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Venice

‘It’s a small world after all’

Truman Capote once said that Venice was like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.

My wife, Sandy, and I have to agree: We recently spent two days in Venice and it felt like six.

This is because the city — a hodgepodge of Byzantine and Islamic architecture — induces a sensory overload with its crisscrossed network of canals and bridges, churches, piazzas (plazas), trattorias (restaurants) and handsome people.

Situated in the northeastern notch of Italy, Venice became an independent Byzantine province in the 10th century. Special trading links with the East and victory in the Crusade of 1204 brought wealth and power, which were only gradually eroded by European and Turkish rivals.

Venice flourished through the Renaissance, but in 1797 fell prey to Napoleon's envy. After he picked Venice clean he gave it to Austria, which also plundered the province. Even when Venice agreed to be annexed by the kingdom of Italy in 1866, the natives still considered themselves Venetians first and Italians second.

A truly unique city, it is built on millions of closely spaced pilings that penetrate to alternating layers of clay and sand beneath some 25 feet of waterlogged subsoil. Marble foundations rest on the pilings, and buildings of brick or stone sit high and dry above the footings — that is until the Adriatic's acque alta (flood tides) show up in late fall and early spring.

The day we arrived in Venice, May 7, we had water problems of our own — it was raining cats and dogs, and we watched as the collected rain spewed from spouts anchored to the terra cotta and bronze roofs of homes, palaces and churches.

High up on the Chiesa degli Scalzi (Church of the Scalzi), water plummeted 50 to 75 feet from the roof to the cobblestone below with such force it splashed 4 to 5 feet into the air.

While seeking cover from the rain under the eaves of the Santa Lucia Train Station, we began to regret our earlier decision to secure cheaper accommodations rather than pay $300 per night at a Venetian hotel.

Instead of having a nice, dry room just minutes away, we had made reservations at the Hotel Righetto — a nice accommodation in the sleepy, peninsula town of Cavallino more than 7 miles from Venice.

The ferry that takes tourists and locals to Cavallino wasn't expected for some time, so we hired a water taxi — a maritime transportation system whose price, I've since decided, doubles when approached by soaking wet Yankees.

Ninety American dollars — and a turbulent ocean ride — later, we arrived with our damp luggage at the very picturesque landing of Punta Sabbioni, where a friendly family from Stuttgart, Germany, graciously offered us a ride in their new minivan to our hotel. Within 15 minutes we

were standing in our spartan but clean room, with its double bed, chest of drawers, a night stand and TV. Apart from the awkward-looking 220-volt outlets and the exceptionally high ceiling, you'd have thought you'd stepped into a 1950s catalog shoot for modern American bedroom furniture.

The bathroom was small, especially the shower, where you had to stand on a 3-foot-square pad. In an effort to keep the rest of the bathroom dry, the hotel had installed plastic, pseudo-accordion doors that you more or less wrapped around you while showering. Unfortunately, as you moved around in circles, trying to get wet, you couldn't help banging against the doors and getting water everywhere.

The best feature of the room, however, was our balcony door that let us out onto a deck facing the stormy, but beautiful Adriatic Sea.

It was wonderful, and not bad for $135 a night.

All things considered, it was an adventurous — and romantic, according to Sandy — beginning to our recent two-week Italian holiday.


Some thoughts on Venice — May 7-9

If you've never had a bottle of banana juice you don't know what you're missing. We could never figure out exactly how they made juice from a banana — and we didn't know how to ask in Italian — but I drank one every morning and it was delicious.

In addition to the juice, we grabbed a couple of brioches a la crema, (cream-filled croissants), fresh fruit and a can of the trusty Diet Coke (a staple for my wife).

There is no better way to start a day of sightseeing.

Pigeons are affectionate birds; that or they're just always hungry, for when I purchased a bag of bird feed, sat down in the cobblestone courtyard of the Piazza San Marcos and poured the kernels of dried corn in my lap, numerous pigeons swarmed me. It was like the scene from Home Alone II where Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern get attacked by the birds in New York's Central Park.

Contrary to what might be expected, being pecked all over by dozens of birds is not altogether unpleasant. Actually, I enjoyed it — that is until Sandy told me of all the diseases birds carry.

Using some of the water closets (bathrooms) in Venice is a lot like taking a ride in an amusement park.

Often you begin by waiting in a line. Eventually you make your way to the front where you pay an entry fee of 500 lira to an attendant. Sometimes it's all so modern there is no attendant and you just put your lira in a machine that allows you to pass through a turnstile. Once inside the facility — punctuated with mirrors, sinks and blow dryers — you face half a dozen doors. When one of these opens and the previous patron exits, it's your turn.

"Beware the Gypsies." This is what everyone who'd ever been to Italy told us. "They have all these devious ways of getting your money."

I only saw three Gypsies in Venice and they were so decrepit they couldn't have taken money from an one-legged blind man in a body cast.

What we did find, however, were hordes of street merchants trying to sell us cheap, kitschy trinkets; I'm not talking Italian products here either, I'm talking about items like disco dancing Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie and battery-operated, metal GI Joes that crawl on the ground.

And these merchants — always from India, interestingly enough — would shove this junk right up into your face again and again saying, "You buy? You buy?"

I'll take my chances with the Gypsies, thank you.

When a woman visits Venice she wants a romantic ride in a Gondola. It doesn't matter that it costs 200,000 lira (about $96) for a 40-minute spin, the woman must have it.

The gondola has been a part of Venice since the 11th century. With its slim hull and flat underside, it's perfectly suited for negotiating the city's narrow, shallow canals. A slight leftward curve to the prow counteracts the force of the oar, preventing the craft from going around in circles — something, I must confess, I wondered about.

And while I very much enjoyed cuddling with my wife as the gondolier rowed us up and down the small canals, I couldn't help feeling that I'd done all this before. I was certain I'd never been to Venice, yet the gentle rocking of the boat and the sound of the water lapping against its wooden side was so familiar. Then it struck me and I began to sing, "It's a small world after all."

It really stinks that in my memories, Disney did it better and for less money.

Before you leave Venice you have to watch glass being blown. The original structure of the furnace has remained unaltered over time, and new technology is seen only in small details. This is because the master glass blowers "battono" are traditional craftsmen.

They employ the same kind of blower pipes and instruments for shaping glass that have been used for more than a thousand years.

When we entered the Murano Glass Co. shop, it must have been over 120 degrees. The master worked in slacksand a silk shirt. The apprentice was nearly as fastidious. (Sandy and I were in Levi's). Neither the master nor the apprentice had a drop of perspiration on their foreheads, whereas I was literally raining sweat.

If I hadn't been so transfixed by the beauty of what I was witnessing, I surely would have passed out from heat exhaustion.

But the plate we purchased was worth all the lost water.

It was in Venice that we tasted our first gelato — Italian ice cream that is so good it makes our American equivalent seem grossly inadequate. Gelato comes in many flavors, but our favorite was limone (lemon) and coco (coconut). The fragola (strawberry) was also very tasty.

I wonder what a franchise would cost.

NEXT STOP: Florence.


Historical information on Venice garnered from Eyewitness Travel Guide to Italy and numerous tourist Web sites. E-mail: gag@desnews.com