Suddenly there's water on both side of my train. I lean out the window and take a deep inhalation of tangy lagoon air. I love this approach to Venice. The mucky, marshy last bits of the Italian mainland give way to the island's umbilical causeway: train tracks and a highway. Ahead in the ha y distance, tilting bell towers wink their welcome. St. Mark's distinctive bell tower, the city's grandest, is on the far side of the island, but even from the train, it seems close by. Venice is a small town on a small island. The morning sun sprinkles diamonds on the Adriatic, as if to promise visitors they're in for a rich experience.
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The Venice train station stands like a bulldog facing the exotic Grand Canal. For new arrivals, the steps of the station provide a springboard from which to dive into a fanciful world. A hardworking vaporetto—one of the big floating buses that serve as public transportation on Venice's canals— glides by. I hop on and struggle past groups of Italians deep in conversation, gesturing intensely into each other's sunglasses. Gradually, I make my way to the front of the boat as it winds down the Grand Canal to the center of town at Pia a San Marco. Somewhere along the way I stand up, only to hear the captain yell, "Sit down!" It's great to be in Italy. Riding like an ornament on the bow of the vaporetto, I take photographs I'm sure I've taken on previous visits. Venice—so old and decrepit—always feels new to me.
This boat ride always settles me into Venetian time. Clock towers from an age before minute hands chime la ily near the top of each hour. They remind me that a sure way to be lonely inVenice is to expect your Italian friends to be on time. When mine show up late, they shrug. "Venetian time," they say.
Leaping from boat to dock, I feel like a stagehand in Italy's grandest open-air theater as singing porters wheel their carts. Cooing pigeons, jostling lanes, inky forgotten canals, ritual caf s, vested waiters, pia a schoolyards—there are pastel views in every direction.
Reaching the black door of the hotel I call home here, I push a bron e lion's nose. This brings Piero to the second- floor window. "Ciao, Reek!" he booms, and bu es the door open. I climb the steps eager to settle in.
Piero, who runs the hotel, shaved his head five years ago. His girlfriend wanted him to look like Michael Jordan. With his operatic voice, he reminds me more ofYul Brynner. "My voice is guilty of my love for opera," he says.
Renovating the hotel, Piero discovered 17th-century frescoes—from its days as a convent—on the walls in several rooms. A wooden prayer kneeler, found in the attic and unused for generations, decorates a corner of my room. Where the whitewash is peeled away, I see aqua, ocher and lavender floral patterns. In Venice, behind the old, the older still peeks through.
When Piero's cellphone rings, he rolls his eyes then talks into it as if overwhelmed with work: "Si, si, si, va bene ["that's fine"], va bene, va bene, certo ["exactly"], certo, bello, bello, bello, bello, bello ["beautiful," in descending pitch], si, si, OK, va bene, va bene, OK, OK, OK, ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao." He hangs up. "The night manager," he explains. "Always problems. I call him my nightmare manager."
Walking me to the window and tossing open the blind, Piero says, "Venice is a little city. Only a village, really. About 60,000 people live on this island." He continues: "I am Venetian in my blood. Not Italian. We are just one century Italian. Our language is different. The life here is another thing. It is with no cars, only boats. I cannot work in another town. Venice is boring for young people—no disco, no nightlife. It is only beautiful. Venetian people are travelers. Remember Marco Polo? But when we come home, we know this place is the most beautiful. Venice. It is a philosophy to live here . . . the philosophy of beauty."
I walk to the square that Napoleon, it is said, described as "Europe's finest drawing room"—Pia a San Marco. The exotic basilica of St. Mark's overlooks the huge square. On the basilica, a winged lion stands at regal attention while gilded and marble angels and saints, including the head of St. Mark himself, bless the tourists below.
The cathedral, a richly decorated mess of mosaics, domes, mismatched columns and proud Catholic statuary, is more ornate than most of the orderly buildings that define the square. Simple neo-Classical halls stand like stern school mistresses overseeing a vast playground filled with people and pigeons. Marble columns, arches and porticoes border three sides of the square. As if Venice were still a powerful city-state, the cathedral's red brick bell tower stands three times as tall as the other buildings on the square.
When I lead tours in Venice, I like to approach Pia a San Marco through tiny alleys. That way, I can pop the charms of the square on them like the sudden burst of a champagne cork.The sight of tired faces lighting up is my reward. I'll never forget the woman who broke into tears. Her husband had dreamed of seeing Venice with her but died too soon. Now, she said, she was here for both of them.
Today, I'm alone, kicking at the pigeons like a carefree kid kicks October leaves. A dog charges in and the air is suddenly filled with the birds. But the dog's task is hopeless and, within seconds, they are back in full force. Kids join in, flapping imaginary wings.
These pigeons are a problem. The locals call them "rats with wings" and complain of laundry put out wet and clean only to be collected covered with pigeon droppings. Early in the morning, local crews shoot nets over the square catching piles of these birds. But still they fill the square.
Two café orchestras wage a musical tug of war to entice strollers to sit down and order a pricey drink. It's Paganini, ma urkas and Gershwin versus Gypsy violin serenades, Sinatra and Manilow.
Venice got its start as a kind of refugee camp. Sixth-century farmers from the mainland, sick and tired of being overrun by barbarians, got together and—hoping the marauders didn't take to water—moved onto the island.
Above the door to St. Mark's, a mosaic celebrates the day in the ninth century that Venice made it onto the religious map of Europe. The bones of St. Mark were "rescued" (as local historians put it) from Egypt in 828 and buried under Venice's basilica. The mosaic shows the exciting event: saints carry Mark's relics into the basilica, already glittering well beyond its importance.A grumpy Mark glares out at the noisy line of tourists waiting to get into his church.
While many of them will be turned away for wearing shorts, I scoot right by the decency guards and climb a straight flight of stone steps to the loggia of the basilica, high above the square. It's a long-view balcony with a pitted pink marble banister held in place by rusty iron support rods. Four huge and regal horses stand in the middle, as if enjoying this grandest of Venetian views.
From this peaceful perch I find my own one—a place where I can be alone, surveying the greatness of Venice. While pondering the crowds filling Pia a San Marco below me, I close my eyes. The caf orchestra stops, and I hear only a white noise of people. With no cars, this audio mash is broken only by the rare whistle, snee e or cry of a baby.
Piazza San Marco sits in the lowest partofVenice.From atopthechurch,I spot small puddles—flood buds— forming around drainage holes in the paving stones. When wind and tide combine at this northern end of the Adriatic Sea, the acqua alta (high water) hits. About 30 times a year, mostly in the winter, Venice floods. Squares sprout elevated wooden walkways, locals pull on their rubber boots and life goes on. Today's puddles will recede almost unnoticed. And most visitors assume the scattered bits of walkway are benches, offering a convenient place to rest between the city's great sights.
A young man lifts his sweetheart onto the banister between me and the bron e horses. As the couple hugs, I turn away and scan the square, filled with people. Most are with someone. Like rocks in a river, every once in a while pairs of lovers interrupt the flow. Wrapped in a deep embrace and knee- deep in their own love, they savor their own private Venice.
Each hour, bells ring everywhere, overwhelming the caf orchestras and filling the square like droning Buddhist gongs. Across the pia a, from atop the clock tower, two bron e Moors stand like blacksmiths at an anvil, whacking out the hours as they have for centuries.
WHENEVER POSSIBLE, I do non-touristy things in touristy towns. In Venice, rather than visit a glass blower, I visit a barber. Today I'm shaggy enough for a visit to Benito, my longtime Venetian barber. He runs his shop on a peaceful lane hiding out a few blocks from San Marco. Singing and serving his customers champagne, he wields his scissors with an artist's flair. For ten years, he's been my connection to behind-the-scenes Venice.
Hopping onto the old-time barber's chair, I marvel that I don't need an appointment for such a fine barber. Benito wears a white smock, a smirk and a bushy head of curly black hair. He's short and pudgy and needs a haircut more than any of his customers. Holding his scissors in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, he's hard to take seriously. But he always has something interesting to say.
When I mention the empty buildings lining the Grand Canal, he says, "Venice is not sinking. It is shrinking. We have only half the people now than we had in 1960."
"Who stays?" I ask.
"Mostly the rich," he answers. "You must have money to live on the island. It is very expensive. Only the top class stays. The old rich are the people of nobility. They must do everything correctly. The women, they cannot step outside without their hair and their clothes perfect. Remember there are no cars to hide in. We are a village. You step outside and everybody see you. The new rich, they have only money . . . without the nobility."
"Who are the new rich?"
"The people who work with the tourists. They own the hotels, the restaurants, glass factories and the gondolas."
"Gondoliers are rich?" I ask.
"My god," says Benito, "they can make €550 [$750] a day. And this is clean money—no tax."
I ask Benito how the old-time art of Venetian glass blowing survives.
Like a painter studying his canvas, Benito si es me up in the mirror. Then, as if he dipped his scissors into just the right corner of his palette, he attacks my hair. "Glass blowing is like a mafia," he says. "Ten years ago the business was very lucky. Rich Japanese, Americans and Arabian sheiks made this industry big in Venice. We Venetians like glass, but not those red, green and blue gilded Baroque teacups. Those are for the tourists.
"We like a simple, elegant, very light glass." He stops to take a floating- pinkie sip from a sleek champagne glass. "This feels light. It is very nice. In Venice you can count the masters on one hand. All the other glass people, they are sharks."
Benito snaps the cape in the air, sending my cut hair flying as I put my glasses back on and check his work.
As is our routine after each haircut, he says, "Ahhh, I make you Casanova." And
I answer, as always: "Grazie, Michelangelo."