Venice, Italy: Decadence and Decay

My friend, forever named Little Brett (in Italian he’s Brett: Il Piccolissimo- make sure you roll the r) is living and working at what might be the only affordable hostel in Venice, A Venice Fish. Similar to us, Brett is spending 6 months traveling around Europe, with a month or so pause in Venice to recharge. His hostel owns a few other properties and he was able to set us up in what was most definitely the most decadent of our lodgings throughout the trip.

Are you kidding me? This is where we stayed in Venice.

We were only a 10-minute walk away from his hostel and in a quiet neighborhood, overlooking the water. It was perfect for us. His hostel uniquely offers free dinner, instead of free breakfast like most other hostels-so we spent almost every evening with Little Brett catching up over dinner and then going out on the nightly (they go out Every.Single.Night) “pub crawl”.

The view from our window in Venice

Now Venice doesn’t have what you would call “pubs”, more like drink stands tucked into dark corners of the cobbled city where you can taste the local libation spritz (a mix of aperol, soda water and sparkling wine- an olive and an orange slice, oh my). After hitting a few of the local haunts the night usually ends chatting out on one of the docks, drinks in hand, trying not to get splashed by the canal water. Not how most people visiting Venice spend their evenings, but certainly a good look into what living here is really like. On our last night we saw two girls (three sheets to be sure) fall into the canal. They laughed and laughed. One of the girls who worked at the hostel fell in last year and got Scarlet Fever. I thought Scarlet Fever was eradicated! Not in these waters

Frulala drink stand in Venice

The Docks, Venice

On our first real day we visit the Piazza San Marco (patron saint of Venice), home to the Basilica of the same name, the campanile and the Doge’s palace (on the way we stumble upon a flea market-I buy a necklace). The Doge is the former ruler of the Venetian Empire, an odd mix of monarchy and democracy, he was an elected Duke that in his hey-day ruled Venice with an iron grip. His pink and white checkered palace doesn’t suggest such vice like authority anymore.

Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The Doge's Palace, Venice

Also home to the 2 symbols of Venice St. Mark’s Lion and the statue of St. Theodore. My favorite is the Lion, maybe because it reminds me of my best friend but I love that symbol because it’s stolen. The Venetian conquerers went on over to Egypt and plucked the relic of St. Mark and the symbol of the  Lion out from under them. Brought it back and propped it up next to their own St. Theodore. Did they ever give it back? No, why should they! They’re Venetian!

St. Marks Lion and St. Theodore, side by side in Venice

The Basilica of San Marco is one of my top favorites cathedrals (up there with the “big white teapot” as my landlord used to say, the Sacre Coeur, that crazy collage-the Sagrada Familia, the gothic dark chocolate St. Vitus’ in Prague, and of course Notre Dame – a classic never dies. Who can rank them? They’re all too marvelous.)

I love this one because it’s so, well cheerful! The endless arches and domes make it literally loopy. The paintings in the front half domes are so colorful and bright, the blue background with gold star panel on top, the hilarity of the three dimensional crosses with balls on the end. They’ve perched the four horses from the former Hippodrome of Constantinople. {No we’re not giving them back!}

Center facade of St. Marks Basilica, the Four Horses are shown

Arches, Crosses and Saints, St. Marks Basilica, Venice

After a slim half hour of snapping pictures we decide to revisit the Piazza in early morning (as we did in Prague) and visit when the light is better and there are significantly less people. We scout out a place to perch and sketch, finding one of the infinite and endless canals in that perfect state of picturesque decay.

This is where we sat and sketched all afternoon.

The dichotomy of the glossy black gondolas against a crumbling façade of an old palazzo water entrance is the essence of why I love Venice. The seat of one of the former great empires of Italy and the Papal States, masters of glass chandeliers, gondoliers and the shoe polish black boats as a major mode of transportation, the opulence of Carnivale.

At the same time, it’s a giant, floating, city. It’s 93 islands on water, laced together with bridges built an age ago. It’s falling apart. Of course it is! How could it not? But do they abandon it? No, they make it work. DHL has delivery boats (long boats, not giant container ships). The garbagemen (and women!) pick everything up by hand in giant tin pushcarts and deliver the refuse to waiting boats that cart it off to who knows where. There’s no dump in Venice. It is so very different from everywhere else but still so innately Italian. The gelato is cheap and good, there are geraniums in the window boxes, espresso is drinking al bar and in one shot. Do the cobblestones stop the women from wearing towering pin point stilettos? Absolutely not. This is Venice, make it work.

On our second day we do come back early for pretty pictures of the Piazza San Marco. We walk around taking snaps and then enjoy breakfast on a bench under the doge’s arches. 2 café lattes to-go (so un-Italian), our favorite pastries and a giant bomber of a peach. We take a post in of the exorbitantly priced outdoor cafes (I tell Eric to think of it like an art class tuition after his jaw falls to floor over the price of coffee). We get our monies worth by sitting in the café for almost 3 hours sketching our hearts out over the Basilica.

Breakfast, Venice style

Glamour shot: Basilica di St. Marco

My favorite astronomical clock, Venice

Pigeon flies over S. Marco, Venice

Gondolas and San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

Then we take a ride up the elevator in the Campanile for views of all of Venice. A treat I’d never done before, it was one of the best things we did.

Campanile in Piazza di San Marco, Venice

Cafe views from the Campanile, Venice

The mouth of the Grand Canal, Venice

Long shot of Venice

We walk around, taking more pictures and eating pizza (spinach with ricotta today) sitting on a quiet canal. We see the Rialto during the day, almost sagging with tourists and trinkets. Like the rest of Venice, it’s photographic as all get out and it doesn’t much matter that there’s tons of people on it.

The Rialto Bridge, Venice

We stop by Brett’s to check in. He’s got to work for the rest of the day so we head out to the island of Murano, the glass blowers island. This is where all the quality, renowned Venetian glass has been made for over 700 years. All the manufacturers are still there and you can visit their workshops, watch them blow glass, and of course, buy their wares. They’ve even got some little trinkets for small timers like us, that can’t afford the vases or chandeliers.

Murano, Italy

This island is refreshing because although there are lots of people visiting, it is no where near the crush of people in main part of Venice. We luxuriate in the emptiness and space; even just walking to the water bus to get to Murano was a whole different Venice. Two blocks up from the main drag and it’s a ghost town. Everyones at work, of course, nary a television to be heard from the windows. The building facades are freshly painted and clean. Quiet. Peaceful. Eric says, “So this is where the people live.” He’s been exclaiming every day as we walk along the main roads, “But no one actually lives here? There’s just shops.”

We visit one of the more easy going glass shops, happy to usher people in to view the glass blowers. They give a little presentation, wowing us with the temperatures in the oven and explaining the chemicals they use. We are stunned as one man in shorts rolls the glass to keep the orb shape with one hand, cigarette, also in that hand. One pro bangs out a glass horse in about a minute. He pulls legs and a tail from a blob glass with ease. It’s amazing.

Inside the Glassblowers Workshop, Murano

This guy made a glass horse in about 1 minute

We scoop up some mementos and slink around Murano, from shade patch to shade patch. After we’ve seen all there is to see, we head home for an early dinner and rest.

Eric and I on a bridge in Murano

The Lion door knockers that I love in Venice, homage to the patron saint

Flowery glory in Murano, Italy

Double Vision: Murano Lamps and waters

Only glass flowers grow in Murano

Antique Murano chandelier- it's fruit!

Murano glass lovebirds

Because of our luck, the world famous Bianale is also happening while we’re here. The Bianale is an enormous, month long art exhibition that invites artists from all over the world to represent their countries in this event. There are permanent pavilions set up in the big park on the edge of town for all the countries. Little Brett gets off work to visit the Bianale with us, he’s been looking forward to going all month. We tramp out to the park for a picnic and introduce Il Picolissimo to granitas (Italian icees, usually mint, tangy cherry or lemon).

Enjoying Granitas on the way to the Bianale!

We make up sandwiches and lavish over the biggest avacado we’ve ever seen, luxuriating in it’s butteriness. It almost tastes like California. Almost.

The boys and their sandwiches

After the picnic we head into the Bianale. We spend most of our time in the main exhibition hall, wandering around the variety of modern works and mediums.

Entrance to the Bianale

Brett contemplates the Belgian Exhibit

As an homage to the abundance of pigeons in Venice, these faux pigeons were perched all throughout the main exhibit hall. Eerily realistic!

Eric and Brett ponder which came first...

This is some art I can get behind. Who doesn't love rainbow bunting?

This room was all Playdoh and could be played with, altered or changed by anyone viewing the exhibition. Play time!

I was happily surprised to see some more bohemian pieces like this embroidery of a star chart

By this time it’s almost closing time. We make the decision to visit the USA’s pavilion to see what the motherland was able to rustle up. We go in expecting not to like it, but actually thoroughly enjoy it. Maybe the home advantage helps, but it was one of the only pieces I saw that I “got”.

Stati Uniti d'America: the American exhibit hall in Venice...look familiar?

Gloria in a tanning bed, American Exhibition, Bianale, Venice

This ATM/Organ made, well, organ sounds each time I pressed a button! Scary and ominous!

We amble back to “the Fish” (Brett’s hostel), not wanting to send Brett back to work. We stop in at a few other pavilions and take lots of photos. We even take one of the 50 cent gondolas that pops you across the canal just to do it. As soon as we land back at the Fish, Brett is back to work. He’s too busy for chatting, serving dinner and running is Sangria-cum-Lemonade stand.

Luckily, we meet the charming Noeleen. I like her instantly. Having recently relinquished her job in Dublin, she is doing a month’s worth of traveling around Europe. She’s a Graphic Designer and is going to be dropping off her portfolio at some agencies she’s eyeing in Amsterdam and Berlin. She genuine and kind, amiable and easy to talk to. One of those few rare finds on a trip, a real friend. We’re all interested in art and she’s passionate about the frescoes in Padua she’s going to see the next day and finding new shoes to walk around in because her flats aren’t cutting it.

I decide I want one more day in Venice to draw, so we leave our opulent room for one of the dorms in the same building the next day. We leave mid morning for one more drawing session. After hopping around trying to find a good spot, we find an unknown piazza in Venice (to us) and enjoy lemon sodas at a café while we draw.

View of canal from Campo di S.S. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice Italy

My take on the canal by S.S. Giovanni e Paolo

Close up view of the scene, canal by Campo di S.S. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice

Eric's take on the scene

After a few hours we walk through town a bit more. We witness a high speed chase of police and knock-off purse dealers. The only Africans in town are selling knock-off high-end bags. You can see them lay out their wares on canvas squares with strings tied to the ends of each corner. They hold the strings loosely while they hawk their wares. This way, if the police show up (eager to bust them for counterfeits), they can just pull the string and all their purses swoop up easily to run.

Three incredibly fast men zoom within inches of us with a plain clothes and uniformed cop on their tails. They round a corner so we don’t know if they get away. But then, a few moments later, we see the plain clothes cop come back, mountains of purses in his arms. Another woman in plain clothes meets up with him and they both pull out walkie-talkies. A sting operation! It’s not over yet though, we see one of the black men come back, “Aspetta! Aspetta!”, Wait! Wait! In my baby Italian I glean that he is asking for his bags back. Eric and I are stunned! How can he have been running for his life, moments ago, and now be back, demanding his illegal bags? That’s Italy man. Inconsistent.

We walk back through the beloved Piazza S. Marco for just a bit more sketching. We have a go at the curly San Maria della Salute.

San Maria della Salute, Venice

Eric's beautiful version of S. Maria della Salute

My take on S. Maria della Salute, Venice

We were seated on the edge of a bridge and so many tourists pass by and comment on us. One man takes a picture of Eric drawing. Why? He doesn’t know him. Oh well.

As a special treat we take the water bus all the way up the Grand Canal, and all the way back down just to see the whole town.

The Grande Canale at sunset

One girl on the water bus, obviously American-tattoos up and down her legs, bleached bouffant hair and piercings- is talking with her Mom about how pictures of Venice don’t do it justice. She says it’s a hundred million times more amazing than the photos. It’s absolutely true I think. The boat driver is fascinated by the tattoos on her legs.

Boats going about their business on the Grande Canal

Yes, those red and white striped poles are for real.

Green speed boat, photo by Eric

Sunset over the Grande Canal, Venice

We head back to the Fish for our last dinner there. But where’s Brett? He’s been sent to work at the one of the other hostels! Will he be joining for the pub crawl? Probably…hmm. We were questioning whether we were going to go out. We have to say bye to Il Piccolissimo though, so we head out with Noeleen and the other fishes to San Margherita square. It’s a long walk, but it’s worth it. We get to know Noeleen better and wind our way through unseen parts of Venice.

When we get to San Margherita Square we find out where every hipster in Venice hangs out (and everyone between the ages of 17 and 30). We finally find Brett and have some more Spritz. We finish the night on the docks (of course) and more chatting. Brett is tired from a strenuous work day and happy to take it easy with us. He and I share some really good conversation and it makes me even more sad that we’ll be leaving tomorrow. We end the night with big hugs and see you soons to Brett and Noeleen. Hopefully we’ll end up in Berlin with Noeleen, and Brett plans to join us in Paris. Not a sad goodbye but the promise of future hangouts and more travels. A happier ending couldn’t be asked for.

Brett, me and Eric at the docks on our last night

I do so love Venice, as busy and touristy, old and crumbly as it is. I would move there right away if there was anything, anything to do there besides hospitality. I know it’s not my last time, but I won’t be seeing it again for a while which makes me pine for it harder. I could happily while away the rest of my days drawing every tiny canal in the city; every boat and bridge and never be bored. It’s got my kind of charm; old, full of life lived, character, a little bit of decaying opulence. A dignity in the test of time this city that shouldn’t exist, has withstood. A city such as this inspires me-look at what humanity has done. Cities on water! How? But it’s real! There are no cars in Venice and life still goes on. And I’m sure people are happier for it. I make mental itineraries of the future visits I will have to comfort myself. We’re off the Florence next-I’ve never been so the excitement of an undiscovered place is renewing.

Next stop Florence!

<3 Chelsea

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