Three Days in Venice – Day 1

February 14, 2009 – Seattle to Frankfurt…

It’s my first international flight.  The thrill starts as I wait at the gate, listening to boarding calls for Beijing and Paris.  I board a plane that is smaller than I had expected. There’s the occasional turbulence, during which I watch the interior of the plane writhe like a serpentine, as though it were a Viking long ship. I reset my watch to Frankfurt time, and read myself to sleep.

My third airport of the day is in New Venice. To my dismay I discover that I left my favorite ring (and a couple of less signifiant items) in customs at Frankfurt. I resign myself to the fact that they are remnants of the past, and that I will find a new ring in Venice…

Some things are universal — crowded, standing room only buses being one of them. This bus serves as both a city bus and an airport shuttle, outfitted with luggage racks but making stops every two blocks. I’m suddenly not feeling well and  I strip down to a tank top to avoid becoming overheated. I must be quite the sight, on a bus full of people dressed in parkas…

…and finally, Venice…

I arrive at Piazzala Roma. I expected a vaporetto to be a larger version of a gondola, but it’s a water bus, like a passenger-only ferry.  I find the one headed to “Rialto #1.” and marvel at how much traffic there is on the canal.

The Rialto Bridge is impressive, and passing under the massive arch of stone is like passing from night into day. Suddenly there are people everywhere, many in costume, but most in just hats or makeup. My brother Payne is waiting at the San Angelo stop, a short walk through aged alleys to the apartment they have rented for the next two weeks. He leads me down the aged alley of the Street of Lawyers,  unlocks a massive, wooden front door, and ushers me in to the grand foyer of what appears to be 15th century manor house. 

A stone floor and vaulted ceiling.  A heavy, tall wooden door with a half-circle of wrought iron work above it. An old lamp hangs from an ornamental chain. An iron gate at the back of the foyer looks out onto a landing on a small canal. The two-person lift takes us to the third floor, where Marie, his wife, is waiting for us, dressed in her harlequin street gown. I set my luggage down, and look out the window onto a vista of terra cotta tiled roofs, stretching out as far as I can see. 

The sea of terra cotta rooftops, as seen from our apartment on the Street of Lawyers

I change into my Venetian gown, and we set off.

Winding our way through alleyways, we soon arrive in San Marco Square – the Grand Central for Carnivale. We turn the corner, and the landscape fills with the domes and towers of the Basilica. It absolutely takes my breath away… 

The Basilica

The Basilica is not as tall as I imagined, but far more ornate than a camera can capture. We walk up to the facade.  Bells start to toll — first from the church tower on the left, then from the one on the right. Birds fly up into a perfect shade-of-blue sky. The sudden transition is so overwhelming that I start to cry. Marie gives me a hug. “This is why we try to bring people here”…

It is hard to move in this crowd. Payne looks like he has stepped out of a period painting, and tourists flock to him like paparazzi. We take two steps and pause.  We take another step and pause again.  We find a spot for a photo op, and Marie gets some photos of Payne and I together, sitting at the feet of a bronze Venetian winged lion, at the foot of the statue Payne calls “the man with no hat.”

Payne and I at the Lion of Venice near San Marco Square.

Back in San Marco Square, an “Italian Garden” has been set up at one end.  The perimeter is rigged with sheets painted with topiary, with no attempt at tromp-de-toile. There is a larger than life topiary lion with eyes that light up. The entire scene is a fusion of historic buildings, twinkle lights, and large, modern light-sculptures. We walk past the Bridge of Sighs, boxed in with bright blue banners announcing restoration work, making it look more like a billboard than a building. At the end of the Doge’s Palace, we watch the sky fade from blue to pink, then to deeper blue as the sun sets over the lagoon. The last of the sun’s rays hit the Basilica and turn the gold mosaic tiles into fire.

Drums start. Three silver dragons appear — animatrons operated by men on stilts, heads extending 12 feet into the air on articulated necks, tails that look like a single, man-made feather extending eight feet behind them.  They start a choreographed dance but then break into playing with the crowd and then each other, weaving in and out of the square for the next two hours.

We duck into Caffe Florian, a baroque salon in operation since 1720, a favorite haunt of Goethe, Casanova, Lord Byron, Proust and Dickens. Revelers are dressed to play their parts as 17th – 18th century lords and courtesans. We order hot chocolate which arrives rich and thick as a Hershey Bar melted into  delicate porcelain cups. People peer in from the square, and it’s hard to tell which side of the glass is the fish bowl. A man in a white harlequin suit, and another dressed in black like Mozart’s father in Amadeus), start an obscene pantomime through the glass with a man sitting near us, while flirting with the man’s wife at the same time. Hysterical! 

More walking over a myriad of small bridges brings us to Campo Stefano, where street vendors are selling Carnivale regalia. I buy a black tri-corner hat, the traditional headwear of Carnivale. 

The ironwork bridge that would ultimately inspire my Venetian hat. Photo credit: Master Payne.

Back at the apartment. I stitch a black and gold veil to the back of my new hat. Marie says it needs a pin. So I add that to tomorrow’s shopping list, along with writing paper, a mask, and a train ticket to Florence. 

This is an excerpt from my original travel journal. For the full text which includes historical notes, please visit AugustPhoenixHats.com.

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