18 October 2009

Trying really hard to like Venice

Your mental image of Venice, like everyone else's, is probably precisely the sort of scene that Arthur paints in his opening paragraph of the Venice chapter:
Venice is a fantastic dream. To feel its full impact, try to arrive at night, when the wonders of the city can steal upon you, piecemeal and slow. At the foot of the Venice railway station, there is a landing from which a city launch embarks for the trip up the Grand Canal. As you chug along, little clusters of candy-striped mooring poles emerge from the dark; a gondola approaches with a lighted lantern hung from its prow; the reflection of a slate-gray church, bathed in a blue spotlight, shimmers in the water as you pass by.
Lyrical, no? Evocative, enchanting, etc. Much more captivating writing than you'll find in most modern guidebooks. Well, I'm here to tell you that it is--or at least has become--false advertising. This place kinda sucks. Oh, I know what you're thinking: I would love to be in Venice right now. I would sell body parts to be in Venice.  My spleen, for example. And this guy is going to complain about being there, in the charm capital of the world?

That's right.

Oh, it's nice enough, I suppose. The canals are heartbreakingly lovely and pictureseque. . . . For approximately six hours and forty-three minutes. And then, in an instant, you're over them. They suddenly become mere nuisances, obstacles blocking your path, forcing you to walk two miles instead of twenty feet, when all you want to do is go to that restaurant RIGHT OVER THERE, FOR GOODNESS SAKE.

Thing is, Venice is a one-trick town. To be sure, it's a hell of a trick. One of the best in the world, as tricks go. But really: six hours and forty-three minutes. I defy you to remain interested longer than that.

Part of the problem is that you can't actually walk along most of the canals. You walk across them and then back into the graffiti-strewn labyrinth of waterless, narrow streets. You can peer down them and take a gazillion postcard-worthy photos of the sun-dappled, charmingly-deteriorated buildings on either side. But you actually get kind of tired of the beauty, immune to it.

Amsterdam: now those were some captivating canals. They were wide enough that you could actually appreciate the scene across the way. The houseboats added a level of layering and visual interest that Venice lacks. There was some breathing room. And though they were plentiful, the canals weren't freaking everywhere, like they are here. They were the spots of calm and respite, all the more enchanting because of the contrast to the rest of the city. Here, in Venice, they are the city.

Also, Amsterdam, though crowded, had its quiet spots, areas where you could be reasonably certain that if you coralled the next passerby, he or she would not be a tourist. Here, they (okay, WE) are a constant, crowded presence. I can't even imagine what it must have been like a month ago, in the high season. You probably couldn't walk more than three feet in an hour. Note to self: if you must go to Venice in August, pack a snorkel so that you can swim to your destination. 

In Amsterdam, you also could be fairly confident that if you went into a given restaurant, you would not immediately be handed a piece of paper reading "tourist menu" and listing exhorbitant prices for manifestly inferior food.

Not so here. I might go through my entire supply of Pepto-Bismol tablets. Every restaurant has the same menu, a sort of greatest-hits-of-Italy, with the So-So Seafood on page one and the Pedestrian Pizza at the back. I spent a lot of time looking at menus today--all for purposes of research; all for you, dear reader. There were variations in price but, two Chinese restaurants aside, the offerings were entirely uniform. From my quick glances at various diners' plates, I have to say the general quality looked middling at best. Below Olive Garden-level.

This evening, I went to a restaurant recommended by Arthur. You'd think that if it's been open for at least forty-some years, they're probably doing something right and the food's probably fairly authentic and semi-tasty. But my lasagne bore the distinctive pockmarks of microwave reheating. They didn't even bother to remove it from the Lexan glass bowl before serving it. As for the roast chicken, I strongly suspect it was neither roast nor chicken but one of the semi-domesticated pigeons from the Piazza San Marco, boiled in fetid canal water.

Even the gondolas have let me down. Recall that evocative paragraph from Arthur.

I made a truly valiant effort to like this place: I spent an hour or so this evening looking for an after-dark gondola, confident that the mere sight would change my mind (and also hopeful at that same moment, a ravishing, mysterious contessa would emerge from the shadows like a stealth siren, taking me by the hand and leading me into said gondola, which would take us to her opulent villa, etc., etc.).

But I did not see a single gondola after dark. Not with a lantern or otherwise. Not by the Rialto Bridge, not by the bridge by the train station, not in the big gondola-gathering spot by the Hard Rock Cafe. Niente.

What I did see--or rather, hear--was a party boat. It passed by just outside my window a few moments ago--and the canal my apartment overlooks is about 15-20 feet wide, so when I say "just outside," I mean that I could have reached out and smacked one of the boaters.

I'm wishing I had, actually, because now they're going back in the other direction, and they're singing--ruining--one of my favorite songs. "Volare." Gipsy Kings.

I love that song. Or rather, I did until a few seconds ago. I listed it as my number one travel song of all time in the World Hum poll last year. It's soaring, it's hummable, it makes whatever you're doing seem epic and triumphant--wash the dishes to it and you'll start to think you're saving the world with each scrub.

But now they've ruined it for me. Forget triumph: "Volare" will forever conjure memories of drunken boaters singing off-key. They don't all know all the lyrics, so they just kind of yell roughly in time to the music until it gets to the chorus, at which point they all burst out--and I want you to imagine a boat load of Venetian frat boy types, plastered on cheap Chianti, on a boat in a narrow canal flanked by an echo chamber of brick buildings, singing at the top of their lungs--"Voooooo-laaare!"

"O Sole Mio" it ain't.

Charm capital of the world, this place. Get me out of here.

Note: I wrote this my second (?) night in Venice, by which point the city's charms had worn off. I didn't post it because I thought it was too mean and figured I'd change my mind. Nope. Not really. Those jaded American students I met were right: it's like a theme park, with all the tourists and crappy, expensive food you'd expect in such a place.


  1. My husband and I lived in Italy for a year, about an hour south of Venice. All of Italy is as you describe Venice - kinda like the Emporer's new clothes.....6 hours and 43 minutes is plenty of time for any given city in Italy.

  2. I am so glad I can strike Venice off my list.


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