PART I: VENICE: JUNE 1 – 21, 2015
MONDAY, JUNE 1ST
The light filtered by my eyelids gradually wakened me. The white slats spanning the window were unfamiliar. I was in my granddaughter’s bed next to Susan in Northern Virginia, a long way from Venice, Italy, our destination when we left sunny Birmingham on the previous day.
As we approached Philadelphia to catch our connecting flight, the pilot began his announcement with an apology, and said that the Philadelphia and Baltimore airports were closed because of electrical storms. We were going to Dulles to refuel and return to Philadelphia if the lightening stopped for fifteen continuous minutes. We flew south under gray clouds over the Chesapeake Bay, suburban Baltimore, and landed in the rain at Dulles. The runways were empty, planes parked at every gate. The plane door was opened providing a little cool air in the front. The pilot reminded us of a younger Bob Dilenschneider, shrugged and said, “Sorry my job is to get you from point A to point B.” Eventually we were bussed to the terminal.
We commiserated about the impact of our missed flights in the iconic terminal described by its architect, Eero Saarinen, as a concrete hammock slung between columns tilted outward.
Ute, an airline agent with a long, sharp nose and peculiar blonde hair streaked with strands of shellacked red, told us in her German accent that the lightning had not abated and offered a bus ride to Philadelphia. One female passenger upbraided Ute to no avail. Out of earshot, Ute told me with a smile that she was going to “take her down a notch or two.” Susan learned at the ticketing counter that our only option was to fly to Venice the next evening from Philadelphia.
Tracy asked me to repeat myself when I told her we were at Dulles. Soon we were sitting with Mohamad, Sophie, Julia, and Tracy at their kitchen table with sandwiches from Burger King. Tracy dispatched the girls to prepare Sophie’s bedroom and make the bathroom presentable. My apology for our “home invasion” was accepted with restrained laughter.
TUESDAY, JUNE 2ND
We rose after everyone had gone to work or school. A driver of undetermined nationality and limited English took us to Reagan National Airport, and we arrived in Philadelphia 30 hours after our departure from Birmingham. After a late lunch in Dave and Pete’s Sports Bar, we were on our way. A full moon rose over the ocean and later silvered the clouds below us.
Fred and Ellen Elsas had encouraged us to join them for the Biennale in Venice before meeting Kathy and Jim near Rome for our maiden voyage on the Celebrity Constellation. Susan booked four nights at their hotel, Otre il Giardino, the charming home of Gustave Mahler”s widow. They also sent links to emails on the exhibits, purchased tickets to the Biennale, and made reservations for the Bellini’s opera Norma.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 3RD
We deplaned in Venice and followed a long walkway to the dock where we boarded our water taxi, a long, sleek boat open in the front for the driver and at the stern for Susan and me. Wakes from passing boats rocked us as we sped between pylons of three wooden poles that formed a water highway. The driver slowed as we entered the Grand Canal and slowed further as he guided the boat into a side canal. Venice was as stunning as we remembered from thirteen years before.
Lorenzo, the young blue-eyed hotel owner, met us and helped us climb over a workboat to the dock. We entered the garden between tall bamboo plants and spruce trees. Jasmine blooms covered walls of the garden. We were surprised that the Elsas were still in their room. We made plans to meet them for lunch at Corte Sconta and retired for a nap with limited success.
We found the vaporetto, purchased three-day tickets with the help of a young English-speaking German, and used Google to find our way to the restaurant. In a garden beneath a grape vines that spread from an aged, gnarled trunk along the wall, we ordered prosecco and seafood appetizers. Three courses of seafood appeared with clams, mussels, cod, octopus, baby crabs, small shrimp, anchovies, bread with tuna, and four-inch shrimp. Ellen introduced each of the delicacies as they appeared, and Fred noted that Venice was the only place in the world that all this seafood was available fresh from the sea. With more prosecco and our first course, we knew we would enjoy several excellent, leisurely meals in Venice.
We walked to the church of San Gregorio where we saw several Carpaccio paintings that showed St. George overcoming the dragon. This was a coup because the Elsas had not found the church open on several prior visits.
Our next stop was a small jewelry store in the Academe area. We recognized some pieces Ellen had purchased there in the past. Susan bought a round necklace of woven silver with a black ceramic magnetic clasp. Fred bought a glass necklace for Julia to replace one he had accidentally broken at her apartment. Ellen made some purchases as well. We had a gelato at Grum’s where we saw the hotel owner with his family.
No time for a nap. We dressed for the opera at Fenice, the historic opera house that was rebuilt following a fire that may have been the work of an arsonist. Fred and Ellen had given me a mystery by John Berendt based on the burning of this opera house.
We lingered in the lobby and were led to our seats in the first row of the floor. Between our seats in individual chairs and the stage was the orchestra pit that emanated sounds of the musicians preparing their instruments.
The splendor of the hall was a stunning gold and red. An elaborate two-story, royal box with velvet swags was centered at the rear and flanked by boxes on five floors on the entire perimeter. The sky blue ceiling with a few putti was bordered in elaborate gold trim with a grand chandelier. A large clock was set in the ceiling in front of the stage. A grand hall indeed.
In Bellini’s original opera, Norma, the protagonist was a Druid priestess in England during the Roman occupation. The location in this production was changed the to the Congo with costumes showing scarification marks on Norma’s costume and modifications to the set, but the music and lyrics were unchanged. The soprano’s solos in the first act were impressive examples of the bel canto style with one-syllable glissandos. Susan and I succumbed to a few brief, head jerking episodes of sleep, but soldiered through the two acts. Under the circumstances, we did quite well. We returned to our hotel by vaporetto on the first of several late nights.
THURSDAY, JUNE 4TH: VENICE
On Thursday morning, we and the Elsas lingered over our buffet breakfast in the quiet, idyllic garden in a very pleasant, but more relaxed manner than our usual effort to tame and capture our new environment.
We walked past the friars’ massive church, through the neighborhood piazza, and through streets as narrow as hallways to the Grand Canal. We went beyond the Arsenale into open waters to the island of Torcelli which was the original settlement of Venice as a refuge from Goths and other barbarians as the Dark Ages descended on the Roman Empire. Malaria in these wetlands eventually drove them to the present site of Venice. Their church has impressive mosaics that have been preserved at the end of a modern curvilinear canal.
Burano, a picturesque island with brightly
painted shops known ofr lace was our next vaporetto stop. Romano’s was our lunch destination. CNN’s Anthony Bourdain raved and was “almost orgasmic” about this traditional restaurant.
The walls were covered with pictures reminiscent of Hausner’s in Baltimore and Burano glass lights were featured. The male waiters were gracious,
but leisurely. We strolled along the canals
A Street in Burano
and looked in at a shop where lacemaking was underway and went into some other shops.
The former custom house at Ponta del Dogano also had an art exhibition organized by a curator appointed by the owner of Prada. One of the rooms in the large structure featured giant dental retainers. The stone structure with massive wooden beams was a fine setting for two and three-dimensional art.
After we had gelato, we passed another of Ellen’s favorite jewelers near our hotel, more shopping occurred. Fred and I went on to get showers, and Susan purchased another stunning necklace that can be worn as a chain or a pendant with a fine wire semicircle.
Susan and I had begun to grasp the logic of the vaporetto route. Fred helped us ignore the map that shows the serpentine canal and focus on the straight line diagram that stretches the snake into a line with head, tail and points in-between marked. We chugged to the Rialto Mercato and found our restaurant, Osterio Bancogiro, on a piazza by the Grand Canal. We ordered a plate of cheeses with jam. The restaurant offered a whipped mozzarella from water buffalo. My tagliatelle with lamb was excellent. As the darkness gathered, I excused myself to make photos. We let ourselves into Alma Mahler’s former home after midnight. A delightful evening.
FRIDAY, JUNE 5TH: VENICE
Another relaxing breakfast in the garden with Fred and Ellen who had been to the Biennale at Giardina before we arrived. Susan and I journeyed there on our own. Several countries have permanent pavilions amidst towering trees and landscaped walkways for their exhibits every other year. Other countries obtained space in Venice’s historic shipyards or other venues scattered throughout the city. The theme selected by the Nigerian/British curator, a self-described Marxist, was “All The World’s Futures.”
Our favorite was the Australian pavilion. Empty military uniforms with all but seams excised hung from ghastly faces made from the burnt shreds of the remainder of the uniforms. Tree leaves were superimposed on stock certificates, and shredded dollars were formed into bird nests. Attendants were on hand to discuss the artist and the message of the work.
Another one that we enjoyed was the Scandinavian exhibit presented by Norway this year. It presented broken windows, shattered glass, and an array of speakers transmitting abstract sounds.
The six-foot head of a Russian cosmonaut greeted us in the Russian exhibit. The eyes behind the mask moved eerily. Large video screens showed a young Korean woman exercising in slow motion in the Corea Building accompanied by electronic music.
A haunting exhibit showed clothing that could have been discarded by refugees fleeing war and persecution in record numbers. Another presented holes a person could step through to represent barriers broken.
The entry of Great Britain pavilion confronted visitors with a figure presenting a pallid, towering male genitalia, and inside were a series of sculptures of people each with cigarettes protruding from a different orifice. Hopefully not even one of the world’s futures.
After a break at an outdoor cafe on the site, we went to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see the Cy Twombly show and the collection. We also visited the former palace of the Prada magnate. The building itself was splendid, but we did not find the art to be interesting enough to keep us from returning to our hotel for some rest. I noted that our hotel was within walking distance and proclaimed I could lead us there. I tried and got confused and humbled, so we found the canal and returned via vaporetto. We stopped at Gumm’s for a gelato in lieu of lunch.
After brief rest, we left with Ellen and Fred for the Arsenale, Venice’s historic shipbuilding center, but first we stepped into Friar’s church and related buildings. Once again, I deplored the tremendous investment of resources in the name of religion, but appreciated the art and architecture left for our wonderment and appreciation.
The building was huge but not air conditioned. Exhibits included use of everyday objects such as drums, swords, guns, and brightly died cloth. One featured the flowers used at historic diplomatic events, and others employed neon.The South African exhibit was particularly intriguing.
We traveled back to the Academe area for an excellent dinner at a delightful small restaurant, Enoteca Ai Artisti where we were waited on by the owner. A delightful conclusion to our stay in La Serinissima, as Venice is aptly called.