Festa Venezia

A Non-stop Parade of Vibrant Colors and Fanciful Shapes, Beauty one is Never Quite Prepared For

On The Town | Jodi Keen | September 2008

A gondola and its passengers float silently through the canals of Venice (Photo: Anne-Marie Smith)

My first Italian adventure to Venice was full of surprises. After a restless sleep, a 1,5-hour pit stop in Salzburg and a lot of entertaining stories, we finally arrived in the "City of Bridges" - or at least somewhere near it - and stood in a cold rain to catch a bus to the Camping Fusina Tourist Village. The rickety bus ferried us through narrow, winding streets to our campsite at the mouth of the Brenta Canal.

Soon after we gobbled down breakfast, consisting of giant yogurt parfaits, at the "open-air restaurant", we made our way through the campsite. We were pleasantly surprised by the presence of a pizzeria, beer garden, grocery store and the Info Bus (as well as its twin sister, the Cyber Bus), filled with key info on boat schedules and where to go for the best meals, and (most important) the best Italian ice cream.

We found out that Venice was actually an island, first settled by mainland-refugees fleeing from the invasion of the barbarians in the 5th and 6th Centuries AD. They built villages on wooden rafts, anchored in the subsoil, which continue to lay the foundation for the famous architecture that makes up the city today.

We awoke three hours later to a beautiful sky and immediately set off in a water taxi for the city. It was to be a 20-minute trip, on a boat crowded with tourists from the U.S. and Canada, southern Italy and even Sweden. Spirits were high as the adrenaline kicked into overdrive. We were in Venice!

No matter how much you have traveled, Venice is in a class by itself. As we turned a bend, and the Grand Canal was spread out before us, it was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined; the expense of majestic ancient buildings set out over the water was almost too much to hold in.

Our boat maneuvered around a massive cruise ship and docked in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, a monument to the greatness of Renaissance Venice, leaning lazily on the banks of the Canal, embodying the city’s image of timeless beauty, now come of age. Legend has it that the magnificent Throne of St. Peter inside the cathedral was used by the Apostle Peter and that the Holy Grail was hidden inside.

As we followed the canals toward the centre of the city, we passed by a small warehouse with a ramp into the water - a boat yard for gondolas! The sloped roof of the shed and the gentle curve of the ramp reminded me of something I had once seen in the movie "The Italian Job". I quickly snapped a photo to compare to the film reel once home.

We then turned west: The arrival of our friend had been delayed because a man had jumped in front of her train and killed himself. After a stalled hour with the medical examiners, the train got a new conductor and was again on its way, so we took off for the Santa Lucia train station to meet her.

Clutching our maps, we successfully made our way to St. Mark’s basilica, for which I can say that no photograph I’ve seen has ever done it justice: The basilica is so ornate, so mammoth and so intricate that it literally stole my breath for several seconds. Twice demolished, but rebuilt ever so pompously, it was modeled on Constantinople’s Church of the Twelve Apostels, and is Venice’s principal church as well as its emblem. The basilica is named after St. Mark, whose earthly remains were bedded there after a long and strenuous journey from Alexandria. It is home to an incredible collection of treasures, amassed by the dogi – Venice’s dukes – during the crusades, which commenced shortly after the basilica’s consecration in 1094 and lasted for over 200 years. Only my friends’ persistent pleas forced me to tear myself away; they were hungry, and in Italy, the food is as essential as anything we call art.

As we walked, in search of a restaurant, I stole a look around St. Mark’s square and was enraptured by the surroundings, especially with the campanile, the bell tower. Then past the Doge’s palace, which I promised myself I would come back to another time.

At dinner in a nearby restaurant, we mulled over the menus, struggling to choose dishes that would satisfy both our curiosity and ravenous hunger. First came the wine: That was easy, Prosecco. Next was an appetizer: Bread in Italy comes with the meal, so we dug in. It only added to our appetite, so by the time our entrees of pasta and pasta and more pasta arrived, we were poised with knife and fork in hand. Each ordered a different entree to sample the different dishes, but I would be lying to say I was eager to pass around my plate of delicious fettuccini Alfredo. Same plan for dessert, this time plates of tiramisu, cheesecake, Torta di mele (apple flan) and another extravagant chocolate event for which no name would be adequate. After a second bottle of Prosecco and more storytelling, we were ready to head back to our boat dock. We meandered by the street vendors and admired various items like cashmere shawls and Beatles memorabilia. Eventually we boarded our boat, and were cruising back to the campsite, where we would rest up for ...

The beach! Our first chance of the summer. We caught a boat out to Alberoni Beach on the Lido Island (again crowded with tourists, swimmers and golfers). But setting foot on pristine white sand with nothing but the lagoon stretching out before us instantly evaporated any worry we might have had. It was mesmerizing – an antidote to anything except sunburn: After seven hours in the salty water, I bore a striking resemblance to a lobster – limping along, too uncomfortable to care how I walked – and we headed back into the city, trying not to brush shoulders, on a hunt for the best gelato.

After walking a bit and indulging in what can only be described as heaven in an ice cream cone, we split with the crowd and headed back to watch the fireworks of the Festa Del Redentore (the Festival of the Redemption) is Venice’s celebration of it’s deliverance in 1567 from the Bubonic plague, which had killed a third of the Venetian population and marked the decline of what had been one of the world’s most enduring mercantile sea powers for over 1000 years. At about 11:30, the sound of distant pops and fizzes caught our attention, and we turned to an opulent gush of what we agreed was the best fireworks any of us had seen: a non-stop parade of vibrant colors and beautiful shapes, each more beautiful than the one before.

We arose very early the next morning, so as not to miss our 6:39 a.m. bus to the train station. But secretly, we were all hoping that the train will come late, or perhaps not all.

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    the vienna review September 2008