floating relic: venice by gondola

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Venice by sandolo

I was content to keep exploring Venice on foot. While the idea of a gondola ride had its intrigue–is there anything more uniquely Venetian?–in reality the excursions looked less than romantic. From where I stood–on bridges, mostly, peering down into the polished boats–I saw sullen gondoliers wordlessly transporting families of six who videotaped the entire experience. I watched young couples who flicked through their phones and barely regarded each other or Venice as they were swept through the city’s canals.

Any charm seemed in danger of suffocation by the fierce overhead glare of the sun and the thick crowds on the Rialto Bridge. People were jostling, posing, and dripping gelato on the steps as one boat after another passed through the main waterways, nearly bumping up against one another as if this were Disney’s It’s a Small World instead of a private, 80-euro experience.

As I walked, though, with Victor, wandering far from the densest masses of crowd, I fell for the empty gondolas. Bobbing gently in quiet corners of the canals, their onyx-black hulls glittered in the sun, modest quests for attention. Their distinctive color, I later learned, dates back to 16th-century law: an attempt to halt gaudy competition between gondoliers.

Still, each gondola I saw was unique. Their interiors were scarlet and gold, or occasionally, cobalt blue. They held bright rugs and gold vases filled with sunflowers and glossy wooden chairs with floral upholstery and red cushions with white lions. Gold mermaids and winged horses and angels leapt from the sides.

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The gondolas were perfect objects, indisputably beautiful. The gleaming wood and elegant curves brought to mind musical instruments: the grand, glossy elegance of a cello or bass.

Italy is known to prize the aesthetic, with its concept of bella figura, its reverence for beauty and grace. This Cadillac of a boat, I thought, was a good example: moving at 3 miles an hour, walking pace, the gondola is a relic in the 21st century, wholly unnecessary and fully lovely. ACS_1031

It takes about two months to construct a gondola and costs upwards of 20,000 euros to purchase one. Eight types of wood–cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak, and walnut–are joined together in an ingenious, flat-bottomed design that allows the boat to navigate in water just centimeters deep.

There seemed no better way to directly experience Venice’s aquatic history than by getting into a boat. We decided to go for it, in our last full day in the city, as long as we could find one a bit off the beaten path.

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Gondola rides are price-controlled, currently eighty euros for a standard daytime ride and one hundred at night. But shopping around is worth it, as the experience differs greatly depending upon the starting point and the personality of the gondolier.

Victor and I walked until we found the neighborhood we remembered from a previous stroll. I don’t know how we found it, really. The endless tiny streets–some of them dead-ending into the canal–confounded my navigation apps, not to mention my nascent sense of direction.

We were in the quiet Campo del Ghetto, the Jewish neighborhood dating back to the 16th century. The English word ghetto originates from Venetian dialect geto, meaning ‘foundry,’ and this was the area’s purpose before Jews were isolated and forced to live there. Campo del Ghetto was cut off from the city until 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice and ended the neighborhood’s separation. Today, the Ghetto is a calm area with a Holocaust memorial and five synagogues.

We saw a boat coming in and waited by stone steps leading into the canal. The gondola was piloted by a woman– a sight rare enough to be striking, but I didn’t yet know how rare. Researching it, I learned there are so few women gondoliers that you can know them by name. Their names are Giorgia Boscolo and Chiara Curto: out of about 400 total gondoliers, there are two women.

Ms. Curto was the woman steering the boat up to the foot of the bridge, smiling and ruddy-cheeked. But she told us she was booked for the rest of the afternoon. It had been a day where we kept running into Closed signs; it seemed a fitting, disappointing end. But then she said she had availability for the sunset tour. She made a note and we hurried off into the maze of streets.  acs_0833

Freshly showered (and wearing distinctly clashing outfits), Victor and I returned a few hours later. The water and buildings shone soft pastel in the waning sun. Ms. Curto helped us into the boat, and then hopped up on the nearby bridge to take our picture. I didn’t have to fake my smile (and couldn’t have stopped it if I tried). If there’s ever a place to be a fool in love, it’s on a boat in Venice.

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Victor noticed the gondola didn’t have the distinctive iron ornament (the fèrro) that we’d spotted on the front of the other boats. That’s when we learned we weren’t in a gondola at all but a sandolo. Sandoli are wider and flatter than gondolas, used for rowing. They can access shallow spots in Venice most gondoliers wouldn’t go. They are also, Ms. Curto told us, even older and more traditional than the gondola.

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Chiara didn’t sing, but she was full of stories. In brief silences, the only sound was the oar moving through the water. We swept under bridges–Ms. Curto deftly ducking out of the way–and past churches, bars, and boats. We glided under laundry, the great equalizer, a cheerful reminder that behind these flung-open shutters and crumbling brick walls life churned on, messy and mundane. Whole duvets hung out to dry on the pulley systems spanning the canals.

As Chiara steered the boat back to the foot of the bridge, I stirred, dreamy-eyed, like I was waking from slumber. As in sleep, time had ticked by in secret, and the half-hour outing felt as if we should measure it in seconds.

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I wondered what would it be like to be any one of them. To work standing up in a boat, battling the cold and the sunburn. To bask in beginnings, to witness the unveiling of so many shining engagement rings. Might you be cynical, a poet, or some combination?

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Might you be proud: carrying on a centuries-old tradition that is in no way vital to the city’s operations…but surely vital to its heart.

first impressions of an upside-down forest: venice by vaporetto

Venice: the setting of sights that will haunt my daydreams for a long time.

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Not the city that never sleeps (it does), maybe it’s the city that’s never still. Built on the water, Venice sloshes, splashes, seems to breathe. Venice is sinking. Venice has always been improbable.

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The city was built by driving wooden piles, millions of them, deep down into the lagoon. It would be a moat of a city, safe from attackers. On top came a brick and stone base, the setting for the brilliant palaces and wide piazzas of the future. Entombed in mud from 1500 AD, the wood was safe from the deteriorating effects of oxygen and is solid still. This gives rise to the first fairy-tale metaphor: Venice is an upside-down forest.

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On the bottoms of buildings today there is a white crust of salt, souvenir of acqua alta, high water, reminder of the ever-present threat of flooding and the likelihood that Venice will one day be swallowed by the Adriatic Sea.

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When flooding arrives, certainly a matter of when, raised boards are laid down along walkways. Residents don rubber boots. Shopkeepers scramble to move items from low shelves.

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In Venice you must work with the water (and isn’t that always how it goes? Water, at once so innocent and furious. Can’t do without it if we wanted to; hard to change its mind). The casual visitor takes a vaporetto, or water bus, to navigate the Grand Canal. Attendants work quickly, throwing heavy ropes into thick knots on the dock. Attenzione ! Attenzione ! 

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Like a bus or metro, this is a purposeful ride, a no-nonsense means of transport, but I’d like to stay on this boat all day. Everywhere I look is something unusual, impossible, unlikely.

There are two carved hands rising out of the canal. Giant, elegant, they reach for a nearby building. They birth thoughts about what might be lurking under the teal water.

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Small boats dodge each other to make the morning deliveries. One is packed full with potted white lilies. Another holds orange soda and bottled water. In another–perhaps destined for a market somewhere–delicate green herbs.

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I glimpse a rose garden overlooking the water, walls of crumbling brick, just space enough for the two wrought iron chairs filled by two friends having breakfast.

There is a couple, elegantly dressed, stepping gingerly from their hotel directly into a boat. He extends his hand, she brushes off her pantsuit, they are off somewhere.

There is the sudden spectacle–could this ever be prosaic?–of an isolated church rising from the lagoon, its own island.

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snowglobe city: alone in italia, day seven

In my last full day on the Ligurian coast, I found myself far from the crowds, in a village one could reasonably conclude was populated only by renderings of the Madonna and electric green lizards like flashes of light.

Maybe it’s Cinque Terre, maybe it’s Italy, maybe it’s luck, but my time here has brought a lot of getting lost in the best way. There have been no blisters or tears or sleeping in train stations, but rather a lot of unexpected, unplanned beauty in a place that seems to hold no wrong turns, only choices. Left or right: pick your pleasure.

Once again I had woken to a day where nothing was expected of me and where I expected nothing. Bliss. After lazy bread and butter breakfast in the common room of the hostel, with my dear view of the church belltower in Biassa, I went downstairs to write. Tired of typing out blog posts on my iPhone while lying in a bunk bed, I had since migrated to the computer near the front entry. It was a distracting but fun place to work that led to several good conversations.

I wasn’t long into it before Damiano asked what I planned to do that day. To my cheerful “nothing,” he suggested I take the train in La Spezia past the Cinque Terre villages to Levanto, where I could rent a bike and ride along the coastline.

I had missed the morning shuttle, so Andrea again gave me a ride down to La Spezia, right to the train station.

In Levanto, the air felt purely tropical. I followed the signs into town and found a bike rental place without trouble. For five euros, a cheery purple bike with a basket was mine until 6 pm. To find the trail, I followed some tourists on bikes until I saw the signs for myself. Levanto to Bonassola to Framura.

The trail is a renovated railway tunnel, which means it is cavelike and agreeably flat. The long stretches of dark and chill would be suddenly broken by openings in the rock every two or three minutes of cycling. They left me blinking in the sunlight and relishing the 15 degree temperature jump. acs_0859I followed the trail to the end, which didn’t take long as it’s only about 5km. I parked my bike overlooking a small port and started walking. I was at the end of the line, in Framura, which I later learned is a town composed of five separate villages. I took some steep stairs for about ten minutes and found myself in one of the five.

It was so quiet I could hear the brush of lizards through leaves, laundry flapping on lines, my own footsteps. The loudest noise was a stream that seemed to originate far above me and end near the sea. Other than my presence, there were no signs of modernity. A village preserved in amber, emptied of inhabitants and immune to the passage of time. A snowglobe city. Madonna stared at me from fountains and above doorways, and besides her ancient gaze, I felt completely unobserved.  acs_0876I crossed a church that I found unspeakably lovely, more so for how it hid in these hills, something so pure and sad about that. Time had barely sullied its facade–marble striped white and lavender–though vines wound up its bell tower. The area smelled of moss. Had the heavy wooden doors been unlocked, I might well have entered Narnia.

Attached to its side was the cheerful anachronism of a basketball hoop, a suggestion of life and play despite the quiet. acs_0849

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acs_0875acs_0877 After a good twenty minutes of enjoying the silence (à la Depeche Mode), I cycled back to Bonnassola and Levanto, where signs of modernity were rather more abundant. I ate really good arancini and accidentally asked the boulanger in Italian: what are you doing. (A whole new language to make weird and startling errors in, and boy am I excited about that.)

I braved the Cinque Terre crowds one last time, bidding adieu to my favorite of the villages, Manarola, with a final souvenir. img_5732

from newlywed to retiree: on places, and what it means to love them

acs_0701It’s a gray day, gloom and drizzle. I am with Victor and we are driving from La Spezia to Pisa, a long stretch of straight highway. Strada statale.

I am content to chat and dee-jay. And sightsee? There isn’t much to see. Once the mountains are out of sight, we aren’t in Italy, but Highway Land.

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It’s funny. This could almost be the well-traveled route between Clinton and Kansas City on family shopping Saturdays growing up. How quickly we have gone from the iconic colors of Cinque Terre to all this non-cultured sameness. We could be anywhere.

It’s interesting what we block out when we dream of or anticipate a place.

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For example, for you or for me, Italy might be: gelato in every conceivable flavor, glossy Vespas, shining white marble, carafes of wine… but to maintain an impression like this, we must block out so much ‘normal.’

We must ignore the great unspooled ribbon of mind-numbing highway. The ugly big-box stores. The cloud cover that renders a day as colorless as a lump of pizza dough.

Sometimes I think we reserve those kinds of stringent observations for home: to criticize what we are used to and tired of.

But, it’s good to remember, every place has this real life aspect. If we approached daily life like we do travel, all highlights and funny stories, maybe seeing the beauty in say…Missouri, would be easier.

No one, I don’t think, has ever sighed and thought, oh Italy… and dreamed of the stretch of highway between La Spezia and Pisa. And so we edit.

Italy contains the beauty I’ve been filling my notebook and camera with, but it’s so much more than that. What, though? I don’t pretend to know. Not yet. I take it on faith, because though I’m still in the dreamy stage with Italy, I’ve already cycled through the stages of a romantic relationship with France.

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It’s gone from a first crush, starry-eyed infatuation to a comfortable familiarity to seeing flaws and resenting them all the way to, finally, a deeper kind of love.

Newlywed to retiree.

Disillusioned is the word. France is more, for me, than sparkling city lights and rose macarons and espressos enjoyed at cafe tables. On a three-day visit, this country of cheese and trains, baguettes and bicycles, might be able to retain this kind of glamor.

The casual visitor can leave with a photo album and a slew of good memories. But when you live someplace, you have to give up the dream, to a certain extent. img_5210

For me, France is a home, the place I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life once I’ve been free to choose, the place I work and write and grocery shop and wait for the bus and cry and sweat and dance and listen to podcasts and make lists. The place I practice all the verbs that make up a life. (The place I practice all the verbs that make up French, for that matter).

And that is why, I think, it feels so good to be away for a bit, to a place that once again lets me dream freely. For the time being.


Photos taken in Portovenere, Italy

On a similar note, check out: Less-Than-Thrilled: When You Don’t Want Your Dream

eye candy: a guide to Menton (a South-of-France staycation, i)

As much as I would love to run away every weekend, this year I am going to be motivated by money.

And money is telling me (to borrow from an internet meme I saw this week): “girl, you can afford to walk downstairs.”

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What luck, then, that my home base of Cannes can easily satisfy the travel bug in its proximity to a wide range of landscapes, cultures, and activities. From here, trains, buses, boats, a quick car ride, or a good walk all serve to transport the weekend traveler to a variety of interesting locales.

It seems the Côte d’Azur is the ideal setting for a staycation.

When my friend Erika came to visit in October, she brought with her the motivation for me to wander away from my favorite stretch of beach in Cannes la Bocca and to do some exploring. Some destinations were entirely new to me, while others saw my second or third visit and I wanted to show them off. Though Erika and I saw a lot, often packing two destinations into a day, we didn’t even scratch the surface.

First up was Menton.

Candy-colored Menton feels like home, surely because it’s tiny and I have visited thrice in the past year. What is a twenty-something American doing in a sleepy ville that mostly attracts English retirees? Well, largely just wandering around and appreciating my surroundings. The town is home to my favorite boulangerie (they know me there), which may have something to do with it. Ever had pain au chocolat you’d take a train for? I hadn’t, not until Menton. The café is on a main shopping street and near the carousel. That’s all I’ll tell you (or can tell you. I don’t even know the name).

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Exploring Menton

Originally lured by the well-known Fête du Citron (not, in my opinion, worth a visit on its own), I spent a week here with Mom last winter, and two weeks with Mary in May to celebrate the end of our teaching year. Menton (“chin” in French) is definitely not the It destination on the French Riviera. Its glamour is dilapidated, its opening hours are frustrating (why must a botanical garden close for two hours at lunch, or completely shut its doors on a Tuesday?), but it is beautiful and it is quiet. Menton’s old town is a pastel wonderland reminiscent of Italy’s Cinque Terre.

I knew Erika would appreciate the colors (and the pain au chocolat), but once we were kicked out of one of the gardens only ten minutes into our visit, and found the rest of them closed, we decided to keep our time in Menton short and try to see another town that day. Still, it got me thinking about my other visits here, and, combined, I’d say I’ve acquired a bit of knowledge (or opinions, at least) about how to do Menton right.

Menton mentality: come here to relax, not to be entertained.

For a day-trip visit: I’d recommend spending all your time outside. Get a brightly sour lemonade from Au Pays du Citron and walk to Italy (seriously, the border is just a short ways down the coast) or wander through one of the botanical gardens. Make sure to check opening hours and check again. Once you’re inside, the fussy planning is worth it. I particularly enjoyed the secret garden atmosphere of Serre de la Madone.

In early May, this garden is low on tourists but teeming with life (mating frogs, mostly). Next, climb the buttercup-yellow steps to the top of the Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange for a stunning view of the sea framed by palm trees. Keep your eyes out for trompe l’œil paintings: those that fool your eye into thinking there are objects (such as windows) that aren’t really there.

From the basilica, it’s easy to get to the Cimetière du Vieux Château, a sprawling cemetery that sits atop the old town.

For lunch, save your money and keep it simple. Despite the drool-worthy menus displayed on chalkboards all over town, Menton’s food scene leaves much to be desired. Instead of getting suckered in by a perfectly average tourist trap, opt to walk around Menton’s covered market, Marché des Halles, and grab food for a picnic. I recommend getting bread from local boulangerie Au Baiser du Mitron and picking out several cheeses and seasonal fruits. I like goat’s cheese with herbes de Provence and sheep’s milk tommes, as both are indigenous to the warmer parts of France.

If you don’t want to do the picnic thing, I’d suggest stopping at Sini, right next to the market, for really excellent pizza that you can eat sur place or take to go.

For a longer visit: Bring plenty of reading material or a project to work on. There’s nothing like a Mediterranean sunset or a walk through an olive grove to ignite creativity. I would recommend staying in an AirBnb in the vieille ville. Particularly in the off-season, you can find some really good deals (think 20 euros a night!). Find a place with a decent kitchen, stock it with the basics: olive oil, salt, pasta, a basil plant…and you can walk to the market daily for fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish.

Above: live music in a small square near the Marché des Halles. I definitely felt exactly like Rick Steves while taking this video. 

Menton is well-situated for day trips to even smaller towns. I’d recommend Èze (take “Nietzsche’s footpath” and be ready for some serious walking) and Villefranche-sur-Mer, both easily accessible by train for just a few euros.

Otherwise, visit the Jean Cocteau museum, as well as his bastion by the sea. Cocteau, an artist, author, and the director of the original Beauty & the Beast, was a contemporary of Matisse and Picasso, and apparently had a bit of a Napoleon complex about keeping up with them. If you visit Villefranche-sur-Mer, you can see the chapel Cocteau decorated, motivated by an effort to compete with the other master artists and their own “spiritual” chef-d’œuvres.

For a dinner out, try the plat du jour at Les Enfants Terribles (named for Cocteau’s 1929 novel). They put the daily catch on special, which is fun considering the restaurant’s proximity to the sea.

 Other things to do:

Visit the fine arts museum

Take a boat to Italy: for about twenty euros, you can get to Italy via a small boat in about two hours. (I haven’t tried this, but it looks like a great experience!) Just walk around the port and look for the chalkboard signs advertising departure times.

Take a train to Italy (Ventimiglia). The town isn’t as striking as Menton, but it’s still fun to hop over the border and have some real Italian lasagna, or at least a cappuccino, and get a taste of a different culture.

 

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