Three Days in Venice (Day One) – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marks the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos. I hope you enjoy these extended versions.

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. I’m really glad I packed light. The luggage stow-away rack is well above my head, and a stranger offers silent assistance with my carry-on. Thank you… Take-off is uneventful, and the flight has only the most occasional turbulence, during which I watch the interior of the plane writhe like a serpentine, as though it were a Viking long ship. It’s a little disconcerting. I reset my watch to Frankfurt time, and read until I can fall sleep.

I get two hours of shut-eye before dinner, and take another sleep aid afterwards so I can get back to sleep. It was a terrible idea. By the time the plane lands, I am very ill. I’m the last passenger on the plane, and  the stewards ask me if they need to call a doctor, which I decline. I Do Not Want to start my vacation from a hospital in Frankfurt!

I get off the plane and make it through the security checkpoint and onto my connecting flight for Venice. Once more on the ground, I realize I left my favorite ring and a couple of less significant items in Frankfurt customs. I resign myself to the fact that they are reminders of a previous lifetime. I will find a new ring in Venice.

Stepping off the plane in New Venice, I find the bus stop, and find that some things are universal — crowded, standing-room-only buses being one of them. This bus is a cross between a city bus and an airport shuttle, apparently serving both purposes, outfitted with luggage racks but making stops about every two blocks. I’m annoyed that I’m starting this trip on a bad stomach. I feel feverish and strip down to a tank top to avoid becoming overheated on a bus that has non-functioning windows. I must be quite the sight, on a bus full of people dressed in parkas. 

At last, I arrive in the Old City at Piazzala Roma. I had thought a vaporetto would be a larger version of a gondola, but they are actually water buses, like the Vashon ferry.  I find the one headed to “Rialto #1.” It seems to be pointed the wrong direction but I get on. The window glass is imbedded with a dot-matrix pattern that makes me queasy. But I look out the window as much as I can, and marvel at how much water traffic there is on the canal. 

The Rialto Bridge is larger and more impressive than I had imagined. 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, in his historical garb, is waiting at the San Angelo stop, a short walk through aged alleys to the apartment they have rented on Calle Dei Avvocati (Street of Lawyers) for the next two weeks. He unlocks a massive, wooden door. I walk in to the grand foyer of what appears to be 15th century manor house.

Unbelievable! A stone-tiled floor, high vaulted ceiling, a thick, tall wooden door with a half-circle of wrought iron work above it. An old lamp hangs from an ornamental chain. Payne unfortunately does not have a key to unlock the back door, an iron gate which steps down to a landing and onto a small, green-water service canal.

We go up a two-person lift to the third floor, where Marie, his wife, arises from a nap, already dressed in her harlequin gown. I set my luggage down, and look out the window onto a vista filled with terra cotta tiled roofs, stretching out as far as I can see. My room also has a view of terra cotta roof tiles and wooden shuttered windows just across the alley. These views are nearly indescribable.

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

After a couple of glasses of water and a brief sit down, I change into my Venetian coat, and we set off, winding our way through alleyways and onto San Marco Square, the Grand Central for Carnival. We turn the corner, and the landscape fills with the domes and towers of the Basilica. It takes my breath away.

The Basilica on San Marco Square

The Basilica is not as tall as I imagined, but far more ornate than my camera can capture. We walk up to the facade.  Bells start to toll — first from the church tower on the left, then from the taller tower on the right. Birds fly up into a perfect shade-of-blue sky. The sudden transition is so overwhelming that I stop in my tracks and start to cry. Marie, who has walked ahead with Payne, turns around, comes back and puts her arm around me. “This is why we try to bring people here…”

It is hard to move quickly; at times it’s hard to make any progress at all in this crowd. Payne looks like he has stepped out of a Renaissance painting, and tourists flock to him like paparazzi. Marie and I wait patiently for crowds to clear. We take two steps and pause. We take another step and pause again. We wander through to an adjoining square, where she gets some photos of Payne and I together, sitting at the base of a bronze Venetian winged lion, near the foot of a statue Payne calls “the man with no hat.”

Payne and I at the Lion of Venice near San Marco Square. Photo credit: Marie Cooley

Back in San Marco Square, we wander through an “Italian Garden” which has been set up at one end, filled with topiary and featuring a small runway / stage. The perimeter is rigged with sheets painted with topiary but with no attempt at tromp-de-toile. There is a larger than life topiary lion with eyes that light up, that is being hosed down by a workman.

The larger than life topiary lion

The entire scene is a juxtaposition of historic buildings, strands of twinkle lights hung in the alleys, and large, modern light-sculptures in the “garden.” We walk past the Bridge of Sighs which is completely boxed in with bright blue construction sheeting, and banners announcing restoration work. It look more like a 2-dimensional billboard than a building. 

Marie and Payne in one of the many fashion shows

At the end of the Doge’s Palace, we watch the sky fade from blue to pink, to deeper blue as the sun sets over the lagoon. Venus is clear and bright under a clear, cold sky. The setting sun hits the front of the Basilica, catching the gold mosaic tiles and turning them to fire.

Photo credit: Master Payne

Drums start. And into the Italian Garden, careen three silver dragons — half man-on-stilts, half animatron-puppet — with heads extending 12 feet into the air on articulated serpentine necks, tails that look like a single, man-made feather, extending up another eight feet behind them, dancing in a choreographed drill… playing with the crowd… playing with each other… moving through the garden, and then out into the square for the next two hours.

The animatron dragons in San Marco Square

We duck into the Caffe Florian, a baroque salon in operation since 1720, a favorite haunt of Goethe, Casanova (possibly because it was the only coffee house to admit women), and later, Lord Byron, Proust and Dickens. It is filled with costumed revelers, looking very much the part of 17th-18th century lords and courtesans. We are shown to a small table in one of the ornate and crowded salons, and order hot chocolate, which arrives as rich as though it were a Hershey Bar melted into a delicate, porcelain cup. The windows looking out are filled with people looking in, and it is hard to tell which side of the glass is the more active fish bowl. A man in a white harlequin suit, accompanied by a man in black, dressed like Mozart’s father in Amadeus, start an obscene pantomime through the glass with a man sitting near us, and flirting with the man’s wife at the same time. I nearly choked on my hot chocolate!

More walking over a myriad of small bridges, past an ornate church which none of us recognize, down a dead end, and back onto a plaza which turns out to be Campo Stefano. Vendors in street booths are selling Carnival regalia. I buy a black tricorne hat, the traditional headwear of Carnival. It’s wool, and warmer than the beaded cotton cap I brought with me. Dinner is at an osteria near the apartment. I eat half of what I order.

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. 

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