The Magic of Venice
We arrived in Venice via the Viking Sun, one of the newest Viking Ocean cruise ships on a foggy morning in October 2017. Scenes of Venice through the fog reminded me of paintings by Claude Monet.
We arranged to rent a condo in the Santa Croce neighborhood through Views on Venice. It’s a website with an expansive inventory of lovely apartments to rent and an easy website to navigate. The apartment was a short walk from the San Stae water taxi station and far enough from the chaos of San Marco Square over run by tourists. One of the reasons we chose the apartment was the proximity to the San Stae station since we knew we would have to roll our suitcases there from the dock. Venice is comprised of a myriad of canals and all commerce and transportation is conducted via the waterways.
When our water taxi got to San Stae, we had to climb over another boat to make it to the platform, not an easy feat with our suitcases in tow. An attractive man with a huge smile was standing on the dock and he reached out to help with our suitcases. It turned out to be our landlord. We walked over a small, steep bridge to the apartment building, a short five minute walk. When we entered the building we were met by an elevator repairman in the process of fixing the sole elevator in the building. Our rental was one floor up considered the first floor by European standards. Welcome to Italy! Mr. Simonetti carried our bags up the stairs to the apartment. What a relief! It was greatly appreciated.
He introduced us to the vagaries of Venice and acquainted us with what we needed to know about operating appliances, where to put the trash, etc. He spent close to an hour speaking without taking a breath. The most interesting part of his “lecture” was discussing the politics of Venice and the movement to curtail large ships from sailing into Venice. He thought Viking had the right idea to build smaller cruise ships for under 1000 passengers. According to him, the biggest problems for Venice were the overwhelming number of day trippers and the huge cruise ships flooding into the Grand Canal. Venetians have been forced out of central Venice due to the overwhelming crowds and high rents.
The apartment was elegant, spacious and dark as I guessed from the pictures. but had two bedrooms and two full bathrooms. The only natural light came from the wall of French doors and full length balcony overlooking a small, picturesque canal. Since the canal was narrow the buildings on the other side block any direct sunlight. The bathroom next to our bedroom was a good size. The shower and sink were large enough, there was a bidet and plenty of storage cabinets for cosmetics and soap.
The garbage boat arrived daily at 9 a.m. below our balcony to collect trash from the adjacent buildings. It was riveting to watch how the operator lifted the bin filled with garbage and dropped it into the compactor. All deliveries are made by boat. We watched in fascination as a delivery boat similar to FedEx dropped a package into the canal. The delivery man picked it up out of the murky water, wiped it off and proceeded on his way.
The consensus on the food was either it was over salted or not seasoned at all. We ate in a charming restaurant near the apartment called “La Zucca” which used to be a vegetarian restaurant. It was packed. My duck was dry and overcooked, obviously not the thing to order in Venice, but vegetarian dishes were well prepared. Seafood is the preferred food in Venice so duck was a poor choice. We were told we had to finish eating by 9:15 p.m. in preparation for the next seating, but we knew this in advance and they were very polite about it. Our reservation was at 7:30.
Someone just knocked on the door. A dryer is being delivered. Marcella, Mr. Simonetti’s beautiful wife, said there are dryers in two of their other apartments and she wanted to install one in ours. It really isn’t necessary. We’ve been using a drying rack quite effectively but it will be a luxury having a dryer. Most Italian rentals do not have dryers. When you rent in Italy check the list of amenities. It arrived by boat and was carried up the one flight of stairs.
We made lunch our main meal yesterday. We went to “Remer,” on a recommendation from our landlord. We walked around for an inordinate amount of time trying to find it. It was down a narrow passageway which ended at a canal. We never would have found it if we hadn’t asked at least ten people along the way. The restaurant is built into an old gondolier oar factory dating back to the 1400s. There aren’t any windows so it is lit by candlelight which added a romantic ambience to the interior. The price of our meal was higher than we were accustomed to . . . about 50 Euros a person. In general we paid between 50-60 Euros for two at all other restaurants. Claude and I split a pasta with a white veal sauce which was good. The main courses of monkfish and bream (a mild tasting white fish) were both bland, and the bream was filled with bones making it difficult to enjoy. Black ink pasta is a popular dish in Venice and it’s found on virtually every menu. Maybe it would have been a better choice. We had a chocolate torte for dessert which was the best part of the meal. We arrived at the tail end of lunch time just before 2:30. The chef had already left for his afternoon snooze.
In the evening we went to a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The sextet and ballet dancer were in masquerade. There were four violinists, a cello player, a harp player and a ballerina. The performance was in a beautiful Venetian church and we were transported back to the 18th century for an hour-and-a-half. It was delightful! There were many Vivaldi concerts going on throughout Venice during our twelve day stay, probably to attract tourists. We walked back to the apartment in the dark using our trusty flashlights. Flashlights are a must if staying outside the main tourist areas since it’s easy to get lost. The passageways are narrow, winding and dark and many dead end at canals.
Yesterday we walked to the Jewish Ghetto and entered through the ancient archway that once had a gate locking in the inhabitants. The Ghetto has a fascinating history. In 1516 the Jewish community which was a thriving component of the Venetian economy, opted to be given the right to own property so they could live freely as Jews. The foundry area was given to them known as the “geto” which meant foundry. The Jews who fled Central Europe, Spain and Portugal to escape persecution could not pronounce the word correctly. Over time the word “ghetto” became the accepted pronunciation. It was never intended to have negative connotations until World War II when it became synonymous with segregation.
The Jews were free to work in commerce, finance and established a strong cultural presence in Venetian life. When they left the Ghetto during the day they had to wear yellow caps or badges, except Jewish physicians who wore black hats and were in great demand. The Jews prospered and increased to an estimated 5,000 inhabitants within a century building vertical structures to accommodate their increasing population. They were not permitted to build outside the designated, restricted area they were given so Venetian Jews became known for building the first “skyscrapers” or high-rises up to six stories. The Ghetto became a literary hub and produced the first published female poet, Sara Copio Sullam in the 1600s. At night the gates were closed and the Jews became prisoners with armed guards, but during the day they moved freely throughout the Venetian community.
The Ghetto Novo had five synagogues representing different ethnic Jewish groups in Europe, and a large central square where many community activities took place. Their tranquil existence ended with the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930’s. During 1943 more than 240 Jewish residents were sent to death camps . . . eight survived and returned to Venice. Today there are only 500 Jews left in the Ghetto.
We took a tour of the museum which included several synagogues. Each synagogue was distinctly different in terms of architecture and furnishings depending on the part of Europe the Jews came from. The tour guide gave a brief talk and we wandered through the museum on our own viewing religious relics and other artifacts.
While we were exploring the main square and watching people coming out of a morning service, we met a couple from New England. They plan their vacations around the history of European Jewry visiting all the cities that have/had Jewish populations . . . an interesting concept.
Our lunch at the Gam Gam kosher restaurant was perfect. The restaurant was highly recommended by Trip Advisor. We had a tasty Israeli antipasto platter with several Middle Eastern specialties consisting of falafel, eggplant dip, artichokes and hummus before ordering our main dishes. The young waiters were extremely friendly and we enjoyed lunch immensely.
There was a Jewish bakery near the main square and we sampled the Venetian-style hamentashen or “Haman’s Ears” cookies filled with either chocolate, jam or almonds. They were delicious and came straight out of the oven!