Tuesday, June 2, 2009

May 7

Florence to Venice

We were all up and about by 0900; packed and ready for Jean when he came by at 1000 to examine the apartment and retrieve the keys.

The walk from the apartment to the train station was a short one and we arrived early enough such that we could have hustled onto an earlier train. But that would have involved trying to re-arrange seating and it was just a lot easier to wait the hour for the train for which we already held tickets. To pass the time we got cappuccino and did a bit of people watching.

The Florence train station is nothing at all like the one in Rome. Based on the sheer numbers of people, all roads must truly lead to Rome. Florence, on the other hand, is an “art” community – and there were plenty of artists in evidence. Young people carrying large portfolios and notebooks were everywhere. We also saw the Carabinieri walking a dog through the station – conducting some sort of patrol. There was a nun busily texting on a cell phone. Italian train stations are beehives of activity – people and trains relentlessly coming and going.

Once again, the train arrived and departed on time. We boarded, stashed our luggage and found our seats. While this wasn’t one of the “high-speed” trains, it did travel at what I estimated to be 130 kmph. We blasted through the countryside on our way to Venice. We sat near a couple from California who were also travelling around and about Italy.

The approach to Venice has the train pass over a long causeway to the island. The causeway has a road component – because even though no cars operate on the island, there are still a number of people that drive back and forth. For them, there is a large parking lot at the Piazza Romana. The train came to a halt at the station. I’ll refer you movie buffs to a film called “Summertime” starring Katherine Hepburn and directed by (I believe) David Lean. The film is set in Venice and the approach to the city – as depicted in the film – is essentially unchanged. Upon stepping out of the train station, the first thing we did was to pause for a moment and take in the scene. The sun was shining, the sky a sharp blue. Tourists, boats, a beautiful chaos. It was hot out.

Unlike the film, there were no long lines of porters waiting to meet us and carry our bags to waiting water taxis. We were on our own to make our way to the rendez-vous with the woman who would take us to the apartment. We decided to walk over to the meeting point; after all, it was only about 2 km or so. For the first little while, it seemed like a good idea, but the walking got onerous fairly quickly. The small, narrow alleys and dead end “streets” were brutal to plan a route through. The GPS – while helpful – was often unreliable because of the closeness of the buildings. I think we wound up walking over 4 km to cover the “2” km distance.

The meeting point was at the Fondamente vaporetto station on the north side of Venice. We arrived near the meeting point with one more bridge to cross and decided that Kevin and I would go ahead to search out the contact while Marg and Penny stayed back a bit (in the shade) with the bags. We crossed over one last bridge and waited. I’m not going to pretend that Kevin and I were passing for native-born Venetians, but I eventually started thinking that without our bags, we were now unlikely to be considered “newly-arrived tourists”. There was a woman I suspected of being the contact, but she was on the phone. Eventually, she got off the phone and I approached her and asked if she was there to meet us. Sure enough, she was the one.

She led us back through some more very narrow alleyways and sidewalks. I was thoroughly confused as to our whereabouts. Street numbering in Venice is not the same as most other places. The city is divided into “regions” and each building in a particular region has its own number. Prior to the trip, I had tried to pinpoint the location of each apartment. Florence – success. Rome – success. But in Venice, I had three different locations: one that had been posted on the apartment’s web site, one that came from Google Earth, and one from the Garmin GPS database. When we arrived at the apartment it turned out that all three had been incorrect!

Where the Florence apartment had been modern, this one was older. Apart from the bathroom, it’s quite spacious, but it’s furnished in a much more traditional way. The apartment was fully equipped with everything we need including a washing machine.

We rested for a bit and then struck off to find a grocery store. I suggested leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so that we could find our way back – but we didn’t have enough bread. The woman who’d brought us to the apartment said that there was a fully-equipped “supermarket” not more than 200 metres away. I think her sense of distance was off because we wandered around quite a bit before we found a Coop. She was right about one thing though – it was a fully-equipped grocery store. However, much more cramped and confined than we’re used to in North America. We bought quite a few things including bread, cheese, eggs water and (of course) Italian wine.

We came back to the apartment and dropped off the groceries. We took a bit of time to “freshen up” and then struck off to find someplace for supper. We settled on a small place just a couple of blocks over from the apartment and took seats outside. It was a bit odd … an Italian restaurant, run completely by Chinese immigrants. There is a long historical connection between Venice and China dating all the way back to Marco Polo. That most Italian of dishes – pasta – originated as Chinese noodles.

The food was good – the price was right – and evening began coming on. One of my regrets from our trip last year was that there were not enough opportunities to enjoy the evening in each of the places we visited. Venice has a very well-known café culture, so we began walking to the Piazza San Marco to see what we would see.

There are three things that are not difficult to find in Venice – the train station (Ferrovia), the Rialto Bridge (Rialto) and the Piazza San Marco (S. Marco or San Marco). To get to either of the three, all you have to do is make you way to one of the more “main” streets and start following along. Before you have gone too far, and provided you keep looking up a bit, you’ll see large yellow rectangles with one of those three things written on it. The name will be accompanied by a directional arrow. All you have to do is follow the signs. Or the crowd.

Evening is a popular time to go to Piazza San Marco. And as we approached, the crowds got thicker and the sidewalks got narrower. In many places, window shoppers blocked the way. But I found that a gentle touch accompanied by the word “Permisso?” usually cleared a bit of a path.

I think Kevin was caught a bit off guard by the Piazza. Understandably so. As you approach the square, the streets get narrower and narrower, the buildings close in; and then, all of a sudden, there you are. The way opens up and you’re standing at the edge of an incredibly grand open space. In a later post, I’ll describe the space itself – tonight we were here to hear the café orchestras.

There are three (well actually four) cafés on the Piazza San Marco: Florian’s, Quadri’s and Lavena’s; the fourth – the Caffé Aurora is technically on the Piazzetta between the “new” offices and the Doge’s Palace. In any event, they all have music.

The Caffé Florian is on the south side of the Piazza San Marco. It was founded in 1720 and was one of the first places in Europe to serve coffee. The Florian counts Casanova, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens and Woody Allen among its most illustrious clients. Across from the Florian – on the north side of the Piazza – is the Caffé Quadri. Alexandre Dumas and Richard Wagner have spent time here. Last year, when Marg and I went with Bob and Gretch for our “treat” of cappuccino and biscotti on the Piazza San Marco, we went to Lavena’s. Lavena’s is the “newest” of the three and only has a history going back to 1750 … a regular “Giovanni-come-lately” in Venetian terms.

Our visit last year was in March, and it turns out that most of the café’s orchestras are off in March. Not so this time; all three of the café orchestras were playing. On the north side of the Piazza, the orchestras at Lavena’s and Quadri took turns – alternating 4 or 5 piece “sets”. When one set at one café would end, the orchestra at the other café would start up … and the crowd standing just outside the rows of tables would move left to the left or right to listen. Across the Piazza – at the Florian – the orchestra tended to play for longer periods with fewer breaks; perhaps because they did not have to “share” their side of the square.

All of the orchestras were very good. I felt that the violinist at Lavena’s was a bit of a “ham”; that the ensemble at Quadri’s was very capable; and that the orchestra at Florian’s has the most diverse repertoire (and had perhaps the strongest musicians). All were great, and I could have spent hours listening to any one of them.

But there was something odd. It had been a dry day. So why were there such big puddles near the drains in the Piazza?

It’s said that there are three things that influence the flooding of the square: a south wind, a full moon and an area of low pressure. The moon is nearly full, and a bit of a breeze had been blowing most of the day. Partway through our time at the piazza, I noticed that the areas around the drains were all surrounded by puddles of water. Worse, the water appeared to be bubbling up (slowly) through the drains – and the puddles were growing in size. I didn’t think that the piazza was in any risk of flooding, but it was still a somewhat disturbing sight to see.We listened to the orchestras for a bit, I had to pee, and puddles on the square weren’t helping. In Venice, bathrooms can be somewhat scarce. There are “pay” toilets, but they all close fairly early. Your alternative is to go back to your own place, or stop in at a bar or restaurant.

We decided to head back to the apartment.