May 28, 2009

Day 14 : Of merchants and moors

I must have read the words 'Queen of Adriatic' when I was about eleven accompanying a faded color picture of Venice - a town with no conventional streets, where you go by boat to get groceries. In those days glossy printed books with a lot of color pictures were not that common in our house owing to the money such things cost. I probably saw it in a bookstore in my hometown, called Higginbothams. Since then the romance of Venice has always been close to surface, the highpoint being the delightful movie Casanova capturing Venice in all its glory.

That morning from the point when the train rolled out of the Santa Maria Novella station, I repeated aloud all the stations lining our journey to Venezia Santa Lucia, the words rolling warmly off my tongue, as I gazed at the earthy tones of the scenes outside. As the train moved past Padua and Verona, I felt the words of Shakespeare accompanying me throughout. How many Shakespeare plays are set in Italy; I wondered why. Where art thou Romeo? Petruchio too, for that matter.

I have always felt the two plays set in Venice the most tragic, even more so than Romeo and Juliet. Othello and Merchant of Venice have more tragic figures and are darker than the rest. By the time I got down I was so lost thinking about Antonio and Iago that it was a jolt to see people in their modern attire.

The station was beautiful, the water lapping on the sides and I got my first glimpse of Venice. It was very similar to my feelings when I first saw Bath. It was real! Whatever that was there in artist renderings, picture postcards, period movies etc. is not just one small building somewhere but really the whole city. How could a whole city possibly be so cute?

We spent the next hour in a slow boat drifting across the grand canal taking pictures of various buildings. The buildings were elegant but did not seem like they were lived in. Many seemed like empty facades - a few refurbished and rebuilt shiny ones with bright green trees stood in contrast. It was certainly very touristy - with most people giving the impression they were there for short term - I wondered if there truly were locals or whether the whole town was an elaborate set. We drifted past smaller lanes admiring the buildings and finally deciding enough of the canals made our way to the Piazza San Marco.

No one mentioned the pigeons I thought, seeing the hundreds of pigeons on the way and in the piazza. We crossed St.Mark's lion into the square filled with tourists. There were musicians playing to the lunch crowd, human chatter filled the air and I could see why Napoleon called it the drawing room of Europe.

I first walked the length of the square, taking in the facade of the Doge's palace, imagining the bustle of bureaucracy, though something like that is hard to imagine here - everything seems to be in holiday mode.

I gazed around the various buildings, spent some time taking pictures of the campanile, the pigeons and the musicians, taking time to approach the Basilica. I wanted to savor the moment and was fully rewarded.

The Byzantine architecture with its domes, interior arches, the mosaic, the ceiling, the whole Mediterranean feel was a very unique experience. More than anything else, the Basilica is the best example of Venice's cosmopolitan nature. It somehow made it believable that a Shylock or an Othello lived in this town. For that matter Casanova too..

I made my way to the two columns - Lion of St.Mark as well as the one with St.Theodore and sat down enjoying the music drifting across and the sun on my face.

We slowly drifted to a by-lane and sitting by the water ate a large thin crust pizza. The afternoon wore off, sounds of water and voices speaking in Italian, occasional noise of a gondola filled the air and I felt la dolce vita.

We slowly walked the various streets in the general direction of the Rialto stopping often and a few time getting lost in one of the shops. I bought a small fridge magnet made like a venetian mask instead of opting for a real one and then determined to buy something of Muranno glass I spent time peering over various objects. Some of the vases were gaudy and not intricate, besides were above my price point and I kept my attention to the smaller pieces. I settled for some glass fruits and chocolates. I thought I was done but saw a beautiful set of frogs and a lady bug that I had to buy. Happily collecting my souvenirs, I wandered the streets admiring the scene and finally reached the Rialto. It grew late and I stood there lost in the scene before me.

Venezia, even the name was romantic! I sighed and leaned against the bridge. The cliched yet very real image of a gondola drifting on the smaller water lane against the evening sky and music from some window will remain in my memories for a very long time

May 28, 2009