Julia and I painted masks yesterday. Venetian masks and mask making are part of the culture although for most of the time masks that were not theatrical were not decorated or made to stand out. Masking made the wearer anonymous. Sometimes in the same way that Clark Kent’s glasses hid his identity as superman. It was enjoyable to experience how they paint modern masks although I wanted to be more daring in my painting instead of careful. Julia was, of course, the very definition of daring.
Today is our last day in Venice, in Italy, and thoughts turn to a summing up. Venice is not an easy city to crack. If it were not so utterly charming, I wonder if it would have been abandoned a long time ago as a tourist destination. It is like a very difficult friend, fascinating and essential but damned inconvenient. Like my mask painting, I have not proven to be a sufficiently daring city explorer and will leave tomorrow feeling like I have not discovered a true Venice. I can blame that one the heat but just in part. Am I intrepid enough to for this town?
Venice is an impossible maze of tiny foot paths among innumerable bridges. The largest streets are one car lane wide. There are some street names painted at the corners of buildings but you can walk for a long time in places with no clue to names. If there are names. And this is in the tourist part of town. We have walked a fair amount here, not as much as we would have if it were cooler. We have not passed a single grocery store or a butcher or a bakery for non tourists. There is one fruit stand with barge that we pass often and we have found a fancy appliance store but most everyday shopping for Venetians has eluded us. I take that to mean that we have not penetrated the Venice of inhabitants. There are Venetians living among us-there is a second floor library with floor to ceiling windows opened onto a small canal that I look at nightly, but I assume that for the most part the Venice of daily living is tucked into corners of the city in which most tourists don’t walk. Perhaps the explanation is that Venetians don’t need to buy the same things that the rest of us do.
There doesn’t seem to be an efficient way to move around the city. Certainly, no city planner sat down at any time and put a grid on thIs city. I wonder what Venetians think of places like NYC where the rectangular grid is a rigid construction for all but Broadway and some of downtown. Do they think us ridiculous or redundant for our street signs at every corner?
Tourists here tend to wander, staring at maps or navigation devices mumbling. Neither is accurate. Not really. We’ve been led to the wrong place with imaps innumerable times because as well as being a maze, many places don’t have proper addresses. Dorsoduro 1273 was what was given for the workshop we attended, but that entered into imaps produced nothing. It is also not on any paper map-I’ve taken to carrying and consulting both.
Ask a Venetian about this and they will most likely shrug their shoulders and say something like this is the way it is. There is no desire to make it easier save some painted arrows that point towards s few major sights. These are very useful once a pedestrian knows which major sight their destination is near but only then. Perhaps it is a means of keeping tourists in parts of town they can identify,
Phone service and Internet connection can’t be depended upon, at least the data plan and wifi connections I’ve been using. Our hotel provides Internet connection which does not work. I thought it was just me and our devices but I’ve heard two other guests ask for new passwords because what they had didn’t connect. Cafes offer free wifi that cuts out as soon as you log on. My Vodafone it which was reliable everywhere else in Italy doesn’t work in our hotel and cuts off in the street sometimes. This tends to cut a tourist off from information, mail as well as maps. It reminds me so much of travel 30 years ago when the occasional letter from friends was our touch with home and news before we had any Italian meant going to the American library in Rome to read NY Times that was a few days old.
I don’t think that Venice wants to change any of this. It is what it is. Take me as I am or not at all, it seems to say. Perhaps in the ultimate conservative stand, there is no reason to change. People have wandered this city for centuries finding what was lovely and charming and letting go of the rest. If that is not enough for a visitor, then this place is not for you. Then you will return home and only complain of the smelly maze with impolite people.
A note on the smelly part. Venice 30 years ago in the winter was not smelly at all. For years I was told that it was different in the summer. There are some places here that have a unpleasant smell, sometimes of fish, sometimes it is of a human unpleasantness, but it is no more than what is in any mid sized city. There is some trash around but that is mostly due to too many tourists filling trash containers. In general, Venetians take pride in their shops and hotels and homes and canals. Streets are washed and swept, garbage collected, even canals are picked up and scrubbed some.
However on another hand, information at tourist sights can be a challenge. Julia and I have enjoyed the audio tours of most art museums we visited but we were disappointed at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, coming away a bit cranky and impatient. The audio tour covered one to two paintings in a room and there was no overview of rooms or choice of more specific information about pieces. The information provided didn’t seem relevant to the casual art admirer. This was also true of the printed material at the doge’s palace and in the basilica. It would have been better to have a good guide book in Venice. There are online materials that we might have used but then there was that connection challenge again. The Peggy Guggenheim gallery was the exception. Great audio tour and even better talks by interns working there. I waited 30 years to see that museum and was completely satisfied. The person guided tour of dungeons and the chambers of the secret courts at the doge’s palace was also good. Our guide had lots of information, spoke very good English and enjoyed doing it all in a suspenseful way.
And although a difficult friend, Venice at the last minute offered to redeem herself. A street taken by mistake and we found a shop with hand made bags that charmed me. I had to have one and bought another as a gift. And I am not the shopper. I asked the shop keep about a restaurant for our final meal and she recommended one at the end of the block that was superb. We feasted on melon with Prosciutto, eggplant ravioli with both a tomato and pesto sauces (something I must try at home) with shavings of parmasian, and a calves liver of the melt in your mouth variety with onions and mushrooms over polenta. I had my last glass of local house wine. I started drinking red in Torino because it was recommended and continued asking for red throughout our travels. If I can remember the names, I will look for some of it at home. And liver is a speciality in Venice and I had been lured to the fish every other night. We finished with tiramisu, in a little bowl that Julia had a very hard time sharing. We promised each other not to split the tiramisu next time we eat at La Bitta.
We sat in a little square for a long time afterwards watching the early evening lose light until it was night. And then we walked home without benefit of map or iPad. Although I had my doubts, Venice, Venizia has me again and I would ask to stay much longer next time.