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RETURN TO A FROSTY VENICE:

BY LUCIA MAURO

Eleven years had passed since I last glided across the canals of La Serenissima. My husband Joe, despite frequent trips to Italy, had somehow managed to bypass Venice. So we felt the time was ripe for a visit. My memories extended to my college years when a group of us bounded melodramatically across Piazza San Marco in the dead of winter, and a spring trip a few years later with my mother in which it poured incessantly.

Now November was upon us, and several friends urged us to experience the liquified city when it’s engulfed in fog and romantic mystery. The fog intrigued me. What Joe and I didn’t bank on were the frigid temperatures and a narrow escape from the Acqua Alta – literally "high water" that occurs when the Adriatic Sea overflows into the "calle" of the entire Republic. While still in Trieste, we tuned into the TV news and watched with horror as drenched sightseers clumped gloomily across makeshift planks past Giotto’s Bell Tower. The sea appeared to be stirring beneath their rubber hip boots.

So Joe and I fanatically followed the weather reports and were pleased to hear that the Acqua Alta had subsided by the time we set out on our two-hour drive from Trieste. Also to our advantage (albeit barely), we would be in Venice when a major gasoline strike hit all of Italy. Luckily, we filled up our tank before winding our way through the tangled roads and shipyards of the outskirts of Venice.

In the past, I’ve arrived by train – a fairly straightforward route. But driving into this watery wonder of the world is quite a complex affair. Although the sun guided us on this brisk early afternoon, we still managed to get caught in a spiral of confusion – all against a backdrop of monstrous cranes and massive freighters. Venice’s surrounding port area is a depressing sprawl of gray industrial monotony. If you make one wrong turn, you end up circling around hulking machinery out of a Fritz Lang film. It became nearly impossible to get back on the right track – despite fleeting glimpses of a statue of the hair-shirt prophet beckoning from atop the distant dome of San Giovanni Battista.

It would take us another two hours to get from the grimy port to the graceful canals. We traced our confusion to a sign for long-term parking that unwittingly sent us in the direction of the cruise ships. We also were lured by a large indoor garage that offered a heavily discounted rate for visitors staying at least three days. Because everything was automated, no human beings (not even the usual aggressive porters) were present to direct us to the vaporetti. So Joe and I were forced to unload our bags and drag them on our portable trolley singlehandedly – all the while trudging through an abandoned concrete wasteland.

After we hit the one-mile mark, we feared we had made a major blunder, but remained assured by San Giovanni Battista’s halo and staff poking up beyond the ocean liners around us. Finally, humanity resurfaced at a small AGIP station, where we asked the brusque attendants if we could board a vaporetto nearby. They mumbled something about a small station near the freighters, but we were leery about loitering in such a deserted quay that reeked of fuel and sewage. So we forged ahead and, by mile three, our abandonment was abruptly invaded by hordes of backpackers and locals scampering across a bus-lined parking lot surrounded by seedy hotels.

Joe rested his aching bones while I scoped out the vaporetti located a few steps down from the bus station. We then wheeled our baggage into the wobbly steel waiting area at Piazzale Roma and bought our vaporetti tickets -–including an unexpected one exclusively for our luggage. Our treacherous trek ultimately was worth it. There was an indescribable sense of magic attached to watching Joe experience Venice for the first time. Once on the "boat bus," packed with antsy toddlers and their rigid elders, we settled in and enjoyed the surreal panorama of a city whose architecture balances precariously on sea and land; between Orient and Occident.

We were on our way to our hotel in the San Marco area – a long all-encompassing ride in golden late-afternoon sunlight. Joe gasped and his eyes sparkled at every turn past a wistfully bobbing gondola, an Arabic-designed window or the bustling Rialto bridge. Burly, unshaven men in speedboats were en route to delivering boxes of produce to restaurants and grocery stores. As we plied the thick, seaweed-green waters deeper into the Grand Canal, less enchanting sights also came into focus: the church of Santa Lucia splattered with graffiti; Byzantine cupole enmeshed in scaffolding; and artfully carved doors now corroded as the inky waters relentlessly slapped against them.

The main reason I’ve avoided Venice for so long has been its dismal fate as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. The city was bound to get worn into the ground – or, in this case, the bottom of the sea. The serious possibility of Venice slowly sinking into the Adriatic remains very real. Because Joe and I like to explore the Italian paths less taken, we had to brace ourselves for irksome crowds (even in November!), impersonal service and sky-high prices. But we also were determined to bask in Venice’s achingly romantic splendor, even if it meant plowing through the hordes of camera-toting visitors chattering ferociously in languages of Pentecostal proportions.

A man who looked like Danny Aiello and wore an inordinate amount of gold jewelry guided us to Hotel Montecarlo on a sequestered side street a few kilometers from the Basilica di San Marco. That initial vision of Piazza San Marco from the square gallery of shops and cafes never ceases to make a theatrical impact. This time, I would view the Byzantine landmark – topped by four bronze horses and glistening mosaics – for the first time without scaffolding. It was an unearthly glory to behold fronted by pigeons and Giotto’s streamlined Campanile in the buttery setting sun. Joe, so moved by the storybook setting, twirled me high in the air and kissed me – against a backdrop of Japanese tourists rolling their luggage across the cobblestones as if engaged in a furious bowling match.

An efficient man at the front desk of the small Baroque-bedecked Hotel Montecarlo processed our documents at record-breaking speed and ordered a bellhop to escort us swiftly to what turned out to be a closet-sized room. At first, it looked quite charming, with its light-porcelain headboard, armoire and desk inlaid with pink roses and a Murano-glass chandelier spun into a Helix of pink-and-white crystal and gold. But after one day, claustrophobia set in and we got tired of tripping over our bags and each other.

Joe and I determined that, for maximum profit, the hotel cut its larger rooms in half and erected flimsy walls between them. Even our headboard looked like it was chopped in half. And the outline of a now-sealed door was visible through the beige-and-cream striped wallpaper. Our view consisted of a corrugated steel roof hanging half-way over a courtyard strewn incongruously with trash, chipped Cupid statues and potted geraniums.

We longed for fresh air. So, regardless of the plunging temperatures, we ventured out on a passeggiata toward the shop-clustered Rialto Bridge – following the faded yellow signs that pointed the way. Our hotel was situated along a frenetic strip of stores exploding in psychedelic glass-blown hues. The famed hand-painted Venetian masks abounded, as did shops dedicated exclusively to drapery tassels and exquisitely embroidered tapestries. Next door, we glimpsed a window stocked with rubber hip boots and a sign slashing the price in half in hopes of an impending Acqua Alta.

The smells of raw and cooking fish engulfed us. The vivacious tourist throngs pushed us along the narrow streets. Eager to escape the suffocating crush, Joe and I slipped down a deserted alley, where we could finally listen to the water lapping against a crumbling bridge.

This "ca" led to a little grocery store, where the scents of fresh-baked bread drew us in. A regal gray-haired woman graciously greeted us and asked if there was anything we might like to sample. I was very curious about "Il Dolce di Venezia" – an over-sized biscotto chock full of dried fruit. La Signora obliged and explained that it was a regional specialty – a type of sweetbread made with milk, flour, water, raisins, pine nuts and fennel seeds. We purchased one, as well as separate slices of eggplant and green-olive focaccia and a bottle of Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

Once back on the main winding drag -- loaded with bundled babies in strollers, muzzled dogs and faces from the United Nations – we were jolted out of our brief personalized respite when we encountered three McDonald’s and the Disney Store. All the while, Joe and I tried to locate the source of classical music being played on a tack piano. We found it in the form of a puppet show near a fountain steps away from the Rialto. A scrappy young man manipulated a Jim Henson-like marionette with frizzy black hair and over-sized glasses playing a miniature piano. The puppet’s glasses moved up and down as he pounded the keys with his over-sized cartoon hands.

The jewelry shops on the Rialto were so numerous, they sent off an almost nuclear glare. Wedged in between diamond watches and sapphire chokers was a store specializing in wooden toys, including an all-wood motorcycle priced at US$3,000. Once atop the bridge, Joe and I nestled close – shielding our faces from the increasing winds – and soaked in Venice’s flirtatious candor. Music constantly poured across the currents; boats sways lazily; and couples naturally drew near to each other inspired by the florid passion in the air.

We had barely descended this glitzy bridge when I spotted a poster advertising a classical concert at the Chiesa di San Bartolomeo later that night. Without asking Joe, I darted toward the entrance of this Baroque church and spontaneously purchased two tickets from a slim blonde woman standing in the doorway. I just couldn’t imagine not indulging in Venice’s grand music tradition.

Joe, exhausted from hauling our biggest piece of luggage for two miles, would have preferred resting. But after a cozy dinner of those luscious breads from the gracious Signora in our cramped room, we both were ready to enjoy a concert by a string ensemble, called Interpreti Veneziani, in a 17th century church noted for its ongoing exhibits of violins, violas and viola da gambas from the same period.

An international audience packed into this damp, gray-stone church to listen to the music of Rossini, Paganini and Vivaldi (most notably his "Four Seasons"). Occasionally, the portable heaters would click on so violently, they blotted out entire movements. But the artists didn’t flinch. The program began quite conventionally, then segued into the allegro portion of Rossini’s "Sonata No. 1 for Strings" with an unexpectedly animated male cellist. At first we thought he might be parodying a flamboyant musician. He flung his wavy hair back so forcefully, we thought it might break loose from its follicles. His eyes bugged out, and his whole body looked as though he were being jolted by electrical currents.

Joe whispered to me that the cellist looked like he might be high on cocaine. One American woman in back of us huffed that his playing and showy antics were "an abomination." When the heaters got revved up for the umpteenth time, she stormed out of the church – tripping more than once over her long sable fur.

After intermission, the hyper-cellist made a late entrance for another solo and looked more charged up. He kept sniffling and wiping his nose – moves that prompted Joe to conclude that, indeed, the cellist was a cokehead. And that fact, plus the impatient American woman, were what we remembered most about our classical evening.

By 11 o’clock, the streets cleared and snow flurries swirled around the frigid air. A polar wind nudged us toward Piazza San Marco entirely devoid of humanity – hard to fathom in Venice. How could it be possible that a few hours ago, the city was swarming with people? Where did they all go? Cocktail piano tunes drifted out of the lavish Café Florian as Joe and I gazed at the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore across the sea (on Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore) slowly getting wrapped in a blanket of fog – an eerie mirage suspended above the Adriatic.

The bitter winds soon drove us back to Hotel Montecarlo, but we hardly slept that night. The walls were so thin, we could hear the slightest footfall. And so many doors kept slamming, we thought we were trapped inside an Alan Ayckbourn farce. Joe and I no longer believed those were real walls separating the rooms – they were screens disguised as walls! After all, Venice itself at times seems like one grand illusion.

The next morning, a steady drizzle pelted our shutters – a sign that maybe it had warmed up. Although we still needed to wear several layers of clothing, the temperatures did rise a bit. The well-pressed front desk clerk assured us that the sun would come out – as if he had a direct line to the weather gods. I felt a cold coming on as Joe and I spent part of the morning checking our e-mail at an Internet center that charged triple the price of anywhere else in Italy. When we emerged from our computer screens, the clouds had scattered and the sun peeked out sporadically. And it got colder.

But we decided to explore the city by foot for the next four or five hours. We strolled around Piazza San Marco – now infested with people and pigeons – and couldn’t wait to move to less trafficked quays. It was impossible to spend quality time inside the Basilica di San Marco because the ubiquitous group tours (with their umbrella-bobbing guides) literally pushed us through the ravishing 8th-century Byzantine masterpiece. They blatantly ignored signs prohibiting flash photography and video cameras. Yet, amid the blasphemous chaos, one stooped, white-haired woman tried desperately to pray in a side chapel – her bony hands clutching rosary beads pressed firmly against her wrinkled forehead.

This time, the Doges’ Palace was undergoing renovation. However, instead of that unsightly green plastic covering, Arabic-influenced government building was swathed in a drop cloth that mirrored in acute detail its exterior Gothic-Byzantine architecture. On our way to the Accademia Gallery, we spotted a black Labrador stationed inside a butcher shop. He was catching meat scraps – tossed by a rotund butcher -- in his gaping jaws. Farther on, rather than reading them, gypsies extended their palms in front of every church. Once inside various places of worship, another sort of "gypsy" in the form of sour-faced nuns or priests demanded hefty fees just to look at the frescoes.

Tourism has become a sad way of life in this worn jewel of the Adriatic. Even the gondoliers lazily hawked high-priced rides with an accusatory snobbery. And young men dressed in foppish 18th century costumes and lopsided powdered wigs prowled the streets in headsets, stopping tourists along the way and asking them to sample music that would be played in concerts that evening. They would then whip out a stack of tickets and CDs from their frilly satin coats.

The latter spectacle made me think of Venice’s mercantile evolution over the centuries. Since Venice’s origins, small fishing communities had built up on the islands of the lagoon, and when successive waves of barbarian invasions - Huns, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths - attacked the villages around the lagoon, more residents decided it would be prudent to move out into the lagoon. The largest wave of immigrants, during the Lombard invasions of 568, finally established the city as an urban center with a significant population of fishermen and craftsmen.

Venice quickly developed into a major trade center, first as part of the Eastern Byzantine empire centered in Constantinople and later as its own city-state. This independent empire stretched far into the Eastern Mediterranean, and the city was able to control most of coastal Greece and parts of Turkey throughout the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Because its navy controlled most of the Adriatic, Venice was able to hold a virtual monopoly on European trade with the East—such goods as gold, silks, and coffee all had to enter the rest of Europe by way of Venice.

The city quickly became one of the wealthiest empires in Europe, attracting visitors from around the world to admire its magnificence. Not only Eastern merchandise but also Eastern art and artists flowed into Venice, adding Arab accents to its buildings, its food, and its culture and creating a city still unique for its blend of European and Eastern elements.

The common people of Venice benefited from the city's prosperity. Wealthy merchants joined social clubs, semi-religious confraternities called Scuole, dedicated to improving the life of the city. Many of the wealthy Scuole acted as hospitals for the sick and poor, some offering charity to widows and orphans. They became great patrons of the arts, sponsoring an artistic, musical and theatrical community that by the 18th century was rivaled by none in the world.

The city's economic and political decline was slow and painful for a city once so grand. The discovery of the New World brought trade to Europe that Venice could never control. Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, forging new paths to India and the East -- and sounding a death knell for Venice's economy. Her navies were no longer the most powerful in the Mediterranean, her land territories now almost nonexistent. While the empire eventually fell to Napoleon, it continues to attract global spectators.

Venice’s ties to its past are unavoidable. One woman’s boutique displayed some hilarious cross-dressing. Mannequins with female bodies from the shoulders down advertised sheer skirts and blouses and ridiculously high-heeled shoes. But, from the shoulders up, they sported Attila the Hun faces and helmets.

We figured it was about time to get something to eat. Plus our faces were so frozen, if we smiled, our skin really would crack. Needless to say, we had already suffered that sort of pain after breaking into hysterics over the barbaric transvestites.

Our exhaustion led us unwisely into a bar where we were charged almost US$50 for two tomato-and-mozzarella calzoni, an almond pastry, a beer and a cappuccino. We rebelled, but were ultimately too cold and tired to continue haggling with the pushy, screechy-voiced harridan at the counter. My head cold finally kicked in.
A nap was in order. But, after catching a brief weather alert on the hotel’s TV about another Acqua Alta surge, Joe and I decided to depart very early the next morning. We wanted to take in a few more sights. Despite a drastic dip in temperatures, we took a sweeping evening stroll and briefly warmed up in the luxurious early-18th century Café Florian – one of Casanova’s favorite haunts.

The next morning, after a quick continental breakfast in the hotel’s ornate breakfast room, we crept out onto the still-deserted Piazza San Marco. It was overcast and more fog rolled in. We boarded a vaporetto, which quickly filled up with people of all ages and many yelping dogs. In fact, I thought we might tip over from the sheer volume of people who seemed to emerge from the undulating mist and kept piling on. I reminded myself that it could have been worse. We could have arrived in the summer at the height of tourist season.

I was trying to snap photographs but kept getting jostled from side to side. And, in all the confusion, we hopped off one stop too soon – a monumental disaster in Venice where it’s not so easy to simply walk the rest of the way with luggage. We had to cross more than a few elevated bridges

In the midst of morning rush hour, Joe and I wheeled our unwieldy cargo up something like 50 steps, then down, then up another 50 steps to get to the other side. To vent our frustrations, we kept walking – all the way to our long-term parking lot nearly three miles away! Our agitated adrenaline must have propelled up.

We collapsed inside our rental car and switched on the radio to learn that the gasoline strike was over and that Venice would most likely be submerged in Acqua Alta by mid-afternoon. Then Joe and I paused and watched the fog encircle the statue of San Giovanni Battista. We were suddenly overcome by an odd mix of angst and exhilaration over this fabled city’s ability to still bedazzle and befuddle across the ages. •

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