Published: 18 June 2009
We’d been traipsing around Venice for a few days. It being our second visit to the floating city, this stopover gave us enough time to become intimate with its magic. From your first view of the Grand Canal, you quickly realize that this place can seduce you in an instant. In evidence, I recall Maria Elena crying when she stepped from the Santa Lucia rail station and for the first time took in the panorama before her – the greened patina dome of San Simeone Piccolo, the Ponte degli Scalzi (Bridge of the Barefoot) off to the left, and of course, the Grand Canal itself laid out before her. This magic is especially true at night along any of Venice’s many quiet deserted calle, shadowy street cafés and throughout its labyrinth of tangled streets. Masked illusion? Somewhat, but play blind-man’s-bluff in this town and you could end up in the drink in no time!
Thus far into our visit we had been busy ... ~ In Saint Mark’s Square one late night, we had experienced what I might best describe as the dueling orchestras from the Cafes Florian, Lavena and Quadri. Each competed for our attention, one taking turn following the other, as we shifted with the bystanders from one to the next and then returned once again for another round. With Wagner and the like, this was magical old-world at its best.
~ High atop the nearby Campanile di San Marco (bell tower), we’d witnessed the expanse of the aqua-city from St Mark’s Basilica all the way round to the Doge Palace and in the process were deafened by the bone jarring clang of its bells, just feet above our heads, as they struck the hour. Ever turn on your surround sound system and jump in reaction to an excessive volume setting? Not even a close second. At over 100 decibels, this cacophony could loosen your fillings!
~ On Murano, the glass blowing studio we visited hadn’t cooperated at all. They had literally refused to demonstrate their techniques, since as was explained to us, the Chinese were especially notorious in their industrial espionage of late – did we look Chinese?
~ In an hour just before dusk, we had managed to even fit in a gondola ride, complete with velvet pillows, song and blanket. We’d missed doing this on our earlier visit.
~ On Isola di San Michele, we stood un-noticed and watched quietly as an elderly patron entered the tiniest of buildings and made her payment for ‘perpetual’ electrical lighting of a loved ones grave, marveled at the ceramic picture plates on the tombs of the interned, watched again from a distance as the bones of some long departed Venetian were removed to make room for a new inhabitant and gave up our own space to make way for the well dressed crowds continually arriving for the next funeral ceremony. It was clear that here the dead were never alone.
~ We had sampled the fare. The tiramisu, this city’s dessert of record, was fabulous. The sepia pasta, however, a favorite recommended by our gondolier in fact, dowsed as it was with black as coal cuttlefish ink, blackening both our mouths and table napkins. This delicacy would take much getting used too and require far more time than we had. We decided to try it again in our next lives!
We had seen and experienced much thus far but there was more ahead, especially the much anticipated “Doge Palace Secret Itineraries Tour”, unknowingly to us at the time, destined to be by far the most memorable and talked about moment of our trip.
All this time, we were staying on Venice’s southern flank in the Dorsoduro district at the Palazzo Guardi on Calle del Pistor, a few boat lengths down this narrow canal from Squero de San Trovaso, where they still make and repair gondolas. After the Murano experience, I wondered whether most of the new ones, nowadays, came from China! The Guardi was also just a short walk and a few turns from the Galleria dell'Accademia and that most temporary of all bridges, Ponte dell'Accademia, the Academia Bridge. You may have developed a feel for the word ‘temporary’, but I doubt that it comes close to its Italian version. It seems that this bridge was to serve only as an interim foot bridge across the Grand Canal, with a more permanent structure to follow. I learned it was constructed in 1932 and is the youngest of the four main city bridges. Indeed, the intention of short-term use is evident from its plain wooden construction and is a far cry from the imposing and permanency of stone, for which Italian architecture and indeed its sibling bridges are known. Yet through all the intervening years, through good and bad times, replacement and repairs, it has stood in re-definement of the word temporary! Situated right where the bridge deposits you on Dorsoduro, the Academia is a treasure showcase of works by all the great Venetian masters. It houses the largest such collection in the world and stands in testament to the glory that was once Venice.
From outside of our door, adjacent to Taverna San Trovaso on the small canal flowing alongside Fondamenta Priuli, we enjoyed early morning walks, just about circling our entire island. We would leisurely make our way along the broad watery flats of Canale della Giudecca to Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute at one end of Dorsoduro and then catch a vaporetto water shuttle back down the Grand Canal to the Academia Bridge, all in time for breakfast.
I especially liked places where you would wait for the vaporetto ferry boats. Inside these bobbing shelters you could sit on the benches and marinate in the atmosphere anytime. Here the character of its people was evident in the spooning young couples nearby or better yet in the octogenarian couple clutching a bouquet of flowers, arms interlaced, undoubtedly on their way to Isola di San Michele (cemetery island). Each couple totally internalized and oblivious to everything including the ferry routes so neatly displayed overhead. Go ahead and malign the Italians all you want, but not their train and ferry systems, that is, when they aren’t on strike!
And then the day arrived for the Doge Palace tour (Itinerari Segreti del Palazzo Ducale). It was here that the Venetian government’s seat of power had resided for 700 years and this tour intended to highlight the history and inner workings of the Venetian republic by leading us through multiple rooms and council chambers, otherwise off limits but for this tour.
We saw the offices of the Grand Council and the prison cells, some below water line, called the “wells, which was not good if you were a prisoner during flood season. The most moving moment though, was passing over the Bridge of Sighs and imagining being led to a cell. A torture room, known as the “Chamber of Torment” with balcony viewing areas was another highlight along with a hallway where incriminating notes, surreptitiously dropped through a stone faced mouth opening in the wall, where read by three judges (two being insufficient because of the possibility of bribes, but to be able to bribe three ...). This must have been where the “drop-a-dime” on your buddy had originated, yet unlike our system, here there was sever punishment for a frivolous change.
The most interesting part of the tour by far was the almost tabloid storyline related to the palaces most renowned inmate, Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798). Casanova, a most colorful historical character, endured careers as a lawyer, military officer, and violinists all the while refining the skills needed for his most noteworthy avocation as gambler and renowned womanizer. These later lifelong pursuits got the attention of the Venetian inquisitors, and without a trial, into the Doge prisons primarily in “public outrage against the most holy religion”. We got to enter the cell where Casanova was incarcerated and walked his supposed escape route through the lead roofed attic just off the armory. It was only later that I learned that his cell was a reproduction.
The tour itself was just fine. It was our guide which made it sooooo memorable and not in a positive sense. We still laugh about it because if ever there was a contest, she’d walk away, hands down, with the crown for nastiest tour guide of all times. Surprisingly, we never got her name and we haven’t a picture of her either. She must have given us her name but none of us can recall it now. We will, however, never forget her in our memory’s eye for she was a real piece of work.
That day she wore a sweat shirt which read, “I Love NY”. When asked how she liked her visit to New York – she replied, “not at all”. She preferred France she said and this at a time when the US was boycotting french fries! This immediately put us off on the wrong foot! The tour was yet young, had we been prematurely judgmental? We soon learned, not at all – clearly there must be some truth to the accuracy of a first impression.
Her countenance was somewhere between that of an Ava Braun character and a Brunhilda, of the stereotypical prison guard type persona. Her authoritarian voice was a combination of TV’s prison camp commandant, Colonel Klink, and that woman on the bicycle in the Wizard of Oz! A regular Nazi control freak if ever there was one! In fact, she may have been related to the “Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld but there I go with TV analogies again.
At the top of some palatial staircase, she declared that no more photos were allowed from here on, but then, if someone didn’t take one. “I said no more photos!” We should have known right then what lay ahead for us. I was surprised she didn’t demand the film right then and there or for the digital brand of malefactor, that as a minimum, it be erased while she watched! And to think, the tour was still young!
“Don’t touch” she’d bellow with a klaxon-like shrillness and certainly don’t even think about ever leaning on the walls! I’m surprised we were permitted to breathe. Maybe she hadn’t yet thought of demanding shallower breaths!
As a form of subliminal torture, seeing you are on your feet for a few hours, was the total denial of any rest or even someplace to sit down. Everything was roped off. “Keep moving, keep moving ...” commanded the commandant. Forget about water-boarding, I was willing to confess to just about anything right then!
God forbid if you touched something and she saw you. This did happen. There was a child in the group who was monitored and corrected constantly. We soon discovered that she had three eyes, two on the adults and one on the child! I remember one poor fellow, an Indian or Pakistani I think, who did touch the walls at the top of the stairs. It was at this point that the official tour began and where her latest attempt to control us ... “No photographs beyond this point” was issued. He may have been having a difficult time absorbing and categorizing all the restrictions and ‘non farlo’ at that moment and forgot her very first imperative, “don’t touch the valls”! After a while, I mused that she may have been one of Casanova’s guards and was still smarting because he’d escaped and marred some surfaces along his escape route.
Maria Elena has for years accused me of not obeying rules and can’t imagine how I could have served in the military which is a hierarchy of rules and rulers. It would take a lot of couch sessions to accurately ID the problem. I sometimes wonder myself but at least in the military they let you occasionally bomb something! It must have something to do with being so constrained throughout my career that every so often, I rebel in mutiny of the repression. This was indeed one of those occasions. Some people have post traumatic stress syndrome and me, well I have an incurable case of authority disorder of the “I can’t take it any more” variety.
So it came to pass that toward the end of the tour as the correction and haranguing began to take its toll, I would protest as a sort of civil disobedience whenever I had the chance. Rebellion is my only therapy. With all the smoke-and-mirror deception and masked illusion this great floating city is known for and where subterfuge and disguised revelers were always an essential element of its life, how could I resist? I’d just about caress the woodwork, walls or whatever as we obediently followed our Fuhrer from palace room to room, encouraged by the supportive smiles of my fellow tour-mates, who apparently, in solidarity, must have felt my actions were a form of a class action protest on their behalf as well. I surly thought it was.
So if you ever embark on the “Mysteries of the Doge Palace Tour” be sure to ask for the nastiest guide of them all (they’ll most likely know who you mean) and enjoy the constant scolding, but uppermost of all, don’t touch the valls!
Thanks for reading,
The Rogue Tourist
For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Doge Venice”.