Saturday, April 16, 2011

The City in the Sea

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Emerald City, Part I

Sailing into Venice is one of the most beautiful and dramatic entrances a cruising ship can make. We slept right through it, but the city is incomparable.

It rises from the water no matter where you look. Buildings – houses, shops, churches – come right to the water’s edge with no beach to act as a visual border or margin. There’s water and then there’s Venice. There is no middle ground. It is amazing to see from any vantage point so long as that vantage point is on the water. And the lower you are in the water, the more beautiful it is.

We got started late [again] today. We had intended to meet Ed and Roxanne in front of St. Mark’s Cathedral at 9:30 but the transit system in Venice is peculiar to this city [more shortly] and we did not arrive until almost 10:30. We found Ed, but not Roxanne, outside the Cathedral and then joined the line of tourists waiting to walk through it. Ed waited outside for Roxanne to return from their hotel since, he said, he has already gone through 4 times. Since they arrived on Sunday, we didn’t know if he meant since their arrival or while they waited for us. They presumed that, uncharacteristically, we would be late, but their experience with the Venetian transit system was greater than ours.

By the time we finished our look at St. Mark’s, Roxanne had reappeared. We stood in the plaza trying to decide what to do. We did not want them to repeat things they had already done, but, on the other hand, we were anxious for their company. It was while we were dithering about plans that the decision was made for us. There was a hawker in the square drumming up business for a Murano glass-making tour and offering free taxi service to the nearby island. We had wanted to visit the Venetian glass-making center anyway and this seemed like a good way to do it on the cheap.

And now a word about transportation in Venice: There are no cars or buses or trucks or roads in the historic [read: tourist] areas of Venice. Venice is made up of many, mostly tiny, islands connected by canals and bridges. Wheeled transit simply does not exist off of the mainland. As a consequence, everyone either walks or travels by water. Water transportation may consist of a taxi such as the one we took to Murano or a vaporetto which is like a water-borne bus. Taxis are fast and expensive; vaporettos are slow and not quite as expensive at least by Venetian standards.

When we took a local vaporetto from the ship to St. Mark’s, the cost was 12€ per person roundtrip for what on land was less than 2 miles. A one-hour pass on the regular vaporetto was 6.50€ and a round-trip or all day pass was 16€. We gamed the system later and did the rest of our travel for 6.50€ each.

We landed on Murano and were ushered into a glass-making workshop. Murano is the center of the industry because the glassblowers were banned from Venice proper hundreds of years ago over fears of fire; today’s buildings are no longer wood or liable to burn down, but the precedent has been set and Murano glass is famous throughout the world. Much of the glass would be considered pedestrian [affordable], but much of it is quite original and is considered art quality [expensive]. We looked at small pieces somewhere in the middle – creative but affordable.

We spent perhaps 20 minutes in the hot workshop observing as two craftsmen began the process of creating a multicolored, patterned vase. The entire process takes about five days from start to completion, but we were able to watch as they hefted increasingly large globs of molten glass onto the pole they use as a spindle to move the glass continually. Eventually we had seen enough [and Ed and Roxanne had seen this on an earlier visit to Murano], so we moved to the showroom. This whole process is like buying a Turkish carpet and is an elaborate ritual. We bypassed the expensive part because in this “furnace” the art glass was up a flight of stairs which we did not want to climb. Ed and Roxanne had had no such impediment the other day and apparently traded a new roof on their house for a piece of art glass. We settled for the lesser quality goods, but is still Murano glass.

Fresh from surviving the glass-selling ritual, we set out for Burano, a neighboring island. Just as Murano is known for glass, Burano is known for hand-made lace. Our trip necessitated finding the vaporetto station, the right boat and tickets. We asked a shopkeeper for directions because Ed and Roxanne had come from a different direction the other day and did not know where the stop was. We found that we had to buy tickets at a tobacco shop where the agent convinced us that we only needed two tickets, one for each couple, at 6.50€ in order to get to and from Burano. We did not argue but were ready to buy more if needed. The tobacco seller was ultimately right; no one asked for our tickets or asked us to scan them, so we went to Burano and saved the tickets for the next leg of the trip.

Where Murano had been busy with merchants and buyers but with little personality, Burano was quiet and quaint. There were still narrow streets and bridges spanning the narrow canals, but it was evident that people really made this island their home. Houses and business were painted in bright colors which reminded all of us of Curacao and Bermuda; wash was hung out to dry; and people conducted their private lives in public – how can you cross the road to talk to a friend when the only safe crosswalk is a bridge a block or more away? You shout across the canal!

We were looking for the Black Cat restaurant where the Pettii had eaten a few days ago. They both were eager to return, so our foray to Burano was no imposition. Ed, as line leader, was a bit confused about its whereabouts but we were able to find it with a little help once again from shopkeepers. El Gato Nero lived up to its reputation. We sat outside by a canal [of course] and had a delightful meal. On their recommendation, MA and D shared a fish based risotto and the others each had the pasta special. Fresh sautéed vegetables for each couple plus drinks rounded out a wonderful lunch. We did not even consider dessert, not even gelato. Maybe tomorrow in St. Mark’s Square.

We wandered back to the vaporetto station by a route different but more direct than the one we had used to find the restaurant looking at lace and Carnivale masks as we walked. We found out that we had to change “buses” in order to return to St. Marks and also had to wave our passes over a scanner in order to get through the turnstile. Then we settled in and waited almost half an hour for the boat. Our wait at the transfer was not as long but it was still a wait. We think we got the express, purely by luck, because there was only on stop between the transfer stop and St. Mark’s. We parted company knowing that we would be together for the next thirty days.

MA and D walked along the promenade by the Grand Canal as they headed for the “local” vaporetto which would, hopefully, deliver them to the Prinsendam. Sunday is our next formal night and will have a Venetian Carnivale theme. We decided to join the fun and bought masks to wear Sunday night with our formalwear. MA bought a bright red mask on a stick and D bought a full-face jester’s mask in keeping with his reputation on shipboard.

After a little back-and-forth, we finally found the dock for our boat only to discover that we had a half-hour wait. The good news is that the next boat which came was ours; folks going to Marco Polo airport had to wait even longer. We may have spent as much as two hours today just waiting for the vaporetto. We returned to the Prinsendam after 6:30, in time to rest for a few minutes before showering and dressing for dinner.

After dinner we went to the evening’s show, a presentation by the Venetian Gondoliers. Dressed in traditional red-and-white striped shirts and flat, boater-style hats, the made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in talent. The room was very warm and we left before it was over.

Tomorrow – Venice, part II

Friday, April 15, 2011

Wandering in the Desert

We got another late start this morning because we had no where we had to go and no schedule to follow. Our goals were modest – to visit the old Jewish ghetto and to get lunch. Mission accomplished.

We followed the same path to San Marco as we had yesterday except today we felt like we knew what we were doing. Naturally, we discovered later that there may have been several shorter and less expensive ways to get to the ghetto, but we were moderately happy in our ignorance. We knew from talking to Ed and Roxanne where to get off of the vaporetto; we did not know that we were within walking distance of the ghetto or, barring that, of a vaporetto station practically next to the Prinsendam. We will know better if there is a next time.

At any rate, we arrived at the San Marco stop and hopped off the local to find either the #41, #42, #51 or #52 boat since all seemed to stop where we wanted to go. We made [okay, D made] a false guess and went to the right station for the wrong direction. The #41/#42 boats ply the same route in opposite directions as do the #51 and #52. We found the right boat but it was going away from or destination at Guglie. Luckily, we asked before we boarded and we directed to the companion station just over the next bridge. After purchasing one-way tickets in the hope of gaming the system again, we waited briefly for the boat. The ride was almost half an hour but we felt like we were on the HOHO bus as neighborhoods floated by. We had no idea what we were seeing, but we enjoyed the architecture and vibrancy of the city.

By the time we reached Guglie, it was around noon. We followed Roxanne’s hand-drawn map and entered to old ghetto through an aging post-and-lintel archway. Following a very narrow walkway [remember, there are no vehicles in the Floating City] we passed a plain courtyard and then a few shops and a café. Several of the buildings had Hebrew inscriptions on them, but there was nothing else to distinguish the area. Continuing onward, we found more small shops which were obviously part of the Jewish neighborhood – a bakery; a Judaica store with beautiful Murano glass pieces; a storefront full of books and young men who may have been studying.

This stretch opened onto a large square with more Jewish-related shops on two sides. Again, there were crafts stores specializing in Judaic Murano glass items like mezzuzot, dreidels and seder plates. The work was strikingly modern in color but mostly traditional in form. There was also a synagogue with a museum but entry involved several flights of stairs we were not willing to negotiate [not to mention the 8€ admission].

The most striking feature of the courtyard was a series of bas relief squares mounted on the walls. This was the Venetian Holocaust memorial dedicated to the Jews who were taken from their homes by the Nazis in 1943 and 1944. The final scene, on a wall far removed from the rest, is a scene of a train and the Jews being pushed onto it. According to others who visited the museum, there were only 1500 Jews in Venice by 1943 and “only” 250 or so were actually sent to the camps, but it was enough. Behind the relief of the train, we saw the names of those who were taken and their ages at the time. It was chilling but worth the journey for us.

Today there is a small orthodox community which is still active. We suspect that tourism is a major component of its existence. We saw many men of all ages with yarmulkes on and tallit wrapped around their shoulders; other just had yarmulkes. We did not see any obviously-Orthodox women.

We had lunch at Gam Gam, a kosher restaurant right next to the ghetto gate on one side and the transit stop on the other. The yarmulke-wearing waiter spoke very good English and our food was delicious. We shared an appetizer platter for two, a house specialty. It was strictly vegetarian and included marinated mushrooms, carrots, chick peas, cherry tomatoes, eggplant and fennel. There was herbed oil to dip bread and pitas as well as baba ganoush and hummus. We added an order of fried artichokes which had been tempura battered and a bottle of water. Good food; healthy food and not outrageously expensive.

By the time we finished lunch, most of the stores had closed for siesta and were not scheduled to open until after we expected to be back on board, so we could not go shopping. We strolled over to the vaporetto station and pretended to validate our now-invalid ticket and waited about five minutes until a boat going in our direction came along. As it turned out, we rode the #52 out but the #42 back to San Marco but we ended up at the same station where we started. We fought through the masses of tourists and their guides, opting not to see the square one last time or to shop for tchotchkes there. Instead, we went straight to the platform for the boat back to the ship and had a thirty minute wait.

We seem to have spent most of our time the past two days either on boats or waiting for boats, but now we sort of know the system, so we will be ahead of the game if we can find our way back. We have learned about the whole boat culture, too. Everyone walks or goes by boat. There are telephone poles bundled in threes, like the framework for a tepee, which serve as lane markers in open waters; speed limit signs are posted on them. Street signs like those found on surface roads, even street names, are almost nonexistent. There seems to be a perpetual game of “chicken” being played in the more congested areas, but everyone knows how to play the game so there are few accidents. The smaller canals are one way which is as much a safety matter as anything else. In places, the canals are not wide enough to accommodate two motor boats. Yet, like the motorcycle madness of Southeast Asia, it works.

Our boat returned us to the dock near the Prinsendam at exactly 3:30, too late for Trivia. One passenger on the boat practically ran back, but we did not care. We stopped in our cabin once we cleared security and then went to the Ocean Bar to look for the Pettii in case they had dropped by to play. They were not there, but we caught up with them in the Java Bar [where the cappuccino machine is still broken]. They had not stayed for Trivia because we were not there. We sat and talked until almost 5:00 and then returned to the cabin.

Tonight was the first night for all four of us to have dinner together and we spent some time during the meal introducing them to assorted staff members. They had already met Khaye, our wine steward[ess] at lunch when she surprised them by calling them by name. We had alerted her to their arrival and our description was so good that she had no trouble identifying them. They were flabbergasted. With four at the table and good conversation, we finished at 9:45, half an hour later than our previous norm.

The show tonight was an electronic vibraphone player who was quite good. All four of us enjoyed the show. Then it was time for bed as we chugged down the Grand Canal in time for tomorrow’s port of call.

Tomorrow – Ravenna, Italy

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