In search of the winter sun.
Ask Nez where she likes to travel and without fail she would respond:  “A beach destination or somewhere warm.”  This being winter in Europe, there are very few places with warm beaches.  Nevertheless, conventional wisdom dictates heading in the southerly direction for a respite from the cold.  We have both been to Spain but Nez has not seen Italy, and any further south and we would be in Africa proper.  So, we ticked off a few names – Venice, Rome, Sicily – and inexplicably threw in Krakow for good measure because Poland seemed like a nice, exotic winter wonderland and Riot was afraid he would miss the sub-zero temperature.  And that was how we arrived upon our quest for the December sun and winter fun.
Holga Photos
See Venice in a different light:  It’s a whole new perspective on film. 
Be sure to check out the Holga photos of our trip!
DAYS  Day 1  Day 2    Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8  Day 9  Day 10  Day 11  Day 12  Day 13  Day 14  Day 15  Day 16
Venice:  All the paths to the things found.
VENICE – 22 December 2009.  The hordes of tourists had departed with the last rays of summer and the throngs of worshippers had vacated since the last mass of yesterday.  It was thus that we found ourselves this Monday morning inside the dark interior of the Venice’s famous Basilica di San Marco (and not just the upper-floor museum of yesterday), having the whole place virtually to ourselves.  We replicated the audio guide experience of the Church of Frari using another of Rick Steves’s free downloads (here’s the podcast).  Once again, it helped bring out the context within which the gleaming Byzantine mosaics of the Church resided.  Religious shorthands, Biblical allusions, and origins of war loots all came to life through the irreverent narration and sometimes corny jokes.  Nevertheless, without this useful aid, to our untutored eyes, everything in the hazy confine of this house of worship would have just gotten an appreciative “nice” or “interesting” nod and nothing more.  In return, we would also get nothing much from the experience, which would be an unrealized tragedy.
  A different Venetian district, Cannaregio, but the same idyllic canal and crumbling buildings.
  These tourists were being taken off the beaten path by their gondolier.
The next stop on the day’s itinerary was, in typical fashion of this trip, cribbed from the New York Times’s “36 Hours in Venice.”  (December 3, 2006)  The catchy header read:  “An Appointment with Death.”  Who could have resisted such an invitation?  The article told us to ignore the Venetian glass of Murano and Venetian lace of Burano so we did, gladly.  We did not need much convincing as we had no use, and no room in our Paris apartment, for glass trinkets and lacy what-nots.  It was an especially easy decision to opt for an alternative destination, one dubbed “Venice’s most illustrious graveyard.”  Besides, living in Paris, we had developed a knack for visiting its own equally famous cemeteries.  So, why not visit their counterpart in Italy?  With that, we headed toward the Cimitero on Isola di San Michele.

  Approaching our “appointment with death”:  The Cimitero on Isola di San Michele.



  The whole island is a cemetery:  From afar, it looks like a fortress with aesthetically pleasing orange walls.


Instead of taking a long vaporetto, or water bus, ride to the island of the ever after, we worked our way through the streets and over numerous small canals of San Marco and Cannaregio.  Along the way, we nurtured our stomachs with delicious gelato from Antica Gelateria del Corso (see Review), arguably the best we had had since arriving in Italy.  Riot had promised Nez that gelato shops were “everywhere” in Italy and each and everyone of them was beyond compare.  He was wrong on both counts.  Perhaps, they only existed everywhere in his memories of Italy and tasted only as fond recollection could have them tasted.

Eventually, we came upon the Fondamente Nove water bus stop where the Cannaregio neighborhood met the lagoon.  The cemetery, a red-brick fortress in the middle of the water, was one stop away.  A one-way fare on the vaporetto cost 6.50€.  For just 3€ more than a round-trip fare to San Michele, we bought a 24-hour pass that we could use without limits and also use to go to the train station tomorrow.  It was a no-brainer.

  Famous person whose name we recognized, No. 1:  Russian-born composer (1882-1971).



  Famous person whose name we recognized, No. 2:  American-born poet and critic (1885-1972).


Like all of the islands in this lagoon, San Michele seemingly floated on the surface of the water, as if someone had simply towed into place the island and the remains of thousands upon thousands of people who called this speck of land their final resting place.  The cemetery was massive without feeling overwhelming.  There were all kinds of burials:  graves in the ground, graves in the walls, even graves under marble walkways.  The last of which gave us an uneasy feeling and we quickly got off of them onto the more familiar and less sanctified gravel paths.  We had arrived here with no clear mission except what we had read about Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky being among the more well-known members of the community.  We walked around aimlessly, marveling at the different ways people remembered the dead and observing with respectful interest the occasional visitors arranging flowers and watering plants on the graves of their loved ones.  (Little green plastic water containers were provided for this latter purpose.)

It seems that there is one thing that all curious visitors to cemeteries appear to fixate upon (at least for the non-celebrity graves):  the age of the deceased.  When someone died after what passed for a relatively lengthy life, it feels as though all of the cosmic chips of the universe are where they should be.  Yet, when someone died young, there is an inevitable urge to query the gravestone for any clue of what could have possibly brought about such an early demise.  A young death must have a reason.  An old death, an act of nature.

  This vaporetto ride lacked all of the textbook romance of a gondola but it was one heck of a warmer experience.


  Yes, it was warmer down in the cabin with Nez but look at all the great shots to be had up here.
  Two gondolas and their bundled goods bobbing along on a busy thoroughfare in the Grand Canal.
After a while, we decided to go in search of Messrs. Pound and Stravinsky themselves.  The former, Riot had only read about in Ernest Hemingway’s account of his early years in Paris; the latter, Riot had been taught in college but it was more than likely that he slept through those lectures as well.  (Think dimmed auditorium, plush seats, classical music over the speakers, and you, too, will understand.)  To Nez, these two noted men might as well be just another of the Italian occupants of this island.  Nevertheless, she was just as excited about the mission as Riot.

  Slightly less scenic but pretty in its own way:  On this side of Cannaregio, pleasing pastel buildings rose over crumbling lagoonside walls.



  Sunset was just as beautiful over this corner of Castello, far from the familiar scenery off of Piazza San Marco.


To the first groundskeeper we encountered, Riot asked:  “Dovè Ezra Pound?”  It was apparent that the man had heard this question countless times before because he quickly launched into a smattering of Italian, gesturing in one direction and then pointing to the ramp beneath our feet as if to say, “When you get to a ramp like this, do __.”  (What “__” was we did not fully understand in either Italian or sign language.)  We thanked him profusely and went in the approximate direction, made an educated-guess turn down a ramp, one of many, and, ecco!, saw a sign that read, “Igor Strawinsky.”  The great composer’s grave lay next to his wife, Vera, by the back wall of Section XIV.  The grave stone was covered with flowers, pebbles, and business cards (!) from visiting fans.  We even saw an old carte orange still in its trademark gray plastic sleeve.  We paid our respect but left nothing.  Riot was unsuccessful in trying to conjure in his mind a passage from “The Rite of Spring.”

  Approaching Piazza San Marco at sunset on the Lagoon.



  Across from San Marco lies the small island of San Giorgio Maggiore.


Mr. Pound was much more challenging to locate.  Without a clear sign (there were, in fact, many; we just did not see them until much later), we wandered around and only after much searching and some luck found another burial section, Section XV, which upon entry, we quickly determined to be a foreigner section.  French, German, English, American, and Russian names abound.  Still we could not find the one American name we had decided to see.  There was an old lady strolling in that section all by herself who asked us in broken English whether we had seen Stravinsky.  We did the best we could to point her in the right direction and asked, in return, if she had seen Pound.  “Brodsky?” she replied, and we knew we were on our own.  We walked all around this Section, looking at all the obvious places where such a famous person could be buried and then looking everywhere else as well.  Still, there was no trace of the man.  Many tombstones had had their inscriptions worn away with time.  Could one of them be his?  After a while, we gave up our search.

  Laundry day:  We came to wander the streets of Giudecca but found few inhabitants and fewer visitors.



  Evening came to Giudecca and its famous church, Il Redentore.


On the way to the gate, we saw many signs directing curious visitors to the graves of the cemetery’s illuminaries; only if we had looked when we arrived.  While Nez took at rest room break, Riot saw a sign with an arrow pointing to Pound’s grave.  It was in the middle section of Section XIV where no one would think to look and we did only look cursorily.  We went back and after another long search found it.  In a little island of green shrubbery was a small slab resting flat on the ground, reading simply, “EZRA POVND.”  It was next to impossible to find.  Locating it was quite satisfying and we vowed to read something of his when we returned to Paris.  After all, there are surely less interesting ways to be introduced to an author.

  A lone gondolier and his craft in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon with the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute in the background.



  Holiday spirit and crowds filled the narrow streets during the remaining few precious hours before closing time.


Departing the island of death, which we were sure was a more memorable experience than either of the island of lace or glass, we embarked on a lengthly, budget cruise around a large portion of Venice.  From San Michele we sailed the circumference of the working-class living quarters of Cannaregio, the industrial yards and wasteland of Castello, the denseness (both in terms of visitors and buildings) of San Marco, and in between the more spacious Dorsoduro and tiny San Giorgio Maggiore to our final destination of Giudecca.

The same New York Times piece that led us to the cimitero earlier also suggested an itinerary called “Island Hopping.”  It declared that “there’s no better place to wander aimlessly than the narrow sliver of Giudecca.”  We loved our previous aimless wandering through the underbelly of San Marco so, upon reading that, we thought we were in for another treat.  When we got off the water bus at the second stop of the island of Giudecca, Redentore, we immediately noticed that nothing much was happening.  Apparently, this was a residential island and by the time we arrived, it was too late to grab lunch at “any of the island’s fantastic trattorias” or to “[l]isten to the fishermen complain about the morning’s catch.”  Admittedly, we did not give the island much of a try but from what little we saw we could not really feel the author’s tantalizing words.  And so, we walked along the water down to the Zitelle stop and caught the next vaporetto back to touristy, but visibly populated, San Marco.

  Silence returned once more to the Rialto Bridge where a few local teenagers enjoyed an undisturbed drink by the water.



  Looking down the traffic-free Grand Canal as it snaked toward the Lagoon.


It was around five by that time.  We had not had lunch and so were hungry but it was too early for dinner.  A perfect solution to this dilemma, it seemed, was a bar called Un Mondo di Vino (see Review) that we saw this morning that peddled mouth-watering tapas-like dishes.  We cut across the district of San Marco and returned to Cannaregio, where, in the warm glow of the dark wood interior and the hundreds of bottles of wine, we feasted on little finger-size delicacies chosen using the universally understood communication method of pointing.  In between bites of the food and swigs of the chilled, recommended wine in tall glasses, we listened to the high-pitched tone of the bartender, who sounded like she was speaking Japanese when it was obvious she was speaking Italian, and watched the locals in a convivial dance we called happy hour back home.

  The hat store:  We don’t know what it’s called but you can’t miss it.  Just head north from Campo San Bartolomio (near the Rialto Bridge) and look right.


  When in Venice, buy hats!  Make your statement while keeping your head warm.
On the way back to the hotel, we did a little shopping: hat shopping.  Riot chose a speciality shop whose large window had a uniformly thin layer of dust on the inside, giving all of the hats on display an old-world appearance.  Inside, everyone from the owner and his wife to the customers were as aged as their wares appeared.  Still, there was something wonderful about this throw-back store in modern, tourist-inflected Venice whose owners did not care to speak a word of anything but Italian, who grumpily allowed Riot to try on one and then another hat, all of which he kept neatly behind glass doors, who did not take anything but cash, but who carried the very hat Riot that had been looking for everywhere.  At the nearby open-air market, Nez, too, got her own hat.  The proprietor there was every bit a consummate saleswoman, declaring unequivocally that this hat was “bene, perfect for you” when Nez appeared to favor it and then saying the same exact thing when Nez leaned toward another.  Through two very different paths we both ended walking home with lovely new hats on our heads to go hand-in-hand with the chilly cold night.

  On our way to dinner at Bora Bora (see Review) we passed by this little hotel whose guests arrived via the canal.



  Barbershop or candy cane pillars reigning stolidly over the murky Venetian water.


DAYS  Day 1  Day 2    Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8  Day 9  Day 10  Day 11  Day 12  Day 13  Day 14  Day 15  Day 16
Dine | Italy  Sleep | Italy

Copyright © 2009  Rien, Vraiment!  All rights reserved.