Editor's note: CultureMap contributor Jane Howze continues tales from her 10-day romp through Italy.
For those who have not been to Venice it’s like no other place on earth. Located in northeastern Italy, it is a group of 118 small islands separated by canals and linked by 400-plus bridges. Like most Italian cities, there are churches and art everywhere, but Venice also has mysterious, mystical feel to it, due in part to the meandering narrow streets which suddenly open onto a plaza or majestic church. It’s somewhat similar to the French Quarter of New Orleans. And like New Orleans, Venice hosts a Carnival in the weeks preceding Lent that feature elaborate costumes, masks and balls, which have been part of Venice’s culture since the 12th century.
After exiting the train station, it is sensory overload as you face the busy Grand Canal, hundreds of gondolas, the famed Rialto Bridge and masses of hawkers for hotels, non-Italians selling fake watches and purses.
That said, Venice is polluted, overcrowded and literally sinking into the sea. Although there are no cars (you must arrive by train or take a water ferry from the airport) the narrow winding streets guarantee you will get lost. The only industry is tourism, except for the Murano glass factories on several of the islands. And this time there was a buzz of anticipation in the air — but more about that later.
After making our way from our hotel Castello di Casole in Tuscany to Florence, we had two-and-a-half hours to spare before our train to Venice. And as in most European cities, the train stations are in the center of town, so we were able to enjoy a nice lunch near the banks of the Arno River and take a quick walk around Florence, crossing the Ponte Vecchio with its mass of jewelry shops. Having been to Florence previously and with our tour of the Vatican fresh in our memory, we had no desire to fight the many crowds vying for tours of Il Duomo.
The train from Florence to Venice was a quick three hours. After exiting the train station on one end of the main island, it is sensory overload as you face the busy Grand Canal, vaporettos (water buses), small delivery boats, hundreds of gondolas, the famed Rialto Bridge (one of three crossing the Grand Canal), masses of hawkers for hotels, non-Italians selling fake watches and purses, and other tourist attractions.
A long walk
My husband said “we might as well walk to our hotel; everything is convenient in Venice and being close to St. Mark’s Square, it will be easy to find—a six block walk—easy.” What we didn’t calculate is you could not walk more than 20 feet before having to ascend and descend one of the numerous crowd-laden bridges (great photo spots) with our luggage.
Another thing that enchanted this cat lover were the shops featuring paintings, marionettes and dolls sporting cats fully dressed in sixteenth and seventeenth century regalia.
Seventy minutes, two miles (not six blocks) and a dozen bridges later we arrived at Luna Hotel Baglioni, a friendly, elegant and nicely- furnished five-star hotel on the corner of St. Mark's Square, with a view of the Grand Canal if we leaned out our window.
Venice is best discovered outside of tours. We were blessed with cloudless skies and 70 degree temperatures—the most perfect vacation weather imaginable. We set out, crossed St. Mark's Square, almost deserted in the early morning mist that gave it an otherworldly feel, and crossed one of the three bridges that span the Grand Canal to the less touristy parts of Venice (kind of like the left bank of Paris).
We explored narrow streets which suddenly opened up to beautiful churches and courtyards. We saw glass blowers’ shops without tourists and watched Venetians hone their ancient craft.
Another thing that enchanted this cat lover were the shops featuring paintings, marionettes and dolls sporting cats fully dressed in sixteenth and seventeenth century regalia. I asked but have not been able to determine the significance, but what a treat.
As we returned to the Grand Canal, suddenly we found ourselves in a gaggle of photographers—okay, paparazzi. We looked around and everyone was eagerly looking for something on the canal. We didn’t know it at the time but we were directly across the street (I mean canal) from the City Hall of Venice, where actor George Clooney recited wedding vows for the civil ceremony on Monday.
Photographers had been tipped off that the Clooney wedding party would be motoring down the Grand Canal. Suddenly, I feel a tap on my shoulder; a local newscaster from Venezia’s Channel 5 asked, “Are you from the United States?”
Photographers had been tipped off that the Clooney wedding party would be motoring down the Grand Canal. Suddenly, I feel a tap on my shoulder and it is a local newscaster from Venezia’s Channel 5. He asked, “Are you from the United States?” "Where are you from?” When I replied, “We are from Texas,” he broke into a huge smile and said, “So you are here for the marriage of George Clooney?” I replied that no, I did not know him, but was glad to be here in Venice and be with George in spirit.
At that point a huge flotilla of motor boats, followed by police boats and gondolas, sailed by. Turned out it was Clooney, himself, along with fiancé Amal Alamuddin, hosting a tour of Venice for their wedding party with model Cindy Crawford and her husband Rande Gerber (Clooney’s best man) sitting beside them.
Although George reportedly said that he wanted a small private wedding, riding down Venice’s Grand Canal with a flotilla of serenading gondoliers (the lead tenor was of opera quality) may be the worst way to assure this. By reports from those closer than we were, Clooney, clad in a suit without tie, looked his customary cool and handsome self.
Thrilled to have witnessed such an adrenaline-fueled moment, we decided to find a bar where we could catch the last minutes of the Ryder Cup (the biennial golf tournament between the U.S. and Europe). We couldn’t find a sports bar in Venice. About to give up, we stumbled into Bàcaro Jazz Bar, decorated with pictures of jazz greats from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s on the walls, and hundreds of brightly colored bras hanging from the ceiling, where the owner welcomed us in and told us to stay as long as we liked.
The bar, one of Venice's most popular bars (opened in 1997), is known for its collection of hard to find recorded performances of past and present artists with a jazz influence. So as we sipped a Negroni, listened to Michael Buble, Amy Winehouse and Adele, we thought about how lucky we were; and although we didn’t make the invite list to George Clooney’s wedding, we are sure it was because he probably knew we had to return to the US before the wedding.