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. This is Day Two of my first intercontinental trip in February 2009.
At 5:30 AM, the upstairs neighbor wakes up and turns on their lights, which reflect back off the brick and wood-shuttered windows of the building across the alley from my room. At 6:15, a broom hits the pavement, shooing a soda can down the street. A crescent moon hangs above the terra cotta tile rooftops. At 7 AM, church bells begin. Marie is up, and offers to go for a walk with me.
We set out at 7:30, just as the sunrise is kissing the brick and water-color buildings. It’s a really pleasant walk. Marie points up to several rooftop gardens. There are no plantings at street level due to the acqua alta, the periodic flooding that occurs here when the Venetian lagoon is overcome by high tides from the Adriatic Sea. I find the place to buy my train ticket but they aren’t open yet. I see a Chinese bed in an antique store. Marie buys blood oranges from a fruit stall, and croissants from a baker who did not speak English. I enjoy my first Italian expresso “at the bar” to save on the 3 euro table charge. This coffee is dramatically different from anything I could hope to get back home at Starbucks.
The other couple has arrived, and Payne and Marie go to meet them, leaving me to my own devices. I head to the Palazzo Ducale.
The Doges Palace
Palazzo Ducale, originally built in the 800’s as a fortress that enclosed both the personal residence of the Doge (the Duke who governed early Venice) and the first church in San Marco, but most of what now exists dates from the 1300’s. It became the seat of Venetian government in subsequent centuries and is an excellent example of Venetian Gothic architecture. Again as with much of Venice, art and details that you look at are reconstructed from original pieces. In the case of this palace, pieces that were destroyed in several fires between 976 and 1577.
The sheer amount of sculpture in the courtyard outside of the Doge’s apartments is remarkable, and I wander there for quite a while. The most impressive section of the courtyard is the Foscari Arch, dating from the late 15th century, topped with gothic towers and ornamented with statuary symbolizing the arts, the work of masters of the Lombard School.
Turning back towards the palazzo, parked on the portico is an ornately carved black gondola (shown below) with an enclosed box over the seat, which would have provided shelter and privacy to the Doge on his excursions on the canal.
One of the next things I see on the balcony is a lion face relief on the wall, with a slot for a mouth, above a carved placard that reads “Denontie Secrete Inmaterie Distato.” I later learned that it was a receiving box for secret notes from citizens who were turning in other citizens for transgressions, although the local magistrates rarely took action on these accusations. I would see a few other albeit less ornate boxes throughout this building.
I check my bag before entering the palace, which was unfortunate, as I didn’t think to take my camera out first, nor did it occur to me to go back to retrieve it. DOH!!!
I enter the palace via the Scala d’Oro – the Golden Staircase – named after the 24-carat gold leaf adorning the arched, stucco ceiling, built by command of Doge Gritti during the mid-1500’s. At the top of the staircase began the Doge’s apartments, both public rooms, and later, private ones. There are no furnishings because each doge was expected to provide his own, and upon his death the furnishings were returned to his heirs.
The first room is a reception chamber, filled with maps (the originals dated to the late 15th century), and two 6-foot globes on pedestals (18th century), meant to underscore the importance of Venice as a world power. A massive fireplace is wrapped in scaffolding. I take my shoes off because I feel like I am making too much noise against the hardwood floors, but am quickly told by the docents to put them back on again.
I think it was at the Ritratti, when I turn a corner, neck craned back with my eyes on the ceiling, completely oblivious to other people. Suddenly I hear a gasp, and bring my gaze down to see an Italian couple, wide-eyed, looking back at me. “My god,” the man says, “when you walked into the room in your costume, we were just transported… Thank you!” I told him I was equally transported, being able to walk around in these buildings in period costume. I offered a humble “Grazie” before they left. What an experience that was, for all three of us!
The next floor houses the chambers of government. Incredibly lavish, every single surface of every room is ornamented with paint, gold, and fresco. My favorites are the Sala del Senato (the Senate Room), and the immense Sala del Maggior Consiglio (the Legislature Room, shown here). It measures 175′ x 80′, about half the size of an American football field, and the largest room uninterrupted by support columns in all of Europe.
My least favorite room is the Quarantie (the Tribunals of Forty) where justice was meted out. This room has a distinctly different smell than the rest of the rooms, and was one of the last rooms that an accused person would stand in before crossing over the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) which links the courtrooms to the prisons on the other side of a canal.
The Armory displays a variety of weaponry dating back to the 14th century. Fully armored horses stand in a corner, behind glass. Two suits of tournament armor dating from 1490, and a child-sized suit of armor recovered from a battlefield in 1515. The obligatory array of swords, a pair of exquisite Turkish recurve bows, 17th century guns, and an ornate bronze canon whose barrel could only facilitate shot between the size of a golf and a tennis ball. I’m so mad that I don’t have my camera…
From here, I walk over the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1602 but named in the 19th century because the view through two small, iron-grated windows was the last glimpse of Venice a prisoner would have before being committed to a stone cell for the rest of his life. The staircase leading to the prison cells is oppressive, and I’m glad that it isn’t more crowded. These rooms, considered by standards of the day to be more humane than most, would have still driven me to the brink of insanity had I had to stay in them for more than a few hours. Low arched ceilings over nothing more than a bench, originally lined with wood planking, and windowless save for the iron grate across the front. These cells continued to be used as an active prison into the 1930’s.
I find the gift shop/museum store, but it’s woefully inadequate, a problem that would be pervasive throughout my stay here. I am incensed at the lack of photos of the Armory in the museum catalog. The triptychs and icons in the apartments aren’t in the guide either, which is really unfortunate since I wanted to learn more about the one that showed the Virgin Mary in a 14th century red dress with fur-lined tippets, crucified, with men in gothic plate armor fainted away at the foot of her cross. (Detail about this tryptych still elude me as of February 2021).
After a few more rooms, I arrive back out on the second story balcony. I retrieve my camera (in retrospect, I wonder why I didn’t go back in to the armory for photos). I am standing at the top of the Scala dei Gigante, (Gigantic Staircase) which was the ceremonial approach to the palace, and the place where the Doge was crowned. It is flanked on either side by statues of Mars and Neptune, installed in the mid-16th century.
As I stand in that spot, I start to laugh. The butts of both Mars and Neptune are at eye-level — mooning the Doge during some of his most important ceremonies. I wonder if the placement of these two statues was politically motivated, and then I start laughing again because it will be one of my lasting memories of this place.
I set out to buy my train ticket, with the intention of returning to see the Basilica. I am lost for almost two hours before I start asking for directions. I learn the hard way that a favorite trick by the locals is to tell tourists to “just go straight,” which is a physical impossibility. I ask for directions every three blocks. I finally find the ticketing office I had seen this morning, and buy a ticket for a 6:30 PM departure tomorrow, and head back to the Basilica.
What a maze Venice is! By the time I find my way back to the square, the the queue in front of the Basilica has become long and full of tourist groups. I decide to shop for a new ring instead. But women’s fingers here are excruciatingly tiny and my hopes of finding a ring seem to diminish. I decide to look for one in Florence, and head back to the apartment.
Two hours later, I’m still walking around in circles. No matter which direction I leave San Marco Square, I always end up back here. I don’t have a cell phone so I try to use a pay phone to call Payne and Marie, but cannot figure out how to make them work. Even Italians are coming up to me and asking for help. It’s now dark, and I’m pretty certain Payne and Marie have started to worry. I am determined to figure this out. I set out again, with my map, certain I have it oriented properly. I look up to see a wedding couple in front of me, and a really cool bank of gondolas as tourists start to book their evening cruises.
I go over this bridge, that bridge, and yet another, and turn the corner, and… unbelievably… I am back in San Marco Square! Good God! I am caught between laughing and having a total meltdown…
- Travel tip: I later learn that a lot of people get lost here, even the locals…so if you are planning a trip here, book an additional day or two so you factor in that time-loss.
Another hour passes, and the Carnival costumes are now coming out. It’s Children’s Night. I walk around, deciding that since I’m here anyway, I should soak up the ambiance of a second night of Carnival. I watch two costumed girls engage in a confetti fight as their parents look on, smiling and snapping photos. I return to the bank of pay phones to try again, and get pelted in the face by a little girl throwing confetti. A piece catches an edge in my eye. Great. Now I am lost, and in the dark and partially blind…
One more attempt to leave the square fails, and I suddenly remember that the vaporetto will take me directly back to San Angelo. I go down to the dock at San Marco, and hop on board a boat that has just arrived, and realize that I am now seeing the rest of the Grand Canal. How cool is this! I stand on the bow of the boat for a better view. A gondola takes off in front of us, loaded with passengers, its hull completely studded with white twinkle lights. The cathedral dome on the other side of the Grand Canal is illuminated and beautiful. I realize this is the only way I would have found the Academia, had I planned on going there (which I didn’t). I watch a young couple get ticketed with the famous 30 euro per person fine for failing to buy a vaporetto ticket.
I debark the vaporetto, and try a couple of times to locate the Avvocati, before going back to a hotel near the San Angelo stop. “It’s just across the bridge to your left” the concierge says. “Bridge?” I don’t even remember a bridge. I arrive back at the apartment at 7 PM, three hours after I intended to.
In retrospect, we realize that we should have made a back up plan. “If you are not here by xyz, we will meet you a designated place in San Marco Square at 7 PM,” says Payne. Yup, that would have been a good plan to have in place. They are impressed that I thought to take the vaporetto back home, and we all have a good laugh about my complete inability to navigate Venice on my own. Payne suggests sending a postcard to my boss, asking, “Have you heard from Heather, last seen in San Marco Square on Monday? Please advise…”
Payne and Marie decide that I am not allowed out on my own for the rest of my stay here. Tomorrow morning, Marie and I will tour the Basilica (the only other must-see thing on my list other than the Doge’s Palace) and then she will take me shopping. I’m still looking for writing papers and the elusive ring…