Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis

Venice 2015 Gondolas

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.

Venice 2015 Piazza San Marco

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 isabella.bariani@gmail.com To arrange for guided tours in Italy visit http://www.secretsitaly.com/ 

Venice 2015 The Snail

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.

Venice 2015 Marco Polo House

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.

Venice 2015 Burano Houses

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.

Venice 2015 Lacemaking

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.

Venice 2015 La Perla Lace Shop

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.

Venice 2015 Bridge to Ghetto

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.

Venice 2015 German Scuola

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

 

 

 

© February 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.

 

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