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Dwanollah's Travel Diary, or, What I Did On My Summer Vacation, 2.0
June 2005

June 18, 2005


I’m sitting by one of the lion statues in St. Mark’s Square, watching the sun come up over the facades of the buildings, backlighting the statues on top of the church like some sort of heavenly benediction. Yeah, it was worth that 6 AM wake-up call!

[The Husband-Type Man] and [Pappy] are taking pictures and reading signs right now, so I have a few minutes to scribble; I can transcribe this later back at the hotel.

There are pigeons everywhere, but, unlike Betsy, I don’t see anyplace to buy corn to feed them.

This isn’t quite like that blissful solitary morning I spent at the Loggia in Florence; there are already too many people here for that, but it’s still a damned sight better’n it would be this afternoon! We had a crowded vaporetto ride over here – passing several outbound cruise ships on the way – and, alas, our first view of St. Mark’s and the Piazza and the Bridge of Sighs and the Doge’s Palace was through a dirty, spotty window. But the sights now make up for it: The aforementioned fresh morning sunlight breaking over the spires and statues and glowing on the old stones. Only a few vendors beginning to set up their carts. The cafés all empty. Maybe less than a hundred tourists milling about, taking their requisite souvenir photos and bumbling about before heading on to another must-see attraction that they’ll look at without really LOOKING… or thinking or feeling or caring.

Sometimes I’m too cynical and judgmental for my own good, ain’t I?

Oh! The bells in St. Mark’s are ringing! And now in the Campanile, and in other churches and buildings, all over Venice! It’s echoing around the Piazza… just going on for minutes and minutes, and you can even see the bells in the Campanile swinging back and forth! Glorious!

* * * *

Hey! I found Florian’s, the café where Betsy and Marco (and I’m sure three dozen billion others!) used to come for casata and cappuccino. It’s not open, but I still am sitting at one of the hundred white-clothed tables in front, admiring the views and watching the pigeons.

And yes, I found where to buy corn to feed ‘em, too! [THTM] and [Pa] and I behaved like right fools, and at one point, I must have had a dozen pigeons on my arms, shoulders, even my head, with scores more at my feet! The buggers would crowd, two, three and four, in the palm of my hand and duke it out for a few kernels. Yes. I know it’s a dumb, touristy trick, but I had to do it. If it was good enough for Betsy, good enough for Gertrude and Alice, I certainly wasn’t going to pass up my chance to feed corn to and pose with a flock of ten million pigeons at St. Mark’s!

Florian’s, though overpriced (a ciocolata calda for… THRITEEN EUROS?!), looks gentile and anachronistic right now, all empty and clean. The inside is wood-paneled, with the patina of a previous century (or is that just my imagination…?), and the red velvet settees and chairs and little wooden tables are pleasantly shabby and comfortable.

More vendors are starting to set up now, and the front of the square is getting more crowded: lots of tour groups of 20-30 Old Farts, let by a guide holding up a stick with a distinctive scarf or flag on it… a familiar sight in places like this. We’d better get to Doge’s Palace before the masses!

* * * *

June 19, 2005

Dear Readers –

Time for one last brekkie in Venice before our train to Zurich. I’m loathe to leave; despite all the tourists and cruise ships and day trippers and hokey souvenirs and restaurants with horrible food served via a Menù Turistico, this city feels magical, and I’ve been as comfortable here as if I was hanging out in New York or LA. After days of exploring dozens of little alleys overhung with clotheslines full of clean laundry, bakeries tucked in unexpected places with windows of pan dolci, slow sunsets that bathe everything in a golden light for hours, we are officially enamored of this place. It’s totally at the top of the short-list of places to live!

Knowing the language a bit helps enormously; while Strega Nona spoke some weird-ass Sicilian dialect, and it’s been over fifteen years since my last Italian class, I’m still comfortable with the rhythms of the speech and culture, and can usually get the gist of what someone’s saying… as well as putting my extensive two-dozen-word vocabulary to great use! I’m pleased that I’ve spoken well enough to have some locals respond with a flood of Italian back! I am SO international and sophisticated, y’all.

The weather in Venice has been steaming hot, and we’ve gotten into the habit of rising early, going out for several hours, coming back during the hottest part of the afternoon and napping, then staying out late once things cool down. Most of the stores and restaurants close around 1 or 2 PM anyway, and restaurants don’t reopen for dinner until 7! So, unless you want to sweat your way through the Rialto buying “Venetian” glass ashtrays with ten million other tourists, there’s not much to do out in Venice during hot afternoons anyway.

Me, The Husband-Type Man, and Pappy got up early yesterday morning to hop the vaporetto over to St. Mark’s, and it was a damned good thing we did. By the time we bought our tickets for the Doge’s Palace, the place was already teeming with tourist groups.

Pa had plenty of opportunity (as MiL will be happy to know!) to ply his camera; he’s a beautiful amateur photographer, and is one of those folks that does it because he genuinely LOVES it, not because of any conspicuous-consumer desire to horde expensive equipment or anything. With his lone camera, Pa’ll take off for an overnight trip to Joshua Tree, or plan a special drive when desert flowers are in bloom, and come back with rolls of amazing things; he has a fascinating way of composing pictures based on unusual formations and geometric shapes. I can’t wait to see what he did with St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace and the battalions of empty café tables and the displays of tacky souvenirs!

Descriptions of our palace tour and the rest of Venice will have to wait, though; it’s time to go throw my clothes into a suitcase and head for the train station. Luckily, since it’s Sunday morning, I get to do this with the sounds of various churchbells ringing at an almost ten-minute interval! Ah, Venezia….

* * * *

On the train again

We’re heading out of Venice, on the long railroad bridge that spans the Laguna, passing by the fleet of massive cruise ships heading into harbor for the day. It’s gonna be an eight-hour trip, our longest one yet, and I swear, if another little Michael shows up, I’ll go batshit. So far, our compartment is empty, but we don’t have high hopes of it staying that way, because one of our stops is Milan. Fortunately, after this, our train journeys will mostly only be two or three hours.

I had just enough time this morning to run out to get the cheese-wad souvenirs I know my family will appreciate, but, as many of them are reading this and keeping up, I’ll refrain from describing them now. Let me just say, Sugie and Scott, y’all’re in for a special treat! I had no luck, however, finding any sort of sinus medication, so I’m continuing to snurfle and blow and sneeze. I’m left with the juicy residue of my head cold or allergy or sinus infection or whatever it is, and I’ve gone through an entire roll of scratchy hotel toilet paper in less than twelve hours, and DAMN, my poor nose hurts!

It seems like we were in Venice for longer than three days, but that might be because of the afternoon naps. I’m looking on Zurich as a bit of a vacation vacation, because we sure ran thither and yon all over Venice!

Venice was a place to be savored like a plate of ripe fruit… and yes, much of it was culinary. We hauled our bags across The Grande Canal to our hotel (a converted palazzo, like most of 'em), quickly freshened up, and immediately we set out to find dinner. The concierge recommended a non-touristy place to eat, and the labyrinths of alleyways and small squares we trekked through to find it was delightfully confusing. Naturally, we got lost, and, hungry, decided to stop at one of the other trattorias we saw… what looked to be a cozy, neighborhood place. And indeed, it was. We were led out to a flower-bedecked patio, and, other than the smoking on the other side, enjoyed a leisurely and very delicious meal. Perfect, rustic bread, a savory pizza alla cabonara rich with baked uovo on top , perfect plates of pastas and salads…. Stuffed and content, we wandered slowly through the quiet alleys back to our hotel, too full to even contemplate the ever-present gelato that other tourists ceaselessly consume.

Our first full day in Venice was hot, sweaty and exhilarating. THTM and I ditched Pappy and just set to wandering aimlessly around the non-touristy places. We headed vaguely in a Rialto-ish direction, because, after all, if you’re in Venice, you kinda have to see the centuries-old market, the hub of international trade for hundreds of years, stomping grounds of Shylock et. al.! But we had the most fun just holding hands and clamoring over bridges, stopping to listen to the calm and quiet sounds of the little neighborhoods, admiring the surprises we’d stumble upon, like an old church in the middle of a renovation or a dead-end at a canal where the sun shimmered silver on the greenish water.

Luckily, we found the Rialto by way of the Pesceria, which took us in the slightly-less-than-touristy way, and was a veritable orgy of piles of shellfish, hundred-pound marlins cut into steaks with the head displayed next to the fleshy stacks, squid and octopus glistening on beds of ice. The further into the Rialto we got, of course, the more crowded and touristy things became. There were stands selling cups of fresh fruit, and pyramids made of sliced cocoanut, arranged on little fountain-pedestals that sprayed water and kept them fresh. There were tons of the usual souvenirs too, naturally: beads and heavy pendants made out of “Venetian” glass, Pinocchio puppets and decorative carnivale masks, cheap lacy fans with scenic panoramas silkscreened on them, gondolier hats and stripped shirts, t-shirts, so-called upscale stores with trays of gaudy gold jewelry. After crossing the Rialto Bridge, which provided a view of stereotypical Venice (gondolas, candy-stripped poles, someone playing an accordion, and all the other stuff you’d see at The Venetian in Las Vegas), the Rialto became even more like…well… any dumb mall in America. Admittedly, I’m not fond of shopping anyway, and don’t see the point of, if you’re in an amazingly beautiful and historic place like Venice, spending your time in a cramped little store buying knock-off Louis Vuitton crap, but when THTM and I discovered we were… standing… in front of… a fucking DISNEY STORE?! We beat tracks outa there!

Sorry, but anyone who does on vacation precisely what they could do at home is fucking lame.

Sadly, we discovered during dinner that that’s exactly what most tourists want to do. We met up at 5:30 in hopes of grabbing an early dinner, and discovered then that most of the restaurants didn’t open until 7. We passed time until then with another ramble through little local places and alongside crumbling churches, and finally ended up along a canal lined with sidewalk trattorias. We’d stopped to examine a menu, thought “What the hell, the view is gorgeous” and discovered, too late, that the place we were at featured a Menù Turistico, and everyone else in the place was the type of person who’d come to Italy and order a pepperoni pizza, same as if they’d called up the local Pizza Hut. The waiter was surprised that I could actually order in Italian, which must say something about the usual clientele there. The food? Bad. I’m not kidding… I think Olive Garden might taste more authentically Italian than the flavorless pizzas and pastas we got. I ordered pollo al forno, and received, on a small plate, one greasy and overbaked chicken thigh, in comparable taste and quality to what one would pick off a suburban grocery store hot dish.

The view WAS beautiful, though, and I had fun feeding the chunks of stale bread from the breadbasket to the binky-birds (TM O Nancy My Nancy) who’d land, poised in anticipation, on the very edge of the flower-box by our table.

But just to give you more of an idea about the restaurant…. All the flowers in the flowerboxes were fake.

We killed the pain with gelato, then retired early… or so I’d thought, because Pa’d surprised us with a gondola ride! Y’all know the rest.

Yesterday, as I already mentioned, we hit the Doge’s Palace after playing in the Square a while, and spend hours and hours looking at the paintings and marveling at the time and skill that went into even just ONE stone-carved fireplace, constructing ONE column, much less planning the overall structure. Pappy, with all his architectural know-how, was great good fun to have along at a place like this! What surprised me most was the amount of wood used in the building – wood beams, wood paneling, huge carved wooden doors…. When you see a great stone palace like this from the outside, you don’t really expect rustic wood-beamed ceilings, even if they are ornately carved. At least, I didn’t!

For lunch, we skipped the overcrowded and smoky places in the Rialto, and, back down a couple little alleys, found a trattoria with a worn green awning and had the yummiest meal we’ve eaten on our trip thus far. I had a fillet served on a bed of arugula (or, as it’s called in Europe, rocket), with the most delicious plate of grilled veggies I’ve had in a long time. THTM got a seafood-filled black ravioli. And Pappy, who is such an unadventurous eater that up until a few months ago he’d never even had a quesadilla for pity’s sake, ordered first tuna tartar, and then, after I’d advised him that tartar in fact meant “raw,” not tartar sauce, changed to a fried fish dish that he said was one of the best meals he’d had, light, delicate and simple. We finished up with a selection of chocolates and a ten-year-old port wine that cleared my sinuses and left me a little loopy… and more than ready for afternoon siesta!

Once things had cooled down, we crossed the Grande Canal for dinner, and wandered past the tourist shops, far down one of the side canals, and ended up in a neighborhood that might’ve been considered on “the wrong side of the tracks” …that is, if by "tracks" one meant “canal” – and dined at a place that seemed half neighborhoody, half tourist. The food was really good, though, although still not as good as the lunch place.

Another thought: Venice is one of the most distinctive-smelling cities I’ve experienced – well, next to New York in September and its interminable smell of pee. But Venice smells in a much better way: the wet scents of the rocks and bricks and algae that grows on them, the bakeries and restaurants, the old wood, the fish-market, the damp laundry out on lines, the exhaust from boats, even the people. Very evocative!

I’ve rambled enough for now! See what happens when I have an eight-hour train trip and have finished all the novels I brought with me? I’m desperate for my visit to Shakespeare & Co. in Paris to restock!

More from Zurich!



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