Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Venice is Never Off-Season
I have been to Venice in the spring... in the summer... and in the fall, and on each occasion found the crowds to be crushing. Access to the famous sites, even maneuvering through the narrow alleyways and loggias, required waiting in long lines. Certainly understandable as Venice is one of the most, if not the most, extraordinary city in the world and everyone wants to see it and have their picture taken in Piazza San Marco.
November is traditionally a wet month and chances for heavy rain make visiting a city that is built practically in the water challenging. Still, I was willing to chance it; I even purchased waterproof boots for the occasion and packed a rain slicker. So in an excess of optimism after my fact-finding visit to the Treviso area courtesy of Treviso Glocal (see article in Destinations) I choose to spend a few days in Venice, hoping that during off-season I’d be able to explore the city and have Venice all to myself!
Well, my optimism was greatly misplaced since even in the rain, Venice is amazing and was jammed with tourists. I now accept the fact that La Bella Venezia does not have an off-season and regardless of the weather the crowds still come; dragging their suitcases over the bridges to reach their hotels; befuddled by the warren of alleyways; gawking at this impossible city like no other; and clutching their city maps close to their chests in hope of finding San Marco before they get impossibly lost. Not that getting lost is bad since Venice is an open-air museum and even getting lost can lead to a serendipitous experience that will be treasured for life.
In anticipation of my visit to Venice, I contacted my friends Marilena, Sal and Tosca at Walks Inside Rome. http://www.walksinsiderome.com/ Their tours of Rome and the Vatican were so informative and such fun that I hoped they would have suggestions for me on Venice. To my delight they have expanded their personalized creative tours throughout Italy with Secrets Italy Tours that offer private, individual, and small group tours, to the tourist looking for that special travel experience. The testimonials on their web site tell the story but if you don’t see what you’re looking for, they will design an experience specifically suited to your interests. http://www.secretsitaly.com/
Secrets Italy Tours arranged a traveling companion for me. Isabella Birani is a student of Italian art and history and wonderfully knowledgeable about Venice for the first time visitor who wants to see the traditional sights but also for the return visitor that looks for the hidden Venice. She also offers authentic cooking classes in her own kitchen. If you are looking for a cooking experience contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org To arrange for guided tours in Italy visit http://www.secretsitaly.com/
Isabella collected me at my hotel and we skirted mobbed Piazza San Marco and headed for Scala Contarini Del Bovolo, literal translation “of the snail” - near Campo Manin, a multi-level building with an exterior spiral staircase that had been built in the 15th century for the Contarini family.
We found Marco Polo’s family home - Corte del Milion -- referring to his nickname of Marco Il Milione (of the million lies) because his tales of the orient were not believed. It can only be reached by walking through a “sotoportego", a covered passageway that cuts through what would be the ground floor of a building. Isabella explained that initially the palatial homes fronting the Grand Canal were close to one another and accessible only by boat. Each of the ornate buildings were self-contained for security purposes with a cistern used for collecting rain water (there was no central water supply until 1884) and a private garden for growing produce, both located behind the main building. But as the city grew and homes were built along the smaller canals, a way to transit the city on foot was needed and so alleyways and loggias were cut between, and sometimes through, buildings and back yards. This is the reason the lanes connecting the various squares are so tiny and in some cases almost invisible until you are upon them and also the explanation for the number of cisterns, many intricately decorated, you see now abandoned in almost every square.
We continued our walk off-the-beaten-path through residential areas where locals live, although their numbers are declining while the influx of tourists’ increase, to visit the small lagoon islands of Mazzorbo and Burano. We boarded the ferry at Fondamente Nuove for the half hour boat trip to Mazzorbo, a green island full of monasteries and vineyards of Prosecco producers and walked across the bridge to Burano.
Burano was named for Boreas (North Wind) that blows cold and dry from the Adriatic Sea. Burano was, and still is, a fishing village where the modest houses are brightly painted in every imaginable color to cheer the men returning from the singular-colored sea. The strangely tilting church bell tower could be seen from a distance and served as a beacon to the returning fisherman.
Meanwhile, to while away their lonely days and to supplement their husband’s meager earnings, the women took up lace making. During the 16th century Burano delicate hand-made lace was in demand throughout Europe and was coveted by both men and women to decorate their clothing and to grace their homes. The highly secretive techniques for the various patterns were closely guarded and women that were engaged in the craft were prohibited from leaving the island. The strict prohibitions, especially for the younger women, were responsible for the industry dying out as the older generations passed on. Then in 1872 a lace-making school was set up by local nuns to teach island girls only one stitch instead of all the patterns, making lace production a group effort. In this way no one girl could jeopardize the entire industry if they left the island and so Burano lace-making lived on.
Predictably, the time-consuming art has finally run its course and its difficult now to find anyone that still makes Burano lace. However, Isabella took me to La Perla Gallery - a lace shop and museum owned and operated by the Bon family - to visit her friend Cristina Rossi who has been at La Perla for 31 years. At La Perla, for the foreseeable future, they are still making Burano lace with a small group of women. Emma is their oldest at 99 years and Roberta, the youngest at 51 years, is learning her stitch, and will eventually replace Emma.
Cristina guided me through the museum on the second floor and showed me a 300 year old tablecloth that took 10 years to make and a 17th century men’s collar that was commissioned by royalty, along with many other exquisite works of art and artifact. www.laceinvenice.com
Burano is a photographer’s dream location with the colorful houses, meandering canals lined with bobbing fishing boats, and a main street with back-to-back shops and restaurants. Too soon it was time to return to Venice to catch the last tour of the Jewish Ghetto so we boarded the ferry and said goodbye to Burano and its kaleidoscope of colored homes.
In 1516 a decree ordered that all the Jews in Venice be relocated to an island in the old foundry area - geto comes from the Italian word to cast or found, and so Venice had the world’s first so-called “ghetto”. The area was isolated by canals and coming and going was strictly controlled. Christian guards were stationed at each of the three exit bridges to make sure no one left after curfew, ironically, the Jewish community was forced to pay the salaries for their “service”. There were many other restrictions imposed on the Jewish community regarding the hours they were permitted to be out of the ghetto and the trades they were allowed to practice.
Jews brought wealth and learning and were welcomed in Venice, but like every other ethnic group, were segregated from the Venetians (at one point Venice was harshly sanctioned by Rome for its liberal policies regarding its Jewish population but they continued to defy edicts from Pope Paul IV). Segregation seemed to be the order of the day since as each successive wave of Jews seeking asylum from the persecution in their home countries arrived; they congregated together in the small area allotted to them.
Synagogues were referred to as “schools” since they served different functions: teaching ritual observance and religious law, as well as gathering for prayers. Each nationality built their own synagogue (scola/school) and because space was at a premium, several were built on different floors in the same building. That building now houses the Museo Communità Ebraica. The museum organizes tours of the ghetto and the five still standing synagogues which are rotated for viewing according to the time of the year.
The ghetto existed in a defined area with limited space, so instead of building out, the Jews were forced to build up, and the term “skyscrapers of Venice” refers to the seven and eight story buildings in the ghetto. It wasn’t until 1797 when Napoleon occupied the city and opened the gates of the ghetto that segregation was ended. Nowadays the ghetto is completely integrated and only the Scola Spagnola still holds services.
Crossing the bridge exiting the ghetto, as usual I took the wrong path. It seemed I traversed Venice mostly walking in the wrong direction. It always looked so easy on a map but like many medieval cities, Venice expanded helter skelter. Following local directions is a tricky business but eventually you return to where you began and it’s all good.
For more information visit:
Italian National Tourist Board North America www.italiantourism.com
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