Enchantment: Impressions of Venice

I was not sure what to expect of Venice; I was not that excited to go and see it. I thought I already knew it well enough even though I had never visited since pictures and descriptions of Venice abound. How could Venice surprise me if I had seen plenty of pictures of it on Instagram and Pinterest, in commercials, and as cheap posters of romantic sunsets over the town?

Sunset Venice 2

Sun Setting over Venice and Campanile di San Marco

Sunset Venice1

Sunset in Venice

 

But even with this lack of excitement – or maybe because of it – Venice surprised me and turned out to be one of my favorite towns in Italy. I was sure this would not happen – it was too touristy after all, but it did enchant me. If I thought Florence was difficult to describe (see previous post), Venice and its surprising appeal seems even more difficult to put into words.

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A View of a Canal in Venice

 

Venice is too well-known even to those that have never visited and it has inspired plenty of artists. As American writer Henry James in his Italian Hours addresses this issue, “Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer’s and you will find three or four high-coloured ‘views’ of it.” So how can this city still be surprising and enchanting? Isn’t the unexpected or novelty truly enchanting? Even though we think we know Venice even if we have never visited, Venice is difficult to compare and to completely “get.” German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe mentions in Italian Journey that “Venice can only be compared with itself. The large canal, winding like a serpent, yields to no street in the world, and nothing can be put by the side of the space in front of St. Mark’s square – I mean that great mirror of water.” Venice is a “strange island-city, this beaver-like republic” (Goethe).

Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco with the Basilica di San Marco and Campanile

 

This strangeness and the city’s many sides accentuated by the quick change of light and reflection in the water are some of the reasons for Venice’s charm. It is hard to forget this city. As James explains, Venice – “the creature varies like a nervous woman, whom you know only when you know all the aspects of her beauty. She has high spirits or low, she is pale or red, grey or pink, cold or warm, fresh or wan, according to the weather or the hour. She is always interesting and almost always sad; but she has a thousand occasional graces and is always liable to happy accidents. You become extraordinarily fond …. The place seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient and conscious of your affection. You desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it; and finally a soft sense of possession grows up and your visit becomes a perpetual love-affair.”

Basilica di San Marco

The Top of Basilica di San Marco in Venice

One of the many charms is of course the water, the many canals and the numerous small steeply-curved bridges across them. Venice without the water would still be interesting but not as unique. The water reflects the light, the colors, and the mood; it prohibits the use of cars and Vespas and thus creates a quietness that does not exist in any other city.

Small Canal in Venice

Small Canal and Bridge in Venice

What can be more stereotypically touristy than a gondola ride? But if in Venice and a tourist, I felt I had to give in and hire a gondola. And once I again I did not expect much; after all, it was just a small boat. And once again Venice and its experiences surprised me. The gondola ride was one of the highlights of the weekend, maybe because it was still early and we stayed mostly in small canals: “The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the gondolier’s cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of splash in the stillness. A girl crosses the little bridge, which has an arch like a camel’s back…. The pink of the old wall seems to fill the whole place; it sinks even into the opaque water. …On the other side of this small water-way is a great shabby facade of Gothic windows and balconies – balconies on which dirty clothes are hung and under which a cavernous-looking doorway opens from a low flight of slimy water-steps. It is very hot and still, the canal has a queer smell, and the whole place is enchanting” (James).

Gondola and Bridge

Gondola Passing through a Small Bridge in Venice

 

Small Canal

Gondola Ride through a Small Canal in Venice

 

It does not take much to enjoy Venice; just take the time to look and soak in the light and colors because “the mere use of one’s eyes in Venice is happiness enough, and generous observers find it hard to keep an account of their profits in this line. Everything the attention touches holds it, keeps playing with it — thanks to some inscrutable flattery of the atmosphere. Your brown-skinned, white-shirted gondolier, twisting himself in the light, seems to you, as you lie at contemplation beneath your awning, a perpetual symbol of Venetian ‘effect’” (James).

Gondolas

Gondolas Maneuvering through a Small Canal in Venice

I remember the light glittering on the water, the waves rocking the boats, the water slapping against hulls and steps, and the smell of the damp walls battling the saltiness of the seawater. But it always comes down to the light as “the light here is in fact a mighty magician and, with all respect to Titian, Veronese and Tintoret, the greatest artist of them all. You should see in places the material with which it deals – slimy brick, marble battered and befouled, rags, dirt, decay. Sea and sky seem to meet half-way, to blend their tones into a soft iridescence, a lustrous compound of wave and cloud and a hundred nameless local reflections, and then to fling the clear tissue against every object of vision” (James).

Light

Light Reflecting off the Water – View from inside the Bridge of Sighs

 

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Pigeons in Italy: Entertainment, Menace, and Food

In my Italian language course, I learned the word for pigeon on a field trip to the food market in Florence. We were asked to write down all the names of fruits, vegetables, fish, and meats that we saw at the market. And there they were next to the chickens and ducks – several plucked pigeons otherwise still completely intact with feet and opened beaks (I am not including a photo). The Italian word for pigeon is “piccione” in case you are wondering. You may come across it on a Tuscan traditional menu.

Pigeons have fascinated and entertained me ever since I have come to Italy as they are everywhere and seem to annoy and destroy based on the many signs as well as spikes and nets to keep pigeons off buildings and art work. The efforts are not always successful as pigeons have recently closed down a part of the Uffizi in Florence because of a tick infestation that was believed to have been brought in by pigeons (see the article here). And they can still be found on ledges, overhangs, and more importantly statues.

Pigeon

A Pigeon at the Entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

 

Pigeons on Statue

Pigeons on the Statues of the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence

Sometimes it is difficult to get a picture without a pigeon on the sculpture since they are not really fazed by people. They also feel comfortable flying or wandering through open doors and windows to hang out in indoor cafes and restaurants.

Pigeon Sign

A Sign Warning of Pigeons in an Interior Room in a Hotel in Venice

However, pigeons also seem to be appreciated. Even though I was told it is illegal to feed the pigeons on the Piazza San Marco in Venice, I still saw plenty of tourists attracting the birds with seeds and taking the obligatory photo of themselves with pigeons on their shoulders, head, and arms in the famous square. Artists also pay attention to pigeons. This street art about a pigeon in Venice made me smile:

Street Art Pigeon

Street Art of a Pigeon Wearing a Mask in Venice

But pigeons are also the subject of more traditional art forms:

I am not sure why pigeons seem to have such a bad reputation in towns. Are they really the only birds that create havoc in cities? After all, seagulls dominate the landscape in the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum in Rome and herons can be found in the Giardino di Boboli in the city center of Florence:

Pigeons in Italy come in a variety of shapes (missing foot, broken wing, missing eye for example) and colors (pigeon blue, steel grey, cream white, cappuccino brown, and white-and-brown “cow pattern”).

Venice Pigeons

Pigeons Resting on a Streetlight in Venice

I watch them while I wait in lines to get into a museum or for a friend to show up for a dinner date. And over the last few days I have watched a couple of pigeons trying to decide whether to nest in a spot on the glass roof of my apartment where I can here the clicking of their peaks against the glass as soon as the sun rises. So pigeons have been a little menace and plenty of entertainment but not yet food for me.

Venice Vs. Florence

I did not know that I had started to tire a little of Florence (yes, that is indeed possible) until I left for a trip to Venice and came back more relaxed and with an extra spring in my step. Much of my needed break from Florence had to do with the weeks and weeks of rain we have had; and even if it had not been raining in Florence, it had been grey and gloomy. I am used to bright sunshine in February in California, and the grey moody weather was taking its toll on my energy. Florence’s old center is also dominated by hard surfaces – all stone with not even the tiniest lawn or even trampled earth around the roots of a tree in the middle of a square or squished between a house and the road.

Venice Sunshine

Sunshine Reflecting Off the Water in Venice

Venice in contrast felt like a spa weekend: not only was it sunny but the sun was also reflected off the water – twice the sparkle and brightness after weeks of grey. Florence for me is the noise of tourist groups wandering below my apartment, scooters rattling over the cobblestones at neckbreaking speed, and drunken partygoers bellowing in echoing alleys. Venice, however, was the sound of lapping waves and seagulls. It took me a while to figure out the relative silence – no cars, no large city buses, and no scooters. Not even any bikes! And February meant fewer tourists, which meant even more peace and quiet.

Venice February

Few tourists visit Venice during the week in mid-February.

Instead of the cobblestones of Florentine roads, the shimmering waves of the canals created a soft surface and with their movement seemingly alive. Taking a vaporetto (water bus) reminded me of holidays on the seaside, and the gleaming wooden motorboats and gondolas created the impression that everyone here was on holiday. Gliding nearly completely noiselessly along in a gondola through small empty back canals felt like meditation. The waves rocked the gondola soothingly while our gondolier hummed Italian folk tunes (no, we did not pay extra for the singing; some people whistle while they work, and I guess our gondolier liked to hum).

 

Florentines and tourists alike are not willing to make room on the tiny sidewalks in Florence. A walk home on busy evenings often seems like a game of chicken – who is willing to get out of the way before we actually run into each other? Pedestrians in Venice seemed more relaxed and willing to make room; since there were no cars or bikes, even smaller alleys seemed large enough to hold pedestrians (at least during off-season). In Florence, even the smallest alley is a passageway for at least scooters and bikes.

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Another Quiet Canal in Venice

In Florence, the dominant building color is ocher, or maybe better called a Tuscan brownish yellow. Venice seemed brighter. That may have a lot to do with the weather since it was actually sunny, but a lot also with the reflective surface of the many waterways. Buildings were also brighter – many more white accents on the outside, bright red and orange walls, seaside-green shutters, and red-and-white or azure-and-white striped mooring poles.

Venice Canal

Quiet Side-Canal in Venice

While Florence seems to have party dwellers till early into the morning, Venice seemed to fall asleep a few hours after sunset as very few people were walking the streets at night as the full moon rose and the cold wind from the Grand Canal whipped open coats and jackets.

Venice Sunset

Sunset in Venice from a Vaporetto (Waterbus)

Back from Venice, I can still feel the rocking motion of imaginary waves when I close my eyes as my body has adjusted to the motion of rocking boats over the last few days. I feel more mellow, and even the Florentine sidewalk congestion did not bother me on my walk back from the train station to my apartment; I feel like I just returned from a spa weekend as my sun-kissed cheeks glow and as I move through the throng of people with zen-like calmness (lets see how many days that will last).