I saw Venice: Floating City through a young Army soldier eyes when I visited the city for the first time in October 2019. My brother Terry lived in northern Italy for two years when he was stationed in the 1960s.
He fell in love with “Venezia” because what boy raised in Silver Spring, Maryland wouldn’t love this former empire that ruled the seas?
“Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee, And was the safeguard of the West: the worth Of Venice did not fall below her birth, Venice, the eldest child of Liberty.”—William Wordsworth
It was Terry’s dream that his little sister would visit Venice before it disappears. (And Venetians are quick to tell you that their city is under threat of sinking away by 2100. Climate change and rising sea levels are the main threats.)
When I emailed him to share the good news, he wrote back: “A city like no other city in the world . . . Venezia. San Marco square is calling you from afar… come see me. It is on the verge of sinking into the lagoon. It’s a beautiful place. You will find my heart there.”
My heart swelled that Venezia could own the keys to my brother’s heart still five decades later. I wanted to see Venice through my brother’s eyes. I bought him a “coffee table book” showing photos of Italy. We would sit talking together on the phone—separated by 3,000 miles—and he would reminisce about the sights. I loved imagining him as a young man living overseas. I had a tattered old black and white photo of my brother standing in San Marco Square surrounded by pigeons (age 21). He looks like a movie star in a Federico Fellini film.
Terry gave me his Top 6 list of places to see in Venice to see its charms (and experience his favorites):
1. take a gondola ride down the Grand Canal
2. see the Murano Glass factory
3. visit Piazza San Marco and Saint Mark’s Basilica
4. tour Doge’s Palace
5. visit Burano Island in the lagoon (lace items)
6. visit Lido Island (summer time)
It was an ambitious list as I only had 48 hours in Venice. But i was determined to see as many of his recommendations as possible. I booked my direct flight to Venice (via Philadelphia Airport) over 10 months ago using American Airline miles. Score! (It is frustrating how few times you can cash in your miles if you don’t book months in advance but this is another story about travelers’ woes in financing their adventures abroad.)
I procrastinated on booking my lodging until September, as I was completely overwhelmed about where to stay. Typically I choose AirBnb residences over hotels to keep my costs down. And Venetian hotels are outrageously expensive if you are staying in the San Marco neighborhood. For my dates, the average good hotel cost between USD $300-$700 a night. Even the AirBnb residences averaged $200 a night in October and I wasn’t certain whether I could manage finding a tiny apartment building on a random street in Venice. So I finally settled on an older hotel/B&B in a historic building near a Venetian canal in the medieval heart of San Marco.
This is where things begin to go wrong. I arrive jet lagged on a warm Thursday morning. I know there are two affordable options to reach Venice. I can take a train to Stazione Venezia Santa Lucia (San Lucia’s train station) and then buy a ticket on a vaporetta to get to San Marco. Or I can travel directly to Venice by the Alilaguna (the ferry which connects travelers between the Marco Polo Airport and stops in Venice). The boat ride takes 70 minute. My excitement is growing.
I step off the ferry at the San Marco stop, patting myself on making the correct decision. I know that I will have to drag my rolling suitcase along the dock (as well as carry it each time that I reach a staircase). I am also slightly stooped with the black backpack carrying my hiking gear.
I cannot begin to describe the sea of humanity that I must swim through in Venice. It is wall-to-wall people and they all have turned into statues. Everyone seems to be taking selfies and I understand the allure—every single corner of Venice presents the opportunity for a post on Facebook or Instagram. But I am on a mission to find my hotel, drop off my suitcase and meet my guide for my walking tour by 5 pm.
I type my destination in my Google map app in my iPhone and proceed to follow its directions. At first it seems simple. Google leads me into San Marco Square and points me towards a street. I cheerfully follow its directions initially. I have to fight my way up the narrow streets lined with shoppers gawking at Venetian masks, Murano glass and Italian shoes. It seems every street ends with a staircase near a bridge (Ponte). My suitcase is getting heavier by the minute. And I am walking in circles. The app is constantly promising me that I am 100m or 200m closer to my final destination but then I see the menacing words “recalculating.” Suddenly my dream Venice trip is turning into a nightmare. Why didn’t I download a Venice map to print out to guide me to my hotel?
Fast forward 90 frazzled minutes later and I finally find a kind Italian woman who looks at the piece of paper listing my hotel’s address and waves me over to the left. I backtrack up the calle, turn right at the canal where gondoliers are loitering and turn right down a dark alley. There is no sign listing the name of this street. It is quite dark. On the right I see an Osteria. On the left side (far down) I see the bear logo and the name of my hotel. I honestly want to cry with relief. I drag the suitcase the final 100m (thanks for being no help Google maps) and bang on the door. No answer. Scream (in my head). Look in window. No one. (Curse.) Finally I locate the phone number on the hotel’s website. I call it and mercifully the international call rings through. I am told to ring a bell (which frankly is not obvious especially when you are jet-lagged) and someone will come down to open the door. And five minutes later, I am sitting in a parlor, paying my tourist fee (euros only) and getting my room key.
I wish I could say that this was the only time that I was lost in Venice. But this city thrives on confusing visitors and residents alike. Let me be clear. Venice is not a city you approach with an itinerary. You are certain to miss your appointment and get so lost that you don’t even know how to return to your hotel. Honestly Venice just scares me. After I became so piteously confused searching for my hotel, I knew that this would be my plight for my entire stay. It wasn’t going to get easier. I was here alone. And suddenly my female solo trek felt hellish. I wish I had anyone—family, friend, new acquaintance—to help me navigate these mysterious twisting streets that never lead anywhere (and certainly don’t get me to my destination).
So I think if you go to Venice and understand that you will be perpetually lost, you won’t get as upset as I felt. But I thought I was the savvy traveler who could book back-to-back tours for food tastings, island trips and neighborhood walks. Instead I am horribly lost and only manage to find two of the three starting points for my tours.
I am dazzled by the city’s architectural jewels—Palazo Ducale (Dogg Palace), Basilica di San Marco and Gallerie di Academia … I can imagine myself a time traveler and mounting the winged-lion that stands guard on the rooftop as symbol of Venice’s power and its patron San Marco (Saint Mark). It is my bucket list city to see after decades of traveling abroad.
Venice is also the most maddening city in the world if you’re a tourist. While I thought the hordes of tourists disembarking from the cruise ships and motorbuses would abate in the autumn, I am mistaken. They plague the city and result in residents literally yelling at them to get out of the way in frustration. I am reminded of writer Henry James’ oft-quoted words: ”Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.”
So understand that Venice is a agonizingly difficult city to maneuver—every time you leave your hotel, you will be faced with an impossibly convulted network of dead-end streets and alleys. Prepare to walk in circles. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, it is “a city for beavers.”
But I briefly saw Venice how it must have looked 49 years ago. On my last morning in Venice, my brother and I connected via FaceTime. There was a 9-hour time difference so it must have been 12:30 am in California. I turned my iPhone so I could point it at different sites in San Marco Square. Suddenly my brother Terry was 20 years old describing his cherished memories of San Marco Square and its ornate church, the watch tower, the winged lion statue, the pigeons, his Italian girlfriends … and now my trip to Venezia became a huge success . . . because now I could see my brother’s Venice. In my confusion navigating San Marco’s streets, there was no joy. But under the spell of my brother’s memories, I saw it as the bewitching city, the masqued city, the floating city.
“There is something so different in, Venice from any other place in, the world, that you leave at, once all accustomed habits and, everyday sights to enter an, enchanted garden.”—Mary Shelley
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