Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Week in Venice

Shhh! . . . Do you hear that sound? . . . No? . . . Listen hard. . . . It's the silence of La Giudecca, a bewitching hush broken only by occasional footfalls echoing in the narrow calle that leads to our hotel, by the rare and almost apologetic gargle and splash of an outboard in the canal beneath our window, by a bark so tentative the dog must be afraid of disturbing the peace.

We are in Venice, and away from it, on an island so quiet and serene that 50,000, the number of tourists who spill into the city daily, seems ridiculously hyperbolic, though just a ten minute vaporetto ride away hordes swarm through the Piazza San Marco and jockey for photo ops atop the Ponte di Rialto.

Giudecca looks like a caterpillar and is almost as silent. It's a mile long and about 400 yards wide; I strolled the fondamenta that stretches its length in thirty minutes, a half-dozen bridges arching me over the slender channels that empty into the Canale della Giudecca, the broad passage that separates the island from the crush across the way.

A canal near our hotel on Giudecca
Giudecca suggests to many that the island was once Venice's Jewish ghetto. Not so. The district of Cannaregio, on the north side of the city, held that dubious distinction from 1516 until 1797, when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the Venetian Republic and opened the gates. Monasteries were more the rule on Giudecca, among them one to which Michelangelo retreated, in 1529, in self-imposed exile from the Medici court in Florence.

In the first half of the 20th century, industries and shipyards hummed on the island. But after World War II, that economy shattered, and Giudecca slowly became what it is today: a haven for residents who so treasure its solitude that many refer to themselves as Giudecchini rather than Venetians. After 24 hours, I was a Giudecchino myself, content to linger over a cappuccino at the Trattoria Dimori, watching the vaporetti thread through the brisk zig-zag of the water traffic.

Every 20 minutes or so, these crowded nautical buses load and unload passengers at five stops along the fondamenta, providing easy access to the heart of the city. I feel guilty not hopping on one and dutifully inspecting the Tintorettos and Tiepolos at the Gallerie dell' Academia, or paying homage to the two dozen doges buried in the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Yet as one day follows the next blessed with clear skies and temperatures in the mid eighties, the shadowy insides of churches, palazzos and museums, however stunning and instructive, have all the allure of a coal mine.

Besides, Venice itself is the city's greatest work of art, a sunlit procession of Gothic, Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque architecture that stretches along the Fondamenta Zattere, just across the water from where I sit. On the right rise the two domes and two bell towers of the Salute, the octagonal Roman Catholic church built in the 17th century to honor Venetians who died in the plague epidemic of the 1630s.

As my eyes move left, I feel as if I am walking through a gallery hung with sunlit masterpieces; not just churches, but one palazzo after another. These centuries-old three- and four-story structures that once housed dukes now serve within as hotels, apartment buildings or offices; but their facades remain largely unchanged, the arched windows and filigreed balconies looking down on the Zattere's bustling terrace of stones and bridges.

While I wallowed in splendid isolation–and scribbled at last week's post beneath the Domori's sheltering umbrella–Diane did what proper tourists are supposed to do, explored the city. Her main destination was the Teatro La Fenice:

On my last visit to Venice, in 1996, it had just burned down, for the third time. The smell of the smoky ruin still permeated the neighborhood. This time, I arrived at  the theater just as it was opening for the day, so I took a tour guided by a headset voice that sounded like Helen Mirren's, but probably wasn't. The house had risen from the ashes, like the Phoenix of its name; it had been beautifully recreated in a 19th century style, but with 21st century touches, among them individual air-conditioning/heating vents under each seat. 

As I sat in one of these velvet-covered chairs, I thought about another La Fenice, the quintet I helped found. A few days after September 11, 2001 Catherine Cho, Marcy Rosen, Maria Lambros, Peggy Pearson and I had a concert scheduled in Boston. We considered canceling, since it was hard to concentrate on anything other than the unfolding tragedy, but we decided that the audience needed the balm of music in that dark time, and so did we. 

The concert went on as scheduled, and included the almost unbearably intense Brahms Quintet. Afterwards, we decided to give our ensemble a name. I thought of the Teatro La Fenice, which I was certain would rise once again, and suggested we call ourselves La Fenice, in hopeful tribute to the power of art to help the world recover from the ashes of 9/11. 

When yet another day dawned bright and sunny, Diane and I grabbed our bathing suits, took Vaporetto No. 2 to the San Marco stop and transferred to the No. 1, which brought us across the lagoon to the Lido. This spit is famous as the site of the Venice Film Festival, but as we splashed in the Adriatic the beach was more a reminder of the sand at Long Island's Robert Moses State Park, where we first met 31 summers ago.

Though the Lido permits cars, they seemed far outnumbered by bicycles, which were tied up by the dozens wherever we looked, or wheeled noiselessly along the quiet streets, their riders carrying groceries home in large baskets or just out for a spin. I was back the next day at 9 A.M., rented a sturdy bike for four euros and spent the next two hours rolling from one end of the seven-and-a-half-mile-long island to the other.

Drivers were ever polite, always giving a wide berth; at the Aeroporto Niceli I paused to watch light planes bounce onto the runway; as I hugged the beach, horseback riders on the sand waved. After returning my own steed, an ice cream cone was a must: two scoops of stracciatella!

On our last night, we dined at the Ristorante Al Storico da Crea, which sits high above a boatyard on the side of Giudecca away from the fondamenta. The owner-chef didn't bring menus and seemed a bit grouchy as he tried to manipulate us toward pasta with squid ink and mixed grilled fish, the dishes he apparently felt like preparing. Somewhat sheepishly, we asked if we could possibly have spaghetti with shrimp and artichokes (Diane) and spaghetti with shrimp and cherry tomatoes (me). He acquiesced, and produced a delicious meal, which he served himself and we ate as dusk settled over the water.

Photo: Diane

Well fed and aglow from our glorious week, we ambled back through the boatyard and emerged onto the fondamenta to find the Brillance of the Seas, a 90,000-ton cruise ship, edging through the Canale della Giudecca. She dwarfed the delicate city, a giant ham actor in a white clown suit chewing up the scenery of the Zattere's exquisite backdrop.

Time to move on.


In the Singapore election on May 7, the People's Action Party, which has kept the country under tight, authoritarian control for more than four decades, posted its poorest showing ever. Sensing the voters'  discontent, several PAP officials made vague promises that more freedom was coming. Not of speech, apparently. As I wrote in my post from Singapore (April14), Alan Shadrake faced imprisonment for allegedly offending the Singapore judiciary in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock. The 75-year-old British author appealed the sentence, to no avail: he is now serving six weeks in jail, which will be extended to eight if he fails to pay the court's fine of $16,000.

Correction: There is no doubt that the Turkish government censors the internet, as reported in my post from Istanbul (May 21). However, I was mistaken in implying at the beginning of the report that the censors were blocking the sound of the Dudley Moore-Peter Cook YouTube video, which shows a cop pulling over a pianist for playing Beethoven too fast. The silence, I discovered too late, was not caused by Turkish authorities but by my failure to properly set the YouTube volume. It has now been put right, revealing that the British team's sketch is, as I suspected, pretty funny. Judge for yourself here.


  1. Ah Venice. I feel I'm there (for the morning anyway). Thanks so much for that.

  2. I just found your blog... what an interesting site!! Hope you enjoyed your time in Venice!

  3. Thanks, Home Care, for your kind words. Hope you enjoy future posts as well.


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