Monday, July 5, 2010

Venice- Day One

Tuesday, the third of June, we left for Venice by train. It was exceptionally clear with little to no haze, giving us distant views as we went through the Apennines and out onto the open stretches of Emilia-Romagna. Most of the students were reading, resting, listening to their ipods along the way. I was looking out the window at small towns, the fields that went off into the distance and thinking about how densely the cities and towns were settled. After crossing the Reno, Po and Adige I could see the jagged peaks of the Dolomites, their shapes filled in with a consistent blue off in the distance. This was the clearest I'd ever seen them.

There is something very different about arriving in Venice. I've arrived at Santa Lucia station five times now (not very many times compared to the addicted) but, there is something about leaving the mainland and going across the lagoon where you are doing more than traversing space. You are going to a completely different place. You can see the city, the outlines of buildings, domes, bell towers as you move forward; the city keeps its back turned toward you across the water as you approach. It is like a theatrical backdrop. Then you enter the station, much like a lot of other large train stations, where the vision of the city is put on hold (anyone need to go to the bathroom?) for a few moments. Then, walking out of the doors of the station, you enter directly onto the stage. You walk into the scene itself. The people standing and gazing, the boats and vaporetti gliding by, the masses going over the bridge to your left, the dome of San Simeone Piccolo rising across the canal all are part of this play. Thousands of stories are taking place on the stage before you. And you enter.

I had been staying in Cannaregio my last two trips, but this time I was staying on the edge of Dorsoduro looking across at Santa Croce, less than a ten minute walk from the train station. The B&B, Locanda Gaffaro, was tucked away inside a small courtyard and beyond the gate was an enclosed garden with chairs and tables shaded by vines growing above. We dropped off our luggage- Brian's method: bring the big luggage to the apartment in Florence, bring a small backpack with two changes of clothes and drawing supplies on the road- and headed out.

Venice is very compact, its small to tiny streets lead you through maze-like routes toward and, sometimes, away from your destination. It is always funny to see that in places you will have two arrows
, painted on the side of a building, pointing to San Marco, each pointing in the opposite direction. Either route will take you there. In some places you are walking down what feels more like the enclosed corridor of a building than a narrow street outdoors. Then you come into an open campo and you get your bearings. The experience of Venice- finding your way, getting lost, thinking you are going in the correct direction, realizing you don't know what the hell you're doing, getting to a point of recognition- adds up to the experience of place as metaphor. That heightens the sense that you are taking part in a play, with a didactic twist that is not over-wrought, but natural.

For this, my third time taking students to Venice, I am developing a tradition. Once again, I lead them to Piazza San Marco to look around and marvel (less pigeons- yea!) and then off to play "Let's Get Lost in Venice". Each student leads the group for fifteen minutes, or so, and then chooses the next leader. The aim is to stay away from the crowds and not to find ourselves back in San Marco. We found quiet canals, water lapping against the sides in the shade of trees with no one near. We heard a piano playing time to unseen ballet students. We smelled fish, shrimp, octopus and other creatures gathered from the lagoon and beyond at vendors booths. We ducked in to San Zaccharia (I had to take the reins for a minute when I saw where we were) to see one of Bellini's greatest paintings that is still in the church, where it was intended to be. One student, while leading us, found a small courtyard named with her surname- Cortese; definitely a photo opportunity.

As with a lot of places I go to with the students I become more aware of what I want to see someday. I have never been in the Doge's Palace and there are loads of churches, well-known and nondescript, that I have never ventured inside of. As with Rome and Siena, (with Florence also, although we are there for the better part of a month) we can only see a small part. I have to choose what is most important for the students' experience, so I return to a lot of the places again and again. No complaints, I just try to fit in new places, a bit here and there, when I can.

We ended on the northern edge of Cannaregio, looking across to the cemetery on its own island in the lagoon. The students decided it was time for a gelato, so we had some looking across the lagoon- "What island is that across, over there?" "I have no idea".

Later, after making our way back to the B&B, while the students took a rest, I scouted the location of two restaurants that were suggested by my friend and self-admitted Venice addict, Kathleen. I made reservations for Taverna San Trovaso for that night and Casin dei Nobili for the next. From the time I saw the Taverna, I thought I recognized the way it sat along a canal but made its own corner along the street. It looked very familiar. When I went inside to make reservations that sense grew on me. I went back through to the Campo Santa Margarita, which is definitely the happening place in the neighborhood, and sat at a table under an awning in the square and had a Aperol Spritz (very Venetian). I watched as a local guy, half hiding behind me, was steering a remote-controlled car around the open space in front of us. He made it weave in front of people as they walked, bump into them as they stood in groups talking, darting in front of someone who tried to avoid it but almost kissed the pavement in the process and race after casually elegant young women. For the young women he would reveal himself after the car tapped their foot a few times. Not a bad idea.

Later we all arrived at the restaurant, at a time that was more appropriate for Rome and Florence. I forgot that, generally, people go out to eat a bit earlier here. On entering, I was almost certain- this was the place my teacher took a group of us to fifteen years ago when I was first in Italy. Now it was my turn to take students for their first time. Venice helped me find my way, get lost and come to a place of recognition. The play goes on.


  1. Thank you, Brian! You are such a good writer. This will keep me sort of satisfied until the next installment.

  2. Thanks Yvonne. I'm cracking open a beer now.

  3. Excuse me, Signore. How long does it take to drink that beer, and get to work here???

  4. Is that it, then? No more??