I was fascinated by Venice the first time I visited. Now, I am convinced that perhaps the most important part of going to Venice is returning to Venice.
Let me explain. Or, rather, let me show you my return.
You know that you are approaching Venice when the train tracks leave land and it appears that the train is running over water. Perhaps divine, perhaps pulled by tugboat, but nonsensical nonetheless. This will not be the last time that the city works against logic.
My first time in Venice, a private water taxi with tour guide greeted us at the train station and whisked us down the Grand Canal, pointing out grand palaces and dodging gondoliers. This time, no such luxury. Instead my friend and I have only the address to our hostel. No directions. We decide to walk. With bags. Silly, silly us.
Imagine a chase scene from, say, The Bourne Identity, in winding tourist-filled narrow streets and across bridges over the canals. Ok, detract the guns. Reduce the speed. Add rolling duffels. Add rest breaks. Increase sweat production. You have it. 45 minutes and several gigs of iPhone data later we reach our hostel in the Castello district. I believe the finally tally was 12 bridges. I call the number (hello roaming fee) on the post-it on the door and the owner comes in a few minutes.
After this high action, adrenaline-pumping death march (“But we saw a lot of parts of Venice that we wouldn’t have!” “Only a little more local flavor!” “I bet no one else here will have this memory!”), we need a cocktail. Do we ever. We end up near Teatro La Fenice and sip the house drink. From here we take a preliminary scan of Venice, along the Grand Canal, across the Rialto, through the San Polo and Dorsodoro districts, and back across the Academia Bridge
We dine on the small Campo San Filippo e Giaccomo on the back side of St. Mark’s Square, near our hostel. I have carbonara and am happy. We walk back toward the canal and find a spot to camp and sip a prosecco – something Jason Bourne definitely didn’t have time to do.
The next day we rise and procure what might be the best cappuccino that I have ever had. It’s at a little bar on the same piazza as the previous evening’s dinner. Italian cappuccinos are something near religion. Perfect espresso, warm, frothy milk. Simple. Devout. We amble to Piazza di San Marco. If Venice is a extensive system of veins and arteries, this is the heart. It pumps tourist in and out, flooding the nearby streets. Here, you need to see two things: the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. I visited both of these places of these place my first time in Venice, but, as it is Katie’s first time, and as they are truly incredible, I’m happy to go back. We assess the relative length of their lines and head first to the palace.
Here it is good to have an audio guide. The palace was the home of the doge, or duke, of Venice. Since Venice, for a period of time, was practically an empire in itself – an economic and naval power, as well as a huge hub for global trade – you can image the palace’s decadent decoration. Ornate arches line the arcades, a golden staircase leads to the duke’s chamber, and massive oil paintings cover the assembly halls. Secret passageways and revolving doors allowed government members to pass through the rooms undetected. However, the doge’s palace was more like the doge’s prison. Once named doge, the duke could rarely (never) leave this building. He was basically trapped within his lavish home. Ironically, his home was also an actual prison. An extensive network of chambers and cells that held Venice’s prisoners sits in the other wing of the palace, connected by the famous Bridge of Sighs, so named because the guards would lead prisoners to their executions across the bridge from where passersby could hear their sighs at seeing the blue sea and breathing fresh air for the last time. Today, I stop to take a picture through the gaps in the stone at the tourists below taking pictures up at me.
We lunch on good, thin, round pizza at a little place far enough away from the hubbub of St. Mark’s to feel quiet and peaceful, glad of our freedom to roam and breathe. It’s name means ‘hide and seek.’
We dive back into the crowds to see Basilica di San Marco – one of my favorite churches in the world. Walk inside and you’ll see why. Mosaics cover every ceiling dome and almost every wall of the interior. Figures stand out from the shining gold background that gilds everything. Pay the fee and walk up the stairs to the museum to have a closer, breathtaking view of the domes. Here too are the four horse statues or Triumphal Quadriga, made from bronze and dating back to 4th Century BC Greece. They came to Venice after the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Replicas sit outside on the upper porch of the Basilica. This tie to Constantinople, now Istanbul, illustrates an some apparent similarities between the two places via art and architecture. The domes and spires of St. Mark’s call to mind the Hagia Sophia. The two places are as connected as the statue of the Four Tetrarchs affixed to an outside corner of the Basilica. The porphyry sculpture from the 300s is missing a foot. The foot is still in Istanbul.
After the Basilica we take a water taxi, a much cheaper alternative to the traditional gondola, across the Grand Canal. Working gondolas are what Venetians use to cross the water quickly. A ride is 2 euro. We walk to Santa Maria della Salute and then round the corner to Punta Della Dogana. This is the very tip of the island that creates one side of the Grand Canal. This end looks back across almost parallel to Piazza di San Marco. Here, however, none of the craziness exists. The blood from that heart comes in the soft waves of the water hitting the side of the island. We sit here and dangle our feet in the cool lagoon. Again, we’ve found peace in this labyrinth. When we feel ready to wake ourselves again, we meander the far side of this island, buy some art, some Venice glass, sip wine, and discover a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that looks true enough for our tastes.
Taverna di Ponte Veccia: somewhere near, but far from, the Rialto, tucked in multi-allyed ally and staffed by adorably polite men. I have tagliatelle nero with crab meat sauce. Oh my, oh my, it is good. It makes the list of best pastas that I have had. Believe me when I say that that is an exclusive clique. Wow. If you can find it, absolutely go. Follow my great directions.
Full on pasta and good humor, we saunter back across the Rialto towards our hostel. This takes us, again, through San Marco. This time, however, it is dusk, and it is raining. And, it’s never been more beautiful. The light and shadows create a dusky, moody feel, and the water paints reflections like on postcards. Try Piazza di San Marco at night, when the pulse slows almost to flat line.
The first time I came to Venice, I was overcome by the romance of the place. The gondolas, the water, the bridges and tiny streets, the kids playing soccer and losing their ball in the water to fish it out again. I loved the idea of Venice – a city built on water. That impossibility. I loved the idea of its wealth and grandeur. The mystery of its masks and fragility of its glass. I loved an idealized Venice. The Venice that the first-time visitor sees.
Returning, things become a bit more real. Venice doesn’t lose its romance; rather, it becomes something more lovable. Venice is hot, crowded, and tourist-loaded. Its tiny roads make no sense. There is no grid system. There is no quick way to get anywhere. It is inconvenient. And a city on water? That is completely impractical. But, seeing this forces you to look elsewhere. This time, my favorite parts of Venice are the little piazzas hidden from tourists, hiding and seeking. The areas away from the sights. The point of the island and wind in my hair. Venice can trap you in its beauty, ask the doge. The key is to get lost, to go so far that your pulse almost becomes weak. This might be where the real Venice is most alive. And do not fear, because the maze is a friendly place. The little streets and buildings will pull you back to the heart. Helpful homemade signs and spray paint on the corners constantly point back “al San Marco.” So you are never long lost.
This second time I see Venice as a bit broken – faded paint, crumbling stucco, water-stained. This is not fault; this is what makes it real and lovable. This is the romance sustained and a little moody.
So, a visit cannot be complete without a return.