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 Three of my first intercontinental trip in February 2009.
The Basilica of San Marco
I’m awake at 5:30. It’s bread and jam for breakfast, and packing before we take off sightseeing. Then Marie and I set off to the Basilica. There’s a line, but it moves pretty quickly.
The Basilica was started in 1063, on the site of the previous church which was destroyed by fire in 976. It was consecrated in 1094 with the reburial of St. Mark, patron saint of the city, who had been buried in the original church in the 9th century. It is said that there are about 2 acres of mosaic covering the surfaces of this church, much of it gold leafed glass tile, dating as far back as the 13th century. The books also go into great detail about the specific iconography of the mosaics, which I will spare you here.
We enter, and our eyes are immediately drawn up to the vaulted, mosaic ceilings. Wow…
Marie reminds me to spend half of my time looking at the floor, where incredible mosaics and geometrics meet our every step. The floor is nearly as incredible as the ceiling. I reach down several times to touch the marble, the sardonyx, the lapis. The floor is much smoother than I expected, for it being made up of so many angular cuts of stone.
And then, we enter the Treasury — a depository of treasures brought back to Venice from Constantinople in 1204. An Egyptian vase, 4th century Roman glass, numerous Roman and Byzantine chalices carved from stone and gilded and jeweled, lamps and pails carved from clearest rock-crystal. The piece that made the greatest impression on me was a simple milk-glass plate from China, dating to the 13-14th centuries. I fantasize Marco Polo’s fingerprints being on the edges of it.
I did not choose well when I opted out of going upstairs, which I later realized was the San Marco Museum — the Doge’s Banquet Hall which now houses tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and on the balcony, the four bronze horses that you can see from the Square. But by that time I had nearly burned my retinas with the details of this place, and was pretty overwhelmed. I light candles for Dad and Chuck who both died last year. I note a rifle mounted in a glass case (which I would later find was an offering of thanks from a woman for the safe return of her husband from war). We exit the building and find relief for our retina-burned eyes in a clear, cloudless sky.
We stop for lunch. I order a mushroom pizza and café correto (coffee ‘corrected’ with liquor). I stumble with the language barrier again, and experience a bit of culture shock as I am trying to communicate with a Chinese barkeep, in Italian. She brings me two bottles — Jaegarmeister and Jack Daniels. Jack it is. When the coffee arrives, it is half alcohol. I don’t finish it, or the pizza. But I will never eat American pizza again.
We go shopping. The first find of the day, is also the best — a second hand store which looks promising for Payne as he searches for hardware for their house. There, in a glass case along the back wall, I find it. A ring with a gold lion head, a symbol of Venice. I ask the shopkeeper to unlock the case. I try it on, and it slips onto my finger as though it was made for me. My ring, a gift from Mom, who handed me money before I left and told me to spend it on myself. And so I did.
We see more Carnival costume today, nearly always these people are in pairs, who stroll very slowly, with specific poses and sometimes even specific places to pose in the square. I discover “ferocity of crowds” and had to crawl out of a circle of photographers on my hands and knees because it was my only path of escape. I see stacks of what look like really long benches, which Marie explains are set up as walkways during the acqua alta, the street flooding which, fortunately, we do not experience this trip. I ask about the slits in the concrete every 10 feet or so, Marie says those are storm drains, which are much more discrete than the large grates along the curbs in Seattle. A French puppeteer, with his marionettes, his waist-high stage set up on the street, with backgrounds that he rolls in order to change the scenery, and a microphone and earpiece that he wears like body jewelry.
We visit the Cathedral of the Salute (Santa Maria della Salute) where I light a candle for Mischka, who also died last year (one of 10, it was a very bad year..) About half the outside of the dome is covered with scaffolding. It is also in sharp contrast to the Basilica, with its grey, unadorned interior, and its dome inset with glass panels, which fills the entire building with that beautiful Venetian light. It was built in 1630 by those thankful few who survived the Black Death that year.
Outside the Salute, another very old church, appearing to date to the 10th-11th century, which I photograph in hopes of finding the name of it later. Another Carnival costume, this one, a single Lioness. We had a short game of dodge while she tried to get in front of my camera while I was trying to photograph the church. Once my mission was complete, I made a point of circling back to her for this picture perfect pose.
We head back to the Rialto and cross to the other side. I watch a workboat installing gondola moorings and then realize how difficult that job must be to do from a boat.
A ride in a gondola has been ousted from our plans due to time and cost restrictions, so we step onto a trajetto instead. Whereas gondolas traverse the length of the canal, trajetto are service boats that cross the canal. They are shaped like a gondola but not as ornate, and you stand in them instead of sitting. For the cost of a single euro each, we board the “poor man’s gondola” and snap photos of the Rialto from water level at the center of the Grand Canal. So much fun!
On the other side, past the Guggenheim Museum which is closed today, we see the Palazzo Contarinin deo Bovolo, (the Bovolo Tower), the famous spiral staircase built at the turn of the 16th century. I would never have found it on my own because it’s buried in a labyrinth of narrow alleyways. It’s also closed for restoration work, but we admire it nonetheless, as well as the cisterns and large marble tubs that are in the fenced off garden in front of it. It’s so tall that you can’t capture it in a single camera frame, so the photo below is actually 2 shots that are patched together, which explains the line through the center and the mismatched colors…
We walk back to the square and find the vendor where I bought my hat. He remembers us, although I suspect it was Payne that jogged his memory, rather than me. Marie finds a wine colored tricorne that is a perfect match for her coat.
It’s time to head back to the apartment, to pick up my luggage and go down to the dock. Marie prevents me from boarding a vaporreto going in the wrong direction. Then, to the train station, where my trip to Florence begins.
A post script of random observations:
As I watched garbage and delivery boats that were outfitted with arms; I marveled that the boats didn’t tip over.
I noted specialized hand trucks for FedEx and DHL that allowed the delivery men to schlep stacks of boxes over the bridges which are actually stairs. One of my first surprises here was that the bridges are all stairs, not the smooth surface bridges like the ones in Japanese gardens, which is what I was expecting. I thought about all the specialized tools that had to be developed to accommodate modern life in Venice. I realized how impassable the city is if you are in a wheelchair, or a walker, or crutches, or have any other issues with mobility. I remembered looking up at elders as they sat at their windows, and wondered if they ever left their apartments…