Well, I'm on the train now, heading to Florence, just having pulled out of Bologna, and the hills are just starting to hide the sunset. It's getting really quiet and pretty outside. Not too bright. It was almost ferocious today: I'm pretty burned across the face.
Our first evening in Geneva was spent down by the shore of Lake Geneva, where much of the city comes out to socialize and enjoy the air and light. Erik and I had left the World Health Organization by around 6pm and took the bus into the city. Obviously, everything looked different than the mere shapes of the streets I'd become accustomed to on my guidebook map of the city, and so I was pretty thoroughly lost. We got off at the main train station and walked some five or six blocks to Erik's place. As it turned out, Erik had taken a room in the middle of Geneva's red light district, in the neighbourhood called Les Pâquis. It wasn't particularly poor or seedy-looking, but Erik indicated sadly where the prostitutes were already staking out street corners. For a few blocks around the place he lived, it seemed that everything was either a falafel/kebob place or a strip club. I was very grateful to be able to shower after now nearly two days, and we set out to initiate Mike into the local business life. Of the falafel, that is. It was somehow something that I'd never gotten around to trying, and I was a bit nervous as to how my digestive system would react to it, given its moodiness. We headed down to the lakeshore to eat and to look at the city.
I woke up to the train this morning in the middle of the Po valley, running down it toward Venice, with the Italian hills beginning to glow off to the north. I cannot express the private joy I felt in the sight: this was a land I had crossed and re-crossed in thought through the years, with so much history I've studied that has passed this way. To see it with my own eyes – to just quietly take it in while Erik and the others still slept – was a simple kind of bliss. There was a young Indian couple sleeping in our carriage, and two hip girls from Korea, decked out in clothes proclaiming "Florida." It was kind of a strange approach: there was all this industry and you were never quite certain when you were going to see Venice or the water. I wasn't quite sure how thick all that industry was, although I expected it from the descriptions of the city in the guidebook I'd been studying. We were going past docked ships: freighters, ocean liners; industrial manufacturing places, chemical plants. We finally broke out over the causeway out to Venice with the Adriatic flat out to the horizon. We were able to dump our baggage in a room at the train station, and pay for that for the day. We also purchased our tickets for Florence that evening, after discovering that the last train that would work for us would leave Venice at 6:30pm rather than 9:30pm as we had expected. Obviously that meant less time in Venice, but we had decided to prioritize Florence by giving it two full days, and there was nothing to do about it. Everything we needed to do was settled pretty quickly and we got out on the streets.
Standing out in the piazza behind the train station, we took in our first view of the city. We've all seen it on film if never in real life: there's nothing like Venice. Even if this wasn't a particularly famed or memorable spot, it was already distinct in an unmistakable way. Unfortunately, I had not retained a great deal of my earlier study on the city. Florence was a place I'd studied since my undergraduate. Venice had seemed overwhelming just in the pages of my guidebook. I'd studied it first, in preparing for the trip, but right at that moment it seemed as though a lot of my reading on Venice had been washed away by my later weeks' study of Florence. So now Erik and I pulled out my guidebook and tried to work out a basic plan of attack for the city.
We grabbed a water taxi first thing, laughing at the competent irritation of a young blonde woman working there who seemed pretty fed up with the idiot questions of Americans, and we went the length of the Grand Canal, past San Marco to the next landing at San Zaccaria. We were taking photographs the whole way and just soaking in the sheer presence of the place. Everywhere we were under the eye of some version of the winged Gospel Lion of San Marco: reliefs, statues, paintings and the still-present flag of the Republic of Venice, a country now two centuries vanished. I was marking places in my head to come back to see, virtually all of which we failed to do, not coming anywhere near the places as we were wandering. Just entirely too much to see, too much to do. It ended up being somewhere where we were content to not do a whole lot. Erik called it "sampling," just scouting the place out for when we could really come and visit. "Sampling" was a good term.
We walked a ways further east along the canal from San Zaccaria on the Riva degli Schiavoni before turning north, up del Forno, I think, so that I could see the Carpaccios that I wanted to, especially the Augustine that I love, at the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. That was our only real flat-out disaster of the day. The church had shut its hours down from 3:30 to 5:30 and we were there at probably around 9am. Now, on our way to San Giorgio's, we had already happened by San Giovanni in Bragora, which was an accident, but we had ducked into this church to take in the Alvise Vivarini Resurrection, Cima da Conegliano's Baptism of Christ, the proudly-displayed body of one St. John the Almsgiver, of whom neither of us had heard (although that will likely be said of us, too, in time), and the interesting ships-keel ceiling and architecture of the church as a whole. After our dash through the tourist-strewn Grand Canal, it was refreshing to pause in this church where we were the only two visitors, with no feeling that that was going to change. Now, having been defeated by the closed Scuola di San Giorgio, we paused, and Erik shot back down the direction we had come, while I noted the old woman watching Erik setting up his shot. I then set up pretty much the same shot myself. The tower belongs, I believe to the church of San Antonio, and the canal before me is the Rio della Pieta, although behind me from that bridge it was called the Rio della Agostin. I'm not sure why. I would be surprised if it had anything to do with such a universally high regard for the Carpaccio portrayal of Augustine that I missed seeing just off that bridge. From that point, we started working our way over toward San Marco. I had already been looking in the mask shops. We found a very nice one, right as we had started up del Forno, and Erik had already started practicing patience with my time taking time to look at this particular Venetian art. The elaborate masked and costumed celebration of Carnival revived in Venice some decades ago, and the making of these masks has turned into a distinctive tourist craft. We ultimately ended up, without any intention, tripping our way right in front of one the most-recommended mask shops, Ca' del Sol, and so I had to stop in there to examine the wares and talk with the proprietors as best as I was able.
We worked our way around the front entrance to San Marco, walking around the Doge's Palace, past the Bridge of Sighs, and photographing parts of the façade and looking at large, posted diagrams about the construction going on outside of that area, which was devoted to reinforcing the seawall or improving drainage or somesuch. My eye was taken with the carvings on the row of pillars at the base of the façade, which is the beige building you see on the right of the photos taken from the canal, above, and which is set in front of the Basilica of San Marco. Each pillar featured a unique set of carvings, worth a study in themselves, but I was particularly taken with the medieval woman I captured in this shot, while Erik read the engineering displays behind me. We debated whether or not to head into the Doge's Palace for the tour, but decided to sacrifice this to the "sampling" of the city. We started making our way through the crowds of people (and the famed flocks of tourist-devouring pigeons) and into the Piazza San Marco. We had arrived too late to try to take in a morning Mass at the Basilica, which while originally the chapel of the Doge ("the largest private chapel in the world," one kept hearing, wondering why the Duke needed something that big if it was really to be thought of as "private") has now also been the Cathedral of the city for the last two centuries. Given the huge lines waiting to get in, and the very restricted tourist access to the Basilica (much more of it being able to be seen on its website, above), we decided that visiting the Basilica, too, would be sacrificed. I was disappointed, of course, as I'm somewhat fond of San Marco both because it was the seat of Angelo Roncalli as Patriarch of Venice before he was elected Pope John XXIII in 1958, and because I was born on the feast of Saint Mark: April 25th. But we took our time making a leisurely study of the façade of the church, which is composed of the most exquisite, delicately-shaded variety of colourful marbles I've ever seen, and which bears illustrations for stories such as the city's beloved theme of making off with the body of their patron, Saint Mark, from his original tomb in the Muslim-conquered city of Alexandria in Egypt, and burying it here at the Basilica for the protection and honour of the city. Although, as I said, we took our time with this, this was yet another thing that would reward hours of study while we were only able to give it perhaps a half-hour at most, as we worked our way around the building.
Then it was afternoon and time for more adventures!
Go to: Venice: Part Two