A Fling with the Floating City

It was time for another passionately romantic highlight of our trip. A place that just like Paris, everyone seems to have an idea and a certain image of regardless of whether they have had a privilege of visiting and experiencing it for themselves at some point of their lives. Watery, alluring, secluded Venice… I can hear the sound of water beating against the famous and so Venetian gondolas as I’m writing this now. Water has always had a huge part to play in the history of the city and came to define it, either by pushing it to the verge of destruction and threatening its whole existence, or giving it a new lease of life and helping in promoting this idea of Venice we inherently seem to have. Water has this unique power over every living organism and here it doesn’t just serve its ordinary and customary function of maintaining our physical existence, but it also fuels the emotion and feeling of an enigmatic mystery, the one we are naturally drawn to… Venice is a quirky collaboration of man and nature and the latter always seems to have the edge over the former even if at times it may seem to have been conquered, but it is just to have her revenge in the end…
Did you know Venice consists of 117 islands? It is pretty incredible, isn’t it? Through the course of its turbulent and shaky (just as a gondolla gliding over the Adriatic Sea) history, it has been the land of long-standing conflicts and a refugee for those seeking to start a new life or making it just as secluded as all these islands. As secluded as it might have seemed to be, this kind of life would be a rollercoaster, because just as making Venice an incredible and enigmatic place as it is known to be, the collaboration of man and nature made living here both a struggle for life and a feast of it. Therefore knowing there might be to other chance, so we felt lucky to be coming here before the nature might have her final revenge and the man might lose this never-ending fight against the sea and this enigmatic miracle is submerged into oblivion never to be restored to life again… Life is too short, so don’t hesitate to come!
I don’t have to remind you we were still in Italy but I think I would make no mistake when I say Venice doesn’t really feel like Italy, which is arguably just a maze of different traditions and customs once united to be called one single country. The signs are everywhere saying “Venezia” having you guessing whether this inherent idea of it you have had up to that point and the actual reality would match. Previously I had been reflecting that solving this riddle has to be one of the most enjoyable and fascinating things about travelling. It keeps our brains busy and that’s how we know we won’t be too likely to suffer Alzheimer’s at an older age. So travelling is a fabulous way to stay young! So as I was sitting on the coach helping myself to stay young, I couldn’t quite understand how Venice (or rather my idea of it) would fit into the landscape. Would there be some dramatic change and that wow-moment you get to experience once this riddle of fantasy and reality is finally solved ? All of these had to be answered very soon as we arrive. The scenery was pretty dull and the clouds were settling in promising to make our Venice experience much different from what we had all expected it to be back home. The whole way you get to Venice makes you realize it stands out from what we had managed to get a glimpse of so far on that trip. We arrived at what looked like a docking station to get on a boat that would take us within a walking distance from the heart of the city on water. As the name suggests, it is only accessible by water. It felt incredibly stuffy as we were quieing in a very international (mostly oriental-looking) crowd to get on our boat. We were told to take our umbrellas with us to protect us against the passionate Italian (yes, we were still in Italy) sunshine while in Venice, but it looked like we would be needing them to protect us against a heavy rain. The boat felt a bit rocky and shaky but it was taking us to Venice and kept me wondering what my first glimpse of it would be like. The water was of a totally different colour than it was back in the Meditarranean. It seemed green and grey and not really inviting to swim in. But we knew we were done with swimming, for this trip anyway. There were some large vessels gliding by and I knew I had to take a picture.
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A while later, amongst the enigmatic backdrop of the grey skies and green and grey Adriatic, postcard views of the city started taking shape. There is always some kind of magic in this moment of the fantasy and reality colliding into something tangible. Bongiorno, Venice! St. Mark’s Campanille made for a beautiful reality check. I was just holding a notebook with a picture of it in my hands just the other day and here I was taking it in from a distance. But at the moment it seemed as if that photo of the notebook was part of the distant past because at the time I felt as if I was living a different kind of life, a Venetian life…
We got off our boat to find ourselves on the island of Murano famous for its glass-making factory. I never knew my first encounter of Venice would start off in this way. To come to think of it, it was pretty logical that glass should be produced here, because Venetians saw it as something reminding of water. We were shown the process of glass-making and led into a little shop selling different kinds of jewellery and a lot of other things made from glass. It was all very beautiful and we expected the price tag would be staggeringly high… There was a Russian shop assistant and she guided us through. It was funny to hear her speak with a distinct Italian accent and meeting someone Russian here made the whole experience to me seem like a tourist trap. We ended up getting some affordable things and I got myself a pair of earrings which I knew would be a lovely souvenir to take back home.
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It was now time to experience Venice the way an average tourist does. We were just at the heart of the city and pretty much what our idea of it comes down to. The view we got was the most touristic I had seen at this point and it seemed as if there were too many of us exploring the idea of Venice and we were getting in each other’s ways trying to figure out what the true Venice is. A gondolla ride has to be the highlight of an average Venice trip. It hardly escapes anyone’s list of things to do here, even though there are cheaper alternatives to exploring the Venetian canals. But I guess it’s one of those things that needs to be done anyway. Gondollas were first mentioned in the 11th century. Currently there are over 400 of them taking tourists on daily rides. Something like that had to emerge in the city with its unique geographical position. It is so much more than just a way of navigating the city, which was a tricky thing of course. Apart from a means of transportation, gondolas used to be places for secret meetings of the Venetian elite adding another mysterious as well as sometimes erotic and seductive twist to the experience. It makes you wonder what kind of secrets these insidious waters have been holding all this time. This fact should match our understanding of Italy but committing dark secrets to water with it being the only place to hide has to be purely Venetian. Using curtains to keep whatever was happening on gondolas a secret seems quite extraordinary. It adds to the idea of Venice being full of mysterious understatements. The way a gondola gently glides the waters of the canals can be seen as erotic by some and if I had known about it before my trip here, I wouldn’t have failed to see where these people came from. A gondola looks just the way we’ve seen it in endless pictures, quirkly shaped boats (mainly black) coming and going making you wonder what is going through the minds of people taking a ride and how different it is from what could have been on the minds of people taking this ride long before it became something only tourists would do. We were just about to let Venice pat our senses as we were getting on our gondola which looked rather rocky and shaky as pretty much everything else about Venice so far. As I was helped onto the boat by a gondolier and felt the boat shaking, I also felt the bottom of my dress submerging in the water as well… That was the same dress I was wearing on my final day in Paris and the one that protected me against zealous mosquittos back in Milan. I think I should make it a tradition to wear it for uniquely romantic experiences in my life if there are any to come. At this point it occurred to me that we were trusting our lives to the Venetian waters that in the end seemed to have a power over everything. We had to sit tight because the gondolla might have fallen over if we made an abrupt move. For that same reason, we were told to close our umbrellas as it started raining pretty heavily as we set out on our ride. Being on a gondolla ride in the rain would give us plenty to tell about back home. That was all about water defining where we were and what we were for the moment. It was all a very surreal experience when we got to see and smell Venice and navigate its narrow mazes of streets surrounding the canal in that pretty sensitive way as we let Venice penetrate our senses while our gondolla was penetrating its waters. In fact, there was no smell at all, contrary to what a hearsay would have us believe. Venice is also called to be a matter of faith and I think at that moment all six of us on the gondolla would agree with that, because all those buildings we saw with water dripping off our eyebrows didn’t quite seem to be touched by a hint of life. Were we all dreaming? I suspect the famous Freud would have been happy to investigate the way we were feeling. Crossing under all these bridges including the famous Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) and watching the gondolier dressed in a typical attire navigating the tight space in a quiet masculine way was incredible! Hearing him talk with a gondolier sailing nearby made me wish I spoke Italian. They might have been complaining about how tired they were of taking tourists on rides of the canals they must have seen hundreds of times before. Because of the rain, our ride seemed rather quick and was over before we knew it. Did it all happen for real? This is the question you would find yourself asking here in Venice quite a lot…
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A typical Venetian experience was now done with. With our bodies out of the gondola and our minds floating amidst the insidious depths of the canal, we were about to embark on a gastronomic venture of Venice. Here it’s all about making use of your body as a massive tool capable of a whole range of sensations. There’s something Venice does to this tool because while your mind is still floating caught up in a fantasy, your body is working at supersonic speeds craving for new experiences. We found out Venice wouldn’t let us have things our way because as we found ourselves back in the piazzetta (a public square in front of the Palace of the Doge overlooking the canal), we didn’t find our guide waiting to take us to a restaurant as was initially planned. Was that all part of some conspiracy? Looking back, standing here in this square overlooking the canal feeling lost and having no idea where to go feels part of a proper Venice experience, but it didn’t at the moment. There was some sort of drama about it… Someone phoned the guide up, which was the most reasonable thing to do instead of standing there feeling sorry for ourselves. It turned out he had no idea our gondolla ride actually had taken place, because it wasn’t supposed to in this stormy weather! Our gondollier was a brave one to take us on this quick rainy ride which was long enough to start messing with our emotions and senses! Italian men can be very spontaneous and bold, can’t they? Seeing our guide showing up through a thick crowd was reassuring. We needed someone to guide us through. The restaurant was a short walk away but it didn’t mean we would have been able to find it on our own because it’s Venice… We couldn’t wait to tuck into our meal, which consisted of a starter, which was a vegetable salad, followed by a main course of pasta. It all tasted heavenly and there was something out of this world about this meal… I wonder what the same meal eaten back home would feel like… I wanted to feel every crumb melting in my palate making this moment last… Wine kept our minds floating even further but it was time to go, because we had some time before our tour of Venice started.
With no canal in view, Venice seemed a more earthly place to be in and it was time to indulge in something very materialistic and it was time for a bit of shopping. Enigmatic faces on Venetian masks seemed to have guided us where they were. Just like glass, you can expect masks to have emerged here because they made it so incredibly easy to mask your identity, let go of whatever was in the past and let yourself be consumed with the passion of a fling with Venice and who cared it wouldn’t last. It will in that mind caught up in fantasy… We made our way back to the piazzetta and properly took it all in. It was so incredibly beautiful and romantic! Of course, it was somehow not what I had pictured it to be and I guess it’s always a thing with imagination and reality, but I felt something distinctly Venetian touching my senses while I was standing here in this stunning space and that made the whole experience so worthwhile and Venetian. That was the ultimate romantic destination and a real treat for me! It would be insane not to be feeling romantic at the moment. I wanted a mental picture of everything, all those gorgeous details of the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) and these people some looking totally lost just as we did about an hour before and some looking totally consumed with romance as we saw some couples all loved up walking down the square. That moment in that square would live long in countless pictures taken and memories made. We had never posed for photos in such weird ways and positions but that is what Venice does to you, I believe… We just went along with whatever our hearts told us to do and I wish we had the luxury of that back home away from this magic group of islands which is Venice…
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Ah, look, here are the doves of San Marco, the flying legends! Well, would it be a guilty pleasure to feed them? They are there all the romance is, in the heart of San Marco. Will they ever be made extinct from here? At the moment, it seemed Venice was much more likely to get submerged by those insidious waters never to be seen again than those birds were to ever disappear from the place. Did they know something we didn’t know that was happening here years and years back? Even if they did, they wouldn’t tell us.
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The lion perched on a massive column was watching us as long-standing symbols of the city giving the whole romance thing a brutal twist. We got close to the waters again for a closer look at the gondollas parked near the shore. Is there anywhere else in the world you get a view like this? Postcards views ready to let us be part of them for a tiny little moment that we sure will never ever forget… Seeing all these iconic views larger than life is what we travel for at the end of the day. I turn my back to the waterfront, step back and here it is, the impressive Piazzetta di San Marco. Being here near the waterway watching Venice like this feels like being a spectator in the theatre and as small and busy as this central part of Venice is, we all might have a feeling we’ve got the front row tickets.
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We step forward from the waterfront and find ourselves near St. Mark’s Basilica, which really does look too beautiful to be true. Amongst all this beauty, it was time to sit back and enjoy a little break with a bit of gelato. I felt myself again sitting here people watching and more secure with Venice seeming less fragile from this queit bench. Were the impressions of the day sinking in or were we taking to Venice like a duck to water? All we knew was that our gelato was surprisingly cheap and absolutely delicious! Our guided tour of Venice was rather disappointing because our local guide was trying to babble out something in Russian but she wasn’t doing a good job. All we did was finding our way through loomy mazes of streets following the sound of her voice. A floating sensation seemed to be back as we watched secluded houses surrounded by waters penetrated by a string of gondolas with people enjoying their ride in style. One of the houses was where Marco Polo used to live and he was my absolute idol at the moment when I stood there thinking of how absolutely thrilling and fascinating it must have felt for him to embark on his famous journeys. I’m feeling a bit like him now documenting my experiences as well…The view of the Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto) and the Grand Canal was worth putting up with the terrible guide! One look at it and I knew I must go back again for a closer and more lingering encounter. Sometime, some day… There are places in this world I know I owe another visit and this is one of them…Anyway, it was time to make our way back to San Marco and this is where you need to be because most of the signs you see lead there. You don’t want to get lost in Venice, well, you do unless you’ve got so little time on your hands. Sometime, some day I hope I will get lost here… But for now we had to follow the signs and the annoying guide before the tour was finally over.
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And here we were again in what Napoleon called “the largest ballroom of Europe”, Piazza San Marco. Dancing the night away wearing masks in the floating city must have been really extraordinary. There was something enchanting and unique about this particular public place. I had to remind myself we were so close to the waterfront even here and the marks of previous floods on the building walls did that as well. Of course we can’t completely appreciate the place with no sufficient knowledge of its history. Where we were didn’t feel like Italy, it felt like an ISLAND living on its own….
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There was time for some more souvenir shopping and that experience was pretty average. Some more mental images of the San Marco Square before we leave. St.Mark’s Campanile, the bell tower, in the corner of the square was what really caught my eye as we were saying goodbye wondering if we were leaving to never come back again. I found myself actually bonding with this architectural piece restored in the early 20th century following its collapse.
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It was now time to head back to the Piazzetta to catch a boat back. Saying goodbye is never easy especially to somewhere you know you can feel the way you’ve never felt before… It was getting really dark before what was likely to be a storm as we got on our boat. The views I was experiencing as we were leaving were the ones to remember forever. Venice seemed too vulnerable and fragile, but it was us in the middle of the stormy Adriatic Sea being controlled by it. The view of the Campanile against the menacingly grey sky was my last mental image of Venice… It waters wouldn’t let us go even after we got off that boat because the moment we were, it started raining so heavily we had to run for it! Well, we didn’t really, because we seemed to be the only ones in our group to have our umbrellas with us. I felt that same dress I was wearing on our final day in Paris soaking and that somehow seemed intimate and romantic to feel it touch my heels as I was walking through the puddles of rain… The umbrellas weren’t of any help anymore when we found a shelter to wait for the storm to finish. I felt sorry for our guide standing there soaking in the Venetian rain and wished I had a spare one to hand to him…
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Back on the coach as I got changed into different clothes, I felt my body starting feeling comfortable and safe but still craving for these new experiences while my mind was still floating just as the city… Just like in Paris while watching the Eiffel Tower burst into countless lights, I was up throughtout the entire overnight trip to Germany having thoughts of whoever I wished at different points of my life had shared this moment with me, shared Venice till it was gone forever just as that feeling of being young and in love… Did it all happen for real?

Author: Olga

An English teacher and translator, a keen traveller

2 thoughts on “A Fling with the Floating City”

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