I ask, "do you have gluten-free pasta?" After a couple of nagative responses, finally one man says, "Oh yes, no problem."

I'm skeptical, thinking he's just trying to get me inside. "Really?" I ask. "Yes, yes," he persists, "it is right there." He points at a sign to the left of the front window. I move closer to be able to read it. It states in reassuring capital letters (in English), "WE HAVE GLUTEN FREE ITEMS". Sure enough. We take his card to remember the address.

Then it happens again. And again. Four times. Venice is getting the gluten free message. Even the hotel, at breakfast, provides me with gluten-free rolls (kept in the freezer and toasted when the need arises) and a plate of wheatless cookies, pre-packaged cakes and crackers in such plentitude that I take them to the room, store them in a zip-lock bag, and eat them throughout the day..

We stop for lunch at a tiny restaurant near the architectural university. The simple menu in the window lists gluten-free items, most with meat. We feet good frequenting a small neighborhood place rather than a huge touristic concern on a main street. The wine is bitter and the food forgettable in every way. But the owner is pleasant and the place charming. (See Photo.)

Departure

Alas, departure day arrives. We hate to leave this exciting city, but at the same time, we anticipate with exceitement our boarding of the ship and the commencement of our voyage. We contract with a porter to tote our luggage back to Piazzale Roma as soon as the morning rain stops.

The porter has on a heavy canvas coat and high boots. I'm fascinated by his dolly, onto which he places our two heavy suitcases. His assistance is well worth the ten euros he requires. The front of the dolly has an extension, like an arm, with two small wheels at the end. When we come to the first bridge, the cleverness of the design is revealed. The extension reachs up to the begining of the second stair. Lifting the handle of the dolly and rolling on the small front wheels, he lifts the large rear wheels up onto the first step. The steps are 24 inches wide. He shifts the weight back onto the rear wheels, proceeding until they bump into the next step. By then, the front extansion is over the third step. He again lifts up on the handles of his dolly, rolling on the extension wheels as he lifts the large wheels up to the next step.

By shifting the weight alternately forward and back, pulling the handles up or pushing them down, switching from small extension wheels to large dolly wheels, he zips right up the stairs with no hesitation and minimal effort. Quite amazing. He uses the same technique in reverse going down. His walking pace is so fast that I almost jog to keep up with him. He reached Piazzale Roma in no more than five minutes. Time is money. Ten euros is worth about $15.

We have a choice of transportation to the ship -- bus, people mover (a railed driverless tram like airports have), taxis, water taxi. The port is not far. Having plenty of time, we decide to walk the half mile distance, rolling our suitcases. After passing the large buildings around the bus plazza, we reach a point at which the ship becomes visible, towering above the port terminals. Linda experiences a rush of nostalgia, as she has cruised on this ship before. By noon, we have boarded, our next sea adventure about to begin.

Venice, we'll be back. That's a promise. Don't sink yet. Next time, we'll bring our boots.

To continue following our journey, see: Crown Princess I.