A lot of people call Venice the most beautiful city in the world, but its beauty is not to my taste. Most of the buildings are decrepit and the narrow lanes are packed with people. What bothers me the most is Venice’s near-total lack of nature. Plants of any kind are few and far between. The only animals that still live there are rats and pigeons, and whew, are there a lot of pigeons.
Too many people, too much trash.
I only liked a few things about Venice. One, the host at our pension, Locanda S.S. Giovanni e Paolo, was extraordinarily welcoming and helpful, and without him we would not have had a single good meal. Two, Murano glass is really awesome, and it was fun to browse the shops and see all the crafts. Three, the church by our hotel was one of the most beautiful that I have been to, in part because it was empty and the sound of the choir, hidden from sight, was echoing through it when we visited. Other than those three things Venice was a series of disappointments. A fifteen minute gondola ride started at eighty euros (one hundred at night). A ride that included the grand canal was one-hundred and fifty.
A glass fish inside a glass cat! Ha ha! Ha ha ha!
Everything in Venice is aimed at the tourist. There is practically nothing authentic and local left in Venice because there aren’t any locals left. High real estate prices and cost of living have forced all of the locals across the lagoon to Mestre. Venice is practically the only city in Italy where you have to pay to get in to almost every church. If I were living in Mestre, that alone would keep me from worshipping in the treasure trove that is Venice’s sacred architecture. St. Mark’s, at least, is free, but it’s so crammed with tourists all the time that it must be very difficult to use as an active center of worship. Whether or not anyone tries, I don’t know.
A mosaic on St. Mark's Cathedral.
One cliché about Venice is absolutely true: everybody gets lost. I had a 1:7000 map, a compass, and Google Maps directions to our pension and we still couldn’t find it. The problem was that Google Maps doesn’t understand Venice addresses, which are just neighborhoods and numbers. The other problem was that instead of saying something helpful, like “Google Maps does not understand this address,” we instead had a map leading us directly to Nowhere, Venice. I eventually managed to find the pension website on my Kindle, which was completely in Italian and practically unreadable on the basic Kindle browser, and somehow figured out what street the place was on. It turned out not to be very far (extremely lucky) and once we arrived we checked in without incident.
Our room had two Murano lamps,
and a Murano chandelier.
Our first meal in Venice was at an Italian restaurant owned by Koreans. Frozen gnocchi with canned sauce: check! Our second was at a more promising looking restaurant near the Rialto. We ate hideously overcooked spaghetti with yet more canned sauce and a bowl of saltless minestrone. The Campari soda I had after dinner, at least, was good. Can’t ruin that, Venice.
The pension we stayed at had a flyer for an opera performance that looked like it might be fun, and unlike everything else in Venice it was reasonably priced, so I convinced Sophie that we should go. Sophie was in a terrible mood at that point because she had forgotten to take her antidepressants for two days in a row (imagine my relief when she realized the reason for her irritability), so it was a miracle that I convinced her at all.
The show was sickeningly touristy. Called “Baroque and Opera,” the program managed to contain exactly zero examples of baroque opera. The tiny orchestra (two violins, one viola, one cello, one double bass, one flute, one clarinet, one oboe, and a harpsichord) was forced to wear early eighteenth-century costumes, as were the singers, in spite of the fact that nearly all of the music was from the mid-to-late nineteenth-century. The balance of the orchestra was inevitably miserable. A normal orchestra has a string section of at least twenty players and no more than two or three of each wind instrument. You could hardly even hear the strings while the winds were playing. The players tried to get by without a conductor, which worked okay for the instrumental pieces, but just didn’t work when they were accompanying the singers. The players couldn’t see the singers’ faces and probably couldn’t hear them very well either, which made accompaniment impossible in the true sense of the word. The singers and the orchestra just weren’t together. There was no way for them to be.
The singers themselves were okay. The soprano had a nice voice but was hugely over-dramatic, throwing herself around on the stage like an epileptic rag doll. The baritone was probably the best of the bunch -- his voice had power and richness but could come off a bit shouty, which isn’t uncommon for baritone voices in opera, especially the way a lot of the music is written. The tenor’s voice was small and squeezed, and he lacked the technique required for the interpretations that he desired. Worst was “Una furtive lagrima,” an aria which does not require the highest notes of the tenor’s range but does require absolutely perfect negotiation of the passagio. The whole aria sits right in the transition point between middle voice and high voice -- D to high A -- and if you aren’t extremely comfortable you end up exhausted and flat. Which he did. The final high A of the cadenza was most definitely an A-flat.
The worst part of the whole performance, though, was the audience. Sophie and I were just about the only couple there. The rest of the audience was filled with large tour groups who constantly took pictures, with flash, of the singers and musicians while they were performing. I don’t care if the official policy of the kitsch tourist company putting on the show was that flash photography was allowed. Flash photography ruins performances and it must have been hellish for the people on stage.
It was just about the most atrocious parody of opera I have ever seen. That being said, I still managed to enjoy it because I didn’t bring an iPod on the trip and I was absolutely craving music. A couple of the songs touched my heart strings (“E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca always makes me cry) and it wasn’t the performers’ faults that they were forced into such a farce. A professional musician almost never turns down work. Otherwise he (or she) wouldn't be a professional.
We woke up the next morning to our charming host, whose name we never learned, bringing us breakfast. I put the tray on our table and promptly went back to sleep. A few hours later we slowly roused ourselves out of bed, ate breakfast, roused some more, and went off looking for a place to eat lunch.
When we were lost upon our arrival we walked by a restaurant that looked like it might be good. I actually remembered how to get there, and we sat down for lunch. We started with a plate of vegetables from the buffet, which were really good but way overpriced at fifteen euros. Sophie and I agreed that the eggplant and the yellow peppers were the best.
For my meal, I ordered Sarde in Saor, which is a traditional Venetian dish of fried marinated sardines with soft onions. I expected piping hot fried sardines. After all, everyone knows that fried food is only good when it’s straight out of the fryer. I got this: cold fried sardines with cold slimy vinegary onions. It tasted okay, but it was way too much work to eat and sort of generally ill-conceived, if you ask me.
Sophie ordered pappardelle with fresh tuna, capers and olives. I imagined fresh al dente pasta, slices of rare seared tuna and a light, garlicky white wine sauce with capers and green olives. What Sophie actually got, unfortunately, was slightly overcooked pasta with so-so tomato sauce, two olives, barely noticeable tuna, no capers and a whole lot of sausage. We know that she got the right thing because the menu only had one dish with pappardelle. It was just the worst described plate of pappardelle ever.
The best part of the meal was the complimentary drink, a traditional peach Bellini. We downed about half of them before we remembered to snap a quick picture. Bellini are awesome.
Irritated by our lunch, and exhausted from sleeping in so late, we went back to our room and took a nap. Before we went out again, Sophie had the good sense to suggest that we ask our angelic host for a dinner recommendation. “Ah!” he said. “You want a place, not so touristy, yes? Very Venetian, very fresh… I know just the place. I go there myself sometimes. It is very quiet and hard to find. No tourists. I call them to make sure they take good care of you.” He told us how to get there (it wasn’t very far, or that would never have worked) and send us on our way.
We had a couple of hours until dinner, so we decide to do some exploring. Our first stop was the church next to our hotel, the S.S. Giovanni e Paolo. It had a very large and beautiful south-facing stained glass window and Sophie and I liked the whole church a lot. We sat for a little while and listened to the music, which I have a soft spot for because I sang so much of it in college with the Early Music Singers. It was probably coming from hidden speakers, rather than a hidden choir of monks, but we’ll never know for sure.
The restaurant had only one table filled when we arrived. We were not able to successfully communicate to the wait staff that we had a reservation, but that was no problem, because there were loads of tables available. Miraculously, the restaurant was cheap -- my prix fixe meal of risotto, grilled meat, salad, a half liter of wine and a half liter of sparkling water was only seventeen euros. Sophie’s prix fixe of grilled seafood, salad, a quarter liter of wine and a half liter of sparkling water was eleven euros. The wine, a 100% Pinot Grigio D.O.C. Piave, was fantastic.
Thank God for that one good meal. If I ever go to Venice again (and I don’t think that I will) it will be in the dead of winter, when the heat and the tourists are gone. Maybe Venice was once great, but the demands of tourism have overtaxed it and the romance is all gone. The city that I saw was skeleton, stolen by enterprise. All the life left the place a long time ago. The only reason to visit is to see the cathedrals, the art, the local crafts, and perhaps to say that you have been to the sinking city. But for fuck’s sake, go in the off season.
Okay, so it is pretty at night.