Until a few weeks ago, Venice was inundated with tourists. But my local friend Piero has a knack for explaining the real Venice. (Here’s hoping that very soon, Venice will once again be crowded.)
Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the time being. But travel dreams are immune to any virus. And, while many of us are stuck at home, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.
Descending the Rialto Bridge, I shuffle slowly, spinning my wheels in a human traffic jam congesting one of the biggest shopping streets in Venice. Finally breaking free, I turn down a dank and empty lane, reach the big black door of my hotel, and push a bronze lion’s nose. This security buzzer brings Piero to the second-floor window. He welcomes me with a “Ciao, Reek!” and buzzes the door open. I climb the steps, eager to settle in.
Piero, who runs the Venetian hotel I call home, shaved his head five years ago. His girlfriend wanted him to look like Michael Jordan. With his operatic voice, he reminds me more of Yul Brynner. He often says, “My voice is guilty of my love for opera.”
Proud of the improvements in his place since my last visit, Piero shows me around. While remodeling the hotel, he discovered 17th-century frescoes on the walls of several rooms. The place was a convent back then. An antique wooden prayer kneeler, found in the attic and unused for generations, decorates a corner of my room. The whitewash is partially peeled away, revealing peaceful aqua, ochre, and lavender floral patterns. In Venice, behind the old, the really old peeks through.
The breakfast room is decorated with traditional Venetian knickknacks — green and red decorative glass, prints of canal scenes, and sequined masks reminiscent of Carnival indiscretions. The room is strewn with antiques. Everything is old. “It’s kitsch,” Piero admits, “but only the best kitsch.” I sit down. As Piero brings me red orange juice — made from blood oranges — he reports on his work and the latest Venice news. While the sounds of Don Giovanni fill the air, guests prepare for their day.
Piero’s cell phone rings and he apologizes with operatic eyes. “In Italy, this is success.” He answers it and talks as if overwhelmed with work: “Si, si, si, va bene (“that’s fine”), va bene, va bene… certo (“exactly”), certo… bello, bello, bello (“beautiful,” in descending pitch)… OK, ciao, ciao, ciao.” He hangs up and explains, “That was the night manager. Always problems. I call him my nightmare manager.”
In my early travels, hotel night managers were a sorry lot. Generally speaking only the local language, they worked at night when the most complicated guest problems hit. When a tourist in a bind came to them, communication was impossible, so things just got worse. On a good night, they’d spend their time carefully ripping the paper napkins neatly in two so they’d go twice as far at the breakfast table.
Opera continues to fill the air as Piero dashes to help some French guests heading out for the day. He pours coffee for both of us, then sits back down and says, “In hotels all the people are different. The French don’t use the shower. Young Americans are most messy but use the shower very much. I don’t understand this. Americans ask, ‘What is this bidet for?’ I cannot tell them. It is for washing more than the feet. In it we wash the parts…that rub together when you walk.”
“The tourists have taken over your city,” I say sadly.
Walking me to the window and tossing open the decrepit blind, Piero answers, “But Venice survives.”
As my gaze moves from the red-tiled roofs to the marketplace commotion filling the street below, I see his point. Tourists cannot take over Venice.
“Venice is a little city,” he says. “Only a village, really. About 55,000 people live on this island. Not Italian — we are just one century Italian. I am Venetian in my blood. I cannot work in another town. Venice is boring for young people — no disco, no nightlife. It is only beautiful. Venetian people are travelers. Remember Marco Polo? He was Venetian. But when we come home we know this place is the most beautiful. Venice. It is a philosophy to live here…the philosophy of beauty.
“The life here is with no cars…only boats. To live properly in Venice, you must have a boat. With a boat you live in Venice in another dimension — with no tourists. You cruise under bridges and see the tourists walking in their dimension but you are in the Venice of no tourists. The boat is my alternative Venice.”
(These daily stories are excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Venice.)