Thursday, July 12, 2012

First Views of Venice

One of the more familiar views of Venice, taken yesterday evening
A couple of days ago, 10 July, marked precisely the 30th anniversary of the day I first laid eyes on Venice. I know this because 11 July 1982 was the date of the Italian national soccer team's triumph over Germany in the 1982 World Cup Final and I was here for it, not knowing really anything about Venice or Italy or the World Cup (though I'd played soccer in high school for 2 years in California).

I was 17, had just graduated from a small accademically-suspect Catholic high school, and was traveling with a large group of other high school students from my hometown. It was either a 21- or 24-day tour of Europe: Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London, Munich, Paris, Brienz, Florence, Bruges, and Venice--not in that order (and perhaps I've missed a stop). Largely ignorant, as I've mentioned in a previous post, of both history and geography, my primary concerns on the trip were seeing places as different from my hometown as possible, alcohol and girls.

Not quite in that order. 

Though a female classmate of mine would many years later tell me that she received her first real kiss on the Rialto Bridge from an ecstatic young Italian stranger passionately celebrating Italy's World Cup victory--she'd been going out with my cousin at the time for at least a year (sorry, cuz)--nothing so dramatic happened to me.

I don't, as one might imagine, have any recollection of seeing the interior of San Marco for the first time. I don't remember something so obvious as Santa Maria della Salute. I don't even remember the Chamber of the Great Council in Palazzo Ducale.

Instead, I remember the Armory there, as I took a photo of the suit of armor that once belonged to Henri IV. (I had no idea who he was, but I liked his gear.) And I remember the view of the Riva looking east, as I also took a photo of that out of a nearby palace window. 

I remember being given the dire news while on some forgotten type of boat (not a gondola), that the city's population was steadily declining due to the lack of work for young people in the lagoon. This in 1982.

I remember how overwhelmingly fetid the canals were in the sweltering heat.

(Just the other day some older Venetians Jen was talking with on Lido complained that the canals smelled only about "one-tenth as bad" as they did a couple of decades ago--almost as if less raw sewage in the canals benefitted only those persnickety tourists.)

I remember my disbelief at the narrowness of the calli, and my unexpected pleasure at looking out the little window of my little hotel room and finding a rough sea of red tile roofs stretching out before me, scores of crooked tv antennae like the skeletal masts of ghost ships.

I remember being so impressed by a night-time ride in a gondola that I'd insist for years after that night was the only time to take a gondola ride--though I had no other time to compare it to.

I remember the faint smell of leather that came out of shops. I remember the thick plastic Cinzano and thin metal Martini plaques attached to the back of every outdoor cafe chair on the north side of the Piazza. (I was able to surreptitiously remove one of the Martini plaques--now lost--but not one of the more appealing Cinzano.)

I remember our hotel was in one of the dark calli that branch off the north side of the Piazza, but I don't remember its name, or location, or which calle. I remember that going to or coming from it I saw the red banner of the lace school on a nearby parallel bridge, and how exotic it looked to me.

I wish I could remember more about the shops I saw, what the people who worked in them were like, how many of the people around me seemed to be tourists, how many seemed to be locals.

When I stand in the Piazzetta dei Leoncini today--one of the few places I clearly remember having lingered in 30 years ago--I can't remember anything like the number of people in it back then that there are today. But perhaps I am misremembering.

In short, I remember disappointingly little about Venice from my first visit 30 years ago. I'm sure we were here for two days and I suspect two nights, but I somehow seem to have missed all of the art and pretty much all of the architecture. Unlike other cities on the tour, no adventures return to me from the dark corners of memory: no nocturnal roaming, not even any particular bars or meals or flirtations.

I did not fall in love with the city at first sight. I did not feel at home in it almost immediately, in its very oddness, as I later would during my first trip to late 1980s New York City.

There were no hints, in other words, that I would ever return. That I would ever have any particular desire to ever return.

So that there seems to be nothing for me to learn from thinking about my first experience of the city in relation to my more recent move here except a general lesson that, if we are lucky, we have no idea of how we may change over the years or the surprising turns that our lives may take.

I say "if we are lucky" because I shudder to think of what my life would be like if I had entirely remained the know-it-all/know-nothing numbskull I was at 17.

For it seems that much as we might imagine otherwise, we often have no idea of what exactly it might be good for us to wish for ourselves. Or at least I didn't. And don't. 

I wonder what other people's first views of Venice were like. Would anyone like to reveal them in the comments section? Were you well prepared? Were you surprised? Could you not wait to return?


  1. A serendipitous post, here we have a lottery, that when it gets over 10 Million in prize pool, advertises with views of the Grand Canal, and the question what where would you be?
    My first sighting of La Serinisima was 34 years ago, April or May for 2 days, and I fell head over heals. We stayed in a hotel in Canneregio near the Station, it was pleasant and the area was not teaming with tourists. We went for late afternoon walk, no guide just exploring/ stretching legs after a train ride.
    I was seduced by soft light on water, reflecting on buildings, a pinkness, a bridge to a new experience of colour all caused by the water. And then another bridge. I felt I was tripping, however the Engineer (my DH)was scouting places to eat, and was disappointed they were mainly German influenced- schnitzel or Milanese. Not that the Engineer would try Soar or baccala but.
    So thirty years later I spent a week with daughter in Venice.
    I am still not sated.
    My first impressions of the Grand Canal - what a tired old lady, then you take a night ride and boy does the old girl sparkle under lights. I found my neighbourhood on the last morning of my stay. So a week is not long enough.
    I could not recapture my first trip ( and it was drug free!) there were new experiences. And a week is too too short.
    So those people fortunate enough to spend longer in Venice, Keep posting I do appreciate every post and pictures,
    So until my numbers come up, I will be an avid blog reader.

    1. I find it so interesting, Anna, that the things you 1st mention as drawing you in (having to do with light) are the kinds of things that are almost impossible to reproduce in images: you can't really know the light of Venice until you're here. While the famous Grand Canal we all know (& which is used on the lottery) disappointed you at 1st, in the daylight at least.
      After I had come to love--and have to leave Venice--in 1991, it was the impossibility of getting a real "feel" of Venice from almost any photo or video that I found so frustrating.

      And, wow, you stayed not far from the Station 34 yrs ago and yet the area wasn't teeming with tourists! I think that has certainly changed.

      I'd also forgotten the Schnitzel places! But now that you mention it, I'm almost certain that's what I would have eaten here in '82, as I seemed to have lived on it throughout all of Europe on that trip.

      What is your particular Venetian neighborhood, by the way?

      Thanks so much for this account.

    2. I have put in a request to adopt Blu Oscar, his last post did a reasonable job at capturing what I remembered from long ago. However for some reason I have always liked Canaletto paintings. Often these paintings were looked at in books but I liked them, and he did a reasonable job at getting the light. And that's what I felt, I was in a Canaletto painting.
      My parents had friends from the Venezia region, I think one may have been my god parent, couldn't understand a word they said, especially when they were telling a joke. Usually burst out laughing long before the sentence was finished.
      On our first trip after a year of travel, we got very good at avoiding crowds, you skirt the periphery and seek the locals' hangouts.
      My "disappointment" with the Grand Canal on my second trip was I think shock at the state of the buildings.
      Second trip we stayed in Santa Croce, and luckily I woke early to take a first look before leaving. I found the area around Fundamenta Malcanton. And I watched Venice garbos going about their business.

    3. I agree with you about Blu Oscar, I think he does a really great job at capturing Venice, its light, its feel. I think his photos are really amazing and beautiful. (And not only of Venice, of course.)

      Did you grow up in Italy or near Italy? Do you know Italian?

      I have to check out Fondamenta Malconton. I generally know the area, but I can't place it specifically. San Pantalon is nearby and I can imagine the next campiello on the way toward F Malconton (as a friend lives there), but then I can't quite picture what comes once one passes a barbershop on a corner. It will be fun to find out.

  2. BTW the Engineer has no idea of my buying real estate in Venice so SSSHHHHHH.

    1. And won't that be the most pleasant of surprises!

      Does the Engineer also like Venice?

    2. No the Engineer has no interest in Venice. BUT he has been reading the Greeks- plays, histories, wars etc etc and thats a little way down the coast.
      He's moving on to the Romans now, give him a couple of years to discover the Doges ;)

      BTW my virus scan has problems with your blog, but I don't.

    3. If he's on to the Romans now, then the nearness of Verona and its marvelous colosseum (just 1 hour away from Venice by train!) should make it extremely easy to convince him to come to Venice soon. For Roman history even closer to Venice, you need go know further than Mazzorbo, which was during Roman times, according to Jan Morris, the location of "a celebrated shrine to Belenus." How can he refuse?

      I'm sorry to hear your virus scan has issues with my blog--I wonder what that's about & maybe I should look into it--but am glad to hear you don't.

  3. I first saw Venice in early November 2001. I’d nagged - almost to the point of bullied - my husband to take me to Venice for 10 days. He’d been there once before as part of 4 months travelling in his early 20’s– and I think been a bit under-whelmed so wasn’t that keen to return.
    I have no idea why I felt so drawn, almost to the point of desperation, to visit– but I’m so glad my nagging worked! Travelling 24 hours from Australia for such a short European visit was then (and still is) considered almost a bit mad. But it was all the time we had and Venice it had to be.

    Like most of us, I thought I knew what to expect; canals, gondolas and amazing buildings – but wow – Venice was just so breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful on that first visit I completely lost my heart to her luminous charms.
    I’ve never forgotten that first trip in from the airport (in an extravagant motoscafi) with the glimmering water, low-slung islands and the campanile rising out of the mist. Nor have I ever forgotten my first view of an almost empty Piazza on that first foggy evening, the narrow deserted calle in Dorsoduro leading to our tiny apartment, a particularly spectacular meal in the sunshine in Campo San Angelo, and how – from the very moment I arrived – I felt just so ‘at home’.

    I now have 10 visits worth of memories and Venice is a significant part of our lives. We wish it could be more permanent - maybe one day I dream – and yes – I still cry every time I leave.

    1. Alilaguna from the airport is quite nice, but, Mary, a motoscafo from the airport is really truly the way to do it! What a fantastic way to come into Venice for the first time!

      When we moved here in Nov 2010 we felt "compelled" to take a motoscafo from the airport because of the number of bags we had, and I wish I more often felt compelled to do such things. As expensive as it was, it really seemed worth every centesime.

      How wonderful, too, that after looking forward to it so much, the city was even better than you'd imagined. It's strange how some places seem just right right from the start.

      Tears upon departure should entitle you to some special visitor/quasi-resident status!

      I'm assuming your husband now likes Venice nearly as much as you or are you simply irrefutably persuasive?

    2. I am firmly of the belief that the (outrageous) cost of the motoscafo is, if at all possible, the best way to arrive for the first time. We, however, now take the bus! But - if we're meeting people at the airport who are visiting for the first time we splurge and pay for the trip in that way..... having taken the bus out!

      And yes - Jon is now as enamoured as I am - but I'm pretty persuasive as well!

    3. What marvelous hosts you are! Now I'm trying to figure out how I might show up at the airport & convince you that I'm visiting for the first time.

  4. It was February, 1980, and my husband and I arrived by train, from Amsterdam. I remember being quite thrilled when we went through Verona and Padua, those names from literature and geography really did exist! Our 17 year old son was studying Italian in Perugia, and he met us in Venice, acting as our interpreter.

    We walked out of the train station to be hit by that first view of Venice ... water, boats, the lovely sound of people chatting in Italian (or was it Venetian?)We turned left from the station, and Kirk soon found us rooms in the Terminus Hotel, which is now the Bellini.

    I know we went to San Marco, because I have photos of my son and me under one of those four horses. Little did I know, they were the originals! I can't remember much else, to be honest. The weather was cool, great for walking. We ate at a couple of restaurants by water, but whether it was the Grand canal or others, who knows?

    There was nothing about that stay that foreshadowed the deep affection I would develop for that city. My next visit was in 2008, and it was then that the seeds were planted, watered and fertilised.

    Like Mary, I wear dark glasses when it's time to leave, and my heart never fails to skip a beat or two as I approach the city by plane, water or land.

    What a complicated temptress is Venice.

  5. Wow, Yvonne, 28 years between your first & second visit! So you, like me, didn't seem to be one of those people who visit the city once and know that they must see it again ASAP. And the fact that you--who I now think of as hardly overlooking a detail in the city--don't have a load of detailed memories from your 1st visit makes me feel like my 17-yr-old was perhaps slightly less dull than I thought.

    It's a puzzling & interesting thing to see how a place one comes to love can make relatively little impression at first--complicated indeed. (I guess it may be the same with people, too?) That both you and Mary have such a strong attachment to the city, but such different first experiences....

  6. My first trip to Venice was part of a "Best of Italy" packaged tour with 6 members of my family. I was so excited to finally get to visit Rome and Florence, and had little to no interest in Venice. We were only in Venice for 2 nights but it was my favorite part of the whole trip, and I came home so eager to return to Venice ASAP! Rome and Florence were fun but paled in comparison. I wasn't expecting to fall in love with Venice, what a surprise.

    1. Once again, Annie, I find it so interesting to hear how we think we know what we like and what's really going to set us on fire only to have someplace else completely seize our imagination. It seems like one of the best things about life to me--not least of all when, as in your story, it involves Venice.

  7. I never had the slightest interest in visiting Venice, as Florence was the be all of Italy for me. However, on one trip to Italy, accompanied by two friends and my Italian-born mother-in-law (who has resided in Hollister CA most of her life), we decided to go to Venice for a day and a half. That was all it took for me. I found a way to have an afternoon to myself and just soaked it in.

    The first time I took my husband to Italy, we started in Venice but now we start in Rome, visiting family (who have never been to Venice BTW); we make our way to Venice via Florence, Milan (more family), a day or two in Verona, and then at least a week in Venice. We always say "next trip....different places", but it doesn't happen. This past March, our Milan relatives took us to Certosa di Pavia and to Vigevano, and we've done side trips to Como and Bellagio on past trips, but when in Venice, we have yet to venture to any of the other islands (besides Lido).

    Next trip!

    1. Your account makes me wonder if a love for Venice & a love for Florence aren't somehow mutually exclusive. Not that you said you didn't like Florence, but that was the city you were looking forward to seeing & yet it's been Venice to which you always return the longest. Is it something like--to use a US example--San Francisco & Los Angeles? Does anyone love SF & LA equally? Or LA & NYC? Does anyone love Florence & Venice equally?

      It's a nice idea to try different places, but I completely understand not doing so. The route you follow from Rome to Venice, with occasional side trips, seems pretty hard to beat!

      PS I grew up not too far from Hollister & know it a little bit & am always surprised at how popular a brand by that name is, even in (or maybe especially in) Venice. (None of the people wearing the brand seem to know it's not on the Pacific.)

  8. Don't get me wrong - my favorite Italian city is still Florence. It simply speaks volumes to me, but Venice is close on its heels and I always say we can skip Verona and yet...we never do. It's a tradition to order a bottle of Quintarelli Valpolicella when we are there, usually at one of the cafes in Piazza Bra, and watch the world stroll by.

    We always do something similar in Piazza San Marco. Sometimes I wish we could afford to treat everyone who walks by, looks at the menu prices, and then moves on - how often do you get the chance to sit in that beautiful space and listen to the people, see the kids laughing and shrieking over the pigeons, listen to the band at Florian, and just take it all in? Yeh, I'm sure it's a bit of a touristy deal, but why not?

    The first city I ever visited was Milan. We arrived the day after Versace was murdered, a hot July day, and the entire city was in mourning. What an introduction. But Florence was next and I will always remember silently crying when I first glimpsed the David in the Accademia. Really brought home the history and the people of the country.

    My husband was born in Hollister and it's where we wed. We find it amusing about the clothing brand, have yet to purchase any items.

    1. Ah, so you are living proof that a love of Venice & Florence is not mutually exclusive. (I won't ask you about LA & SF).

      A friend recently asked if Verona was a "can't miss" destination & I found it hard to answer. I like Verona, but have only been once, and don't think I could appreciate it enough, as we were with our 4-year-old son whose company is not always conducive to calm observation & reflection. I certainly did not find the Verona of two American poets I like (Charles Wright, James Wright, no relation), who were there in the early '60s, but then where in the world can you find the same city today as of the early '60s? But your remarks on the city & the fact that you return to it, make me think that, yes, it is a "can't miss." Of course, you also seem to have found the best way to take in both Verona, as well as the Piazza. Thank you. I will pass your method along to him!

      (As for that clothing company: out of curiosity I looked up their website & found that their men's and women's line were labeled "Dudes" and " Bettys", respectively--which skews it a little young for me...)

  9. I saw Venice for the first time in 1996 and the experience was tarnished by my travel agent's insistence I stay in Mestre - "no rooms are available in the islands". Of course when I walked the calli and rive there were a hundred signs in the hotels' windows advertising vacant rooms. It was my first, introductory tour of Italy and I've decided to see first and read when I'm back home. Walked from Piazzale Roma to San Marco, saw everything I expected to see. Was impressed but in somehow less than inspiring way - it's great, it's here...well...OK

    The second time was more memorable. Me and my 9-year old son were moving Rome to Florence to Venice with sidetrips to Naples, Pompei, Siena and Pisa. In Florence he seemed already burned out, seen too much already. But in the last city, in Venice - a miracle. He was completely revived, eager to walk, to see, he was sparkling. "Dad, I can spend here at least a month!"
    "Doing what?""Whatever. Walking by the canals, sitting by the canals. Just living here". We stayed at the Campo Provolo, so Mestre was a distant memory, we were right at the center, out of the hotel from early morning till late at night.

    Since then I've been there again and plan to come this December and maybe spend the later years in Venice.

    1. What an awful travel agent you had! I'd read about agents who did such things, but it's hard to believe until you hear it directly from someone who, unfortunately, had the experience.

      What a great experience with your son, though. It sounds like a great trip overall but I can understand how he might get burned out--which makes his revival in Venice a bit of a miracle. He really got the sense of the city, that it's not so much specifically what you do as long as you're experiencing the city: the whole thing, every surprising calle, is the destination. Does he still want to spend a month here some day?

      I think December is a great time to be here...