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.

the city of islands: death by tourism?

Venezia is a city composed of tiny islands. 120 of them, spanned by 400 bridges. Wooden or stone, humble or showy, everywhere bridges. Every time you cross a bridge you step onto a new island. 

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Long ago, these borders determined micro-communities, islands like tribes. People didn’t know their neighbors across the water. The communities were self-sufficient, each served by its own church. This explains why Venice is absolutely frothing with churches–from modest works of brick to candy-cane-striped Venetian gothic facades to the grand onion domes of the basilica–quite literally sinking under the weight of all that glory. 

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In addition to heaviness and high water, it seems Venice faces another, more insidious threat: death by tourism. 

Today, when you cross a bridge, you step foot upon layers of history and human invention. Your shoes touch the worn-smooth stone of another cobbled island atop layers of foundation atop sturdy wooden piles shoved into the cold mud of a lagoon in the Adriatic sea. Improbable. And it fascinates. Surrounded by teal water and nautical chaos–daily deliveries made by worn motor boats, the glide of gondolas under canal bridges–I feel fairy-tale free. Venice feels like a place of no rules–new rules–a place where animals could talk, time could stop. A stooped man plays the viola on a corner overlooking the frenzy of the Grand Canal, music so beautiful it sounds like a gift. Many times I abandon my plan in favor of sitting to savor a scene, a sound. 

Yet. Competing with this beauty is the kind of tourism that drowns a place. Cross a bridge today and there is more of the same: not just the aperol spritzes and jewel-toned gelato, but more junk. There are vendors selling cheap plastic selfie sticks, cheap plastic everything, mass-produced “paintings,” “designer” bags…whole categories that must be put in quotation marks. There are aprons with pictures of Leonardo’s David (who does not reside in Venice, last time I checked); there are tee-shirts with the Mona Lisa. There are restaurants whose menus read like a list of obligatory “Italian” specialties. There are aggressive salesmen and signs in ten languages.

On some streets, it doesn’t feel much like Venice, or Italy, or anywhere. It feels like a whole new world: the land of globalization. You could be in Paris or New York. You could be in an aggressively-peopled dollar store. You know it’s Venice, though, because these stores and stands and hats and handbags and posters and magnets and towels and water bottles and keychains tell you so: VENICE, no beating around the bush. Look a little closer, though, and ah, there it is: made in China. 

Nothing revolutionary: this is the price to pay, you may argue, for popularity. This is 21st-century travel.

Venice, though, is no New York or Paris. It is infinitely smaller and much more delicate. The majority of Venice’s 30 million yearly visitors flood the city for less than twenty-four hours.  

This approach to Venice–a whirlwind tour like a day at Disney–hurts Venetian businesses, culture, and citizens: of whom there are only 50,000. Venice sees about that many visitors every day. The exponential growth of tourism in the area means that everyday businesses like grocers and bookstores are closing, priced out by more and more souvenir shops. It’s an expensive city to visit–and to live. But the city is working towards a solution, promoting detourism: a campaign aimed at teaching visitors how to “go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes.”

Victor and I took a free walking tour that is part of the campaign to #enjoyrespectvenezia.

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The website explains: Venice Free Walking Tour is for those who want to see and know more than the 90% of people visiting Venice will see. Venice Free Walking Tour is for Travellers, not for tourists

Our guide was Elena, Italian, in her late twenties with red hair and glasses, all charm and energy. She introduced herself, telling us she studied literature and history and languages. Victor nudged me: I think you found a new friend. I was thinking the same thing. Her passion about Venice, both its past and its unknowable future, had me intrigued, leaning forward and writing down most of what she said. She had moved to Venice temporarily, she told us–for studies–but plans changed when she fell in love (with the city and one of its residents). 

She told us many dreamy details of Venice. There were stories of Venice’s cemetery island (hosting the graves of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky). We passed a grand old building with frescos on the walls that now holds a basketball court, because the city didn’t know what else to do with the space. She told us about a small grocery store in a marble-floored theater. We talked St. Mark and chiaroscuro and what those symbols on the ground meant– little letters everywhere; codes for city engineers.

I am saddened by the touristic tendency to consume a place: to bury it under cheap knickknacks, to aggressively photograph it, to patronize only that which is obvious, to leave none the wiser.

But, if this initiative is any indication: there is hope.

At the end of the tour, we were given a map marked with recommendations for bars, restaurants, shops, and more, so even the most casual tourist-traveler could get a real taste of Venice. Elena told us what to look for, what to order.

We left hungry and found one of the restaurants on the list, where we shared a plate of nero di seppie: cuttlefish cooked in its ink. The dish had a delicate, complex umami flavor and was a deep black that stained our mouths. Accompanied by bright-orange aperol and a caprese salad, the spread was a visual treat, and the meal marks one of my favorite moments in Venice with my chéri: happy with a cold cocktail after a day of sun, alight with new perspectives and ideas.

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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shades of blue: falling for gorges du verdon

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A stranger in the kitchen. That was my first impression of Rémi. I didn’t know how to politely phrase the question ‘who are you and what are you doing here,’ so I assumed he was related to my AirBnb hosts, a cousin or something. We had a whole conversation before I realized he was just a guest like me. In Cannes for a week from Bordeaux, he would complete a weeklong stage for his new job, the training period required before he begins in January and moves here for the year.

Both in our early twenties and new in town, we struck up an easy rapport, making our respective dinners at the same time and walking around Cannes together. In the middle of the week was le Toussaint–all Saint’s Day–and Rémi had the day off. He asked if I wanted to go somewhere.

Yes.

I thought of places Erika and I had visited that he might like. “No,” he said, “let’s go somewhere new for you too!”

Kind soul. I thought out loud about where we could go by train.

“I have a car!” He laughed.

La classe! Clearly I had been “roughing it” for too long. En voiture, the possibilities were endless.

We met early the next morning. Rémi hooked up the GPS, while I sat in the passenger seat thumbing through a Lonely Planet guide for Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.

I fell on a page about the Gorges du Verdon: “Europe’s Grand Canyon.”

“Have you heard of this?” I read him the description, then typed the address into my phone. It was only thirty miles away, but the drive we’d need to make, winding around mountain roads, was predicted to take over two hours.

“Is that okay? What do you think…” I really wanted to go, enchanted by those turquoise waters, but I tried to hide it. If he didn’t want to, I understood. It would be a lot of driving time for a last-minute day trip, and we wouldn’t be able to trade off. (I thought of my one disastrous manual driving lesson the year before).

Rémi responded with that most French expression of enthusiasm: a shrug. “What’s the address?”

We were off.

img_3113It was a proper road trip: windows down, blue skies above, and the radio cut by static. In the space of an hour, our setting evolved from beach town to classic autumnal landscape to the ear-popping heights of the mountains.

We passed pastures of goats and sheep and plenty of warnings to watch out for wandering members of the flock.

Civilization became more and more scarce, but no matter the elevation, one thing was sure: even in the boonies, there would be no shortage of festivals.

Signs alerted us to the existence of fêtes celebrating everything from chestnuts to…donkeys. As you might expect from a country that loves champagne and celebration, France has a festival for everything. Some seem a bit…unnecessary (yay garlic. Yay orchids), but even the small ones are excuses to get together, eat, drink, and buy things you don’t need. And what’s not to love about that.

We were almost there, and I was more than ready, my stomach pleading with me to find solid ground. The comically tight, twisting roads were nauseating, as was the view (in a beautiful way, of course).

There were bikers (there are always bikers, tough as nails), and I would’ve stayed in the car all day before trading places. Their uphill plight looked like one of the circles of hell.

We passed crêperies and tiny pizza shacks squeezed onto the side of the road. Some had outdoor seating: the chairs lined up near the edge of the cliff, nothing between the casual diner and the abyss but a weak fence. One pizza margarita and a side of dread, s’il vous plaît.

We stopped to breathe and stare over the edge for awhile. Ultimately though, we wanted to get to Lac de Sainte-Croix. More driving.

It was worth it. I had never seen fresh water this shade of blue: from deep-teal to turquoise to swimming-pool-acqua depending on the light and on the depth.

We watched people set out in kayaks and paddleboats.

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Signs on the bridge warned swimmers from jumping. I was interested to see that the biggest danger cited was not the chance of landing wrong, or hitting a rock. No, jumping was a really bad idea, apparently, because of the high chance of getting stuck in the clay at the bottom of the lake. And drowning. To further dissuade, the signs listed a death toll. img_3109

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After driving, walking, and sufficiently appreciating the natural beauty, we were ready to find something to eat.

We drove away from the gorges and the lake and through a number of tiny villages perchés. They were postcard-charming…and postcard-still. Everything was closed for le Toussaint. img_3117 It was a hungry trip home to Cannes, which may have influenced my opinion of the pizza we eventually procured: absolutely delicious.

bad & bougie: our ill-fated vacation turned writing retreat

According to some estimates, Menton, France experiences merely thirty-four sunless days a year.

I have been here for all of them. img_3557-1

That’s an exaggeration. I have learned, though, that even the “sunniest place in France” isn’t always the beach oasis you expect. Not in February, when I visited the first time with my mom, and not now. img_3534-1

I’m here again, this time with Mary, in our last stretch of time together in France this year. It seemed the perfect destination. Small, relaxing, and beautiful. I found an unbeatable deal on an Airbnb, and we figured we wouldn’t need to spend much money; we’d eat gelato and caprese salad and lounge on the beach all day.

But when we arrived two days ago, we saw Menton under clouds and a brisk wind. I envied passersby: cozy in thin down jackets. When we couldn’t figure out, for a frustrating thirty minutes, how to make the convertible couches turn into beds, I wondered if we had been way too optimistic. About money, about weather, about what we planned to do with a two week stretch of time not at the beach when we lacked the means to travel anywhere else, or to do much of anything besides feed ourselves modestly.  img_3553-1

I felt a little foolish and a lot disappointed. “Stop trying to make beach vacation happen,” I joked to Mary and myself, paraphrasing a quote from Mean Girls. “It’s not going to happen.”

I hadn’t even looked at weather forecasts for Menton in May, assuming that the area’s “unique micro-climate” (as quoted from approximately every tourism website) would be conducive to napping in the sand and listening to the waves.

Trying to think of ways to get the most out of our time here, I had a change of perspective. We could look at it as a creative getaway. Menton is a beautiful, sleepy little town, perfect for a lazy beach vacation or writing retreat. Voilà.

We figured out the beds (at last), slept in, woke to the first day of our “Writing Retreat in the French Riviera.” It sounds likes something the well-dressed, hat-donning British retirees around us might be doing, but our circumstances are just the slightest bit different.

My project is to catch up on this blog. Much has happened and I hope to share it articulately and with lots of pictures. It helps to be breathing fresh sea air and to know there’s no return to teaching anytime soon. In other words, I can finally relax.

A writing retreat. We will have breakfast every morning at this great boulangerie where the pains au chocolat and croissants are still bien chaud, warm from the oven. img_3543

We will visit the little covered market five minutes from our apartment and cook simple, fresh, Mediterranean and Provençal food. Yesterday we bought a basil plant, fat red tomatoes, a single melon, two banquettes of strawberries, all of it wonderfully fragrant. To finish up provisions we bought a large boule of fresh mozzarella, tagliatelle, garlic, olive oil, salt. img_3554-1

Everywhere we want to go is generally less than twenty minutes by foot. We can walk to Monaco one day if we need the exercise (only about ninety minutes).

If we need inspiration, there’s of course the crashing waves of the Mediterranean, which we can reach in less than a minute. Down the steps of our stone and brick street is a castle by the sea, refurbished by artist Jean Cocteau and now filled with his art. There are scores of gardens and grand pastel-painted hotels lining the Promenade du soleil along the sea.

We’re renting an apartment in le Vieux Menton, and thank goodness for that: we might have ended up in the harbor. img_3539

Trip planning, Mary was scrolling through the Airbnb website. “Come look at this! How cool would this be?” Pretty cool. We could sleep on a boat? Not a bad price–

And then we remembered something. Neither of us knows how to operate a boat.

The horror. I imagined that trip, paying to sleep on a boat that doesn’t leave the boardwalk. The mildew and tight shared spaces of aquatic travel, with absolutely none of the glamour.

Or the alternative, wherein we take the boat out anyway, end up lost at sea without provisions.

All that to say, I’m glad we’re here, high on the fifth floor, with a view of the Mediterranean when you stick your neck out of the side windows and look to the right. A tiny window in the tiny kitchen provides a view of the city: craggy hills and overlapping, bright, boxy buildings. The apartment is small and cozy, like a cabin or a nest, a perfect place to write. This high up, we’re surrounded by whirling pigeons and seagulls, by their spirited calls that mimic the full spectrum of human displays of mirth: from low chuckles to full-fledged maniacal laughter.

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Yesterday the high evening winds meant the beach was deserted, but in a light sweater and a rain jacket, I hardly noticed the cold. The waves rolled toward me, higher than I’ve ever seen them. I watched the sun set, pink over the water.

Despite a weather forecast of straight rain and clouds for the next ten days, the sun has made an appearance plenty of times. We’re flexible. It warms up five degrees, we run home, put on swimsuits, get down to the beach. The wind sets in, we’re back to the apartment, back up the flights of stairs, back to sweaters and chamomile tea.