A sojourn in Venice

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Editor’s note: Vivian Weaver is a 1971 graduate of Johnston High School. She moved to Rome in 1979. The following are her thoughts and observations from inside one of the nations hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis. In July, with new coronavirus cases fewer than 500 per week, and tourism not yet overwhelming the country, we decided it was the perfect time to visit Italy’s more popular destinations, and our first stop: Venice.

Perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, Venice is also super expensive, but right now, the government is offering subsidies to businesses that paid employees throughout the lockdown.

Additionally, in order to attract visitors, hotels are offering good rates, so our very elegant room, overlooking the Grand Canal, which would normally cost $450-$550 a night, was an affordable $195.

Venice offers such exquisite and exceptional architecture that even with many museums and galleries closed (to avoid crowds), we weren’t disappointed, as the city itself is a museum.

The best way for an overview of Venice is by vaporetto – water bus. Unfortunately, the city was not offering any vaporetti deals and a 48-hour pass cost 30 euro (about $35), but the various vaporetti do offer frequent stops along the Grand Canal as well as Lido – Venice’s beach.

While not large, getting around Venice is not simple; 117 or 118 islands (no one agrees on the number), 391 bridges crossing 150 canals, and many fondamente and calle (streets) no more than a yard wide all make the city difficult to explore.

Originally, bridges were flat and made of wood, which made them easy to cross, especially for horses pulling carriages. Horses are no longer allowed in the city, and in the 14th century, wooden bridges began to be replaced by those made of stone and built with steps and arches, allowing the ever growing number of boats easier access to all parts of the city. The first stone bridge was Ponte della Paglia, where straw (paglia) was delivered. The original bridge, located near the Doge Palace, was completed in 1360 and eventually rebuilt in 1847.

While sturdy and beautiful, bridges are a challenge for people with small children and strollers, or for anyone who is physically limited. In either case, a good option is to stay at a hotel near the Santa Lucia Train Station and to tour the city by vaporetti, all of which stop in front of the train station, with easy on-and-off access to flat areas.

Of Venice’s 391 bridges, 72 lead strictly to private homes (quite a social status) and just four cross the Grand Canal.

Ponte degli Scalzi, which literally means “Bridge of the Barefoot Monks,” crosses the canal just in front of the train station. Completed in 1934, it replaced the iron bridge built by the Austrians, who dominated the region till the 19th century, and charged a toll for crossing the bridge.

Ponte della Costituzione, the Constitution Bridge, also known as Ponte di Calatrava, for the architect who designed it, is the newest of the four bridges. It was put in place in 2007 and fully opened in 2008, with great controversy due to its modern design.

The original Ponte dell’Accademia, was made of cast iron and opened in 1854 as a toll bridge, connecting the San Marco islands with the Dorsoduro district, where the Galleria dell’Accademia is located. The present bridge, made of wood and metal – the largest of its kind in the world – was built in 1933, but was meant to be temporary, until a better design could be built …so it still stands.

Venice’s most famous bridge, Rialto, was first built in 1181, of wood standing on pilings, and was called Ponte di Monetta, as a coin (monetta) toll was charged to cross the bridge. By 1250, Venice was becoming rich with international trade so Ponte di Monetta was replaced with a drawbridge, so large ships could pass. Along the sides were shops, as the rent money was needed for maintenance. (Salt water consumes wood.) In 1310, that bridge burned and was rebuilt and restored twice but finally collapsed. This followed with a contest to design a new bridge and the Rialto we see today, was built of stone and completed in 1591.

Rialto Bridge is divided into three sections. The two outer sections are ideal for enjoying vast views of the Grand Canal and the center portion is lined with shops, very similar to Ponte Vecchio in Florence. * * * *  Venice is the only major city in Italy not to have existed during Roman times, and the 118 islands only began to form during the Christian era around 300 AD.

Like Florida, Italy is a peninsula, which emerged and sank during the various ice ages and warmer defrosting periods.   While it is hard to imagine, just 12,000 year ago, the land now called Italy was physically a bunch of islands and only about a third the size of what it is today. Sicily itself was two distinct islands.

The Valley of the Po, in northern Italy, which was totally underwater 12,000 years ago, remains a low-land area, into which flow the rivers from the Alps and then on to the Adriatic Sea, forming the various deltas of the Veneto region.

The rivers carried sand and silt into the lagoon, and at the same time, the incoming tide brought sand from the sea. All of this water and earth movement eventually created the marshy islands, which now form Venice and the lesser-known towns of Chioggia and Malamocco. (Chioggia is a really cute town and worth a visit.)

Venice began as a floating city, principally inhabited by fisherman and salt workers, whose shack type homes were built on stilts.

Around 434, the lagoon became an escape from Attila the Hun, but the real development of the islands started when the Langobards, a Germanic people, started invading the region in 568, forcing the people of Padova, Este, Treviso and Vicenza to escape to the marshy islands in the lagoon.

As the Langobards had not invaded to loot but to settle the area, the citizens of those towns needed to build permanent settlements, so started to develop the marsh islands of the lagoons.

The first step was to build-up the islands with barriers of logs and reeds and to slowly drain the marshes. The next step was to build huts. As these people were basically merchants, the ground floors were used for storage and the residents lived one floor up.

To keep everything dry, construction started with the builders covering the earth with clay and then building fires on top of the clay, thus cooking it and creating a waterproof base.

In a certain way, even with the great development of Venice, this basic strategy never changed. And as Marco Polo and his followers traveled the world bringing back the riches of the East to sell throughout Europe, even the great mansions, built along the Grand Canal, remained the same. The ground floor was a storage area and the upper floors were living quarters.

By the 1500s, Venice was the richest and most influential city in Europe, importing all the finest goods and products to the continent. Pasta came from China, and was first introduced by Marco Polo, who also introduced Persian carpets and much more, as in Medieval times Asia and Persia were far more advanced and sophisticated than Europe. * * * *  As my photos show, there are certainly tourists, but I’ve been to Venice when it was difficult to walk, and you actually had to wait in line to cross the Rialto Bridge.

According to one restaurant owner, even though travel bans were lifted in mid May, tourists only started arriving in July, so they too are offering good meals for reasonable prices.

At La Rivetta, we had a fabulous fish dinner for two, including really good wine, for about $120. I mention the price because about 10 years ago, Mario had business in Venice, so I was on my own. At noon, I stopped near Rialto to have a plate of pasta, and fortunately checked the prices before ordering. I almost fell over when I saw that a bowl of spaghetti cost $40.

Even at Piazza Navona in Rome, the same spaghetti would have been no more than $15. Speaking of Roman tourists traps, while local restaurants are once again filling – even with distancing – the restaurants at Piazza Navona, the Pantheon and Spanish Steps are all empty, as only tourists go there. When you visit Rome, don’t go to tourist traps. Contact me for suggestions.  * * * * 

La Rivetta restaurant is located on Calle Perdon, 1479, and not easy to find but no place in Venice, except for the main attractions are easy to find, even using Google Maps. Part of this is because the city is ancient and many calle and fondamente have more than one name, so be patient. Don’t criticize your husband or wife for not being able to read the map. Instead, when you feel lost, update the Google destination, and you’ll eventually find your way.

This was especially important when tying to find Libreria Acqua Alta, the High Water Book Store. Located on Calle Longo S. M. Formosa 5176/B, it’s really different and worth a visit. The owner buys used and overstocked books but there is no logic or order to how he displays them. Regardless of the confusion, the place is super cool, with an unusual view of a canal, and you will surely find a book to enjoy for when you finally take a break and sit in the shade at an outdoor cafe.

Another great find in Venice are a relatively new fashion called Cicchetti, which are an Italian version of the Tapas you find in Barcelona.

Basically they are diagonally cut, half-inch-thick slices of Baguette, topped with a variety of ham, smoked sardines, onions, pickles, salami and much more, and sometimes accompanied with rughetta or drizzled with Balsamic.

Our favorite place for cicchetti was discovered because the first place we enjoyed them (straight ahead after crossing the Ponte degli Scalzi) was closed. Asking around brought us to Arcicchetti Bakaro, at Santa Croce 183/A. (Oh, all merchants and hotel employees speak some English.)

Arcicchetti Bakaro is tiny place with four outdoor tables. Six cicchetti, two glasses (calli) of wine and a bottle of water cost 12 euro. This is important, because we saw that near Rialto, cicchetti were selling for 4.50 apiece, so it’s worth the time to go to an out-of-the-way place. Also, the owner Samer is truly personable.

As for the coronavirus, everyone wears a mask and there are hand disinfectants at the entrance to every store, hotel, restaurant and even the vaporetti.Sama, our waitress at La Rivetta, told us that Venice was not as hard-hit as the surrounding mainland, but like the rest of the country during the lockdown, people were allowed to go only to grocery stores and pharmacies.

As San Marco offers no basic services, it was specifically off-limits and patrolled by the army, and TV announcements made it clear that people would be heavily fined for going beyond their neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, a friend of Sama’s did not take the warning seriously and decided to take the train to visit his family on the mainland, and was fined 4,500 euro, which translates to $5,000.  The Italian government was very serious about the lockdown.

Like all of Italy, the residents of small neighborhoods tend to know each other so the lockdown did not cause complete isolation. Sama admitted though, that with the calle so narrow vehicles cannot pass, everyone knew when a neighbor had died, and she cried the few times when she saw bodies carted away.  Learning this, I was grateful that Rome had very few cases and almost none in my neighborhood of Trastevere. I’m sure that such an image would have caused me to cry.

The only negative aspect of our trip was that all of Italy was really hot: close to 100 every day. Considering that it was no fun to be outdoors, we returned to our hotel in the afternoon to rest and went-out after 6, when the slowly setting sun offered enough shade to walk without fainting from the heat.

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