After the ride to the airport. After the thirteen hour flight (on which we stretched out in "Comfort Coach," watched The Shining, and slept, slept, slept.). After a four-hour layover in the muggy Delta terminal of Charles DeGaulle, embarrassed on behalf of the American tourists trying to use U.S. cash to buy macarons from a visibly put-off Frenchwoman at the Ladurée kiosk. After a cramped connecting flight on an Air France puddle-jumper to Venezia Aeroporto. After some confusion regarding how to purchase Alilaguna ferry tickets from an ancient electronic vending machine. After waiting in a sweaty boathouse for twenty minutes with winter-coated fellow travelers overdressed for the humid 70-degree October weather. After lugging our bag on board and finding a seat at the front, looking out through a dirty window. After motoring off impossibly slowly, the ferry's flat bottom slapping the wakes of passing speedboats. After dropping off passengers in empty Murano, empty Lido. It's night, the sky just losing its blue. We're alone except for another couple four rows behind us, the man sniffling back a cold, the woman clutching the handle of her carry-on with both hands.
At last, Venice appears, a few orange lights rising out of the lagoon behind the drifting boats in the middle-distance. Julianna, returning nine years after she was last here, points out the Campanile di San Marco—the first landmark she recognizes—standing nearly 400 feet over the piazza below. On the opposite side of the Grand Canal, Santa Maria della Salute looms, illuminated by floodlights. I remember reading about this particular church; it was built in the 1630s to ward off the plague. It didn't work.
We get off the ferry, walk along the promenade, and turn into the instant glory of the Piazza di San Marco. A mass of people stroll and sit in the public space between the Palazzo della Zecca (a 16th century mint turned library), the Doge's Palace (a Gothic structure that was the seat of Venice's power for ages), the Procuratie (three former government buildings that now house museums and overpriced coffee houses), and St. Mark's Basilica (where the supposed remains of the eponymous apostle were relocated in the 9th century as a move to give the city some politico-theological prestige). The piazza is almost unreal. Imposing. Overwhelming. Of course, it's a tourist pit now—Venice's Times Square, basically—but if you can ignore the cafe orchestra playing the theme from The Godfather, and if you can somehow avoid the immigrant vendors hawking roses and trinkets and knock-off handbags, you can still feel the weight of history pressing in on you from all sides.
We find our hotel without much difficulty, and I try using some hesitant guide-book Italian to check in: Ho una prenotazione. Il nome è Broadwater. My efforts amuse the impossibly handsome young clerk, but he responds in English, essentially telling me not to bother. From here on out, I'll need little more than common courtesies and survival phrases. Prego. Grazie. Dove è il bagno? I feel bad about this—call it the guilt of the self-conscious American traveler—but decide the best tact is to be gracious and use as much Italian as possible. The next morning, in the hotel restaurant, we get a primer on how not to behave. We're seated next to an early fortysomething, nouveau-riche, all-money-no-style married couple that sound like they're likely from New Jersey. The wife is in head-to-toe, label-besplashed Gucci. Her husband, under his ball cap, has a hard, thick face; he's grimacing at the table settings. When the waiter comes by, the man gestures at the small jars of jam on a silver tray between him and his wife. "There's no apricot," he says to the waiter, who doesn't know the English word. "NO. APE-RAH-COT," the man repeats. He picks up the other jam jars one by one. "See? APPLE. BLACKBERRY. MARMALADE. Where's the APE-RAH-COT?" The waiter hustles off and the man appears satisfied at the success of his English lesson. He and his wife eat in stony silence while Juli and I shrink in our chairs to avoid any perceived association. We're not with them.
Our first full day in Venice is largely agenda-less. A day to wander and get over jet lag. We consider popping into St. Mark's Basilica or the Doge's palace, but the square at nine a.m. is bonkers crowded with cruise ship tour groups led by flag-waving guides. Instead, we head towards Dorsoduro, the city's southernmost sestiere—area, that is—with the loose intent of finding a bakery Juli remembers from her last trip here. We stop for espresso in a piazza on the way and on a whim pop into an exhibition for an Azerbaijani artist who has, in this small gallery, created a living room wherein every surface—from the couch to the ceiling to the books on the shelves—is covered in the intricately woven rugs for which his country is famous. We cross the Ponte dell'Accademia, one of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal, and decide to check out the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and Santa Maria della Salute, out on the point. Both turn out to to be closed for the day—we bookmark them for later in the trip—but it was worth walking out here to see the view looking across the water to San Marco.
We double back, taking a different set of streets this time, and go looking for Tonolo, Juli's bakery. Everyone we ask knows exactly where it is, but we get three different sets of directions on how to get there. We walk semi-aimlessly, occasionally consulting a no-data-connection-required GPS map app that pinpoints our location perfectly sometimes and then seems to drop us in the middle of the ocean when we most need it. Juli, being twenty weeks pregnant, has to pee, and I'm getting hungry at this point, but when we walk past a university, we find some kind female students who offer to walk us to Tonolo. It's on their way home. The route we take bears no resemblance to any of the directions we were previously given, but this is Venice—a labyrinth of narrow snaking alleyways. We grab a small lunch first at a slow food place down the street and then hit up the bakery for the main course. Dessert. We split a tiramisu and Il Cubo, a white chocolate cube encasing a wet, spongy amalgam of pistachio and banana cream cake. It's up there among the best things I've ever put in my mouth, but I spoil the moment by telling Juli it tastes like a posher version of Little Debbie's Banana Twins.
Next, we make our way up through San Polo, the dead-center of the city, planning on heading back into northern San Marco—where our hotel is—via the Rialto bridge. Completed in 1591, the Rialto is the oldest structure crossing the Grand Canal. It's one of Venice's key landmarks, historically connecting the political powerhouse of San Marco with the financial center of San Polo. Now, the bridge and the marketplace before it are a touristy gauntlet of made-in-China souvenirs—silk scarves and novelty t-shirts and factory-produced carnival masks. It's better after dark, when the trinket shops are shuttered and the crowds have gone back to their cruise ships, leaving a gorgeous view of the canal.
Back in San Marco, we try to time a trip to the top of the Campanile with golden hour, but we're twenty minutes late. As we get out of the elevator beneath the tower's bells, the sun has long set. It doesn't matter. The twilight casts Venice below in an strange green-blue. From here, you can see the entire city in 360 degrees, an expanse of terracotta rooftops. We meet a pair of fiftysomething sisters from Illinois who offer to take our photo. I'll realize after we get back that this is the only photo of the two of us from this trip that I didn't take myself at arm's length.
Later, we feel obligated to visit Harry's Bar, the legendary Venetian haunt of Ernest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Somerset Maugham. We pay way too much for tiny-but-delicious Bellinis—Juli's is senza alcool, of course—but it's worthwhile just to sit for a bit among the ghosts of early 20th century artistic genius. Plus, the waiters are dashing in their crisp white tuxedo blazers and erudite black-framed glasses. Everyone in here could feasibly star in a Fellini film.
After dinner at a rowdy pub where students have congregated to watch a football match, we spend the next several hours wandering down deserted calle, over footbridges—technically, all bridges in this car-less city are footbridges—and through increasingly emptied piazzas, the day tourists gone. This is Venice at its most haunting, lit by dim streetlamps and the sickly green glow of the occasional farmacia sign. I want to make a giallo here, with some leather-gloved, dagger-wielding killer stalking unsuspecting travelers. Or a horror film—submerged crypts, the gothic in decline, black hair floating in blacker water. For now, I settle for taking long-exposure night shots of the canals and narrow corridors. Juli is a good sport to tag along, and she points out views I might otherwise miss.
While setting up my tripod for one shot at the apex of a bridge, I feel a man watching me from a few paces away. Juli spots him too and gives him a good-natured buona sera, prompting him to come over and ask me a few questions about camera settings. We end up talking for at least half an hour. He's in his sixties, maybe, very polished, and here on business. He's a physician up north in the Dolomites, and in his spare time he takes photographs of heritage monuments from South Tyrol and posts them to WikiCommons. Eventually, he introduces himself as Dr. Wolfgang Moroder, to which I reply, "Oh, Moroder, like Giorgio." (The pioneering synthesizer maestro and disco producer.) His eyes widen, surprised. "You know Giorgio? He's my cousin." I can't believe it. He goes on to joke that Giorgio is "good for the family name" and tells us about how he once flew to Los Angeles to visit his cousin during the disco heyday and ended up in a swimming pool with Donna Summer. What a life. We part ways and a few minutes later I mentally kick myself for forgetting to ask if I could make a portrait of him there on the bridge.
We cover more ground in day two, at least when it comes to the major, must-see sights. We're outside the Doge's palace by 8:30 and are among the first to enter for the day. There's no one in the courtyard whatsoever, so we stand for a while and gawk—probably the intended response—at the colossal statues of Mars and Neptune that stand atop the "Giants' Staircase." Inside, we pass in a hushed awe through the various chambers used by the senate and judiciary. Ornate doesn't even begin to describe the decor. Wall-spanning depictions of enormous naval battles. Narcissistically commissioned portraits of the doge painted into various biblical scenes. ("Really, bro, I was there.") Oversized zodiac clocks. Gilded everything. Then we pass over the Bridge of Sighs—where condemned prisoners were said to take their last look out at fair Venice—and enter the 16th century dungeons, where the interiors are significantly less opulent. In one room, there's an exhibition of prisoners' scrawled-in-coal wall art. There are some amateurish men on horseback, some scribbled boats, and—not surprisingly—lots of comically inept nudes with wildly misplaced anatomy. Nothing has changed.
By the time we exit through the gift shop, the crowds have arrived, squinting into the dim LED viewfinders on the backs of their point-and-shoots. The Basilica next door is a madhouse—we're practically herded into the nave—so we don't really feel like lingering in hopes of catching some waft of the sacred. We make a quick circuit, past the high alter, past the coin-operated electronic blessing candles, and back out into the square. We return to Dorsoduro to see the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and wait in line for twenty minutes behind a gaggle of German schoolgirls, blonde and blue-eyed to a one. After a morning of heavy Renaissance art, the collection—housed in Guggenheim's longtime Venice residence, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni—is a breath of modernist fresh air. We see early paintings from Jackson Pollock, whom Guggenheim made famous, and a whole host of futurists, abstract expressionists, and dadaists. My favorite work here is "The Antipope," by surrealist extraordinaire Max Ernst, who was briefly Guggenheim's husband in the 1940s. It seems to belong in Venice—it's watery and erotic, a disturbing subversion of ecclesiastical Renaissance painting:
We have lunch at some organic/sustainable restaurant connected to a nearby university. I have pasta and Juli accidentally orders a ridiculously large plate containing a hunk of mozzarella and a spread of tomatoes and sautéed eggplant and cucumber. We take our time, have a coffee and split a slice of cake. It's good to just sit for a while. We have a long walk ahead of us up to Cannaregio, Venice's northernmost sestiere, where we seek out the first ghetto, instituted in 1516 to contain the city's Jewish population. (It's where The Merchant of Venice is set.) The Italian word ghèto means "slag," a reference to a foundry that previously existed in the area. The two squares here, Ghetto Nuovo and Ghetto Vecchio, are still the hub of Jewish life in the city, with kosher grocers, synagogs, and a yeshiva. In Ghetto Nuovo, we watch an elderly woman tsk-tsking her toddler granddaughter, who wants to touch the pigeons. Meanwhile, a cadre of police officers has gathered in a police box at the north end of the square, where they sit on folding chairs, legs splayed and laughing.
Italian cops all look like models. They travel in packs. Later that night, we see a group of them buying gelato together. I want to take a photo, but I'm honestly a little intimidated. Instead, Juli and I go off to take some more night shots of the city. I could stay out all night walking through the streets, but we've got a train to catch to Florence in the morning.
Check back in in a few days for Part II, covering our stay in Florence. Thanks!