European Delights

Venice Diary January 2016

In 2015 I was living in London, studying for a Master’s Degree in Social Anthropology. The coursework was rigorous, and I ensconced myself in my room most days during the first term, reading reams of anthropological theory. At the end of the term, in January 2016, I needed a break. I had always wanted to go to Venice, Italy, and so I decided to treat myself to a mini-vacation before the second term began.

2. Welcome to Gatwick 08-09-15 1

Midday on 15 January I set off to Gatwick Airport with a small suitcase. I wheeled it to the New Cross Gate Station, through the walking tunnel and down the stairs to the platform to wait for the train. I marvelled that I would be landing in Venice in a few short hours, and I wondered what it would feel like to be there, surrounded by water. When the train arrived, I hopped on and settled myself for the hour’s ride to the airport, daydreaming of Venice canals, gondoliers, art, and spectacular architecture.

Marina Fay on her way to Spain

The Lovely Marina Faye

A familiar voice called my name, and I turned around to see my flatmate, Marina, who just so happened to be flying to Spain. We shared an enjoyable trip to the airport and, because we were early, we sat together at Caviar House and Prunier, a seafood bar in the airport, while waiting for our respective gates to open. The café offered some interesting choices, such as, oysters, £300 an ounce caviar, smoked salmon, and wine. I went for the wine. I tend to get a bit anxious when I fly. 

I arrived at Marco Polo Airport at 5:30pm, and rode the bus to Venice. I bought tickets for a vaporetto going to San Marcuola and, my ultimate destination, Ostella Santa Fosca.

Venice vaporetto tickets

Vaporetto tickets

When I arrived at San Marcuola, I searched long and hard to find the hostel, but the walkways and bridges went in all directions, and I got lost. I trod on many steps up and over bridges. The sun was close to setting, and I hoped I would find the hostel before dark.

After an interminable period of walking, I finally found the hostel.

Ostella Santa Fosca

Day Two: Ostella Santa Fosca in the daytime. In addition to running a hostel, they also run Casa Studentesca Santa Fosca (Student House) for religious studies.

The office was in the corner of a large room. The room was equipped with comfy couches, tables, and chairs where travelers could enjoy self-serve coffee and tea, or food and beverages from vending machines. I checked in, and went through the courtyard—which was under construction—to the bedroom. The room had 7 beds, two of them bunks. Fortunately, I was not assigned a bunk, but another woman was sleeping in one of them with the covers over her head. I locked my belongings in my cupboard(#5), made my bed with the fresh linens provided, and then went to find John.

John was one of my Goldsmiths University of London classmates. He had arrived in Venice the previous day and, per our arrangement we had decided meet at Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) to have a drink together. Piazza San Marco is the most popular public square in Venice; expansive, bustling with pop up souvenir shops, cafés, and handy places to meet. The plethora of iconic statuary and famous landmarks will quite easily help anyone find friends they had set out to meet—except at night, in the rain, in January, perhaps.

Coming in from the vaporetto stop, I walked down Calle Vallaresso, turned right at the dead end (not really knowing where I was going) and came out into Piazza San Marco.

Entering Piazza San Marco

View from the arcades of Piazza San Marco and the Basilica

Flanked by arcades of sumptuous Italian products on three sides, the Campanile (Bell Tower) reached for the sky in front of the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Church), at right angles to the blue-faced Torre del’ Orologio’s (Clock Tower) winged lion in an alcove at the top of the magnificent building.

Piazza San Marco

Terrible photograph of the Piazza at night

At eight o’clock on a frosty January evening, few people were in the Piazza. I thought it would be easy to find John because he told me to meet him at the lion. At night, without much lighting, I could not have seen the lion he was talking about. Apparently, there are several lions (many of them with wings) in San Marco and in Venice in general.

I’m still not sure what lion he was talking about, but I did see a winged lion at the Piazzetta San Marco (Little St. Marks Square) when I was having a coffee there the next day. I later saw a painting of the Piazzetta by Luca Carlevarijs at the Timkin Museum (always free!) in Balboa Park, San Diego. In the painting, the Piazzetta is shown as an open area at the end of the Grand Canal with a winged bronze lion on a perilously tall pillar on the foreground on the right. Parts of the Basilica and the Clock Tower can be seen in the background.

I waited for John at Piazza San Marco in the cold as the sky was darkening, but he did not show up. I walked all over the piazza, but could not find him. I thought perhaps he was late, and so I waited for a while before going to the nearby Hard Rock Café, the only bar I could find open in that particular area at that time of day, in that season. Before I went in, I tried texting John, waited several minutes, and then called, but got not answer. I was very cold, and finally went inside the Hard Rock for a glass of wine. The place was packed, and I had to stand at the bar. After I finished my wine, I went out again to find John, to no avail. I gave up and went back to San Marcuola to get something to eat. We could always meet the next day.

I was so excited to be going to Venice I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. By the time I returned to San Marcuola, I was ready for a fantastic Italian meal. I was ravenous, but to my dismay, many of the café’s and restaurants were closing for the night. I found one at 10:30, and although the restaurant, Café Alla Maddalena, was closing, the maitre’d, Nicki—the only person in the restaurant—sat me down with a glass of wine and a great meal.

cafe alla Maddalena

Cafe Alla Maddalena

Caprese (tomato, basil and mozzarella salad) was followed by the best parmesan gnocchi in the world. I paid my bill, and Nicki started closing up, but gave me another glass of wine (free) and one for himself, as well. When we had finished our wine, he locked up the restaurant and asked if I’d like to stop for another glass of wine at a restaurant where his friends work. After another glass, Nicki went to wherever his home was, while I made my way in darkness to the hostel.

The hostel was less than habitable that night. The room was pitch black and smelled of stale bed breath. I didn’t sleep well, and my duvet kept sliding off of me onto the floor.

I caught up with John the next day and we hopped on a vaporetto to Lido. It was not at all like the other parts of Venice. As we walked around Lido, we knew that a beach was there, somewhere, but we could not find it.

Walking through Lido with John Watley

The Gorgeous Ausonia Palace Hotel. (Walking in Lido, looking for a beach with John Whatley)

We came upon a building with an open air walkway we might walk through. We ignored the closed sign and discovered a HUGE beach, both wide and long.

John Whatley Lido

John Whatley, going blind in the bright sunshine. Lido.

The area was a summertime fun park of sorts, with a spiral outdoor staircase and further along, a little restaurant—indoor, outdoor, and open! I was finally at a beach! I had been waiting a long time to see any ocean, having spent some months relatively land locked in London. On the way back to the restaurant we stopped to have lunch. Then we hopped on the vaporetto stop and took it to Piazzale Roma, where John took a bus to the airport.

Christmas beer in January

Inside Il Santo Bevitore: Offering Christmas beer in January. 

On my way back to the hostel, I visited Il Santo Bevitore, literally a little corner bar, and spent the rest of the evening closing the place. I was with a group of Italians (young men), one of whom, named Pasquale, suggested we go to a party he’d heard about. I was not keen on it, but Pasquale talked me into it, so we started walking. And walking, and walking, looking for the party, but he could not find it. He suggested going back to his place, but I had just met him, and I had no idea what might happen to me if I went with him. Besides, my feet hurt and I was not in the best mood after so much walking in the middle of the night. Pasquale took me to a vaporetto stop and we parted ways.

I saw Pasquale again on the street the next day. He was glowing and beaming with happiness to see me, but I was just plain exhausted. He asked if I would come by the bar later. I told him I wasn’t sure. That night I went to sleep very early. I felt terrible after that long crazy night, but I did enjoy his company. I went back to Il Santo Bevitore the next evening, after my journeys around Venice, but Pasquale was not there. I never saw him again.

I suddenly felt my time for exploring was running short, and so I walked as far as the vaporetto stop that runs to Murano.

view toward murano venice.jpg

Vaporetto and view towards Murano

I stood looking at the island, and almost decided to go, but my vaporetto card was nearly expired and I didn’t want to get stuck there.

I walked back through the streets and over the bridges, hoping to find some churches (Chiesas), which I did, quite by accident.

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One of the churches, Santa Maria Assunto Ai Gesuiti (built from 1715 to 1729), as seen in the slideshow above, was not the first church on that space. Originally, the Church of St. Mary of the Crossbearers (c.1150) was built on that location, but was torn down in 1715. The rebuilt church, designed by G.B. Fattoretto, was a marvel of baroque architecture from the great Venetian sculptors Torretti, Cabianca, Baratta and quite unique in the interior use of marble to very successfully emulate tapestries and curtains.

I am fascinated with churches, probably because I grew up without any religion. When I see the art, relics, and ritual artefacts, I want to be a part of it somehow, to learn about why and how people pray and talk to God.

While I was searching for a Chiesa di Virgin Maddalena (Magdalene) o Madona, I wished for a café where I could sit for a bit and have a coffee. BLAM! There one was.

Spiderweb Cappuccino at Hotel Al Mori d'Oriente

Spiderweb Cappuccino at the Hotel Al Mori d’Oriente

And so, in between admiring ancient buildings, churches, and stonemasonry, I took cappuccino breaks in random cafés in the cool winter sunshine.

Random photos of Venice:

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PPL CE T PL –I see these letters in marble tiles on the streets, here and there. If anyone reading this knows what the letters signify I would be forever grateful for the information.

I was very starry-eyed about Venice, and my time there felt surreal. I didn’t notice at first that all the walkways, bridges, and buildings actually move to and fro with the ebb and tide. I thought it was just me. The movement was a bit disconcerting at first, but I asked someone if it really were moving, and they agreed that it was. After that, it felt right to me. To be so fully surrounded by water gave me a certain sense of home. When I am on any island, anywhere, it feels like home precisely because I am surrounded by water.

Just a lovely photo of Venice

View of San Giorgio Maggiore Island Church as seen from a vaporetto. 

I left Venice reluctantly, but when I arrived at the airport, I bought bottles of duty free limoncella and grappa and some trinkets to share with my friends and family. Simple, little things to remind me of my days in Venice. But who knows? Perhaps I’ll go again.

Text and photos Copyright © Marla K. Greenway 2016-2017

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