It rose out of the lagoon.
Sometime around the 4th or 5th century, a resilient group of people had been pushed to the brink. Exhausted and worn thin by constant foreign invasions, they decided to relocate to the marshy islands far out on the water.
And thus, Venice was born. And the most magical city on the planet came to be.
Emerging from the train three days ago, I rounded the corner and found myself a mere 100 meters from the canal’s edge. It was a staggering sight I will never forget. It is a world of water, steeped in art and history. Centuries of human devotion to this strange, surreal floating city can be felt on every brick at your feet, every wall at your side (see photo slideshow at bottom).
As I ate my breakfast this morning and looked down on the boats zipping up and down the canal, I had a revelation. Everything before my eyes, and I mean everything—the streets, the flowers, the cups, the spoons, the doors, the houses themselves, even the people—everything was brought in by boat. And it has been this way from the beginning. It is the only way; for water is their master. Man is forced to kneel at nature’s feet.
That connection does something to a person’s chemistry. The people of Venice seem hard-wired to the rhythms of the lapping waters heard all around. There are no cars, no bikes. The wheel is a damned, evil tool of the devil. And don’t even mention the term ‘rush hour’ or you may be tied to the marble poles at the Piazza San Marco and drawn and quartered. The four pieces of your body dragged to different parts of the city to serve as an example. (Yes, I have a vivid imagination, but yes, they did used to do this to criminals).
Certain spots are packed with tourists flailing around each other like sardines in a barrel of water, but all one has to do is take the nearest side alley, walk a few meters and silence pervades the air. Some alleys are merely as wide as my arm, with laundry swinging from the windows overhead while flower boxes bring color to the fading, painted walls.
There are hundreds of alleys, side canals and tiny bridges. Attempting to navigate this place–even with a detailed map–is a study in futility. I nearly gnawed my hand off in frustration as passageways begat passageways and we were lead down countless dead-end paths. Were we in some sick maze where the Queen of Hearts laughed at our follies from her perch high above?
You must sink into Venice. Release yourself into its groove. Stop to breathe, to listen and to feel. That’s when the magic takes over.
Thats when you start to notice the little details: the worker whistling while delivering beer kegs from a small boat to a random hole in the wall, the way the young men step aside to let the old men get their drink at the bar first, the gondoliers shouting across the canal to each other, the artwork from the world-over shoved in every damn crevice, the young boys practicing their machismo, the fish vendor’s hands covered in black squid ink, the stairs that lead to nothing but water, the plethora of local wines that will never leave the area, the simple bar snacks (Cichetti) like anchovies wrapped around olives and speared on a toothpick, a piazza with random pieces of chalk scattered everywhere (inspiring me to sketch on the sidewalk), a sign in the window saying that buying glass from China kills the trade of artisans in Morano, the smitten lovers kissing on the crowded water bus, the tanned faces of the locals looking out over the water for the umpteenth time and the smell that has pervaded the fish market for seven centuries.
It is a place of magic. It is no wonder that it has arrested the hearts of countless artists. It is a place where man and nature ride a delicate balance, each threatening to overtake the other. To drown the other one first. But somehow, in some wondrously insane way, it works. Each morning the boats hit the waters and the city wakes up to inspire its people again.
It was like looking pure beauty in the face. And the beauty is all in the details.
Va bene, Venizia. Va bene.