Well, the long-awaited final leg of my journey has begun. I arrived in Venice two nights ago, and soon found myself in a state of culinary euphoria. Venice is the one place on this journey to which I’ve been before, although the last time I was here, my classmates and I spent four sleepless days and nights preparing an installation for the biennale. Of course, anything that could have gone wrong did, and I remember running around narrow alleys in search of hardware stores that sold turnbuckles, and desperately seeking plexi-glass glue for the model that I had broken while getting on the plane in Boston. It was an incredibly stressful experience, but one from which I think I learned a few lessons.
Anyway, this trip to the lagoon city is completely different, and rather than feverishly trying to construct an installation, I’ve been enjoying taking it easy here. When he came to speak at MIT while I was there, Ai Wei Wei famously declared that he hates Venice. Yes, it’s hip to be a contrarian, cynicism is in, and I usually find myself agreeing with similar sentiments, but I have no shame in saying that I love Venice. I know that this statement will forever banish me to irrelevance, grouping me into a category of anti-critical fools, but I don’t care.
It’s true, however, that the main touristy parts of Venice are pretty awful. The main route from the train/bus stations to San Marco and the Rialto Bridge are downright shudder-inducing, populated by a slow moving mob of tourists, stopping to look in the overpriced souvenir shops that line the entire route, or sitting at cafes where they spend exorbitant amounts on mediocre food. Piazza San Marco is mobbed with people trying to see all the “good sites” in Venice during their three-hour cruise ship stopover, so they quickly try to get the ubiquitous shot of themselves covered in pigeons with the Campanile in the background. In fact, yesterday, much of the piazza was given over to set-up for a James Taylor concert (which I happily avoided).
But, only a couple of blocks away from these terrors, is a maze of quiet streets and canals, sprinkled with small squares and fantastic restaurants. It’s possible to walk around here for two hours in the cramped network of streets without seeing another tourist, stopping to share a bench in a small campo with an old gentlemen reading the evening paper. The food, when it’s done right, is also very different from anything you’d get elsewhere in Italy. Everything needs to be brought here by boat, so seafood is the staple of the Venetian diet, and they’ve had a lot of practice figuring out how they like it. While Piazza San Marco gets a lot of press as one of the greatest public squares in the world, there is something absolutely fantastic about winding down a narrow alley, ducking under a low sotoportega, and emerging onto a small square with a couple of tall trees, a few benches, and a small enoteca. Similarly, I love that I can sometimes see the domes of a church that is my destination from across a canal, but can have no idea how to get there, because all of the paths seemingly move in the opposite direction.
Anyway, don’t take my word for it. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve been here, and have not enjoyed it. It’s also a city for which I don’t think the photographs do it much justice. The experience of total envelopment in a quiet neighborhood is one that cannot be replicated on a computer screen or printed page. I’ll try my best, though. Here are a few photos (click to enlarge):
Someone mentioned that I've taken a lot of photos of narrow alleys. This one takes the cake, and is a major access route, too.
My first night in Venice was spent exploring Canereggio, the neighborhood in which my hotel is located. There is one busy street, Strada Nova, that leads from the trains station towards the Rialto Bridge, and San Marco, but just one block off of that street, everything is completely quiet, with little Osterias hidden on back alleys, or small squares of which few people have ever heard.
I found a fantastic Osteria on one such small square, Campo Widmann, which I never knew existed. I treated myself to a great meal here, with only local ingredients (typical in italy, I guess), and fish that was caught that day by Venetian and Burano fishermen. This was Branzino Marinato, which is sort of an italian version of ceviche. The fish was not cooked, but lightly marinated in some balsamic vinegar, and lemon juice. It was fantastic.
My next course was a sardine pasta, which is pretty self-explanatory, and was delicious. I did not go for the full three-course meal because this was actually my fourth meal of the day. I stupidly ate lunch at the airport in Istanbul, and then got on the plane, where they served me another full lunch. Also, the deserts at this place looked other-worldly, but I settled for one of the best espressos that I've ever had. I had a date with a gelateria around the corner.
My long-awaited gelato. Thoughts of this moment got me through some tough times on this trip. It was everything that I had hoped it would be, although my favorite flavor, stracciatella is on the bottom, so it's not visible in the picture. It's covered in tiramisu.
This is just one of the many quiet, off-the-beaten-track squares in the Canneregio.
I had to do the old "cough and snap" routine to get this interior photo from Il Gesuiti, which is only possible when there aren't many people around, and when the sexton is an ancient man who's nodding off in the back pew. I'll have a photo of the exterior when the lighting is a little better.
Of course, San Marco is undergoing some renovation, although the mosaics over the doors are still visible.
The opposite of a small square in Canereggio, San Marco is jammed with people trying to snap photos of themselves covered in pigeons, or posing in front of the basilica.
Do I have any more insight into the patterning on the facade of the Doge's Palace after traveling so far? I think so, and I think that my regular readers will, too. My final stop in Milan will give some high Gothic context, too.
The building remains a singularly eclectic melange of influences.
The requisite view of palazzos across the Grand Canal
Yesterday was laundry day in Dorsuduro.
Views like this, in Dorsuduro, remind me that people still actively inhabit this city. Although, painfully leaning towards Disneyland, Venice still has a very active community, for now.
At the tip of Dorsuduro, which swings around below San Marco, separated by the mouth of the Grand Canal, is Ca' Dario, a great spot to get views across all of Venice, like the one at the top of this page.
The high baroque Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute was built in around 1630, about the same time as Istanbul's New Mosque. I arrived too late to go inside, but I'm excited to see the 12 Titians located within.
Someone stumbling upon this church might interpret the lighting as some sort of sign, beckoning them inside. I didn't, though.
"Sotoportega" means a passage underneath a building, and sometimes one has no idea what one will find on the other side. Also, these are sometimes the only through routes out of small squares, and can be difficult to find.
One of the last two gondola craftsmen can be found working on a boat towards the center of this picture. He has one rival, who's located on the opposite end of town. Some of his gondolas have ended up in Las Vegas. If you're wondering how I know all of this, I once met the rather unfriendly chap.
Cicchete, the Venetian version of meze, are small snacks that are enjoyed in the evening, while standing up and drinking wine. Tourists pay extra to sit down, but I try to live like the locals. I'm not fooling anyone, though. The snack on the right had some sort of truffle oil on it.
Cicchete are cheap, and the wine is delicious. It's a great way to start off the evening. On a Monday night, the interior of the place was jam-packed with locals.
These suckers paid extra to take their cicchete and wine outside.
Seppie al Nero, one of the dishes to which I was really looking forward. It's cuttlefish, cooked in its own ink, and served over pasta.
Local sole. Whenever I've order a fish like this in the US, the waiter has fileted it at the table. The job was left to me, and I can't say that I did it expertly.
Stracciatella on top. The perfect finale to a great day.
The statues become slightly more animated at night, or maybe that's the gelato talking.