Friday, December 7, 2012

Rockin the Gondola

Entrance to a building from the canal.
Derek found a great little apartment in Venice and we arrived Wednesday afternoon on the train. We got on board a water bus that took us down the Grand Canal out to the open bay and around to the eastern edge of Venice to Fondamenta Nuove. There, the landlord Andrea (he's a guy!) met us and led us down a rabbit warren of narrowing streets to the apartment. It a great place, with a decently outfitted kitchen, newly remodeled and with plenty of space. Andrea speaks English with many pauses to think of the right word and understands more or less at the same speed. I throw in a few Spanish words if I think they might help the communication, so we've gotten along just fine so far.

We headed out into the tightly packed city to eat lunch and wander around to see the things before it got dark, which happens around 5:00! And promptly got lost. That was fine as long as the sun was still shining. Maps can still be read, but after a while it got a little iffy. Eventually we made it to the edge of the water and found the place the water bus let us off, then it was just a matter of trying to remember how we'd gotten from there to the apartment.

In these deep city "canyons", some barely the width of two adults and not laid out on anything resembling a grid, it's very easy to get lost. The big streets are the waterways, the solid streets are just sidewalks. We ate lunch at a little outdoor cafe and had an Italian version of a burrito, they call it rolled pizza. We watched a couple get into a small motor boat with their little boy and his scooter, and "drive" away. I think wheeled traffic must be banned within the narrow walkways.  Children and parents congregate in a large piazza every afternoon and the kids zoom around on their scooters.  I've not seen a bicycle, a Segway, or even anybody on roller skates. Of course every time you have to cross the water, there's a bunch of steps up to a bridge and then many steps down. It would be difficult on roller blades, impossible for anyone in a wheel chair, and painful for those with bad knees.

On Thursday, the sun was out but the air was cold. We slithered through the maze over to San Marco, a huge open piazza surrounded by stores and government buildings, anchored on one side by a Basilica and a former palace museum. The church is decorated inside and out with mosaic paintings made from glass tiles the size of a match head in some cases, the larger ones not much bigger than a finger nail. Millions of them, many covered in gold leaf, form paintings of the events of Jesus' life, starting on the east ,where the sun rises, and ending in the west where the Son of God never sets. Upstairs is a display of the bronze horses, identical to the ones outside on top of the church, and many displays of how the mosaics were supported and restored back in the 1930s when the building was dismantled around them and rebuilt over them. I'm not sure why they did it that way, unless the building was crumbling, it was a tremendous undertaking.

There is a bell tower in San Marco square, the Campanile, with an elevator that takes you to the top. From that high point you can see in every direction, south to Lido, north to the mainland and down into the many piazzas and open patios around the city. I think Venice is the most densely packed city I've ever been in, with the exception of a few in India where the streets are too narrow for cars and they too have become walking-tourist attractions.

View from the Campanile

Since the Christmas season is upon us, the stores are decorated with reds and golds. This is by far the most expensive city I've been to in Europe. "Buses", those boats that travel the canals are 7 Euros per ride, even if you only go from one stop to the next one. A day ticket is 19 Euros, allowing you to ride for 12 hours, or you can buy one for 24 hours. However, the prices are not the same for the locals who carry an ID with them, using it to get the "real" price for goods and services.

Prices are Euros per kilo, which is about 2.2 pounds,
actually a lot of fish for the price!
The landlord Andrea has bent over backwards to accommodate and take care of us. He stocked the kitchen with food for a breakfast or two, though that was not in the online deal. He lent us movies to watch and invited us to go with him Friday to purchase fish at the huge outdoor market. It was pretty early so Derek slept in,  and I went. We walked across our section of the island to a gondola crossing. Venice is exactly like one would expect from the movies and photos we've all seen. The goldoliers dress in striped shirts, wear a straw hat with a ribbon, and slowly row romantic couples around in the black beautifully carved gondolas with red heart shaped cushions. (Now that it's winter they have thick jackets with striped sleeves, wool scarves, and ear muffs under the summery straw hat!) Those are the expensive gondolas. The run of the mill gondola, used for daily transport is plain, and has a flat plywood floor. I didn't know what to expect when Andrea told me we would be riding a Gondola, and that it was cheap. He showed his ID and gave the boatman 50 cents for my passage. The riders stand up in this 'regular' gondola, while it gently rocks back and forth with the movement of the giant oar in the back. It was scary! Andrea told me I could sit, but there was no place to sit, I would have had to crouch down. Everyone else (all ten passengers) were standing so I stood too, though there was nothing to hang onto. The ride lasted less than a minute. All boat traffic came to a halt as we slid from one side of the canal to the other, but the waves created by all that traffic still rocked the boat. Andrea said during Carnival (late March or early April), when the traffic was greater, one of the gondolas did turn over, dumping everyone into the cold water. Of course he told me this as we were rocking across!!


Our Gondolier, no straw hat for this guy!


The market is a huge outdoor affair, under permanent cover. The stalls were full of every edible thing from the Mediterranean. Whole flounders, crabs, lobster claws (I assume the rest is sold to the fancy restaurants!), tentacles and heads of octopi, shrimp in dozens of sizes and shapes, bright red fish and pale mottled ones. Andrea went to all of the stalls looking for the best price, then settled on one and purchased 1.5 kilos of large shrimp, some of whom were still moving. Next door is the same setup of cover but for the fruit and vegetable market. I thought by now I'd seen every kind of produce in the world, but I was wrong.

In the buildings that flank the outdoor stalls there are meat markets and bakeries. In this one small area, you could purchase absolutely everything you would need to produce a meal, or ten. Everything is fresh and boated over from the mainland. It's not cheap, but it is less expensive than in the grocery stores. We actually had a bit of difficulty finding a grocery store the first night. Part of the reason is that the entrance to any store is just a door on the front of the building. Only jewelry and clothing stores have window displays. The very nice grocery we found occupies a large space but the majority of the space is at the back of the building, it's huge compared to what you expect walking into the small storefront. The other reason is that there are very few full scale grocery stores. After seeing these fresh markets, I could see why.

A cabbage-like vegetable called Treviso


Fish monger
Interesting fish for sale.

Little piggy sausages!