When the Going Gets Weird: Four Days in Venice

 

Venice waterway

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. – Hunter S. Thompson

This past November, my husband and I took a two-week trip to Italy to the Big Three: Rome, Florence, and Venice. We spent four nights in each location, walking close to 12 miles a day, which went a long way towards mitigating the effects of twelve straight days of pasta, bread, and wine. Going off-season almost anywhere has its advantages: fewer crowds, more moderate temperatures, and in Italy, in mid-late November, the added hilarity of signs in the shop windows advertising for Black Friday while not quite getting it right: using images of glitter-flecked skulls, or mislabeling it “Black Week.” 

Rome, our first stop, looked and felt like I’d always imagined. It was like being in a Fellini film, sublime in its aesthetic. The streets teem with sleek cars and iconic vespas that tear around the city at full speed. They weave in and out of, and sometimes between lanes, the drivers honking and gesturing, slowing only, and grudgingly at that, for crosswalks. That is, of course, unless the pedestrian hesitates even two seconds, in which case, the driver shrugs and plows through. If you want to cross a street in Rome, your self-preservation instinct can’t be too strong. Style seems to be a birthright: the women, with their severe and angular beauty, stride expertly across the cobbled streets in ridiculously high heels, even if they’re well into their 80s. The men in cashmere top coats, knotted neck scarves, and quirky eyeglasses, crowd in along the bar in lively cafes to sip espressos. Only rookies sit down. It costs more. Everyone smokes. No one respects queues. And it all plays out in and amongst antiquity so omnipresent that walking past the Colosseum, say, for like the eleventh time in two days, goes from surreal to almost ho-hum.

Palazzo del Cinema, off season

Florence was next, and to be honest, rather a let-down after the vibrancy of Rome, although certainly more manageable to navigate, especially on foot. An art lover’s dream, it’s the number one study abroad destination for U.S. college students, and we were engulfed by young adults and American accents. Florence is also an epicurean’s paradise and we had some of the best meals I’ve eaten anywhere in Europe. However, I was too naive and unprepared to realize that if you want to see Michaelangelo’s David or Boticelli’s Birth of Venus, you need to book tickets well in advance. So the closest we were able to get, at least to the former, was walking by the many pairs of anatomically correct David boxer shorts that hung for sale amid the other kitsch from the wooden tourist kiosks that dot the piazze.  

And then there was Venice. 

As with almost everywhere we go, after taking a few hours to loop around all the “must-sees,” we slip out the back and wander. And that’s where the magic happens. In Rome, we discovered our local neighborhood bar, a quirky craft cocktail place housed in a building constructed from stones filched, hundreds of years ago, from the grounds of the Colosseum. It was tiny, with just a handful of rather makeshift seats. The mixologist, earnest, and slightly shy, was far more mad scientist than show-off in his craft. We watched, enrapt, as he erected drink after drink, exquisitely made from esoteric ingredients. In Florence, we hiked three hours out of the city, through a dense and beautiful forest, up to Monte Ceceri where Leonardo DaVinci tested – unsuccessfully – his handmade flying machine.

But in Venice, getting off the beaten path is far easier. Walk just two blocks in any direction away from St. Mark’s Square and the peculiar and eccentric abound. Because Venice is weird. It’s weird in a beautiful, languid, dream-like way, but still weird, nevertheless. Up until I arrived, I always thought New Orleans topped the charts in this regard, but New Orleans is just training wheels compared to Venice. 

Shop Window: Murano glass chandelier and handmade masks

For one thing, it’s the water. It sounds obvious, but in Venice, the water is everywhere. It’s the essence of the city. The Grand Canal is the main highway, but the hundreds of smaller canals that line almost every single street are also important arteries for navigation. The water supports the city but also threatens it. St. Mark’s Square is only something like eight inches above sea level. Walking around the Piazza San Marco our second morning we found most of it flooded despite the fact it hadn’t rained. The sea was lapping at the docks, and slowly, but insistently, seeping over the edges. City workers hustled around erecting temporary elevated metal sidewalks. But even when the sun shines, the stones of the buildings and the streets seem damp and somewhat ominous. Cars are prohibited, as are motorcycles or scooters. Not even bicycles are allowed. So if you want to get around the city, there are two choices: a boat or one’s two feet. 

As it was late November the weather was mostly overcast and frigidly cold in that way it gets by the water. Each day, we buttoned up our coats and walked. We strolled the main island from end to end, exploring the little neighborhoods: Dorsoduro, Santa Croce, Canneragio, San Marco, Castello. We spent over two hours walking in Giardini della Biennale, the park on the main island where the Biennale held, our feet crunching through fallen elm leaves – a treat after four autumns spent in the Mediterranean with its dearth of hardwood trees. We gazed up at the old but still elegant Liberty Style apartment buildings, many going for five or more floors. These housed the residents we passed on the streets below, as old and faded, yet still as aristocratic as the buildings in which they lived. Wrapped tightly in layers of wildly patterned coats and shawls, bespectacled and bejeweled, they tottered along in shoes ridiculously inappropriate for the stone, leaf-strewn paths, so small and thin they seemed like ghosts of a bygone era. They raised their eyebrows in grudging greeting as they passed, clutching the leashes of dogs as tiny and outlandishly dressed as they. 

We took the water taxi to Lido, the only island in Venice where cars are allowed. We spent the morning wandering through neighborhoods as we made our way down to the main beach where the Venice film festival is held each year. We followed along the road that lined the long stretch of the wide, sandy beach, past the big, opulent grande dame hotels resembling Venetian palaces, now all closed for the season. It was chilly, the sea and sky the same color of gunmetal gray. The beach was empty, the wooden snack bar kiosks boarded shut and the chaise lounges stacked and covered with tarps. Except for us, there were no other people about, and for a moment, I was engulfed in a wave of profound emptiness.

Elevated sidewalks on Saint Mark’s Square

Back on the main island, in the side streets and alleys, the sun has a harder time reaching. Here it’s challenging to walk more than three abreast, and there is seemingly little logic to the layout. The tiny streets snake around in every direction before suddenly and inexplicably dead-ending into a building or the waterline of the many narrow arterial canals. It’s a rare feat, even with Google Maps, to get where you’re trying to go in one try. There are almost no street lights and once the sun sets, navigation gets even more challenging. So you run out of luck again and again, trying to maintain a normal demeanor to mitigate the tightening in your chest, until, finally, you emerge onto a street with shops and lights and people, and you realize just how long you’ve been holding your breath. It’s like the scene with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now, the profoundly disturbing film set in Venice, which captures the city’s beautiful but eerie vibe like no other.

Narrow Alley

Even the restaurants can seem a bit haunted. We ate dinner one evening at Ristorante Antica Sacrestia, a gem of a place, housed in an ancient building with Moroccan-inspired architecture overlooking one of the smaller canals. From the moment we entered, it felt like stepping back two centuries in time. The host, an exquisitely dressed man in his 70s, greeted us at the entrance with an old-world courtliness. He led us past a beautiful outdoor seating area, which, although unusable in the November chill, was still newly set with lit candles, sparkling stemware, and crisp, white tablecloths. We crossed the threshold and followed him inside through room after room of dining alcoves, each glowing warmly in low lighting and candlelight, to a table by a window set deep into the thick stone wall. The place was byzantine in its complexity and we were so deep inside, I wasn’t sure if I could have found my way back to the street on the first try. By the time we finished our first course of sublimely chewy gnocchi most of the other tables had filled. But the host and the server continued to dote on us, as they did with the other patrons, as if we were each guests in their own home. Yet, as warm as the restaurant was in temperature and in vibe, it couldn’t fully mitigate the damp chill that seemed to permeate the structure – and indeed, all of Venice. And while I was entranced with the experience, it also took me back to my impressionable high school mind, when I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and slept with my bedside light on for quite some time afterward. 

One of many street shrines

And so for some, Venice is a bit too much. I know people who, at the end of their first day, couldn’t wait to leave. They felt too weighted down by the atmosphere of decay. A friend of ours who otherwise loves the city, won’t sleep on the island. He prefers to stay in a hotel on the mainland. Because in Venice, decay is everywhere. It transcends the physical infrastructure of the buildings and streets, with their faded, weathered paint and timeworn, uneven bricks, into the overall feeling of the place, which although less visible, feels much more acute. It’s a decay that seems as though it’s been present since the city’s inception. And that’s even without taking the water bus to the Isola di San Michele – the cemetery island – which houses the graves of Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound, among hundreds of less famous residents, many of whom have photos of them embedded into their headstones, along with bouquets of dying flowers. Even the establishments along St. Mark’s Square and the seemingly endless number of brightly lit glass shops on Murano Island, which try their best to project a contemporary, cheerful vibe ultimately fall short. Their efforts, although herculean, remain simply a veneer. Because at its core, Venice is a secretive city: private, veiled, louche.

The Grand Canal

On the morning of our last day, we checked out of our little hotel that was set deep into an alleyway. It was bitterly cold and pouring down rain. Dragging our luggage, we made our way to the water bus that took us to the Accademia stop, where we caught the bus that took us over the bridge to the airport on the mainland. Getting through security, we found a little cafe where we split a pizza and drank coffees. I was soaked to the skin and shivering, but it was worth it. I needed a healthy dose of mainland normalcy. I was ready to leave Venice. 

I also can’t wait to go back. 

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