Thursday, December 26, 2013


The approach into Venice from the ocean looked a lot like the beach at Assateague but without any waves or development – or people.  Not a creature was stirring on a cloudy, 65 degree morning.  It was refreshing to see a shoreline uncluttered without high rise hotels and glitzy beach bars, but it was also kind of creepy, like the whole coast had been abandoned.

We had no sense of the city that lay beyond the ocean front.  We couldn’t see any buildings behind the trees as our giant ship entered the harbor mouth.  It seemed like we were just heading up a lonely river.  There were only a few small boats in sight and nothing to indicate that ol’ Venice lay right around the corner.

The first indication of civilization was the stone jetties jutting out from the harbor entrance at odd angles with drunken redundancy.  Next came a long line of residential apartment houses at the edge of the water.
We came around a wide bend in the river and POW!  Thar she blew: VENICE!  Suddenly, we were smack dab in the middle of the ancient city.

Narrow orange-brick and tiled church towers rose into the sky like missiles.  And the boat traffic around our hulking cruise ship resembled rush hour on a busy highway with watercraft of all shapes and sizes darting back and forth in every direction.  And some of the small fishing boats even had pointed ends that made them look like funky gondolas with engines.

The water looked milky green, like glacier melt, and a tad unsavory.

Everyone crowded the rails of the Serenade of the Seas, gawking at the passing sites.  It was incredibly surreal as we slowly drifted by one of the world’s most famous old cities.  We were literally floating past the heart of Venice, a stone’s throw from the breathtaking buildings perched along the stone bulkheads.  And, sure, you can float down the Thames and see London, or hop a tour boat on the East River and see the Big Apple, but we were sailing right through Venice, not along its wondrous edges.
The houses tended to be two-stories-tall and cube-like, with the roofs sloping away in all directions from an apex point, like tent roofs.  Everything looked connected with no setbacks and there was very little green space, or green anything.  It was total build-out, dating back to the time of Christ.


Everything moved by boat.  And it was really weird not to see any cars at all.  But then, there were no roads, so why bother with a car?  On land it was just pedestrians and the occasional bicyclist. I did spot a few public buses in some of the outlying parts of town.

There was a Statue of Liberty island in front of the first big river bend at the entrance to the Grand Canal, but with a sleek, brick bell tower rather than a lady with a big torch.
Venice is located in northeastern Italy and the whole place is listed as a World Heritage site.  Basically, it’s a big lagoon, between the mouth of the Piave and Po Rivers, with 118 islands scattered throughout, and bridges connecting the populated parts.
Venice takes its name from the Veneti people who took up residence there around the 10th Century BC.  Over the years it has also answered to: the “City of Masks”, “City of Bridges”, “City of Canals”, “Floating City”, “City of Music”, and the “City of Romance”.

Venice was once a major maritime power and a center of commerce from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.  It was world renowned for its spices and art.
It’s hard to fathom that a city so old and venerated is pretty much doomed, but Venice is a leaky house of brick built on sand and surrounded by water.  The entire city is like a big dock, with pilings driven down through the mud and sand until they hit hard clay.  The foundations sit on this always sinking base while the salt water eats away at the wooden pilings.  

Ask yourself: Would I buy a piece of property like that?
And when you roll in climate change and the fact that as the sea level is rising, Venice is subsiding, and you have all the ingredients for a disaster movie.
Venetians live with these threats every waking minute.  And their past comes back to haunt them every time the tide rises because they diverted the rivers from the city six hundred years ago to deal with the sediment, and in so doing created an even deeper lagoon to deliver a twice daily watery punch.  And as more and more wells were drilled over the years, the flooding has gotten much worse because it made the islands sink that much faster.  Artesian wells were banned in the 1960’s, but it was pretty much water under the dam by that point.
It doesn't take much to create flood conditions inside Love Central and the water regularly breaches the quays.  We saw many old houses where the ground floors were no longer livable and had been abandoned as the owners headed for higher ground on the second floor.  Staircases still led to the empty first floors.  There were also many leaning towers like in Pisa, along with drooping buildings that regularly need to be imploded before they fall down and cause serious damage.

And when you combine a full moon with the Sirocco Wind that comes blowing into town each spring and fall, all hell breaks loose.  The tides can more than double Recognizing that they cannot defeat the rising tide,Venetians have developed some interesting ways to deal with their wet predicament.   They have a free App that constantly informs people on detailed maps of the city whether they will be under water based on a color code system.  Yellow means it's going to be wet in the low spots, like San Marco Square.  Orange means a lot of the city will be inundated. And red means flee by boat.  Yellow happens a lot and red only rarely when the planets align.  The App also tells you exactly when it will be high tide.

To deal with this constant aggravation they also have raised walkways that city workers deploy around the heavily-traveled low spots.  The long boards and metal supports sit in big stacks along each major walkway, looking like folding tables. When the tide comes in, city workers set up the 3-feet-high wooden ramps so people can get around, and then they put them away again when the tide goes back out.

There is a fine line between optimism and denial.  We need only look at the current planetary climate change debate to see how people can ignore the obvious.  In Venice, you will find many people, even civic leaders, who will tell you Venice is no longer sinking.  But few will argue that the flooding isn't getting worse each year.
What to do?
Italy’s disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi initiated the MOSE project in 2003, with the help of the Dutch – no strangers to flooding themselves – that will – assuming they can find the money to pay for it – install inflatable pontoons attached to the bottom of the sea floor in front of the three entrances to the lagoon.  The pontoons will be filled with air right before a big flood and block the advancing Adriatic Sea.  Will it really work?  Nobody knows for sure.  But it reminds me of the John McPhee book “Controlling Nature” where he describes the folly of trying to corral the mighty Mississippi or the Icelanders trying to keep the lava flows from burying Reykjavik.  It’s just a matter of time.

After the first big bend in the lagoon, the pilot tugboat that had been guiding us into Venice started towing our ship.  By this point the boat traffic was very busy – not out of control – but no cruise ship Captain in their right mind would try and power their way through that mess.
Long, narrow water taxis and boat buses zoomed around to the various islands while private boats delivered goods to the busy docks lining the canals.  At first it all looked like a chaotic free-for-all, but then I noticed the network of grey bundled pilings crowned with lights lining the harbor and marking the navigable channel like the lanes and shoulder markings on a highway.

The view from the twelfth deck of our ship was like sailing through a Renaissance painting where all of the Old World architectural styles were on brilliant display, even on a gloomy overcast day – Gothic, Moorish, Byzantine, Ottoman, Phoenician, and Baroque ­– they all came together like a diverse cultural symphony of delight.
When taken as a whole, there was a striking uniformity to the skyline.  It was all domes and missile minarets rising gracefully into the air.  The domes were grey silver with either cupolas, crosses, or human figures on their tops.  All the domes pretty much looked the same and were about the size of the Naval Academy Chapel. The bell towers were usually about 250-feet-tall, and the first half was red brick with the occasional window, then a marble platform with arches in the middle, more brick and a clock, all crowned with a green copper pointed missile top.
To be honest, there was a uniformity to the whole place.  The buildings looked alike and were either orange or gray, with the occasional yellow, and they all had the same orange tile roofs.
A lot of the buildings looked like old warehouses and there were no modern buildings.  Everything new conformed to the original red brick box style.

Venice isn't just a toy town.  Chemical plants with candy cane, red and white smokestacks dominated the view to the north with a St. Louis Arch between two of the largest plants.

There were islands enclosed in brick and concrete bulkheads with old brick buildings and large trees. Several islands were enclosed in stone breakwaters but sat vacant, other than trees.  Many of these abandoned islands are where Venetians park their cars.  When they go on vacation, a ferry boat picks up the car and delivers it to a dock near a highway outside of town.  Because the Venetians drive so infrequently, it is rumored that they tend to be pretty lousy drivers. 
There are no cars or roads in the heart of Venice and no ADA access.  During our two days in Venice, I saw absolutely no accommodation for the physically challenged.  If you were wheelchair bound, there would be no way for you to get around Venice.
There were six cruise ships, smaller river cruise ships, and a tall ship docked when we arrived at our ginormous pier.  I had never seen so many cruise ships in one place.  It turns out that in the last few years there has been a lot of local backlash against the big behemoth ships cruising back and forth through town like a daily circus parade.  The Venetians are torn between their desire for the almighty tourist dollar and their general revulsion at having floating hotels sailing through town every day.  And recent studies seem to indicate that the dredging required by the big ships to navigate the narrow canals is further undermining the foundations of the city.  There may be a time in the not so distant future when the tour boats will have to dock well outside the city and their passengers will be bussed into Venice.
After docking, we quickly purchased a $25 round trip boat taxi pass that took us on a thirty minute ride to the exclusive Royal Caribbean dock near Sam Marco Square.  We could catch a ride back to the ship at any time before nine that evening. 
We spent the afternoon wandering along the Grand Canal and stopped at an Italian place off San Marco Square for dinner.  There are pizza parlors galore around Venice, serving very tasty thin crust and New York style pies.  We ate at an outdoor table and struck up a conversation with two rather eccentric older ladies from Paris who were sitting next to us.  It was like talking to the Garbot sisters.  There’s something about French women – especially the older ones who have been around – that is very sexy and intriguing.
After dinner, we wandered the maze-like streets, lit like the interior passageways of a festive castle, before catching the boat taxi back to the ship a few miles away.

The next day we did another shore excursion: THE SECRET VENICE.

-Guided walking tour: Exteriors of Frari Church, Rialto Bridge, Marco Polo House, and Church of the Pietà
-Church of San Giovanni e Paolo: Visit the interiors on your own
-Refreshment stop: Enjoy a coffee and typical Venetian biscuits in a local café

Full description:
Begin your journey by motorboat from the pier to Piazzale Roma, where you will meet your guide to begin your walking tour. You will proceed to Campo San Rocco, to view the church of Saint Roch and the “Scuola Grande di San Rocco”, one of the great charitable institutions of Renaissance Venice, and, a few steps ahead, the Franciscan Friars church “Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari”. The façade of this vast 14th century Gothic Church is a simple brick design punctuated with a white marble portico and pinnacles.

Next see “Campo San Polo”, one of Venice's oldest and largest squares which was a staging area for ceremonies, bull-running and theatrical performances. Proceed through narrow streets and small squares to the Grand Canal for a splendid view of the Rialto Bridge, the largest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal and one of the most famous in Venice. Have your cameras ready to take photos from both the waterfront and the top of the bridge.

Crossing the bridge, you’ll arrive at “Campo San Bartolomeo”, with its statue of famous Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni. Then pass the “Fondaco dei Tedeschi”, formerly a German warehouse and later a rich commercial emporium. Silence reigns as you leave the busier thoroughfares and cross the “Corte del Milion”, where Marco Polo’s family lived, to reach “Campo San Giovanni e Paolo”. It is one of the city’s most monumental squares where you will see the largest and most ambitious example of Gothic architecture in Venice, the church dedicated to Saints John and Paul, where you will have an opportunity for an independent visit.

Your guided tour concludes with a refreshment stop in this square. Take the opportunity to enjoy complimentary coffee and sample a local Venetian biscuit. You can rest your feet as you soak up the delightful atmosphere from one of the small local cafés.

After the refreshment stop, your escort will lead you through the winding narrow streets, courtyards and squares to “Riva degli Schiavoni” and the church of the “Pietà”, better known as Antonio Vivaldi’s church, where the tour terminates. Some of his finest music was composed there, for the choir of orphan girls.

Your motorboat will be available at this time to return to the ship. You may stay in town and return to the ship independently (at own expense) or return directly to the ship via motorboat launch.

As we were getting ready to catch our tour boat the next morning, I realized that I had lost my cell phone somewhere.  I had no idea where.  And so began a nightmare search. 

But first, there was the shore excursion we had already booked and which was non-refundable.  So off we went, on our walking tour of the secret places around the San Marco section of Venice – in the pouring rain.  It was raining buckets the whole time, which actually worked out quite well because it kept the usual throngs of tourons at bay.  It stopped, of course, just as the tour was ending at a nice local coffee shop.
Venice constantly hits you with sights and sounds, like unexpected gifts.  And it left me with some indelible impressions.

Everything has a grey patina from the chimney smoke.  It reminded me of Pennsylvania coal country in this regard.
The popular sites, like San Marco Square, are crowded but they don't feel crowded.  People are so stunned by the beauty that they don't move very fast.  They tend to spin in circles with their mouths agape, snapping photos.  The pace is very slow. 

There are small string ensembles playing under the awnings in front of the fanciest restaurants. And I never heard such strange assortments of music.  One quartet, all dressed in tuxedos began their set with Procol Harum’s " A Whiter Shade of Pale", segued into Bach's "Water Music", and then finished with Frank Sinatra's "My Way". 
There is a wonderful happy-happy, joy-joy energy that makes you smile in wonder wherever you go around Venice.  It's just a fun place to be.
Looking at the waterfront, like along the Grand Canal, is deceptive because the real action is happening behind the large buildings on the water. The narrow streets are like a maze of restaurants and shops selling masks, leather goods, rare books, linens, and their famous Venetian glass.  It is very easy to get lost and most streets are dead ends, like walking through an endlessly amusing stone labyrinth.
Venetian and Murano glass are to Venice, what stone mosaics are to Florence.  And whatever design you can dream up, they have figured out how to make.  It’s all stunningly gorgeous, and costs an arm and a leg.  We saw several very nice pieces, but didn’t feel confident that they would arrive back home in one piece.  And the shipping charges are astronomical.

When anyone says Venice, most people immediately think of gondolas.  And they are everywhere you go.  But it’s a tricky business.  The gondolas must all follow a basic design with no deviation, but the seats are tricked out and highly individual.  They cost 30,000€ if maintained properly, and the bottom needs to be re-done after 15 years.  The exorbitant cost of the boat and license means that only young single men can be operators because they don't have a family and a mortgage to pay off.  An hour ride costs 125€.  The Chinese were the only ones we ever saw taking gondola rides because they are the only ones who can afford it these days.
The Chinese were also the vast majority of tourists in Venice.  They travel in big packs and are pretty much oblivious to all other people.  And they buy everything in sight.  They are all toting big bags of loot and merrily jabbering away.

Venice only has a population of 58,000 and it gets smaller every year because it is so expensive and prone to constant flooding.  Property values are also through the roof – 1 million euro for the average apartment.  The local joke is that eventually, only the Chinese will be left in Venice.

We tend to think of Italy as a very ancient country because of Rome.  But Rome was not Italy.  Italy wasn't founded until 1866, right after the American Civil War.  And when you ask somebody where they are from they never say Italy.  They name the city they are from instead. Nationalism is pretty much a foreign concept to Venetians.

The water makes Venetian life very complex because EVERYTHING is transported by boat, and then hand-carried to its destination.  They engage an army of immigrants to hall the goods around in carts of all sizes.

Trash is put in plastic bags the morning it is picked up, otherwise the birds would peck open the bags – pigeons are like rats and are aggressively scavenging all over the city during the daylight hours.  Workers go around with large carts picking up the trash and then carrying it to green trash barges waiting on the canals.  As a result, the notion of home recycling is an alien concept.

The most popular expression in Venice pretty much captures the optimistic fatalism that the inhabitants warmly embrace: "Life is not all bad."

After our walking tour, we began looking for my lost cellphone, starting back at the restaurant where we had eaten the previous evening.  That was the last place I remembered having it, when I was entering my notes for this blog and waiting for our pizzas to arrive.  The staff was friendly, but they were all the day shift, so they didn’t have a clue about what the dinner crew might have done with a lost phone.  It wasn’t in any of the drawers.  Tough luck. 
Our next stop was an Internet Café where we spent the rest of the afternoon, trying to get into my Apple account so I could activate the homing device which I knew was turned on.  Unfortunately, I had put the phone on Airplane mode, as all the travel experts tell you to do, in order to avoid the roaming charges.  And it turns out that also blocks the phone finder.  We didn’t discover this fatal flaw in our plan for a couple hours because I had forgotten my password.  So, we had to change the password.  And the google web page was in Italian.  And all of these confounded technological marvels were conspiring against us in a foreign land – or at least that’s how it felt.   
The phone was a work phone, so it wasn’t really my loss.  But all of my notes from the trip were on it and had not been backed up on the Cloud.  And what if someone had found it and was calling all of their friends around the world?  My employer was going to be none too happy about that. 
With the deadline for getting back to the ship looming, we contacted Verizon and had them shut the phone down so that no one could use it.  That only took an hour, trying to get on their overloaded website – that being our only option because the nearest Verizon office was well outside town, and we, of course, didn’t have a phone.
After we disabled the phone, we spent another hour on-line, trying to notify the subcontractor that Verizon employs to handle lost or stolen phone reports.
At a little before six, we paid $30 bucks for all the fun we had on the Web and sadly exited the Internet café.  We only had about an hour before we had to catch the boat back to our cruise ship and I wasn’t even sure how to get back to the dock where the taxi was located.
Things were looking pretty bleak.  Basically, we had wasted the whole afternoon in Venice, conducting a totally pointless search for a goddamn cellphone.  And how lame is that?
We decided to stop back at the restaurant one last time to see if the evening crew was now there.  They weren’t.  But they were expected to arrive at six, in about fifteen minutes.  So we ordered beers and plopped ourselves down at the same table where we had dined the previous evening.  We sat silently staring at the happy tourists, lost in our thoughts, when the smiling waiter from the night before came waltzing in.  He immediately recognized us and when I asked him if he had found a phone, he nodded and asked us to wait.  For the next fifteen minutes we watched as he rummaged in drawers and went around asking questions of the chef and other waiters.  Then he made a phone call.  It was all very confusing.  At six o’clock the owner appeared from out of nowhere and he walked over and handed me my phone.
It turns out that I had put the phone on my knee when the pizza arrived and then it fell on the ground without me even noticing.  And there it lay.  Another large group came after us and ate their dinner, and it wasn’t until they were leaving that the owner noticed the phone lying there under the table.  He asked the diners if it was theirs and they said it wasn’t.  So, the owner pocketed the phone and forgot about it until the following morning when he looked at the photos and recognized us.  But he still had no way to contact us until the waiter had called him a few minutes before.
We hugged and kissed everyone around us, even other diners, and tipped the owner handsomely.  Then we made a mad dash for the boat taxi, arriving with less than five minutes to spare.  We felt giddy, like little kids who had found their lost puppy.

And all of this for a friggin phone.  Imagine.
Safely back on the Serenade of the Seas, we stood silently by the rail on the top deck, hugging each other tightly, and watched as our ship was towed out to sea.  It was nine o’clock on a Saturday night and almost every building on the water was completely dark.  There were no lights shining in any of the windows.  We sailed through the very heart of Venice and 95% of it was pitch black, like a ghost town.  Where the hell were the inhabitants?  Out partying?  On holiday?  It seemed very strange and slightly spooky.  Pretty much like our whole two day visit.