Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Hitchhiker's Guide To Venice

It all boils down to a two-word mantra: don't panic.

Venice is, in my humble opinion, and based on very limited experience, the most beautiful city in the world and I'm absolutely in heaven here. I've got such a hard-on for the Jewel of the Adriatic I could just ejaculate in the Grand Canal all day and all night…. Wait a sec, that didn't come out right.

But it doesn't matter how many maps you've got: coming to Venice is like taking a vacation in the world's most devious corn maze, where three piazzi across the city share the same name while half the streets don't have names at all, buildings are numbered in no apparent order, addresses don't include street names, and the alleyways wind around each other into dead ends and sometimes straight into the water. If it were anywhere else, I'd be scared to death wandering the poorly-lit calli aimlessly, feeling miles and miles away from another living soul. Venice is not New York, and it's always a relief to know that even if you've spent the last fifteen minutes walking in a straight line but you've passed that same trattoria three times now, it's not like you'll be in San Polo one minute and Yugoslavia the next. At least, not without getting a little wet.

I made it into town while it was still light – which was important – and the very first thing I did when I got here was get on the wrong vaporetto (water bus). Instead of heading down the Grand Canal like I was supposed to, I got a tour of Venice's backside, and it's not the part of the city that they put in the travel brochures. It took a little over an hour to get to the hotel in a town where you can walk from one end to the other in fifteen minutes (provided, of course, you know where you're going). The hotel – it's four stars. I can't tell you how freaking glamorous this place is, but it's nicer than my room at home, and not just because it has a flat-screen TV and a minibar. The bathroom is marble with gold accents, there are about twenty towels just for me, and there's a gold silk curtain around the bed. They have a telephone in the bathroom, so I can make important business calls while I'm pooping! Going home is bound to be disappointing.

I started off in Venice like the guide books said, with a vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal, from the train station in the northeast corner down to the Piazza San Marco at the canal's mouth. The Piazza San Marco was, for more than a thousand years, the only entrance to the city, home to the Doge (Venice's mayor), and the shimmering Byzantine basilica. Now, it's Tourist Central, and about a block away from McDonald's, clearly preserving its true historical heritage. One of the tallest points in Venice – maybe the tallest – is the campanile (bell tower), and I headed up to the top for a bird's-eye view of city, orienting myself with the sestieri and lagoon islands. Unfortunately, the city from the sky is no less confusing than the city from the ground, but I did get some amazing evening snapshots and possibly some eardrum damage when the bells rang to mark 6:30.

Venice shuts down early in the evening: the canals are quiet by eight, and by ten, there's no one around except tourists hunting for the non-existent nightlife, and it's perfect for me. You can tell it's not much of a party town when the most popular music scenes happen to be inside churches. I spent a nice hour or so hunting around for a particular bar, the Naranzaria in Campo San Giacomo, not realizing that there are about five campi dedicated to San Giacomo (the campi are dedicated to the church in the middle of the square, which is, in turn, dedicated to a saint), and it took cross-referencing three maps and some help from an English-speaking (and cute) local before I found the place. It was, sadly, anticlimactic: okay, I'm here, I've got my spritz con prosecco, and now what do I do? I sat on the bank of the Grand Canal, sipping this fizzy neon orange drink, and really, really wanting to share this whole city with my friends.

The Grand Canal at dusk. You can expect a lot more Grand Canal pictures coming up....

A series of pictures from the bell tower. Here's the Doge's Palace on the east.

The Piazza San Marco and clocktower to the north.

The customs house and the church of Santa Maria della Salute to the south.

Piazza San Marco late at night. Piazza San Marco is Tourist Central in Venice, so you can also expect a lot more pictures from here.