July 23, 2008

Venice was our final stop on my family's two-week visit to Italy, and as tourists we were in for one touristy ride here. It amazes me that people actually live in Venice and make a living here outside of the hospitality industry. This city, historic though it is, feels much more like a theme park than a community. There is no place else on the planet like it. What would normally be a mundane intersection in any other city is a beautiful crossing of centuries-old bridges and canals on which traditional gondolas and modern motorboats are always in motion.

We stayed at a hotel just a few blocks from the legendary St. Mark's Square, though we didn't go into the Basilica until a couple of days in. (In classic theme park fashion, the Basilica is free to enter but many parts of the interior charge an entrance fee.) On the recommendation of the guides we read, we spent a lot of time just walking around visiting the numerous campi (squares) and the six sestieri (divisions) that make up this city. Even a good map is marginally useful at best. Many streets are so small they don't show up on maps, signs can be ambiguous, and there are even directional signs spray-painted on the walls to augment or contradict the official directional signs. Getting from point A to point B requires careful knowledge of landmarks in the area.

We spent the better part of one day heading towards Il Ghetto, the historically Jewish section of Venice and the origin of the term now used worldwide. Aside from a few small shops and a museum of Venice's Jewish history, there's not much to see here. If it weren't for our map, Il Ghetto would have blended in well with many of the other squares and historic neighborhoods.

We quickly learned to pace ourselves and opened up to the different forms of water transport. We took several vaporetti (water buses) to get to our hotel and around town. There are also traghetti, very short-distance gondolas that cross a canal for €0.50 per passenger and basically substitute for a bridge. We learned the hard way that many stop running as early as 1:00 PM.

On the recommendation of the porter/bartender at our hotel, we took an unnecessarily-long vaporetto up to Murano, a section in northeast Venice reachable only by boat and famous for its glass. Although undeniably touristy, Murano is much quieter than the rest of Venice and feels much more relaxing. There are no umbrella-wielding group leaders herding people to hotspots; the whole neighborhood feels as though it is itself a landmark. There are still many glass factories in operation and many shops peddling glass baubles, though some shops accuse others of selling more cheaply-made Chinese glassware. There's also a museum, though after we followed all the signs and wandered around near the "Museo" vaporetto stop for a while, we couldn't find the entrance.

There are many museums and churches worth seeing in Venice, but the great attraction of the city comes from just walking around and finding little nooks and crannies. For every dead-end street of residences there are several hidden art shops, restaurants, cafes, and gelato shops that wouldn't show up in any guide. As Americans we were pretty much guaranteed of getting ripped off, so it's best to pretend like €1 equals $1 and enjoy the city all the more.

One last water shuttle brought us to Marco Polo Airport, where we blew the rest of our euros on espresso and duty-free merchandise. They've got a great selection: one of the duty-free shops at the airport even sells fresh meats and cheeses from a refrigerated case. Once back in New York, we were ready to start readjusting to American time and ready to celebrate my great-aunt's 80th birthday in, of all places, the Bronx's Little Italy.