You might not believe this, but I wasn’t always the thoughtful thinker I am today. I once said stuff without much consideration. Like the time I was 19, engaged to Trish the Dish, and I told her I’d take her anywhere she wanted to go for our honeymoon.
She suggested Venice. I had enough money to get to the Ozarks.
Thirty-four years later, on a pristine July Tuesday, we finally made it to Venice.
Rolled in on the train from Rome around 10:45 a.m. and hit the ground of perhaps the world’s most unique city. A city of 60,000 inhabitants on its 118 tiny islands joined by bridges and separated by canals.
We’re here with the OU College of Engineering’s study-abroad program; 22 students are headed for a summer semester in Arezzo, but first came three days in Rome and now two in Venice. Here’s what we saw on Day One:
Venice is known for its canals. It ought to be known for its alleys. Old Venice, which is really the city everyone talks about, mostly lives on wide alleys.
Remember how I talked about the alleys of Rome? Well, at least Rome had major boulevards that connected those alleys.
Venice is a maze. A maze of alleys, with two or three wide wider alleys serving as conduit.
And no cars. I’ve been in Venice almost 24 hours and seen no cars since I got off the train. Across the water, in the newer parts of town, there are streets and cars. But not in Old Venice. Not in the Venice everyone thinks of as Venice.
You walk along canals and through alleys. And those alleys are alive. The closer to Piazza San Marcos, the grand plaza hard by the Adriatic Sea, the more congested the alleys and the more commerce.
Stores and shops of every kind. Some local, some national. Some popular, some not. A Disney store here, a deli there. An Italian suit store here, a glove store there. Hundreds and hundreds of them, sitting around alleys not 12 feet wide, or in courtyards that expand out a little.
It’s like catacombs above ground, only with a flourishing economy.
The train station is at the opposite end of Old Venice from Piazza San Marcos, and our hotel is near the train station. On our end of Venice, there are no alleys, just a fairly-wide thoroughfare that could accommodate one car (maybe two; it would be tight) except there isn’t one to be found.
But as you near the big plaza, the alleys increase and multiply. And away from the big plaza, the alleys delve into more neighborhoods, with apartments and shops for normal living.
We walked all over Old Venice on Tuesday, and it is wild how people live.
All supplies are carried by boat. Need an ambulance? Comes by boat. The canals are everywhere, so the various kinds of boats can get close to most addresses.
The Grand Canal, which is the major waterway, has huge boats floating past stately, albeit centuries old, buildings.
Venice has the feel of several different kinds of places. The Bohemian lifestyle reminded me of Key West, Fla. There are masquerade shops all over town, giving it a New Orleans feel — some say the masks come from Venice’s leaning towards the opera, some say it’s because of a French influence rare among Italian cities. And you might think San Antonio a little because of the river walk, although Venice’s water and walking dwarf San Antone’s.
The Dish and I didn’t actually get on the water. That will come Wednesday.
But we discovered Venice and it’s something to behold.
The Piazza San Marcos is the giant plaza right off the pier, and its grand architecture is stunning. Lots of movies have been filmed in Venice, and the piazza is a primary vantage point.
But the plaza is most known for the two buildings that sit side by side at its front. The Doge’s Palace and Saint Mark’s Basilica.
We didn’t tour the palace, but we toured the church, and its Rome-tourism worthy.
In some ways, I was as impressed with Saint Mark’s as I was the Sistine Chapel.
Saint Mark’s broke ground in the fourth century and essentially was finished in 829. Huge, grand cathedral with art work in domes high above the tiled floors that have remained in place from the 12th century.
The OU students went on water taxi rides, but we strolled back through town, although town is not the right word.
We strolled back through mazes and alleys of the strangest city I’ve ever seen.
We left our hotel in Rome at 6 a.m., walked over to the station and caught 6:50 train for Venice.
Longest train ride of my life. As a kid, I rode from Norman to Ponca City with my grandmother, before Amtrak left Oklahoma. In New York, I’ve ridden the train from Long Island into the city. And assorted subways. That’s about it.
But this train was superb. Super smooth ride. Quiet. Few stops. Very nice.
And it gave us a chance to see the Italian countryside. Some of it looked like you were rolling through southern Oklahoma. Some of it looked like the drive from northern New Mexico into Colorado.
But mostly it just looked Italian.
Small cities set on a hill. Old villages. Mountains. Hills. Farmland. A bunch of great sites.
UNITED NATIONS DINNER
The Dish hosted a dinner for the students on Tuesday night at Antica Trattoria Pizzeria.
They sat our 28-person party on a lovely night, on the terrace. We were served a four-course meal — a salami and corn-dish appetizer that was good, risotto that was excellent, roast beef sliced thin that was OK and some cream stuff with cookies for dessert that was very good.
I was hoping for seafood. I was maybe 300 yards in some direction from the Mediterranean Sea; I didn’t figure to eat beef.
But that’s twice that group dinners have been scheduled, and both times the engineering students were served red meat. Maybe it’s easier to prepare for a group.
The service was excellent and the atmosphere great.
We even had a television near our tables so that we could follow the World Cup.
All 28 people seemed transfixed on the end of the Argentina-Switzerland game. What a world. A bunch of Americans sitting in Italy, watching Argentines and the Swiss play soccer.
The Dish and I for lunch had just ordered “takeaway,” Europe’s word for “to go.” I got a pepperoni pizza and she got a sort of Italian burrito, which really was a mozzarella, mushroom and ham pizza folded like a burrito.
Later I got what I call a lemon chill. I have no idea what the Italians call it, but I needed it because I’m staying dehydrated. You can’t get enough water at dinner and I can’t find enough during the day. I’ve got to do something about that.
* Those guys in Rome selling sunglasses and hats and purses and toys? They followed us to Venice and set up shop.
* Venice seems to have more panhandlers.
* When I got my lemon chill, we ducked into a little bistro to sit for awhile. American music played the entire time we were there, led by Marvin Gaye.
* We walked a bunch through Venice and found it mostly charming and authentic. Then we crossed over a bridge, and there was a sign for the Wild West steakhouse.
* The bathroom at the restaurant was unisex. One bathroom. And it did not have toilet seat. I don’t know what the women are supposed to do.
* Our hotel is the Spagna. It has no elevator. We’re only on the third floor, so that’s no killer. But the Bulls are up on the sixth floor.
And one of the students is staying in Italy through December, so he packed big and carried much of his stuff in the biggest dufflebag you’ve ever seen. Must weigh 150 pounds. I helped him carry it from the train station — he on one end, me on the other — and up the stairs once we got to the hotel.
* The hotel is fine but a step down from Rome. Spartan. Not particularly charming but not awful, either. Bigger than the room in Rome but not as nice. The internet works; that’s always a plus.