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Italy #1: I went to Venice, posted November 18, 2007 at 01:42 AM

Well, it's taken me a full three weeks to get to posting the first of my vacation updates. Sorry for the delay, but upon returning to New York I embarked on a two week adventure of saying goodbye to Miss Adrienne Zaza and getting back into the swing of work, which has been kicking my ass. I also had to sort through and edit my 1400 photos. No, that's not a typo. I've edited the images down to about 400 for public consumption, and I'm sure a few others will leak out over time. For those of you who have been pestering me for photos, you will not be disappointed by the selected 400. And of course, you will still be able to track the progression of sunglasses I sported throughout the vacation.

I think it's so important to underpack for travel. Too bad I didn't do it myself this time. Although, one could say that I did, as I brought only three sweaters for three weeks and on the first day of week two I spilled red wine all over the front of my pale pink cotton/cashmere Michael Kors v-neck, ruining it forever, and leaving me with only two sweaters. So, anyway, my general rule of thumb is underpack everything, except socks and sunglasses. I brought five pairs of sunglasses and bought two more. So, I think one can safely say I did indeed overpack them. Ready? Here we go.

My adventure started in Venice. Well, no. My adventure started in New York, where in the car to JFK and at JFK itself I fielded work-related phone calls. Also, my cab driver left me off at the wrong terminal in JFK--though I mostly blame Alitalia for this error, since nowhere on my itinerary did it say the flight was a Delta flight. So I began with a sweaty hike through the infamously inhospitable environs known as John F. Kennedy Airport. Oy.

Once on the plane, things got worse. But I still can't talk about it without offending 90% of the population (straight people, you know who you are), so let's just say that the pushy nature of some people caused in me an epic-sized lapse of judgment and I gave up my window seat only to be aggressively stared at by a woman whose mouth looked less like a human mouth and more like an open wound on a crash-test dummy in heavy theatrical makeup. Here's a picture, but fearing that my lens might crack I didn't aim so long at the bitch and it's rather blurry:

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The complete final edit of my Venice pix is posted here. Be patient for the page to load before you proceed to looking at individual pix....there's a lot there...

Anyway, after sitting on the tarmac for hours, we took off for Italy. Instead of smacking the family that passed sandwiches and loud conversations over me across the aisle, I simply downed two small bottles of wine, three Advil, one Lunesta, and drifted off to sleep. Not so long later--after waking up wide-eyed exactly six hours after the Lunesta entered my system only to witness the pushy heteros indulging in a hand-job under a blanket (sorry, I tried to not go there) and then falling back asleep--there I was in Rome. Rome! ROME!!! Grazie a Dio.

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I usually hate exiting an airplane onto the tarmac and then being transported to the terminal by bus, but in this case it was Rome. Rome! ROME!!! so I was happy to get out of the plane into the muggy Italian air. And then a bus to the terminal, and then security, and then a long terminal, and then passport control, and then more security, and then looking for my connecting-flight's gate, and then looking for my phone and then--uh oh. I left my phone at the first security checkpoint. Lord. I went back through security, back through passport control, back to the first security, got my phone, got laughed at by the guards there, then did it all again. When I sat down at the gate this is what I wrote in my journal: "A heat I like--the slightly stuffy, not-quite-conditioned air of European airports. Means I'm traveling!"

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My flight to Venice was lovely. I had a window seat. I had a seat partner who neither spoke to me nor tapped my shoulder. I had wine. Two dohnuhts, un' taza di cafe, arriva Venezia.

And then the waiting continued. 45 minutes for my luggage to emerge. 45 more to wait for the boat across the lagoon. And then an excruciating hour on the boat skirting the perimeter of Venice. LET ME IN, GODDAMMIT.

When I finally arrived at San Marco and got off the boat it was crazy-crowded with tourists and pouring down rain. Deep breath, David, deep breath. I figured out the vaporetto situation, got on the right one, and got off at Sant' Angelo. I was convinced I would get lost before finding my hotel, but I turned one corner and ecco la: Hotel de l'Alboro.

Oh my god. Check-in was easy. And the room was amazing! 15-foot ceilings, huge room, a bathroom the size of my New York apartment! Oh, what do these shutters open up to??

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Wow. A balcony overlooking two lovely little canals. Whew. I know those last paragraphs were painful, but you've heard the last of my complaining. I kid you not. Every single moment of the rest of the trip was absolutely perfect. Ready?

Venice
Despite what you may have heard, Venice is actually on another planet. Like the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the entire city of Venice is just not of this world. Nor of this time. It's from some other mysterious time, like a novel set in a mix of contemporary and ancient times, creating a world unto itself. It's more beautiful than anyone told me it was. I mean, they tried to tell me. But until I saw it for myself, I just didn't know.

After literally jumping for joy that our hotel room turned out to be so freakin' great, I resisted the urge to nap or bathe, and instead just left the room and started wandering. I had a couple hours before Carter arrived and I wanted to get lost. Old winding streets, stone, charming little piazzas, and yes, tourists everywhere. I strolled for 90 minutes, then had a coffee to perk myself up. I went to the Chiesa Santo Stefano--dimly lit and very quiet. Then Carter called, having just checked in. I met him at the room, then we headed out for a drink. I had my first gelato of the trip (carmel!), then we sat for a glass of prosecco in the Campo Santo Stefano.

After refreshing at the room, we headed to the bright little restaurant at Hotel AgliAlboretti. It was good, if a little fussy. I had foie gras and Carter had sardines, then we both had a saffron risotto. And we had wonderful cheeses for dessert. I love Italy.

We strolled from there back across the Accademia bridge, toward Piazza San Marco. The Piazza is overwhelming. You're suddenly standing in a Canaletto painting, albeit one with tourist-trap cafes and crazy competing orchestra playing everything from Ravel to The Godfather theme. The area around the Piazza is less charming than where our hotel was--being overwhelmed by street vendors hustling illegal Bin-Laden-Bags in front of Chanel stores. Gorgeous though, with narrow alleys and charming building facades.

We went to the Bauer Hotel for after-dinner cocktails. They have a ballroom with pink sofas where I'd like to be married. They also have the worst cabaret singer I've ever heard.

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We awoke to a flawlessly blue sky, and a late-to-rise, sleepy Venice, slowing opening before us like a small fragrant flower. We walked to Dorsoduro and began our touring at the Ca' Rezzonico--a brilliant city museum in a 1667 palazzo. The highlights here were ceiling frescoes by Giambattista Tiepolo. The top floors held a sprawling private collection donated to the city in the 1900s. It was a study in how to be completely indiscriminate as a collector. We streaked that part.

From there we strolled to Campo Santa Margherita, a large piazza filled with Venetians. Lively and bright. We walked through it, then turned back to take it in more leisurely. We ate lunch at Antico Capon, in the bright warm sunshine. We both had delicious pizzas and split an arugula and prosciutto salad and a bottle of wine. After lunch I needed a gelato, but before I found one, I found a pasticceria where I had the freshest, crispiest sfogliatella of my life. Then we walked out to the Giudecca Canal to find Nico, a gelato place I read about in my book. We found it! And I had zabaglione e cioccolato in a dish. Mmmm.

With my sweet-tooth temporarily sated, it was time for more art. Hello, Peggy Guggenheim! I was impressed when we walked into the Guggenheim courtyard, but Carter laughed and said "Wait till you see the view on the Canal!" We walked through the museum straight out the front of the building to find ourselves perched on a stone patio looking across the Grand Canal. To the east the mouth of the Canal opened wide, while to the west the Canal curved northward, offering stunning views of the palazzos on both sides as well as the Accademia bridge. Oh yeah, the museum had art too. Peggy Guggenheim had great taste, and her collection is a study in judicious editing. All mid 20th-century grand figures--Picasso, Pollock, lots of Surrealism. A couple great Mondrians. The gardens of the Guggenheim are lovely tree-filled spaces. Sitting there it occurred to me how little greenery there is in Venice. This place is truly a monument to man's triumph (uh, temporary triumph) over nature. After all, these small islands, all veined with yet more water, should really not be inhabitable. They always flood, and natural resources--besides fish--are nil. But here it stands, all plaster, mortar, and wood. No yards, no trees, just narrow streets and water water everywhere.

Next was a coffee break at a cafe outside the Accademia. We sat for a good long while, not talking really, just letting the world go by.

And then we went into the Accademia itself. I came to Venice to see art, and here I had one of the great moving aesthetic experiences of my life. The museum is somewhat smaller than I expected, which is good, as there was plenty to linger over. The beginning and end were very interesting--especially the highly structured Bellini images of miracles and processions set in Venetian streets, and Titian's powerful Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple. But the day belonged to Tintoretto and the four massive canvases showing scenes of San Marco's miracles. We stayed a long time in that gallery, marveling at the crazy energy of the compositions. As I looked them over again and again, I felt time compressing and I got that odd sensation of being outside my own life that I sometimes get when listening to Bach. And my sudden awareness of that feeling caused a wave of emotion in me, which landed right in my throat. That's how great art can choke me up. When we left the museum I was elated. We walked back to the hotel, stopping in Campo Santo Stefano for a spritz.

After resting at the hotel, we went back toward Campo Santa Margherita for dinner at a wonderful little Sardinian restaurant called "L'Incontro." A well-run family business, the atmosphere and the food were perfect. They brought flatbread and vegetables to the table with a mustard sauce for dipping. Carter and I split a tomato-bacon spaghetti course which was succulent and spicy. To follow, I had kid in a brown gravy with wild artichokes(!). The meat was tender and very flavorful. Carter had suckling pig, which was even more amazing. After dinner they treated us to an Averna. It was a perfect meal.

Next stop: Harry's!! Well. I'm not wild about Harry, and Harry's not wild about me. The famed bar was a bit too authentic--what with the fat Americans at the bar laughing so loudly that the host had to ask them to keep it down. And their husbands also being loud and whooping as they checked their sports scores on their Blackberrys. Disgusting. The drinks we had--Manhattans of course--were good. We had arrived at Harry's via vaporetto, and Carter didn't have a ticket. I was hoping he'd get busted but he didn't. So anyway, Harry's blew. So back to the Bauer! This time we drank outside--three expensive rounds. The views on the Grand Canal were stunning. I was underdressed, but the bourbon kept me warm.

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We covered some serious ground the next day. After breakfast at the hotel we took the vaporetto to the Casa d'Oro stop. We were delighted to discover a new neighborhood, and walking along the Strada Nova we noticed how untouristy it was, as the locals hustled-and-bustled their way through the wide street. Venice suddenly seemed urban.

It was a big church day, and frankly, in memory some of them are blending together a bit. First was the Santi Apostoli, with Tiepolo's Communion of St. Lucy. I loved San Giovanni Crisostomo next, not for the art as much as for the people. It had a steady stream of older, well-dressed Venetians paying homage to a particular Virgin. Next came a small, absolutely perfect church: Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Amazing marble walls rising to a vaulted wood ceiling with fifty painted panels set into it. The altar was atop a long steep staircase, and was framed by four small Lombardi sculptures that brought me to tears. The Gabriel at the top left corner is insanely beautiful.

On to I Gesuiti! The enormous craziness of the Jesuit church is considered the ultimate in church kitsch, and it is very over-the-top. Green and white marble inlaid within each other in some kind of grand marble wallpaper gone haywire. The altar is framed and twisted. The Rococo angels at the corners of the cross are beautiful fanciness. But the artistic highlight was Titian's San Lorenzo roasting on an open fire.

Let me interrupt the church extravaganza to say that I can't quite remember the exact order of things, but I did eat two gelati again this day. One was carmel and one was lemon. The lemon was amazing.

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From the Jesuits we walked along the Fondamenta Nove, taking in the view of the gorgeous cemetery across the canal. It has tall pines standing guard. We arrived at the Scuola di San Marco, now a hospital. I stepped in dog shit, and cursed all dog owners. Vehemently.

The Scuola is gorgeous on the outside. A stately facade featuring Lombardo and Buora reliefs, leading into a grand lobby (now the entrance to the hospital that the building has become). Next door is Venice's largest church, Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Oh Bellini!--and monuments upon monuments. The rosary chapel has gorgeous carved benches, and fantastic ceiling paintings by Veronese.

For lunch we decided to go back to the Strada Nova. We sat at a small cafe and had a delightfully Venetian meal. We both had sardines to start--they were marinated and served with sauteed onions and chives with polenta. Heaven! Then Carter had spaghetti vongole, and I had gnocchi in a mussel tomato sauce. A bottle of red made lunchtime divine.

Would you believe after lunch we saw three more churches and a museum?

The Correr Museum in the Piazza San Marco was first. The highlights of this museum were the wonderful Canova plasters--Daedalus and Icarus was my favorite--and the reading room of the Biblioteca Marciana, which had great ceiling paintings by Veronese. Next came another of Venice's treasures: Basilica di San Marco, right next door. It's dark, and gloomy, and filled with tourists. Yes, it's great. The gold mosaic everywhere you look is thrilling, and is best seen from the loge (accessed via the most treacherous staircase I have ever climbed). Behind the altar is an insane gold screen, bedecked with jewels and small devotional oil panels. It's wonderful and well worth the extra 1.50. The floor of the Basilica is also amazing--mosaic marble in 3-D patterns. It's a headtrip.

Nearby, San Zaccaria tied Santa Maria dei Miracoli for my favorite church. Every surface of wall and ceiling is covered in oil painting. Bellini's Madonna & Four Saints is worth the .50 to illuminate it. But even more fascinating is the adjacent chapel of St. Tarasius with its carved benches and Tintoretto's Birth of St. John. Gorgeous. Stairs lead down into the crypt, which is always flooded. It's creepy, and a must-see.

Finally, as we searched for a place for our afternoon spritz, we found the church of Santa Maria Formosa. It was a simple church with a nice interior and a lovely altarpiece by Parma the Elder. But frankly, I was so exhausted I barely noticed. Out in the square, we drank our spritzes and watched the ragazzi playing hide-and-seek. What a wonderful day.

We had dinner at a place Carter had been before, Mascaron. We had two huge mixed seafood appetizers followed by spaghetti with fresh tomato and lobster! Wow. The place is harried and cramped and urban--and filled with tourists who get passed over in the queue if locals come in. Then back again to the Hotel Bauer. It's expensive there, but wonderfully atmospheric!

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Our last day in Venice was among the greatest days in my life. I think we saw almost as much on this day as the day before, if that's possible. First we stopped into the little church of San Vidal in Campo Santo Stefano. It's a lovely place, but the reason to note it is for the almost nightly chamber music concerts they host. We liked the program for this night, so we bought tickets. Then we went back to Dorsoduro--to St. Sebastiano, with ceiling panels, altars, and frescoes, all by Veronese. It's stunning. Over the balcony there's a St. Sebastian slung with arrows one one side, with his bowed-and arrowed persecutors on the other side, as if the arrows had flown right over the church's congregation to slay the saint. Then onto the Santa Maria dei Carmini, both the church and scuola. The church had carved-wood pillars, but I was really taken with the Tiepolos in the Scuola.

The next destination was one of my main interests in coming to Venice: the Tintorettos at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and the St. Rocco Church next door. In the church, the impressive paintings were scenes of San Rocco's life. But the real deal is across the street at the Scuola. It's basically Tintoretto's life's work, all under one roof. The downstairs has eight paintings, my favorites of which were the Annunciation (with a crazy flying parade of putti forming a rainbow across the top of the painting) and the Assumption (which hangs over a door and is painted as if the little angel sitting on top of the doorframe is giving Mary a little push up into Heaven!). But upstairs the paintings focus on Christ, and they are so potent and powerful and crazy that they brought up in me all kinds of weird memories of my days as a Catholic. In the great upper hall I was most taken with the Agony in the Garden (which always seemed to me to be the most excruciatingly moving Bible story), as well as the Resurrection. But it's all amazing. Off the great hall is the Albergo Hall, a smaller room dominated by an enormous Crucifixion. The composition is crowded and stifling, with Christ's cross crowding the top edge of the painting. It's a world unto itself. I spent a very long time looking at all these paintings, and we we finally left I could not speak. Carter suggested lunch, and I couldn't answer. Then through a sob I agreed that lunch had to be next.

The air and the walk brought me back to Venice and cleared my head. We went back to Campo Santa Margherita, to a little "restaurant and champagne bar" called Orange. Carter had a sandwich, and I had a salad, and we both had due spritzi.

We went next to the Basilica dei Frari, a church filled with monuments, including those of Canova and Titian. Immediately upon entering, a child vomited right in the middle of the stone floor. Maybe he too just came from seeing the Tintorettos?!

After the Frari we took the vaporetto to Santa Maria della Salute, which is the imposing white facade that's most recognizable as you enter the Grand Canal from the south. This church's design is wonderful--round, with a high dome and an ornate altar. The most important art--namely Titians and a big Wedding at Canna by Tintoretto--is in the sacristy.

We zig-zagged across the broad San Marco Canal to go next to San Giorgio Maggiore. Now THIS is beautiful architecture--clean and formal, rigid in execution and structure, but with strange details such as the tops of pillars interrupting other pillars. Tintoretto's Last Supper was a highlight, along with the amazing views from up inside the campanile.

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While we were up in the bell tower one of the bells rang--just once--and it scared the shit out of me and everyone else up there, to the point of me falling into a giggling fit which I couldn't control, and which is returning to me just typing this. DING!!! Seriously, it's taken me a long time to type out these couple of sentences as I shed giggling tears onto my keyboard. Ha ha.

And with that my church-going in Venice was finished. We went back to Campo Santo Stefano and had a couple of drinks, changed for dinner, then dined at a little place right by our hotel called Acquapazza. I had spaghetti with an anchovy sauce (the waiter said "You want anchovies, I'll give you anchovies." I hated him.) and Carter had spaghetti vongole. We shared steamed clams & mussels and a caprese salad. It was one of those meals that tasted just fine, but was certainly not worth the $75 each it cost us.

Then it was back to San Vidal for our concert. An octet was playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Mozart's Divertimento K136, and Handel's Concerto Grosso Op6, No1. It was fun to hear live music, but neither of us were particularly impressed with the performance, which was rushed and overly-ornamented and way too (melo)dramatic. By the time the cello player did an encore of Paganini variations, complete with more drama than Paris's Comedie Francaise, we'd had enough. So after the concert we just went back to the hotel to enjoy our room, sit on the balcony, and reflect on the wonderful times we'd had in our hurried four days in Venice.

To make things easier, the complete final edit of my Venice pix is posted here. Be patient for the page to load before you proceed to looking at individual pix....there's a lot there.

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So there you have it. Or, well, some of it. This long long long long entry was the first half of my first week of my three-week vacation. Heh. God help us all. Tomorrow's update: BOLOGNA!


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