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Published: March 4th 2015
Santa Maria della Salute Church
We were sitting on a bench in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, one of the larger squares in Venice, when a very stylish couple set down on the bench next to us. The man pulled out a map and began studying it intently. To make conversation, I mentioned to the lady that I thought I spent way too much time studying maps myself. She surprised me by telling me that she never bothered reading them at all!
Perhaps she didn’t have to be bothered with maps because her husband did most of the work, or possibly she had come upon a travel philosophy that I had not put into practice very often. After a few minutes, her husband folded the map up neatly and they generally walked off in the same direction as they had come from. They seemed to be content to know where they were, but weren’t much interested in where they were going.
I thought about it afterward and decided that Venice was the perfect place to try out this new travel strategy. Could you entertain yourself in Venice without having a specific agenda? Could you use your map just to identify where
you were, and not where you were going to? Venice is an island and in truth if you come to the water you can simply turn around and go the other way. You really can’t get too lost.
We had already spent our first week or so in Venice making plans and setting out to see specific items along the way. Rialto Bridge, Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Market, the Arsenale, various museums or some of the beautiful palazzo on the Grand Canal. While we learn our way in new towns quickly and generally have a pretty good sense of direction, I can’t say getting everywhere went smoothly. Venice was a city that was set up to be transited by boat, not land. Traversing from one island to another through narrow passages, over bridges and across plazas with no clearly marked streets is how you get around. Having to consult a map every 5 minutes when you first arrive is normal routine.
To be honest, it gets a little frustrating. I love the maze-like setup of the town. The small squares, beautiful churches and hidden courtyards create a magical ambiance that I have rarely
seen elsewhere. However managing them easily is no small task. Perhaps letting the streets take you where they want and worrying less about the destination would solve the problem.
We packed a lunch one day and set off with not much more than a general direction to explore. Signs are conveniently found throughout town with general directions on them. “Per San Marco” or “Per Rialto” meaning the direction “for Piazza San Marco” or “for Rialto Bridge”. If you have a basic understanding of where the big landmarks are, you can wander toward them in a general direction and not get too lost. When you get tired of walking, simply head back towards home. Not too difficult for us, as we live directly between the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco, the two places with the largest amount of signs directed at them.
This day we headed off toward the train station as a direction, “Per Ferrovia”. We knew that the old Jewish Ghetto was on the way. The art deco train station is an attraction in itself. The huge church of Saint Giovanni and Paolo was something to see. If we let our imagination
Burano is known for lace making, colorful houses and small canals.
go and curiosities guide us, what else might we discover?
It didn’t take long to discover Libreria Acqua Alta. In English, the High Water Bookstore. Venice has periodic flooding throughout the year known as Acqua Alta. Because the bookstore is located on the first floor of the building, the books are susceptible to water damage several times a year. The multi-lingual character who owns the store, Luigi, has organized his books throughout the store on shelving made of different types of boats. Everything from tiny model boats to giant full size gondola. He has created many humorous displays in his store that is full of well-fed, obviously spoiled, cats. While talking to him about Venice, I asked him if many famous people ever stopped in his store. He said, “Of course, all the time”. I ask him who they were and he informed me “I don’t know any of their names.” How did he know they were famous? He explained, “Everyone is famous“! A unique character and a most fascinating store.
Later during our wandering day, we stopped in the quaint Campo Santi Apostoli to eat our sandwiches. The shops in the square were
Piazza San Marco
From San Giorgio Maggiore Bell Tower
closing for lunch and workmen from the neighborhood were stopping to eat. Because the day was nice, many mothers and fathers were going for an afternoon walk with their young children. A man was playing an accordion for tips nearby. Many of the always present fur coat wearing older Venetian ladies were socializing in the square. Another man crumbled bread in his hands and gave a unique whistle sound. Small brown sparrows came from everywhere around. While the ever present pigeons were of course interested, the sparrows were going absolutely crazy. They seemed to encircle his entire body. I wondered how long it must have taken him to “train” the wild birds.
It is hard to be in Venice long without noticing the orange colored drinks that seem to be on everyone’s table each afternoon. We ask and found out they are called a Spritz. It is a mixture of Prosecco Italian sparkling wine, Aperol orange flavored aperitif and sparkling water. Normally served with an olive and a slice of orange, they are seemingly on every table during happy hour. We had never had one but promised we would try one before leaving Venice. After finishing our
lunch in the Campo, we saw the perfect place to try one in.
So many of the bars in Venice are really only meant for tourists. The prices are way above our means and frankly rather exorbitant for anyone. This was definitely not that kind of bar. One table for 2 in the front, 3 tables inside and the requisite standing only bar inside. Old pictures of Italian families and ancient sports teams decorated the walls. You got small plates of salami to go with your drink. Only one older man sat at a table near the bar. No music and no television present. We ordered and grabbed a table. 2 other older men entered and greeted everyone. They obviously knew the other man at the table and started a very loud, very theatrical and obviously passionate conversation in Italian. I have no idea what they were saying but to watch their conversation was as interesting as any play I have ever seen. Other customers or employees were immediately included in their show and we stayed thoroughly entertained while we enjoyed our drink.
We never really got to any of our planned destinations that
day, but it really didn’t seem to matter. It was a wonderful day in Venice and it seemed that a new surprise was just around each corner. Travel and life will always be about schedules, appointments and staying on course. We are rewarded for being punctual, organized and efficient. Maybe once in a while we have to remember to just wander a little and see what can be discovered without a map.
We will be leaving Venice in a few days. It is hard to believe it has already been a month since we arrived. It has been one of our favorite places to visit ever. Everyone needs to put it on their list of places to see. The city itself and the surrounding islands of the lagoon at times seem to be a museum to some romantic moment forever captured in time. I hope it can always be here for everyone to enjoy.
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