(If you haven't already, check out Day 1 before reading this entry.)
Years ago I promised Lynn that I'd take her to Italy within ten years. Years of waiting, months of planning, a law school graduation, a bar exam and two plane flights later, Lynn and I landed in Venice and savored a day full of firsts.
To begin with, we used our first ATM in Italy, without incident. The next puzzle was to find our way from the airport to Venice's main island and, in particular, to our hotel. From my research, I had decided on the Alilaguna water shuttle as the best combination of price and convenience to reach Venice from Marco Polo Airport. While researching, one particular account of a man and his wife's arrival in Venice had caught my fancy:
I was nervously awaiting her reaction as we departed Florence on the 8:39 am Eurostar, 2nd class. As we journied east, the clouds we had managed to avoid now cast dreary and somber shadows over the passing fields as we drew closer and closer. Not the grand entrance I had envisioned. As we exited the train station at 11:30 and headed for the vaporetto stand, the sun suddenly burst through and she lay before our eyes in all her glory. A huge smile swept across my face as the brillance of the Grand Canal and the multi-colored frescoes shone brightly. Ah, Venezia, it's been too long!! My wife was in awe. Such majesty she had never seen. I knew then that she, too, had fallen under her spell.
For us, there was to be no sudden parting of the gray skies upon our arrival. Yet as the Alilaguna pulled away from the airport dock and we saw our first views of the expansive lagoon and the slowly approaching islands of Venice, I knew that it did not matter one bit. We held each other tight and soaked in the sights and sounds of a new world as we enjoyed the hour-long ride past Murano and Lido before arriving at Piazza San Marco in Venezia.
Due to the many glowing reviews I had seen in my research on Slow Travel, we were staying at Locanda Orseolo for our two nights in Venice. While little more than a stone's throw away from P. S. Marco, the family that runs the hotel had provided us with detailed directions to navigate the steps, street, iron gate, and courtyard that led to the tucked away gem.
Unfortunately, I cannot remember exactly which family member greeted us as we walked hesitantly through the unnmarked entrance, but we were welcomed like long-lost friends finally returning to a home-away-from-home. Over our brief stay at Locanda Orseolo we met Francesco, Barbara, and Igor, and they could not possibly have been more friendly or more helpful. We highly recommend Locanda Orseolo to anyone looking for a jewel of a place to stay while in Venice.
After being greeted and checking in, we were shown to our third-floor (European floor) room where we took advantage of the opportunity to change into fresh clothes and relax—but only briefly. Before embarking on our first day of Venetian exploration we marveled at the bright colors and vibrant mural of our room:
On the advice of the Francesco, we headed to a small caffé barely a stone's throw away Locanda Orseolo to grab our first bite to eat in Italy. The bustling place—whose name I unfortunately do not recall—was clearly quite popular as it was completely filled with Italians enjoying their lunch. Lynn and I pointed to a couple of paninis, handed over some euros, received some change, and all-in-all navigated our first transaction in Italy smoothly.
We had borrowed a friend's GSM phone for our trip, and so our next stop was to a small Radio-Shack-esque store to purchase a SIM chip for the phone. During our trip the phone came in handy in several situations, and especially when we were driving around less populated parts of the Tuscan countryside we were glad to have it. Cheap, effective, and highly recommended.
With the preliminaries of food (there were very few meals in Italy that I would deign to describe as a mere 'preliminary,' but still recovering from the flights and in a hurry to begin our touring, this meal was exactly that) and communication squared away, we began walking through some of the city's sestieri (sections)—San Marco, San Polo, Santa Croce, and finally Cannaregio—to visit Venice's Jewish ghetto. Now, while discussing what to pack for our vacation, I had told Lynn that based on my research I didn't expect to see any rain in Italy. Accordingly, we refrained from bringing any sort of rain gear at all with us. And so naturally, after about 15 minutes of walking amidst the calli (streets) and ponti (bridges) of Venice, the skies opened up and rain fell with a vengeance. We hastily found a nearby souvenir shop and picked up an umbrella, and then found a covered alley looking onto a small canal in which to wait out the storm. This would be almost the only bad weather that we'd experience for our entire trip, and in retrospect I'm glad it happened: Standing with my arm around my love and watching rain drops pelt deserted streets and dissolve into a Venetian canal will always remain a small moment in my life when I could simply pause and breathe in the sights, scents, and sounds around me. And once the rain had subsided, Venice sparkled.
We arrived at the Museo Ebraica di Venezia and signed up for the tour of the museum and three synanogues that would be leaving shortly. Before the tour began, we treated ourselves to a pastry and an espresso in the museum's gift shop.
On the tour, we learned that the Venetian ghetto was the first ghetto in Europe. It was founded in the early sixteenth century when the Doge ordered Venetian Jews to live in the city's foundry district. As explained to us on the tour, the Venetian word for foundry was getto (pronounced jet-toe), but the many of the Venetian Jews, being of Germanic heritage, pronounced the word with a hard G—get-toe. When transcribed back into Italian, this pronunciation is spelled ghetto, and the word we know today was born. (Interestingly, the actual etymology of the word seems to be an unsettled question.)
I can't tell you much about the three old synanogues that we visited on the tour, and here's why not: By the time we got to the third synanogue—the third warm, wooden, small, standing-room-only synagogue—jet lag was catching up with me quickly. So quickly, in fact, that as I listened to our tour guide's melodic voice presenting the history of the synagogue, my eyes slowly closed and my body slowly leaned backwards. I awoke with a start and with Lynn's hand reaching out to me barely moments before I would have toppled to the ground in the centuries-old chapel. And so our first adventure in Italy concluded with me faint, shaken, and having hardly a single memory of anything we learned during the tour. Things could only get better from that point on, and they did.
Who goes to Italy to see synanogues, anyway?
Feeling a definite overabundance of Judaism in ourselves given our surroundings, we headed back towards the middle of the city to see some churches. Along the way, we passed by the Ca' d'Oro, one of the most beautiful and most famous facades along Venice's Grand Canal. As the facade can only be seen from the canal, we took this opportunity to hop on a traghetto (for one euro apiece) and view the Ca' d'Oro as we were ferried across the canal.
We strolled back through San Polo until we came upon the Campo dei Frari, home of the Basilica dei Frari, a large Gothic church and the resting place of the artist Titian and several of his works, including the remarkable Assumption. Aspiring art critics that we are, Lynn and I also took note of the various works within the church which featured a multitude of rabbits scattered amongst the religious personalities. At the time we just thought it was a mixture of strangely unexpected and adorably cute, but according to various Internet sources the rabbits represent anything from a gentle and timid faith in the Christian church to the purity of the Madonna to the possibility of virgin births. Go figure.
Outside once more after our first foray into the art and architecture of Italy's churches, we walked to the far end of the Campo dei Frari where we came upon a street cellist. After sitting on the steps of a church for a few minutes and enjoying the music, we headed back towards our hotel, stopping briefly nearby to share our first slice of pizza in Italy. Delicious, but the best was yet to come. As we walked through P. S. Marco on our way back, we took advantage of the short line and decided to detour to take the elevator to the top of the campanille (bell tower). The observation deck at the top of the reconstructed tower, although no longer the site of public hangings, still awed us with some magnificent panoramic views of the city below us.
And dinner, of course
After changing clothes back at Locanda Orseolo, we set out for dinner at Osteria Antico Dolo, just over the Ponte di Rialto into San Polo. (We chose this restaurant on the advice of Barbara at Locanda Orseolo, who also made the reservation for us.) We arrived unusually early for an Italian dinner (still recovering from the flights, after all), and we were surprised and pleased to be greeted by name! We shared carpaccio for an appetizer, and then Lynn had gnocchi for her main course while I had branzino (sea bass). We enjoyed two complimentary glasses of Venetian prosecco and a half litre of the house white wine, placed our first or many orders of water sin gas, and rounded out our meal with lemon gelato (her) and tiramisu (me). The meal was delicious, and despite our fatigue we lingered for awhile before leaving. We walked back past the quiet Rialto Markets and paused atop the bridge to soak in the magic and splendor of the moonlight shining on the Grand Canal.
Back to Locanda Orseolo and to sleep. Our first day in Italy was truly special, but it barely scratched the surface of some of the memories that had yet to be written.
Next time: we learn what a real Casanova's life is like, wonder if Paul McCartney really meant to spell his name 'McCartni', and discover that no matter how far from home you travel, you can never really escape the law.
Please enjoy all of the pictures from our first day in Venice in my photo album.