Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
On an island in a shallow lagoon, Venice came to dominance by sea power and now the power of the sea is threatening its very existence. My wife and I arrived in Venice two weeks before the catastrophic Acqua Alta (high water) tides that submerged Saint Mark’s square under more than five feet of water. The rushing sea wrought havoc with local merchants, restaurateurs and hostlers and damaged priceless works of art in Saint Mark’s Basilica. Vladmiro Cavagnis, a fourth generation gondolier, said: “It’s a city full of history. A history that, little by little, with water, will end up like Atlantis. People are destroyed, anguished, sad. They see a city that is disappearing.” (Alex Horton, Andrew Freedman – The Washington Post – November 15, 2019). The November 2019 flood was the worst in the 700 years of recorded history at Saint Marks Basilica. Giuseppe Conte, the Italian Prime Minister, described the disaster as: “..a blow to the art of our country. While it’s still too early to quantify the extent of its havoc, chances are it will leave indelible marks.” (Marianna Cerini, CNN – November 16, 2019 ).
During its golden age Venice was the European conduit for goods arriving on the spice trail from China, India and Asia; it was the maritime crossroads for ships from the middle East, Egypt and Africa. Many of the grand palazzinas and monumental buildings date from the 13-16th century. Unfortunately, much of the island, including Saint Mark’s square, is only three feet above sea level. Subsidence and climate change are taking a severe toll. Sea level rise has compromised many grand houses to a point where lower floors have been abandoned to the tides. A uniquely beautiful ancient city with a rich historic legacy, Venice exudes a distinct artistic and spiritual feel. Our visit this year at the end of October was glorious, memorable and inviting – all wrapped into one.
MXP to St. Mark’s Square: Landing late in the afternoon at Marco Polo international airport (MXP), we collected our luggage and followed the signs to the Alilaguna “water bus”. Our hotel near Saint Mark’s square was only accessible by water ferry (bus) or speed boat (taxi). From MXP the ferry-bus ride is about 50 minutes compared with 20-30 minutes by speed boat-taxi. We chose the slower ferry to allow views of neighboring islands like Murano, (historic for its glass) and Lido , (with ancient forts), on the way to the Zaccaria stop at Saint Mark’s square. The ferry ride became a magical experience as we approached the sparkling lights of the ancient city under clouds bathed in the golden glow of sunset.
Checking into Hotel Locanda Al Leon, Marco at the front desk gave us the name of a good local’s restaurant. Freshly made pasta and sauces was just too good to resist. After a few missteps and asking for directions, we walked down a secluded little alleyway to find the warm and inviting Al Vecio Portal restaurant. Seated at a small table listening to the locals talking happily over pasta and vino on a Friday night, we fell right in with the spirit and ordered bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar; linguine vongole (clams) and glasses of Tuscan wine. Marco had steered us well. It was all excellent: bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar of distinction; fine wine combined with fresh pasta; and clams that tasted like they were plucked from the sand that morning. Wandering back out into Saint Mark’s square, we were greeted by lights shimmering across the water and gondolas bobbing gently on the water – what a magical welcome to Venice.
In Venice everything moves by boat (or foot): After a Saturday breakfast on our private balcony, we entered the lobby and noticed a poster for a Vivaldi concerto at a local church that same evening. Vivaldi’s lilting, light, airy compositions were the magical inspiration for later generations of composers like Bach and Mozart. Born in Venice, a virtuoso violinist at a young age, Vivaldi spent most of his working life teaching, composing and performing there. Entering the priesthood in his twenties, he was surrounded by choral church music and took inspiration for his violin concertos from the excellent vocal soloists of his time. The opportunity to hear Vivaldi’s music performed as he intended in an authentic old church near where he lived was just too good to miss – so we booked tickets with Marco.
Emerging from the cocoon of our hotel we were greeted the Venetian morning traffic. Busy lines of porters with hand trucks, trolleys and dollies moved up and down the crowded little alleyways delivering all manner of supplies to local restaurants and shops. No motor cycles, no cars, no trucks were to be heard, just the sounds of people speaking excitedly and laughing in the international language – yet more magic. What a joy it was to be free from the constant noise of motors that accompanies modern day city life – but not in Venezia.
As we soon learned, everything moves by water: tourists in ferries, water taxis and gondolas; barges laden with supplies; potable water; construction materials and even the mountains of trash created by the tourists – everything moves by boat or on foot – and so did we.
The Grand Canal: Venice has many small canals that link the different neighborhoods on the island, but there is just one Grand Canal and only four bridges across it. The Ponte dell’ Accademia and Ponte di Rialto bridges were closest to St. Mark’s square and since we wanted to experience the galleries and local artwork, we set off across the Accademia bridge bound for the Guggenheim museum.
Guggenheim Home – now museum: “Changing Place; Changing Time; Changing Thoughts; Changing Future”. Contemporary art collector and New York gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim described herself as the “poor Guggenheim relative.” She may have been less wealthy than others in the family, but she was definitely well endowed with artistic judgement and vision. In the 1950s she fostered the careers of many now well known contemporary artists: including, Alberto Giacometti, Jackson Pollock, René Magritte, Henry Moore, Joan Miró, John Tunnard, Kenneth Noland, Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. My wife had long wanted to visit the Guggenheim collection in Venice. The art works in the museum were acquired by Peggy Guggenheim, mostly from her friends – the artists – giving a unique view of their interactions and her insights as a sophisticated collector. Views of the Grand Canal from windows, front courtyard and landing of the museum were striking.
Maps, apps and Cell Phones: We learned quickly that narrow winding walkways between stone buildings are not conducive to good cell phone reception or map apps. Even with a physical map finding our way was challenging.
Some of the major sites, like the Rialto Bridge (“Rialto”) and St. Mark’s square (“SM”), had arrows posted on the corners of buildings to guide us, but when we missed a turn the signs disappeared. We finally learned to relax and go with the flow – ‘ let’s head this way for a while and see what happens’ became our mantra. As a decided advantage to this approach – we usually got where we needed to go and often found ourselves off the beaten path, away from the crowds, experiencing a little of the local life in the neighborhoods.
Photo Ops at every turn: Venice is definitely a city for wanderers with cameras and cell phones. Every little bridge over a neighborhood canal offered a picturesque views of ancient homes and colorful reflections in the pale green waters. The effect was completely enchanting and we found ourselves standing on bridge after bridge photographing the gondolas skimming below. Feeling perhaps a little foolish, all we had to do was turn around to see that everyone else was similarly entranced with their own foolish picture taking.
At the height of its glory, the bounties of the Venetian empire flowed into these same canals from far flung colonial cities throughout the Mediterranean, including those in present day Turkey, Greece, Italy, Sicily, Spain, Libya, Egypt and Lebanon. The resulting fusion of creative arts and music in Venice flowed into the rest of Italy, France and Austria, undoubtedly helping to fuel The Renaissance.
Shopping: Shops are for the most part high end, designer and expensive. We enjoyed the window shopping view of the 2020 fashion scene. In other shops and galleries we lingered to take in displays of Murano art glass and jewelry, Picasso-like prints by local artists and creative carnival masks. Spring Carnival is BIG in Venice and masks were already on display in many shop windows. (For an article on carnival in Venice see “Carnevale Di Venezia is hot but Baby It’s Cold Outside “.)
Needing to get a quick bite before our Vivaldi concert, we stopped for a quick pizza at Ristorante al Giglia in the square by the Teatro la Fenice opera house. Sicily is supposedly the home of pizza, but no one told the Venetians. The simple Margarita pizza with fine Italian wines made the perfect repast and we still had time for a cappuccino before the performance.
Vivaldi Concerto: Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) spent most of his life composing, teaching, conducting and performing near where we sat in the beautiful Baroque Chiesa San Vidal to hear his masterpiece “Le Quattro Stagioni” (The Four Seasons). His teaching career was mentoring orphaned girls at La Pieta, a local orphanage near to our hotel. Prolific can’t begin to describe his more than 500 works. Most performances were given by small ensembles of his best female pupils, who performed behind a screen on the mezzanine of the auditorium in the church. We were fortunate to have the thirteen member “Interpreti Veneziani” ensemble performing with violinists Cesare Zanfini and Pietro Talamini. Quoting from the program: “The Interpreti Veneziani concert aims to bring harmony, new and old in one and the same time, back to the splendid venues which have remained, to revive the sound of some of the most prestigious instruments, true works of art, in settings charged with history and beauty.” We thought they succeeded magnificently. The performance was highly memorable, both for the quality of the highly talented violinists, the harmonies, the acoustics and the setting in the historic church.
Ferry to Murano and Burano: On Sunday we were both surprised and disappointed. Saint Mark’s square on an early Sunday morning in late October was crowded with tourists – seemingly from all over the world: Africa, Middle East, Asia, India, Europe and, of course (us included) North America. One look at the lines for the Doge palace and Basilica in Saint Mark’s Square told us we should have planned ahead and booked tours. Seeking another venue, we decided to catch the ferry to Burano island in the north of the Venetian lagoon. The island is famous for colorful houses and for its lace work dating back to the 16th century. To get the Burano ferry we needed to find the Fondamente Nove ferry stop on the North shore of Venice. From there we were told we would have a picturesque relaxing 40 minute ferry ride to Burano. On a bright and sunny Sunday morning that sounded wonderful. As was our custom walking, we were soon lost in the winding cobblestone walkways. Navigating by instinct, map and cell phone app, we finally got our bearings at the Rialto Bridge and arrived at the ferry stop.
Since it was still early, the ferry wasn’t very busy. (It was a different story on the way back.) On the way the ferry stopped at Murano island and from the water we viewed the many furnaces, studios and galleries of the famous art glass creators. Glass making has been passed down for centuries and its furnaces specialize in enameled glass (smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori), milk glass (lattimo), and imitation gemstones made of glass. Artisans still employ centuries-old techniques to craft contemporary art glass, crystal and its world famous jewelry. We opted to bypass Murano to get to Burano before the crowds.
Arriving in Burano, we were immediately struck by the seemingly haphazard array of colorful houses. Contrary to our first impressions, the colors for the houses follow a specific historical scheme and are tightly regulated by the local officials. After wandering for a few hours viewing the neighborhoods and shops we felt in need of sustenance and most fortunately encountered Riva Rosa Ristorante. The creation of French Chef Marc Veyrat, the restaurant features garden-to-table Italian cuisine with a French flair. Remembering our wonderful first night dinner at Al Vecio Portal in Venice, I couldn’t resist ordering linguine vongole (clams) and my wife ordered shrimp pan-seared in olive oil with fresh local vegetables – both creations were perfecto! Feeling extraordinarily lucky to encounter a second such culinary treat, we walked around the island enjoying the colorful homes, shops, canals and parks; and then finally wandered back to the ferry landing.
It seemed everyone else also felt it time to leave. After a long wait in a long line we were finally loaded onto an overloaded standing-room-only-cattle-car-ferry for our longish 50 minute trip back to Venice. Unbelievably, at the Murano ferry stop yet more human cattle were loaded. On reflection, what did we expect? A beautiful sunny warm Sunday in late October, where else would all the locals go for a quick escape from the tourists in Venice? Back on terra firma at Fondamente Nove, we began to retrace our steps, remembering that on our way that morning we passed a gelato shop. Funny how memories of gelato can cure navigational ailments – we walked right to it – and- yes, it was luscious.
Winding our way back to our hotel near Saint Mark’s square at sunset on Sunday, wishing we had more than just a weekend, thinking about leaving on a morning ferry to catch our noon flight gave us poignant wistful memories of Venezia: gondolas floating in the Orseolo canal behind Saint Mark’s at sunset – as we arrived, so did we leave – with longing sunset memories. But we will return, and so will Venezia return from its devastating historic Acqua Alta (high water) flood of 2019. After the sunset there is always a bright new sunrise to herald in the hopes and dreams for the new day.
IF YOU GO: 1) Plan ahead – book a tour for the Doge castle and Saint Mark’s Basilica. (Tour groups skip to the head of the long lines.) 2) We can recommend Hotel Locanda Al Leon both for its supreme location and the warmth and consideration of its staff. 3) Three restaurants worth consideration include Al Vecio Portal, Ristorante al Giglia in Venice and Riva Rosa Ristorante on Burano island. 4) For more on carnival in Venice see “Carnevale Di Venezia is hot but Baby It’s Cold Outside .” 5) For another article on how special Venice is as a travel destination, see ” Impressions of Venice Then and Now“.