Everyone must visit the three sisters of Italy: Rome, the serious one dedicated to preserving the glories of Italy’s Roman heritage. Florence, the studious and artsy one. And lastly Venice, the flashy younger sister who knows how to flaunt her beauty.
So say the Italy travel experts. At the risk of having the pigeon poop of San Marcos Square dumped on my head, I say: Not Venice, the beautiful darling that everyone falls in love with before they have even set foot in Italy.
Venice? Don't bother.
“But it is so ROMANTIC,” Venice fans sputter.
Ahh, yes, the famous romance. Funny how they have been able to continue that marketing campaign. And right after advocates tell you how romantic Venice is, they say, “You MUST see her at night.”
Well, of course you must if you are looking for romance. Gilbert and Sullivan had that wonderful line in Trial by Jury, “She may very well pass for forty-three in the dusk with a light behind her.” Old hags look so promising by candlelight.
Like everyone else, I thought I would fall in love with Venice. People travel by boat instead of car-- romantic charm! Bridges arch gracefully over canals--aesthetic charm! And history lurks in every doorway, down every cobbled street--historic charm! Oh yes, Venice is lively, too, with residents shopping at open air markets and having a coffee at the neighborhood bar.
Instead of this imaginary city of dreams, I found a tourist ghetto of musty smells, peeling plaster, the cries of mendacious merchants selling seedy souvenirs. I was visiting a ghost town abandoned by residents and positively choking on tourists. The numbers aren’t pretty: about 62,000 inhabitants in the historic city, swamped by as many as 20 million visitors a year. Yes, that’s about 200 tourists per Venetian. And a goodly number of the latter are, well, preying on the former. The wide sweep of San Marcos Square shrank with the dozens of hawkers all trying to get my money. Violin music drifting from the historic coffeehouses lost its charm when the bill for a dish of ice cream arrived and I had to fork over the Euro equivalent of twenty bucks.
The appeal of outdoor markets like the famed Rialto farmer’s and fisherman’s markets is buried under a welter of tacky souvenir stands. Not content to peddle Murano glass baubles made in China or faux-antiqued jewelry or religious icons, the aggressive salespeople peddled low class jokes. I fled after seeing one too many men’s briefs displaying a key part of David’s anatomy. Never mind that Michelangelo’s David belongs to Florence. His male member has been claimed by Venice. Is there a connection there to the “Casanova” tour of the Doges Palace?
Is there nothing right with Venice? Yes, of course. In a couple of places I could almost forget the sinking feeling of being caught in a bad remake of a Fellini movie. That sinking thing is literal, since Venice sinks into the sea at an alarming rate and hotels have to issue boots to guests so they can cross the squares. Ahh, it is so romantic to slosh around in muddy water. But I digress. The Peggy Guggenheim Museum is a happy retreat that houses excellent modern art and a peaceful, civilized café overlooking the garden where Mrs. Guggenheim and her favorite dog are buried. Careful attention has been paid to the manicured gardens and the sparkling white plaster façade.
The group of merchants that invested in this religious lodge meeting place (not a school as my elementary Italian made me think) was honoring the saint’s name. I imagine they needed to cover their bets in case anybody caught on to thumbs on the scales or inferior spices passed off as genuine Indian. They hired a guy named Tintoretto to decorate the place and he did one heck of a job. The deal he made reminds me of Scheherazade stringing out her stories day by day. In exchange for his exclusive services painting enormous murals for the Scuola, the group gave him allowances which eventually included a lifetime pension.
He painted huge story-telling scenes of the Bible on every available wall space, the ceilings, and even the stairwells. These lively scenes, if painted as individual canvases, would surely be worth millions each. But here enormous rooms are covered with them and you can spend as much time as you want marveling at them for a suggested donation of 7 euros—free if you are under 18. When I was there, I wandered with a headset and used conveniently placed foot-square mirrors to see the ceiling without a crick in the neck. No crowds. No hucksters. No t-shirts. No puerile penile briefs.
My husband, who had reached his museum quota for the day, sat on the steps of the church next door and was treated to an impromptu concert by a street-musician string quartet. Free. No 20-euro dishes of ice cream required.
In retrospect, my distaste for Venice was born in the city’s basic nature. Why was there a Venetian Empire? Because the inhabitants were merchants. Through no fault of the current tourist industry, they no longer control the seas (in fact, the seas are controlling them), but the mercantile strain still runs strong.
I glimpsed a clue to Venice in the proliferation of carnival mask shops, more ubiquitous than the convenience stores that dot every street of my country. You may not be able to find a bottle of aspirin on every corner in Venice, but you can buy a painted, feathered, bejeweled new persona to hide behind.
If tourists rush to Venice expecting to recreate the 15th and 16th centuries, the city will provide the facade. Just don’t fall for the tourist posters that show everything with a rosy glow. You need to fill in the blank spaces with souvenir sellers. And mix in musty smells and peeling paint.
Vera Marie Badertscher travels whenever she can, reads constantly, writes about it all from her home in Tucson, Arizona, and blogs at A Traveler’s Library (atravelerslibrary.com ). Learn more about Vera at pen4hire.com.