Venetians may be dwindling in number. But those who remain seem to be a happy lot. And when Venetians are happy, they sing. You hear it early in the morning as they wheel their souvenir carts into the tourist zone. You hear it from maids cleaning rooms. You hear it on the back lanes in the wee hours when you’re trying to sleep and voices travel twice as far.
But the gondoliers — who sing for a price — annoy me. They’re one big, wannabe rat pack who flip-flopped suave and schmaltz. Convoys of gondolas — each heavy with tourists — follow the leader who sings “Ciao Venezia, Ciao Venezia, Ciao Venezia, ciao, ciao, ciao.” And the accordionist is an enabler.
Prices in Venice have become outrageous. When I comment to hoteliers, the standard reply is, “People pay it.” As Las Vegas tries to recreate Venice, the reverse is happening as well. Demand for hotels is driving locals onto the mainland, so their vacated apartments can be made into boutique hotels. (I slept in one, under an enchanting barcode of medieval beams.) Looking for something non-touristy here is more and more like looking for a restaurant filled with locals at Disneyland.
That’s my rant. I get down as I realize that, in some cases, my ideal “back door” Europe is — in truth — wishful thinking. But I still love Venice.
A real community survives in Venice. The guy who runs the elevator at the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore — that wet Palladian dream floating just beyond the Doges’ Palace — told me he travels 10 kilometers (6 miles) a day up and down.
There are real energy concerns. Here, as all over Italy, restaurants are trading away a little ambience for harsh-yet-energy-efficient fluorescents. As is often the case in Europe, the government shows a kind of tough love — even if it’s bad for business and uncomfortable for citizens. Homes and hotels stop heating before they are allowed to start cooling. In the case of Venice, heat is generally turned off by mid-April and air-conditioning is only activated in mid-May. (Odd weather during that no-heat-no-air-conditioning window causes many American tourists to complain. When it comes to energy conservation, they get no sympathy from me.)
Leaving Venice for Padua the other day, I marveled at how easy it is for experienced travelers to transfer. (And the rewards awaiting the rookie who is a quick study.) Heidi, my Italy-specialist assistant, and I went from hotel to hotel in 70 minutes for â‚¬14 ($20).
At our Venice hotel — 100 yards behind the high-rent strip of hotels facing the lagoon, next to the Doges’ Palace — the guy at the desk told us we just had time to catch boat 42; it’s leaving at 6:46. We paid â‚¬6 each for tickets and hoped on the fast boat. I munched a dinner sandwich while enjoying the views and scoffing at the horrible location of the vast, new Venice Hilton Hotel.
Twenty-four minutes later, we were at the train station. In the station, we looked at the departure board — a fast train was leaving for Milan (stopping in Padua) in five minutes from track 8. Heidi (who’s better at this than me) zipped over to the now omnipresent ticket machines, typed in Padua, tapped the departure time, two people, second class, put in her credit card to pay â‚¬5 each and out popped our tickets. Two minutes later, we joined three Italian kids in a compartment on the express train. The kids packed up and left, making us feel like we had bad breath. I surveyed the photos Heidi took on today’s research swing through the Lagoon (from Igor Stravinsky’s tomb in Venice’s island cemetery to the old lady with the huge ears who still makes lace in Burano) and 25 minutes later we were in Padua. Hoping in a taxi, â‚¬6 and five minutes later we checked into our hotel.
After five days in Venice, I was a little shocked by modern buildings and all the rude cars. Recalling the story of the old women who spent her entire life in Venice and finally went to the mainland — and got run over — I reminded myself to cross streets with care.