City of boats

Saturday May 5, 2012


After years of seeing those tantalizing tourist brochures of canals, gondolas and gondoliers, we finally booked a trip to Venice. The pictures did not lie. In fact, among the canals, bridges, and 70-plus churches, almost every view is postcard-worthy. Atop every bridge over every canal, there were tourists clicking away with their cameras and cellphones. There is something supremely fascinating about those canals.

Of course we knew about the Grand Canal, which neatly bisects Venice in a sinuous letter "s" and the famous Rialto Bridge which picturesquely arches over it -- 36 steps high -- but we were unaware of the plethora of smaller bridges over the multitudes of narrower waterways which trace their way over the whole of Venice. Expecting an easy time of walking in an area barely above sea level, we were surprised by all the steps.

The bridges were as different from one other as were the colors of gelato in the carts and shops along our route. The things they had in common were their stone construction and their flat tops. Some were plain, some elaborate; some straight, some curved. All offered beautiful vantage points for watching canal traffic and admiring the buildings which lined the waterways.

An unusual modern wooden bridge near the art museums was supposed to be temporary, but Venetians liked it so it stayed. The other modern bridge is near the transportation hub, where the bus and train stations, parking garage, ferry and cruise ship terminals are located. It is a very wide, long, glass-sided bridge which crosses the Grand Canal and handles the huge influx of travelers from the mainland with ease.

Our first sight of Venice was flying into Marco Polo Airport; our second sight was from the Alilaguna ferry, which sped through the mist and choppy water to bring us directly to Rialto. One quick stop on the work-horse commuter boat, the vaporetto, and we were five minutes from our home away from home.

Getting around Venice and the lagoon could not have been easier. We bought weekly vaporetto passes and boarded several boats a day, varying our route out and back to expand our visual horizons. We took a ferry to the island of Murano, famous for its artisan-glass production, and we even took a vaporetto home from the hospital after my unfortunate encounter with a broken water glass. In Venice, even ambulances are boats, staffed by a full complement of medical personnel.

Hearses are boats, too. Delivery vans are boats, and we even saw a brown-striped boat bearing the familiar logo of UPS. The most elegant boats are the water taxis, highly polished sleek teak cruisers from another era.

The most romantic boats are the shiny black gondolas, fearlessly poled by gondoliers in their straw boaters and striped shirts. Locals say that vaporetto pilots are jealous of their better paid counterparts and navigate purposely close to the lighter craft, making waves which rock the gondolas quite severely.

Once you get used to not seeing cars or trucks, motorcycles or bicycles, you get a glimpse of what life was like before such forms of transportation existed. Grocery shopping is done almost every day. Most people leave the small store with one or two shopping bags of provisions. Bread and pastries are purchased at other locations, and we were happy to have a famous pasticceria steps from our apartment. Choosing only two types of cookies at a time was a feat that would have frustrated even Solomon.

Other shops in our neighborhood of San Polo included produce sellers, gelato stands, and many, many retailers of tourist merchandise. We walked to the nearby Rialto area where one open-air market offered carts full of fruits and vegetables (the strawberries and fennel were amazing), and another venue sold all manner of fish. Cuttlefish are not long on looks, but they are a local specialty -- a relative of octopus -- served with black pasta, colored by the creature’s ink.

Anne Horrigan Geary is a regular Eagle contributor.


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