Italy 7: Padua

Padua: Where we did not see the world-renowned Giotto frescoes

Monday, May 13, 2019

Our visit to Padua was not the best experience we had in Italy. This was not Padua’s fault: it was mine. I was the Official Ticket Booker, but I had not yet realized that in order to get into popular museums and art galleries in Italy, even in the “shoulder season,” you have to have a reservation. At least in Padua.

Basilica di Sant Antonio, Padua

Also, as the Official Navigator I had not yet realized that the only way to find your way around major city centres in Italy (and probably those in other countries, too) is to get an accurately gauged map of the area itself and possibly even to draw your desired path along the streets ahead of time. GPS just isn’t much good — and can in fact be misleading — in heavily populated areas. Especially when your own built-in sense of direction is less than perfect.

We were to have even more convincing evidence of this second rule later in the trip. In retrospect, it would have saved us untold hours if I’d learned my lesson in Padua.

We had to be in La Spezia, on the western coast of Italy, by about eight p.m. There, we would leave our car and catch a train into Cinque Terre in time for our next hotel destination in Monterosso al Mare that night. I had estimated the time required to get to La Spezia as five hours. It was still morning, so we decided to poke around Padua a little before we left.

Padua street

I loved the architecture of Padua, which for some unknown reason reminded me of Shakespeare. The internet tells me that the only Shakespearean play set in Padua is The Taming of the Shrew, which I have both read and seen onstage at least once, but that doesn’t totally explain the visual association. (I also learned from a most informative and interesting blog post on this very subject, that Padua would have been famous even in Shakespeare’s day for its university — the second-oldest in Italy and the one at which Galileo taught — and for its botanical garden, which I wish we’d visited but… next time.)

Basilica di Santa Giustina

We planned to have an early lunch, then see if we could get in to see the Giotto frescoes at the Cappella degli Scrovegni. On our way to find a bite to eat we were distracted by the sight of a spectacular-looking church, which I later identified as the Basilica di Sant Antonio) and we decided to get out and walk around it. This decision led us to a half-hour effort to find a legal parking spot nearby. Once we’d found one, we realized we were totally turned around and had lost sight of the church we’d intended to see. Never mind. There was another spectacular-looking building right in front of us, the Basilica di Santa Giustina, so we wandered around it instead. I am still amazed that there are two such astonishingly huge basilicas (basilici?) less than a mile apart.

We found a cafe/restaurant nearby, ordered grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and coffee, and sat at a table with an umbrella (it was still spitting rain) to watch the world go by. Not much of the world went by: it was a very quiet Monday in Padua. (That restaurant was the first one I had seen that served fizzy water as a chaser for the coffee. I am a total devotee of both coffee and fizzy water, so I was delighted to see that someone had come up with this perfect combination.)

After lunch, we wandered around Padua’s cobbled streets and checked out a few of the 78 statues that form two rings around the Prato della Valle, a lovely elliptical park that is the largest square in Italy. Then we set off to find a parking spot near the Cappella degli Scrovegni, enjoying the walled streets, ancient buildings and huge trees we passed en route.

Entrance to the Cappella di Scrovegni

The museum entrance at the Cappella degli Scrovegni (“cappella” is the Italian word for “chapel”) was packed with tourists and school classes from everywhere, but I still hoped we would get in. Even after the ticket-sellers refused to sell us admission tickets, I still held out hope. I also held out my iPhone, on which I had composed a passionate plea for admission with the help of Google Translate. In it, I explained that we had travelled all the way from Canada (I may have intimated that we had made the journey solely to see the amazing Giotto frescoes), and that we would never have another chance to see them. But the ticket-sellers were steel-hearted and would not let us in.

I later noticed on the museum’s website that they require advanced ticket purchases with no exceptions, but even if I had read that, I would probably have attempted to whine my way in. I am sure that if I had been able to speak Italian and say my passion-infused words of regret aloud, the museum workers would have crumbled before my eloquence. But the words on the face of my phone just didn’t do it, even if they were in Italian.

Crestfallen, we departed, and hit the road for La Spezia.

In a later post, I will explore the whole issue of the names of places used in their home countries vis a vis the names for those places invented by speakers of other languages. The Italian name of the city we were in was Padova, but we call it Padua. We also call Mantova Mantua, and Genova Genoa, and Firenze Florence.

When I googled Padua/Padova I found a site on TripAdvisor where someone had explained to the world that the city’s name was Padova but that (he thought) Shakespeare had changed it to Padua. Don’t believe everything on the internet. But his misapprehension does help me to end this post somewhere close thematically to where I started it. So there’s that.

Italy 6: Zagreb to Padua

Our Italian Breakdown – in the Rain, of Course

Sunday, May 12, 2019

We departed Zagreb on a rainy Sunday morning and made our way onto the highway that would take us out of Croatia, through Slovenia and back into Italy. Our destination was Padua, which I estimated we would reach in about four-and-a-half hours. It took us twelve hours to get there.

Bridge over Karlovska Street, Ljubljana, Slovenia

It was still raining when we reached Slovenia, but Melania Trump’s home country looked lovely through the windows of the car. I was sorry that we had to zoom through its capital – Ljubljana (pronounced “Lyubly-anna”) – as there was clearly much there to explore. The ever-helpful Wikipedia informs me that the First Lady herself was born in Novo Mesto — which we drove past but did not visit — but that she attended high school and acquired some post-secondary education in Ljubljana.

Rural Slovenia, near Ljubljana

When I use the word “zoom” to describe our mode of travel, I am speaking more poetically than accurately: our rental car continued to stutter and hesitate every ten or fifteen minutes as we made our way back toward Italy. We were quite worried that the vehicle might stop completely in this country where we knew no one, had very little local currency, and possessed not even a smattering of the language. However, hunger overcame our concerns about the car and about an hour beyond Ljubljana we stopped at a roadside service centre. For the first – but certainly not the last – time on our three-week trip, we were astonished at the dining opportunities we found inside.

The Marche Mövenpick bistro on Slovenia’s A34 is one of a chain of 70 eateries around the world (some readers may have visited the one downstairs in Brookfield Place on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, which is not on the side of any highway!).

The one we stopped at in Slovenia puts typical roadside diners in North America to shame. It offers the hungry traveller anything anyone could possibly ever imagine wanting to eat or drink: all of it fresh and beautifully presented. We settled for soup, bread and fruit, which was delicious, but we could have selected freshly squeezed fruit juice, entrees with vegetables and pasta, salads, all manner of baked goods, elaborate desserts and, of course, rich delicious coffee prepared any way we wanted it. On a trip that took us to some of the great dining centres of the world, I realize it’s a bit odd for me to be raving about a highway diner, but given the location we were amazed at the size of the place, the variety and the quality of the food available, and the reasonable prices. (I was also surprised to find CBD cannabis gum and mints for sale alongside the candy at the checkout counter. These concoctions were as effective in reducing arthritic pain as any of the CBD options I’ve tried in Canada: i.e. not at all.)

Well fed, we set off again, and despite the constant irritant of the hesitating engine, all was well… for a while. Our GPS started speaking to us again when we crossed the border into Italy, the radio produced some nice classical music, and we were lulled into complacency. Feeling the need for coffee an hour or so later, we pulled off the highway and took a little break.

But that was the last straw for the car. It had done all it was going to do for us by way of favours when it got us out of Slovenia in one piece, and now it was done. Dead. Finished.

After attempting to get the engine to turn over for long enough that we feared we’d wear out the starter, we called the emergency number for the rental company. Or at least we tried to call it.

When we’d been in Italy the week before, we’d had trouble using our data and phone plan, purchased before we left Canada. It had worked fine when we got to Croatia, but now that we were back in Italy, our long-distance problems were also back, and we were unable to connect with the rental company via the toll-free number. Fortunately we were still at the gas station, and the attendant there helped Arnie to reach the person we needed to talk to.

That person told us (speaking Italian but with a translation app on his phone: as I’ve said before, technology is a wonderful thing when it works) that a truck would be there within half an hour to collect us and the car. He also told us that after we dropped the car off at a repair centre, we were to take a taxi to the car-rental outlet at the Venice airport. This was not the location where we’d picked up the car in the first place (the Piazzale Roma in Venice itself), but the airport – where we’d begun our visit to Italy one week earlier.

Map showing how we ended up back at the Venice Airport

Sure enough, less than half an hour later, a flat-bed truck arrived and the driver (a very nice man who spoke only Italian and had no translation device on him) loaded up the car, invited us to join him in the cab, and drove us through the ongoing rain to the car-repair location in Mestre, which is a suburb of Venice. There he off-loaded the car, and after we had signed a bunch of papers, called a cab for us.

It was our great good fortune to have broken down where we did: the farther from the original car rental location we had been, the more complex the problem would certainly have become. But nothing is ever simple when documents are involved, so it was another hour at the airport before we finally got ourselves and our luggage transferred to a new vehicle. The new car was bigger (not necessarily a good thing in Italy where the roads can be very narrow) and had no GPS, but that didn’t matter to us then. It ran without stuttering and there was more room for us and our luggage, so we were good.

By now we were again ravenous but we were also really tired so we decided not to stop to eat first, but to go to our hotel in Padua – where we arrived just as the kitchen was closing. Once again, the generosity of the Italian service industry rose to the occasion, and they kindly agreed to prepare a meal for us before the kitchen staff went home. They could offer us pasta (which was delicious) and wine; however, the waiter told us sadly, it was too late for dessert.

Italy (& Croatia) 5: Zagreb (Part 2)

Zagreb: The Enchantment Continues

Saturday, May 11, 2019

On our second and final full day in Zagreb, we awoke to soft morning sunlight and the sound of a school choir in the nearby square. Arnie went out to get photos of the market, which featured every fresh food imaginable. Between the stands, Roma people offered their wares -– clothing and other dried goods – quickly gathering up their merchandise and disappearing whenever anyone official-looking wandered by. (You can click on the photos in these galleries to see them in a larger format.)

We then set out with Ksenija for a wander through the lovely streets of Zagreb, indulging in some window shopping (if I’d started taking photos of the clothing and shoe store windows, much less looked inside the shops, we’d never have reached the museum), and again enjoying the range of building designs and styles in both the older and newer parts of the city. I loved the elegant, rounded corners featured on so many of the buildings.

Our primary destination for the day was the Museum of Arts and Crafts (our choice, one of several galleries and museums Ksenija offered as options), which is right across the street from the magnificent Croatian National Theatre, where opera and ballet are regularly performed. The Theatre is situated in Marshal Tito Square, which also features the Well of Life sculpture by Ivan Meštrović (1912) and a powerful representation of St. George and the Dragon by Anton Dominic Fernkorn (1907, the second George we’d seen in Zagreb. I found a lovely article entitled “A Dragon Slayer, Three Statues and A Secretive Society in the Centre of Zagreb” while I was checking out the details for this post.)

The Museum of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1880, could be the focus of a several-day visit to Zagreb all on its own. “Drawing on the theoretical precepts of the Arts & Crafts movement in England and the intellectual postulates of Gottfried Sember,” its website says, “the Museum was devised with the intention of creating a collection of models for master craftsmen and artists to reinvigorate the production of everyday use items. The strategy of the Museum’s activity was directed to the preservation of traditional values of the crafts of the people, but also to the creation of a new aesthetic culture of the middle class.

“Today the Museum has at its disposal holdings containing about one hundred thousand items of the fine and applied arts, drawn from the period from the 14th to the 21st century, organised into a number of collections: furniture, glass, metal, ceramics, sculpture, painting, graphic art, clocks and watches, graphic and product design, architecture, photography (one of the oldest such collections in the world) and photographic equipment, fabric and fashion, musical instruments, painted leather, ivory, printing and bookbinding.”

Needless to say, we merely scratched the surface! I was pleased to learn, thanks to one of my Facebook friends (thank you Jf Pickersgill! Who knew what Google could do?), that one can do a virtual tour of the Museum. I highly recommend it. In fact, I think I will do one myself because I missed so much when I was there in person, and I would like to re-view many of the items I did see. Here’s a very very small sample of items that caught my eye.

We finished the day off in style with a very fashionably late lunch at Vinodol. The food was beyond description, so I won’t bother to try. I had the chicken and I may have had the “Pavlova with Strawberries in a Glass” for dessert. In fact, I am certain that I did. One of many rationalizations on our trip that had to do with how far I’d walked that day.

After our lunch, we went back to the apartment and had a lovely quiet evening with our inimitable host, and with great regret and many promises to return, we packed for our morning departure. Padua, back in Italy, was our next destination. There would be adventures along the way.

Italy (& Croatia) 4: Zagreb (Part 1)

I Could Live Here. Yes I Could.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Beautiful Zagreb

I fell in love with Zagreb the minute we drove into the city. There are old sections and newer ones, an upper town and a lower one, and taken together it is a city with a vibrant and truly distinctive character that I could begin to appreciate even during a two-day visit.

Zagreb is the first city I’ve visited that has embodied my vision of what a “European city” ought to look like. The women are beautiful, the men are beautiful, the atmosphere is upbeat and classy. Everywhere there are cafes in the streets – all of them filled with people who are mostly talking animatedly to one another rather than looking at their cell phones. (Who works? Aside from the waiters, I don’t know. Everyone seemed to be outside enjoying the late spring sun on the Friday as well as the Saturday of our visit.)

And the perfect backdrop to all of this activity is the centre of the city itself – its lush vegetation and spectacular and beautifully maintained old buildings: from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque to art deco and beyond. (I am not normally so knowledgeable about building styles: Ksenija, our generous and enthusiastic host, grew up in Zagreb and studied architecture at the university there before moving to Toronto during one of Croatia’s many periods of political and economic unrest. She worked for the City of Toronto for many years, and continues to live in Toronto half the year, and in Zagreb for the balance. We met her through a mutual friend — thanks, Miro! — and she and I hit it off immediately. She is the person who insisted we visit Zagreb as her guests, or we might never have gone to Croatia, and while we were there she was not only a generous and most gracious host, but also a source of unending knowledge and amazing first-person stories from post-second-world war right up to the present day. )

For the benefit of those who are still a bit confused about the location of Croatia, I am including a more extensive map than the one I included in the last post. You can read the turbulent history of the country, part of the former Yugoslavia, in this Wiki, which also explains that today, Croatia is a sovereign state, “a republic with a parliamentary system, a developed country with a very high standard of living.” Two of its cities, Dubrovnik and Šibenik, both on the Adriatic Sea, have been filming locations for Game of Thrones (which I have not yet seen). The currency is the kuna, but since Croatia is a member of the European Union it seems likely that the euro will be adopted before too long.

Ksenija lives near the magnificent Zagreb Cathedral — the tallest building in the entire country, which makes it easy to orient yourself when you’re lost. You can see its spires in the photo of Zagreb’s rooftops at the top of this post. Originally completed in 1217, the Cathedral was rebuilt in the neo-Gothic style after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1880. Some of the fortifications dating from the Renaissance remain. I can’t believe that I neglected to take a photo of such an important landmark from the front, but here are two open-domain photos showing the Cathedral pre-earthquake and after reconstruction.

The first full day we were in Zagreb, after a breakfast of strawberries straight from the market that must have been picked that morning and were the sweetest I have ever tasted, Ksenija took us on a tour of the “upper town,” and related the history of Zagreb dating from the days of the Romans. We walked the streets of this lovely part of Zagreb in the sunshine, past the Croatian Parliament Palace, St. Mark’s Church, and one of the city’s two statues (that I know of) of St. George slaying the dragon, this one near the “Stone Gate” (the only surviving medieval tower and gate to the Upper Town  built in 1266!), and admired many other of the city’s must-see edifices.

We took a break for coffee, after which Ksenija had to leave us to attend a class reunion. After checking out the very interesting Croatian Museum of Naive Art (Hrvatski muzej naivne umjetnosti) but bypassing the possibly equally interesting Museum of Broken Relationships (next time. Sigh), Arnie and I headed for the funicular. This public-transport option turned out to be closed, so instead we walked down to the lower town, where we had lunch and then meandered back to Ksenija’s apartment via a lovely series of downtown parks and various iterations of the hustle, bustle and unfurling of the last day of the work week.

After a rest, Ksenija, Arnie and I stepped out into the closing minutes of a downpour to attend a sabbath service at Zagreb’s Jewish community building. The service was preceded by a personal tour of Croatia’s newest Jewish museum, curated with careful attention to detail and obvious love by Ksenija’s friend Myra Wolf — who was herself our guide. (A graduate of the Sorbonne, Myra spoke only a bit of English and of course we speak no Croatian, but we managed fine, thanks to Ksenija’s able translation combined with the knowledge we shared with Myra of rudimentary French.)

The museum is called “The European Day of Jewish Culture,” and it displays “ritual objects, textiles, documents and other material related to the 210-year history of the Jewish community in Zagreb.” Zagreb’s synagogue -– built in 1867 – was blown up in 1941 by the fascists who were then in charge of the city, and prayer services now take place on the second floor of the community building. The Friday service was followed by the sharing of a meal and a lively conversation (some in Croatian, some in English) concerning such matters as why some vegetables are kosher and others are not, and who decides the status of converts to Judaism in Israel.

(Later on our trip, we visited synagogues and Jewish museums in Florence and Venice, and I intend to share with you what I gained from those experiences in a separate blog post later in this series.)

We walked back through the wet, post-storm streets of night-time Zagreb still deep in conversation, which is exactly the way one ought to finish off such a perfect day.

Italy (& Croatia) 3: Poreč to Zagreb

We Reach the Capital of Croatia

Thursday, May 9, 2019

We had a truly outstanding lunch, including salads and an unforgettable chocolate mousse with deep, rich espresso, at Ristorante Casa Tua on the waterfront in Opatija, 80 km from Poreč.

The rain continued to fall while we ate, but as we left the restaurant, the sun broke out briefly, making the streets turn gold, and afterwards, high above the town at a gas station, we were treated to a most magnificent view of the Adriatic Sea. Then we headed inland toward Zagreb.

Our drive was mainly through downpours and clouds that impended our views of… – well of what, I cannot tell you. But once in a while the veils lifted, and we were treated to spectacular scenes of the Adriatic Sea, low tree-covered mountains, and villages showing off their mediaeval buildings.

While we drove through the rain, I read an article aloud to Arnie about the Istrian Peninsula that I had found in Air Canada’s En Route Magazine. It was fun to be driving through the peninsula and reading about three of its most valuable and distinctive exports: olive oil, wine and truffles. These days, Croatia is busy pointing out to the world how its particular climate contributes to the unique taste of all three products. and that purchasing Croatian is not the same as purchasing Italian.

Ksenija, our host in Zagreb, later told us that Croatians are not used to marketing themselves – historically they are a country of mainly farmers – but with fabulous holiday areas, clear clear water, and wonderful indigenous cuisine, they are sure to be successful in their self-promotion efforts. Of course, lots of people already know about the wonders of Croatia, but it is well worth consideration by those who haven’t thought of it before. And we didn’t even see several of the best parts – including Split, on the the Dalmatian Coast, and the country’s national parks. Next time. (Sigh.)

Our friend Ksenija welcomed us to Croatia with a warm hug and a drink, and we were happy to be finished with trying to find our way around the streets with the dubitable assistance of Google Maps. (A friend has recommended we try another maps program which works well off line and when I have an hour to sit down and figure out how to use it, I will!)

We went out for a short stroll around the neighbourhood, which is in the picturesque old part of Zagreb, and then enjoyed a dinner of sea bass, fresh out of the water that morning, with watercress and potatoes. Falling asleep after all of that was easy.

Italy (& Croatia) 2: From Trieste into Croatia

Wrangling with GPS in a New Country: A Cautionary Tale

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Waterfront at Poreč

On Wednesday we rented a car and drove from Venice to Poreč in Croatia, a distance of 250k.

We went through Trieste, where we had a tasty pizza in the city’s piazza, which is on the waterfront, and considered the fact that James Joyce and Nora Barnacle had lived in this city from 1905 to 1915. Since I had not known this until we were approaching Trieste, when I finally got around to checking out the city in my Lonely Planet Guide, we didn’t have time to do much more than consider our newly acquired knowledge, but if I ever come back to Trieste I will drop in on Joyce’s “scenic home on the grand canal” and also maybe visit Castello di Miramare, home of “the hapless Archduke Maximilian of Austria” (“hapless,” because he got himself shot by a firing squad in Mexico in 1867. Go figure).

Adventures with Technology

We had several maps to ensure that we would get from Trieste to Poreč without becoming “hapless” ourselves, by which I mean “lost” – e.g., by going astray in Slovenia (where Melania Trump is from), a country we needed to pass through briefly on the way to Croatia. Our reference materials included a printed map from the CAA that we noticed too late had the word “Croatia” printed in large caps right over the names and numbers of the highways we would need to take, obscuring them from view, and a GPS in our rental car that showed nothing but a blank screen beyond Italy and turned out to have a mind of her own.

The Italian-speaking Voice of the GPS happily accepted our request for directions to Poreč but she was devious: As soon as we got out of Trieste, she started giving us wrong directions until we ended up back in the city, in a rather sketchy part of town, where she announced that we had “arrived at our destination, on the right.”

We revised our destination parameters in an effort to trick the GPS into letting us get out of Italy, and set off onto the four-lane divided highway once more – only to have the Italian Voice try to turn us around again ten minutes later. But we were smarter now, and we ignored her advice. Unfortunately, our cleverness meant that now we had no idea where we were or where to go next. (These detours did confirm that we know the Italian words for “left” and “right,” sinistra and destra respectively, which will be handy when we get back to Italy on Sunday and attempt a reconciliation with our GPS.)

We’d bought a data-roaming plan before we left Toronto, but I had inadvertently used up way too much of the data in the previous few days so I was afraid to access the Google map of the region online. So we tried the offline map which we had downloaded ahead of time on the excellent advice of my elder son. However, we discovered that the flexibility of offline maps is limited — they find it hard to readjust if you accidentally go off course, and this one didn’t include all of the highway markers that we needed. It also didn’t, of course, speak Italian, Slovenian, or Croatian, the way the signage did as we proceeded out of, through and into the countries where those languages are spoken, one after the other. At last we gave up, turned on Google Maps’s GPS roaming, and got to our destination that way. I expect to have my roaming ability cut off by Bell at any moment now.

Pouring in Poreč

Poreč is a resort town on the Istrian Peninsula and our hotel – the Palazzo! – was vast and spacious, and reminded me of stories I have read of visitors staying at European hotels in the off-season, when the hotels are quiet and nearly empty, but elegant with staff in their white shirts and bow ties standing at the ready to fulfil visitors’ every need (fluent in German, Italian, Croatian and English and possibly other languages as well). After checking in, we wandered the stone-slab streets and ended the day with a chicken scallopini several blocks from our hotel.

Breakfast at the Palazzo the following morning was as elegant as the staff: fresh fruit, croissants, home-made sausages, eggs to order on demand, olives, cutlets, fresh bread, and several kinds of juices, and coffees or hot chocolate. They’d even carved the image of the hotel into a watermelon to decorate the buffet.

It started sprinkling soon after we arrived in Poreč (pronounced “Por-etch”) and by morning it was pouring, but we loved it anyway.

When the Lights Go Out, It’s Time to Leave

We have been impressed by the hotels where we have stayed so far in Europe for their power-saving techniques. The lights won’t go on unless you insert your room key/card into a slot that activates the power, which means that as soon as you leave the room with your key, the lights go out. We were not thrilled with the system the first time we encountered it, especially since we’d been planning to charge a phone and a laptop while we were downstairs for breakfast, but once we realized the reason, we adapted quickly.

In Poreč the hotel extended this method to let us know when check-out time had arrived: at exactly 11 a.m., all the lights in our room went out. Fortunately, we weren’t still in the shower when that happened.

Speaking of Languages

I have no idea whether the Croatians speak Croatian as well as the Italians speak Italian (just a joke, folks), but almost all of them speak English, which is a big help. And unlike Google Maps, Google Translate works very well off-line as well as on-. Which is nice.

In fact, Google Translate is amazing. You can speak into it and it will translate what you said into any language you want. You can type into it, you can scrawl something onto the screen and you can also take a photo of the words you don’t understand and poof! There it is in English! It’s great!

Italy 1: Venice

Footweary, But in a Good Way

May 6 to 8, 2019

Canaletto's Doge's Palace
Canaletto’s Veduto del Palazzo Ducale

The best thing about Venice is that it bears a striking resemblance to the way I have always imagined it. Of course, like most people, I have had a lot of help in forming my mental image of this city – from literary and dramatic sources (e.g., Mann’s Death in Venice, various iterations of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice), through paintings by Monet, Manet, Kinkade and especially Giovanni Antonio Canal (aka Canaletto. With a name like that, what other city was he going to paint?), to movies that include The Italian Job, The Tourist, and Moonraker. It’s even been featured in cartoons (See “O Sole Minnie.“) Venice looks exactly the way it is supposed to, which was a huge relief to me: I feared I might be disappointed. I definitely am not.

But since I’m sure that those of you who haven’t been to Venice yet have exactly the same images in your heads as I did/do, I decided that in this post I would share things I didn’t know about Venice until I got here, rather than things I did. So here goes.

Biennalle Arte 2019

Every two years (or so) the entire city celebrates the Biennale Arte de Venezia, featuring art and artists from around the world. In 2019, the 58th edition will open on May 11, and run to November 24. So we missed the opening, but that was okay because the areas of Venice where the shows are held (primarily in Arsenale and Giardini, which are east of the main tourist area) will be crowded once the opening has happened, and we got to walk around those areas while they were almost deserted. We saw workers installing an art display and heard people rehearsing for performances, but mainly the area was so quiet it was almost ghostly. Today, the Biennale includes dance, architecture, performance art, cinema, and educational initiatives as well as the visual art exhibitions that have formed the core since its inauguration in 1893. This year’s theme is “May You Live in Interesting Times.” We do.

Speaking of workers, it hadn’t occurred to me that absolutely everything has to be delivered by boat to every store, restaurant and hotel in the city until I read this article in The National Post. One afternoon after we’d worn our feet out, we sat down for a rest near the gondola stations and a vaporetto stop on the waterfront. There we watched the world float by, and in addition to the various water-based human transportation systems (including massive private yachts), we saw all kinds of other boats dropping off supplies – massive crates and cartons — delivering them to the closest wharf to their destinations, and then carrying them the rest of the way. Those guys work their asses off.

So do the gondola drivers. What I enjoyed most was watching them move so lightly on their feet as they use their long oars to manoeuvre around each other and all the other water traffic (of which there is a truly significant amount!). I didn’t see a single boat bump into any other boat, which is astounding when you consider how many of them are out there – going, it seems, in all directions.

Tourism has actually become a huge problem for Venice: the city is sinking and the waters are rising, and instead of only the wealthy being able to visit this massive historical site, almost every Tom, Dick and Mary is able to afford the trip. The cruise ships are a huge problem – not only because of the pollution, but because of the crowds (we saw several of the huge floating hotels while we were there) and there is a movement afoot to have them banned from the region. The BBC reports that more than 26 million people visited Venice in 2017, and that nearly half of the actual population has left in the past 50 years.

We stayed on the island of Lido, rather than on the main islands in the Venice Lagoon, so we spent a lot of time on the vaporettos and on buses, and we felt as though we were on Toronto Island rather than in the big city. It was lovely to get away from all of those people at the end of the day. On Lido, there are roads as well as a few canals. There are thousands of bicycles parked near the boat docks, and people ride them, and walk and use the bus. I was astounded to find that the buses have USB charging outlets on them!

By the way, after studying the language on Duolingo for several months, I am happy to report that Italians speak spectacular Italian. But most of the people we met in Venice were also almost fluent in English, for which I give them huge credit because I can also report that I am certainly not anywhere close to fluent in their language. I hope to improve at least a bit before we leave. It is a beautiful language.