Friday, June 5, 2009

Travel journal: Venice

Venice is the most alluring, enchanting, and poetic city I have visited. From the moment Amy and I boarded our water taxi to our departure on board the Corinthian II 60 hours later, Venice exceeded our already high expectations. We didn't realize just how fortunate we were to have our travel agent arrange that water taxi from the airport until the boat pulled up to the Hotel alla Salute via one of La Serenissima's innumerable canals, where we stepped off the boat and into the hotel lobby. Along the aquatic way of the most scenic and enjoyable airport transfer ever, we passed the glass-blowing shops of Murano, wound around the little island where Stravinsky & Dhiagalev are buried, and then rounded a corner to catch our first glimpse of one of the world's most glorious edifices, the basilica of San Marco.

The Hotel alla Salute is around the corner from another great basilica, Maria della Salute, just across the grand canal from St Marks square. Just ten minutes or so from the Gallerie dell'Accademia, we visited the great museum of the Venetian Renaissance first. Museums in Venice are a classic guilding of the lily, since the city's cathedrals are museums in and of themselves.

The Accademia is rightly famed for its impressive collection of Tiziano (Titian) and Tintoretto, two of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance. I was struck by Tintoretto's visionary "Creation of the Animals" which featured epoch spanning creatures like a fanged fish, a blazing bird, and a unicorn which seemed to sneak into the canvas. Bellini's "Madonna dei Cherubini Rossi" is a strikingly original iconic painting which lives up to its name. The cherubims are of so brilliant a red they not only appear modern, but they look like one of Andy Warhol's colorful screenprints. At the other end of the scale is Tiziano's haunting "Pieta," reminding us why he is considered Michelangelo's equal.

The visit to the Academy was followed by the first of a series of delectable, mutli-course Venetian meals. One doesn't know just how green Ireland is until the first visit; likewise, one has a new understanding and appreciation of the wonderful simplicity of real olive oil and fresh pasta after that first genuine Italian meal. Since it was Amy's first visit to Italy, one of many pleasures I enjoyed was watching her face as she took her first bite of bruschetta (the middle syllable is pronounced with a hard k, for the record). This was surpassed only by the pleasure of witnessing her first bite of gnocchi. I was grateful to be reminded just how tasty a simple Italian tomato sauce is when I had a plate of penne arrabiate.

After lunch we explored some of the labyrinthine alleys and canals en route to San Marco. We stopped at the cathedral of San Stephano, one of the large churches whose roofs were built by boatmakers. The wooden panels and crossbeams resemble what Noah's Arc might have looked like had it been built by Gondolieri! Splendid altars, replete with frescoes & sculptures line the sides of these cathedrals, and the mosaic floors and patterned ceilings are works of art themselves. We also visited San Salvador, which could double as a Tiziano museum (it has the most magnificent Transfiguration I've seen).

Following a map to get around Venice is an exercise in futility. Intuition, curiousity, and a sense of adventure are much better guides. That fact was made crystal clear when we rounded another canal-lined corner, passed under an archway and emerged at the back of St Marks square. A thousand pigeons and at least as many people could not come between that moment and me. After visiting St Marks square, taking in the bell tower and clock tower, the basilica and the surrounding palaces, and the grand canal, I felt that deep and unique appreciation that comes from visiting a great and justly famous place. It is one of the distinct joys of travel: the justification for it, the substance of the experience, and that which gives experience meaning.

We arrived late in the day, decided to forgo the Ducal palace, and waited in line to visit the Basilica itself. Our necks hurt from the awe-struck act of gazing at the endless gold mosaics which depict the stories and saints from the creation to the resurrection. We ascended the stairs to visit the Gallerie dei Cavalli (the Gallery of Horses) where fragments of the original, 1500 year old mosaics and the even older bronze horses reside. Besides a bird's eye view of the Basilica's mosaics, a balcony overlooking the square afforded us more unforgettable vistas.

We had dinner at another locally recommended Osteria, the aptly named Oneteca ai Artisti, around the corner from the Accademia, which featured exceptional pasta and pesce (fish), followed by the best chocolate torta either of us have had.

Our second day in Venice was just as eventful and memorable. After San Marco, THE cathedral to visit is the Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Frari (or the Frari). There is so much to see in the vast basilica that I forgive the author of my Lonely Planet Venice guide for omitting that Claudio Monteverdi is buried there! I suppose some would not be as impressed by the altar to Venice's greatest composer after viewing Tiziano's sumptious Madonna. This most famous of altars features Titian's signature red robe in absolute splendour. Approaching the altar is the most intricately & beautifully carved wooden choir loft. With seating for about 80 choiristers, it is no wonder Venice was home to the glorious music of the Italian baroque period.

Just around the corner from the Frari church is the smaller school and church of San Rocco. Another important home both for the Venetian baroque of Monteverdi & Gabrieli, and a veritable museum for Tintoretto. The San Rocco sanctuary is lined from wall to ceiling with frescoes and murals, making the visit to this corner of Venezia positively overwhelming.

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