Berry Tramel

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Italy travelblog: A gondola ride ends a day without wheels

by Berry Tramel Published: July 3, 2014
Berry and Tricia Tramel sit in a Venice gondola. (Photo provided)
Berry and Tricia Tramel sit in a Venice gondola. (Photo provided)

Buon giorno.

 Our two days in Venice are over. Quite a place. My description of our trip to Italy so far is this. I loved Rome. I found Venice fascinating.

Our second day in Venice included a gondola ride, which is something every person should get to do once, and a whole lot of boat rides. In fact, we traveled all over the place — almost completely around Venice, out to Lido island, on to island villages Burano and Murano, then back. We never rode anything with wheels.

A tram beyond the train station took us to the boat dock, and a couple of boats did the rest. We rode nothing that had wheels. But I at least saw cars today. And a couple of roads, out at the bus station beyond the train station. I’m telling you, Venice is different. Here’s what I saw:

ROMANTIC RIDE

Maybe the Dish has forgiven me for not taking her to Venice on our honeymoon 34 years ago. Maybe the gondola makes up for it.

The flat-bottomed rowboats once were a primary method of navigating Venice’s waterways. Some say as many as 10,000 adorned Venice in the 17th and 18th, but now there are about 400 in use to give tourists a ride through Venice’s waterways.

A ride costs 80 Euros and lasts about 30 minutes. I thought it was worth it. You go through a piece of the Grand Canal, then you peel off and go through some of the narrower streams, past residences and small shops. It’s incredibly peaceful and enjoyable. We had a great time.

Unfortunately, our gondolier didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Italian, so one of my favorite pastimes was negated. I like to talk to taxi drivers in cities. Let them tell me about the place and the things we see. I learn a ton from cabbies. Some other gondolier passed us, chatting up in his customers in broken English. So I was a little envious.

And when we met another gondola coming our way, and the fit was a little tight, I wanted to ask what you do when there’s no more room. The next boat that came by — sort of a small cargo boat — had a guy yelling at our gondolier. And I have no idea what was going on.

But I enjoyed it. I’d do it again, if I ever came back to Venice.

TWIN CITIES

Tricia and Berry Tramel stand by the canal that runs through Burano, Italy. (Photo provided)
Tricia and Berry Tramel stand by the canal that runs through Burano, Italy. (Photo provided)

We visited the island villages of Burano and Murano, and they have a lot in common.

1. Both are part of Venice proper. I don’t think “proper” is an Italian geopolitical term, but you know what I mean. Burano is about four kilometers from Old Venice. Murano is about one mile from Old Venice.

2. Both are known for one  particular export. Burano for lace, Murano for blown glass. And when I say “known for,” what I really mean is, world wide famous for.

3. Both have canals and actually are made up of multiple islands themselves, just like the larger Venice. Burano is four islands; Murano is seven.

I found Burano completely charming. It’s an old fishing village that sports brightly-colored buildings, because in the olden days, fishermen needed to find their homes coming in from the fog.

About 2,800 people now live on Burano, which is a tourist destination, with boats regularly bringing people over from Venice. Burano sports what we would call four or five blocks of commerce (you don’t really have blocks in Venice or the island villages, there isn’t much break in the buildings). And Burano is mostly restaurants and lace shops.

I have no idea why lace is such a commodity here, but it is. Lace shops by the dozen.

But we just thought Burano was proud of lace. We boat over to Murano and discover the Blown Glass Capital of the World. Well, we didn’t discover that. It’s been widely known. In fact, that’s why we were there.

Our boat, carrying only the 29-person OU contingent, dropped us off at a dock connected to one of Murano’s furnace garages. We walked the dock, maybe 25 feet, into the garage, immediately sat on some rudimentary bleachers and were given a 15-minute blown glass tutorial.

Our host, a pleasant Italian woman, gave us a blow-by-blow (bad pun) account of what the “master” was doing. I’ll tell you what he was doing. He was stunning me with the ease in which he made something out of nothing. The furnace, which was open and we could see, was apparently running at 1,000 degrees, with some kind of special sand from France cooking. The master took a metal pole, stuck it in the furnace for a few seconds, accumulated some sand on the pole, pulled it out and manipulated it against a table or blew on it, a total process he repeated 2-3 times, and within five minutes he had manufactured a gorgeous glass bowl from which I would have been proud to east seafood pasta. Then he started over, and this time within three minutes he had fashioned a cool-looking horse standing on its hind legs. Dangdest thing I ever saw.

Then they took you into their showroom and wanted you to guy some stuff. Which a lot of us did, including the Dish.

You don’t have to buy there. You can walk on out into the town that sort of mirrors Burano, just not as quaint and charming, and find, I don’t know, 10, 20, 375 stores specializing in blown glass. Seriously, probably 50 blown-glass shops.

But there’s some strife. Some stores say they feature only Murano blown-glass. Others don’t say that. The Dish asked one proprietor about it, and the woman told her that some of her stock was made in Murano, other was “industrial.” Does that mean, the Dish asked, that it was made in China? Yes was the answer.

This is a militant issue, seems like. One sign read: “We don’t sell counterfeit glass. Shops that sell counterfeit glass are killing Murano!”

Think about Murano the next time you load up on stuff made in China.

 

VENICE IS SINKING

Venice tour guide Laura talks about the Mose Project. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)
Venice tour guide Laura talks about the Mose Project. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)

Our morning began with a boat tour around Venice, led by a local tour guide named Laura, whom OU has employed in previous years. And she had quite the legendary reputation. We were told that Laura is quite beautiful, quite knowledgeable and possessed quite the intoxicating accent. An OU student from years past famously said, “Laura is a thoroughbred.”

Turns out she was indeed all those things. Laura gave us a great history on Venice and its landmarks. She also was up to date on the Mose Project, a 6 billion Euro enterprise designed to save the Venice lagoon. Basically, too much water is coming into Venice from past the outer line of islands. The inlets are lower, more and more boats are coming, and the water is damaging Venice’s foundation. Venice has lost 23 centimeters of land level in the last 100 years.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s the difference between the bottom of your shoes being wet and your shinbone getting wet.

So the Italians are constructing three “gates,” for lack of a better word, each situated between the inlet islands and each capable of restricting water flow. The Venice lagoon could eventually turn into a bay, and that would not be good.

When we visited St. Mark’s Basilica on Tuesday, temporary walkways had been constructed from the floor of San Marco Square into the church, because water stood at the steps leading to the church. Laura showed us a video of a 1966 storm that brought water three foot high into San Marco Square. The Italians are trying to figure out how keep the ocean out of Venice. It’s a little bit of a New Orleans problem, sounds like.

Our boat even drove us by one of the projects, which was cool to the engineers. It was a great presentation.

Trouble was, it was hard to stay awake.

Think about it. We were coming off a day in which we were up at 5 a.m. Tuesday, traveled via train to a city like Venice, walked all over the world’s most unique city, had a dinner that went 21/2 hours or so, then went back to a new hotel and a not-so-great bed. Then up at 8 a.m. to head for the sea.

Julie Sluss, a nurse whose husband, Jim, is senior associate dean of OU’s engineering college, warned us that it would be difficult to stay awake. She said the late nights, the early mornings, the swaying of the boat and Laura’s melodic voice would work against us. No person ever has been more right. That’s the sleepiest I’ve ever been. I wanted to pay attention, I wanted to learn more about Venice, but my eyeslids weighed 600 pounds. Some of the students couldn’t resist; they just conked out. Most of us fought it off, but it wasn’t easy.

I sure hope Miss Laura didn’t take it personally and understands that we all think she’s a thoroughbred.

 

VENICE VIEWS

* The OU students rode a water bus on Tuesday, and Wednesday we saw a bunch of water taxis. Real water taxis. Small motor boats that ferry people all over Venice. We even spied a water ambulance as we were leaving Murano. What I don’t know is if there are water fire trucks. There’s not a ton of exterior wood in Venice. And if those 700-year-old buildings haven’t burned down by now, they’re not likely to.

* An email from home explained the red orange juice. From Dwight Nomile: “Really having fun reading your blog, as I did my final semester in college (1980?) in Italy (Rome, Florence). Great experience.  I’m with you about the Sistine Chapel; smaller than expected, but still impressive. And the red orange juice? Blood oranges. Had them our first night in Rome and was surprised when we peeled one and the inside was red. Had never seen them before (or since).”

* The Dish wore my Thunder cap all day. No reaction. We even saw some guy (didn’t seem to be American) wearing a Kevin Durant jersey. He ducked into a glass shop in Venice, so I sent the Dish in to tail him, see if the guy responded. Nope. Nothing.

* For lunch in Burano, we stopped at a little Italian joint — I’ve got to keep saying that; virtually all the joints are Italian — and the Dish had an excellent ham-and-mushroom pizza. I had spaghetti with seafood. Very solid and quite inexpensive. Theresa Marks ate with us, and lunch for all three of us cost just 31 Euros.

* For dinner, after the gondola ride, we stopped at an outdoor café by one of the bigger canals (not the Grand Canal, but not a neighborhood canal either; think Pennsylvania Avenue in OKC). The Dish had spaghetti carbonara because she’s in a rut, and I had sea bass. I’ve been trying to get a big piece of fish since I got here, and I finally succeeded.

When I was a little kid, we didn’t eat a lot of fish because of fear of bones. Back in the ‘60s, at least in my crowd, all fish was served with bones, and my mom had us sufficiently petrified of swallowing a fishbone. Then along about 1970, somebody discovered the art of filet, and presto! Fish was everywhere without bones. I’ll bet I went 35 years without eating a unfileted fish. In recent years, I’ve jumped back in the bone game; my friend Jeff Caldwell has cooked me rainbow trout on the grill in Colorado and showed me how to get the meat off easy.

Well, this sea bass still had its head as well as its bones. Didn’t bother me. Heck, didn’t even bother the Dish, and she had to look at it, too. I whisked around the skeleton, pulled a few fishbones out of my mouth and went back to the hotel quite pleased with my choice.

* I got another phone call in the middle of the night. A reader who didn’t realize I was in Italy. That’s three so far on the trip. I’ve got to remember to start turning my phone off at night.

* I would estimate that 98 percent of Italian restaurant servers are men. There’s got to be a good explanation but I don’t know what it is.

* This was a much better hydration day. Not a ton of walking. Beautiful weather. And as we left the hotel, I bought a big bottle of water for us to drink on all day. I filled it up in Murano out of one of those now-familiar fountains. It still galls me the way is rationed. Maybe they don’t have enough over here. But I can tell you this. If Jesus had begun his ministry in 21st-century Italy instead of first-century Palestine, his first miracle would have been turning wine into water.

Arrivederci.

 

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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