Letting Fate Be Your Guide in Venice

Letting Fate Be Your Guide in Venice

It’s early morning.  6:30 to be exact.  I’ve yet to take my shower, but centuries-old buildings are bathing in amber-and rose-tinted sunlight and summon me for a visit.  There’s so much to do today, and I need to maximize my time here.  Ninety minutes of Venice practically all to myself is irresistible–and so achievable if you’re willing to resist the temptation to hit the snooze button.

Gondolas nestle together in the cove of a canal in the early morning hours before the tourists arrive en masse.
Gondolas nestle together in the cove of a canal in the early morning hours before the tourists arrive en masse.

Empty gonodoles bob sleepily in a tucked-away alcove.  Vacant campi seem to sigh in relief, relishing their temporary reprieve from the weight of souvenir carts and the tourist hoards.  Piazza San Marco feels simultaneously grander and more intimate when only five people and some pigeons populate the scene.  It’s a photographer’s eye-candy land, and I’m gobbling it all up.

After a hot shower and re-caffeinating with a proper cappuccino, I’m ready to brave the already swarming cruise crowds that have descended upon this gem of a city.  The trick is, of course, to go where they aren’t–that means avoiding everything from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge, or going off-island completely.   So I do a combination of both.

In minutes, I’m on the nearby island of Murano.  There are plenty of vacationers here, looking for the best deals on the island’s famous glassworks–even I keep my eyes peeled for some neck-bling for myself and gifts for loved ones back home–but it’s a nominal fraction of the multitudes on lovely Venezia right now.

I've got no place to put this in my house, but I can't help liking it.
I’ve got no place to put this in my house, but I can’t help liking it.

I humor myself by visiting a glass factory’s showroom.  While there are no glassblowing demonstrations today, a young and earnest Ukranian woman is “more than happy” to guide me through the vast rooms of shimmering chandeliers.  You can almost see the potential Euros gleaming in her big blue eyes.  I’m a sucker for chandeliers, but I’m not in the market for one.  Still, this is a great way to learn about glassmaking, and if my heart goes pitter-patter in covetous joy over blingy lighting fixtures, so be it.

To get an even broader education on Murano glass, I meander over to the island’s glass museum, Museo del Vetro.  Housed in the former residence of the bishops of Torcello, its artifacts range from 15th-century pieces used as vessels for food and beverage to contemporary works designed to adorn, to decorate, and to wow.  Beyond the informative and eye-catching displays, one of the best things about this museum is its lack of crowds.  What a luxury it is to linger as you wish in front of handcrafted works, to admire the detail, and to appreciate the artistry and skill it takes to go into any single one of these pieces.

Back on Venice, my stomach alerts me that it must be time for pranza or lunch.  Still on my mission to be where the tourists are not, I head over towards sestiere Castello (the Castello neighborhood, in the “tail” section of fish-shaped Venice) and pop into a bare-bones restaurant.  I never remember the name of this place and can only “feel” which streets to turn on to get here, but it’s a favorite amongst the overall-wearing, pasta-bellied, local workers.  And I trust them for good value and good quality.

Finding time-worn door knockers (PC or otherwise) is an architectural, historical, and cultural adventure through Venice.
Finding well-worn door knockers (PC or otherwise) is an architectural, historical, and cultural adventure through Venice.

Blood-sugar levels back to normal, I venture out again.  The silence in this area of town impresses me and practically forces me to focus more on everything else around me: the patina of the centuries-old buildings; intricate patterns along rooflines, windows and doorframes that evoke the Byzantine influence of days gone by, and the time-polished gleam of brilliantly detailed (and sometimes not very PC) brass door knockers–“sambos” greeting visitors at your door wouldn’t cut it in The States.  Although modernity has made its presence known here, history–PC or not–still lingers and permeates everything.

I wander, turning at random to let Fate decide my next destination.  She’s a wonderful tour guide, Fate.  She lets discover things you’d never plan to encounter.  First stop: a grocery store.  I didn’t need anything, but I popped in.  From the non-descript façade, you’d never guess how vast the interior is.  Locals on a mission darted from aisle to aisle, picking up their daily necessities, and I wondered why this seemed like a whole other world apart from the Venice I shape in my mind.  While Venice entertains 10 million guests a year, it’s home to 60,000; and embracing your curiosity, you can occasionally feel the actual small town community. Visitors tend to experience museums, churches, restaurants–you know, the touristy stuff.  Fate’s detour reminded me that while we may travel thousands of miles to see a city’s top sites, for locals, sometimes it’s just about the daily grind.  And that in itself is pretty cool to see, too.

A Roman original, this sculpture of "The Abduction of Ganymede" is suspended high above the floor of the Tribuna room of Palazza Grimani.
A Roman original, this sculpture of “The Abduction of Ganymede” is suspended high above the floor of the Tribuna room of Palazza Grimani.

Fate led me next to Palazzo Grimani, one of 200 palaces in Venice.  It was a lovely discovery.  Its original architecture, scavenged marble, and surviving frescoes evoke 16th-century humanism and classicism. I easily imagined what life could’ve been like for the Grimani family–great collectors of antiquities and contemporary art who lived here from the mid-1500s until the early 19th century. Now lovingly cared for by the state, this palace-turned-museum hosts an original Roman sculpture of The Abduction of Ganymede, along with minor works by Titiano, Tintoretto, and Hieronymous Bosch, and sees a mere fraction of the visitors that the formidable Doge’s Palace does.  A visit here–and a little imagination–takes you back to the Venice of centuries ago.

Zigging and zagging my way through this fish of an island, I never worried about where I was or where I would end up.  If I so chose, I could look up at signs to point me back to Rialto, San Marco, Accademia, or Ferrovia (train station)…but I did not so choose.  I simply journeyed on. Venice can make lots of people nervous.  It can be easy to get disoriented, but I always keep in mind that it’s pretty hard to get lost.  It is just an island after all.

An master mask-maker uses papier-mâché to shape his latest creation.
An master mask-maker uses papier-mâché to shape his latest creation.

From sestiere Cannareggio to San Polo, through Santa Croce and in Dorsoduro, I ogled boutique displays, let savory aromas pull me toward their restaurant storefronts, sampled several flavors of gelato (in the name of research, of course), witnessed mask-makers crafting new disguises for would-be Casanovas, and even found Mikhail Baryshnikov in an art gallery (well, I found a free exhibition of a stunning photo series his did on dance throughout the world).

An artisan works lovingly on a delicate statue.
An artisan works lovingly on a delicate statue.

One of my last finds was an artisan’s workshop near the famed opera house, Teatro La Fenice di Venezia. A gentleman was working diligently on a graceful statue. I was too timid to interrupt him, but he saw me there and let me quietly observe him at his craft.  I wondered whether he was restoring an antique piece or creating something new.  Each movement was deliberate, cautious, strategic, and delicate.  His pride was evident, and I felt fortunate to see tradition, skill, and passion manifest in this man’s work.

From my red velvet box seat at La Fenice, I sit gratefully, listening to  Keith Jarrett masterfully play the piano.
From my red velvet box seat at La Fenice, I sit gratefully, listening to Keith Jarrett masterfully play the piano.

As I turned to leave, a friend who was in town phoned me, saying he had an extra ticket for the Keith Jarrett concert at La Fenice–would I like to go? Uh, yeah!  I’d never been to La Fenice, and although I’ve never listened to Keith Jarrett, you simply don’t say no to such an invitation.  And so, as Fate would have it, I found myself at the right place at the right time.  Capping my discovery-filled day with my virgin visit to a world-renowned 18th-century opera house and enjoying the musical stylings of one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists, I sat silently gleeful in my red velvet box seat and relished my newest memories of Venice.  And I had Fate to thank for all that.

13 thoughts on “Letting Fate Be Your Guide in Venice

  1. Venice in the early morning is great! Love the pic of the gondola basin and know right where it is. We watched a Venetian “artist” who carves the forcules for gondolas and every time we go back to Venice we stop by his shop. Your stories and pictures made us homesick for Venice.

    1. Visiting a carver’s shop is on my list for my next visit. Time is elusive and slips by so quickly when I’m there–I never have enough time to do all the things I want. And even when I chip away at my list, the list continues to grow.

      If you remember where your artist’s shop is, please let me know. And thanks for your comments!

      1. The gentleman’s name is Saverio Pastor. His website is http://www.forcole.com and his shop is near the Abbey of San Gregorio. We met his teacher in 1967 who was named Giusppe Carli. We tried to find Mr. Carli’s shop years later and we were told it had moved to Dorsoduro, 341. We stopped in and met Mr. Pastor and gave him pictures of Mr. Carli taken in 1967. He got tears in his eyes and thanked us. So we go back to Mr. Pastor’s shop every time we are in Venice. And we have lovely pictures of two men who carve the beautiful oarlocks for Gondolas. The last time we were there, Mr. Pastor was training a young man so, the art goes on will continue.

  2. Getting lost in Venice sounds like the perfect way to experience the city. My first visit to Venice was almost 20 years ago and I’m looking forward to returning there this year. I imagine that not very much has changed 😉
    I’ll be lucky if I manage to have the city practically all to myself for pictures like these, thank you for the inspiration. I’m ready to let Fate be my guide…

    1. I hope you’ll have a fantastic time in Venice. Be sure to equip yourself with a good guidebook (may I recommend Rick Steves’ Venice). It’s great to be familiar with the place, even before you get there. This will help you feel much more comfortable when serendipity steps in and leads you on unexpected Venetian adventures. I’d love to hear about your trip when you get back. Buon viaggio!

  3. Thanks for the tip for the guidebooks. Rick Steves’ books have been guiding us for almost 20 years and this return trip to Venice was no exception. This time, however, we stepped off the beaten path and let fate guide us for a while 😉 The city is even more amazing than we remembered. Can’t wait for visit #3…someday! The history there is phenomenal! I did want to mention one thing I noticed while touring Museo Correr, which made me think of the photo you have here of the door knocker. In one of the entry rooms to Correr, I there was an ornate chair that had figures of African children in bondage carved into the ebony (?) framework. Though beautiful craftsmanship, it was a very disturbing image of the dark side of commerce and trade. And, sadly, of society in general.
    May travel continue to enlighten us and create a more humane society…

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