Thursday, March 2
After getting up early and davening, we walk to the train station to reserve seats for the trip to Venice. The good news: We don't have to change trains in Bologna. Less shlepping of luggage, especially the green Travelpro, which has become my husband's nemesis and the source of much grumbing. We do have to fork up 30 euro for our seats. And another 40 euro for our trip from Venice to Zurich. By now I'm seriously annoyed with Eurail and the representative who advised me to purchase the passes.
When we return to the hotel lobby, we can hear the bellowing of our loud Germans, but mercifully, by the time we finish packing and go downstairs to have breakfast, they have gone. We say goodbye to the waitresses and to the stern-faced maitre d' -- he hasn't smiled once in the three days I've seen him. Back in our room, we take photos of our stenciled headboard, and more shots from our balcony. I'm loathe to leave.
At the train station we buy a phone card while we're waiting for our train to arrive at the track. (We should have done this when we arrived in Florence.) Once again the walk to our first-class car is a long trek. But once we're on board, we relax. Our seatmates are a delightful American couple from the Midwest. She manages a golf course. He works in a family business. They've been married almost five years and are expecting their first child.
"We feel blessed," she says.
The three-hour ride passes quickly, and soon the train rep is announcing, "Santa Lucia." The tune pops into my head. We have arrived in Venice. Venezia. We say goodbye to our new friends, drag our luggage off the train, and head for the area where waterbuses and water taxis are waiting.
I've heard much about Venice from friends who have been there. And just a month or so before, my daughter and I went to see Heath Ledger in Cassanova, which takes place in Venice. It's not really an island, by the way. It's an archipelago formed of over 100 islands, connected by over 400 bridges.
It's midday - a little after 2 P.M. The sun is shining. The weather is brisk. A few days before, Carnevale ended, but Venice has a permanent carnival air and is a riot of colors. The waterfront is crowded with tourists and kiosks selling souvenirs: Carnevale-style masks, tote bags imprinted with images of Venice, various items made of (fake?) Murano glass.
Rick Steve advises taking a waterbus - 5 euro a ticket, instead of the water taxi, which runs about 60 euro ($72). According to a map, the waterbus stops right in front of our hotel, the Dei Dogi. We opt for the waterbus. The route takes us through some of the smaller canals. Most of the exteriors of the buildings we pass look somewhat shabby, with peeling paint and cracked stucco that reveals brick, especially at the waterline. I soon discover that this shabbiness is part of the charm of Venice, an intimate peek at her no longer fresh crinoline.
Suddenly we're out of Venice, out on the Adriatic Sea. It's noticeably chillier and windy, but I'm excited. In the distance we can see other islands, one of which is Murano, famous for its glass and glass-blowing.
Minutes later our waterbus pulls up to the dock and we alight from the waterbus with our luggage. The map was somewhat misleading. We have to walk the equivalent of four or five blocks on cobblestone streets to Madonna dell Orto, where our hotel is situated. Finally we reach Madonna dell Orto and spot the hotel's red canopy several hundred feet ahead.
Friends recommended the Dei Dogi (I read that it was originally a monastery, then a French embassy), and it's definitely worthy of its five-star rating. It's in a quiet, residential area, away from the hustle of the train station and the Piazza San Marco . The lobby is graceful and beautiful, with exquisite Murano glass chandeliers and lush arrangements of fresh flowers. A tall vase with orchids sits on the reception counter.
We're greeted warmly and upgraded to a deluxe second-floor room facing the canal. The room is twice the size of our room in Florence, has a foyer with large closets, and a stunning pink-and-green marble bathroom with a separate tub and spacious shower, plush white robes ,and slippers. And Etro toiletteries that smell and feel divine.
It's after three, and we're eager to see something of Venice. After booking a two-hour walking tour for the morning (recommended by Rick Steve; mentioning his book earns us a 10 eruo discount), we leave the hotel and, with a so-so map as guide, we make our way across several bridges to the nearby Jewish Quarter. It's a seven or eight minute walk (we pass the Mori D'Oriente, another hotel we considered; it looks nice, too), and soon we're in the large piazza that was the site of the old Jewish ghetto. I spot the old-age home Daniel Silva mentions in The Confessor. I notice a well in the center of the square. (The next day we learn from our tour guide that all the squares have wells, and that Venice supplied its own water for over 1100 years.)
First we take a tour of the Jewish quarter ("This is the shop where Shylock would have worked," our guide tells us, pointing to a store front in the piazza). We visit two of the three Venetian synagogues. One is Levantine, another is Sephardic. Our guide explains that all the synagogues were built with five windows - symbolizing the five books of the Torah -- although sometimes the windows may be camouflaged. He also tells us that since Jews were forced to live within the limited quarters of the ghetto (until Napoleon freed them), when their numbers grew, they had to build up.
"They built the skyscrapers of Venice," our guide says. "Six-story buildings."
Today there are only about 400 Jews in Venice. In general, Venice is declining in population, our guide tells us. It's expensive to live here, expensive to rent an apartment. There are no cars, of course. No bicycles either. Everything has to be brought in from the mainland.
"There's going to be a wedding in this synagogue on Sunday," our guide tells us.
I would love to see a Venetian Jewish wedding, but Sunday we're leaving for Zurich.
After the tour we walk toward the Gam Gam, Venice's kosher restaurant and pass several shops. In one of the windows we see lithographs identical to the ones we bought in the Jewish museum in Florence. We're delighted to learn that the artist whose work we bought, Michal Meron, lives half the year in Venice (the other half in Israel). And that right now she's in Venice, in her gallery that serves as her studio. We meet with her, and she shows us a work in progress. The lithographs we bought take on added meaning and pleasure.
We stop by the Gam Gam to make arrangements for Shabbat meals. In planning our trip, we talked with Rami and Shachar Banim, the lovely Lubavitch couple who own the Gam Gam, and we're looking forward to meeting them. When I last spoke with Shachar, she and her husband were at the restaurant, hosting a party to celebrate the upsherin--the ceremonial first haircut-- of their three-year-old son.
Rami and Shachar aren't there now, so we talk with the manager.
"No arrangements are necessary," he tell us. "Just come."
And the charge for Shabbat meals?
"No charge. If you want to leave a donation for Chabad, that's up to you."
It's too early for dinner, so we decide to check out the Rialto, which, in Venice's prime as a center of international commerce, was the business district. Now it's crowded with shops that sell leather goods, masks, lace table and bed linens (much of the lace is made on the nearby island of Burrano), Muranno glass items. Spread out on the ground are knock-offs of designer bags that once again remind me of Santee Street in downtown Los Angeles.
More shops line both sides of the Rialto Bridge, the "most famous bridge in the world." That's where we're headed. It's colder now. I wish I had my gloves. Our knees groan with every step on every bridge, especially on the descent. We hope we're headed in the right direction. We're following the crowd and are relieved to find signs pointing us toward the Rialto. By the time we reach the Rialto, I feel as though I've crossed each of the city's 400 bridges.
To be honest, I'm a little disappointed when I finally see the bridge. But the view from the bridge is beautiful. The Grand Canal. Gondolas. Palaces. My husband takes several shots. Then we head back to the Gam Gam.
We're freezing. The pain in our knees is so unbearable that we're almost crying. But we're laughing, too.
At the Gam Gam we meet Rami, who gives us a hearty welcome. The restaurant is larger than I'd expected, and its pale mustard walls give it a warm, inviting ambience. Dinner is delicious (I have salmon in a lemon sauce and apple pie for dessert; my husband has onion soup and pasta). We chat with a young couple from London who have just finished their dinner. They're going to a Vivaldi concert near Piazza San Marco. I'd love to go, too, but it's food or music.
After dinner we stop at a kosher bakery up the block from the Gam Gam that offers an impressive selection of kosher products. Cheeses, wines, spreads, deli. The clerk speaks only Italian. I point.
"Duo," I keep saying.
I select a package of cheese. In the showcase are thick round breads, shaped like pizzas. I buy several wide wedges --two dotted with olives, two more with circles of tomatoes. The clerk wraps each wedge in wax paper, then places everything in a plastic bag.
"Domani," we tell him. We'll see him tomorrow, to buy pastries for Shabbat.
We return to our hotel. Only two bridges, we tell ourselves. It's dark. The waters of the canals lap quietly against the pavement. A gondola slices through the water. All the bridges look alike, and we hope we're not lost. We take heart when we pass the Mori D'Oriente, but we walk too far and have to backtrack when we cross the next bridge. The Dei Dogi's red canopy is a beacon, welcoming us home.
Our feet still ache, our knees are stiff. I maneuver the bread and cheese into the minibar. Then I draw a bath, pour in Etro bath salts, Etro foam. I shut my eyes and luxuriate in the hot water. When I'm done I wrap myself in the plush robe and slip my feet into the slippers. Nice.
My husband is in pain. He can barely move his legs.
"Take a bath," I urge. "You'll feel better."
He's resistant. He doesn't take baths. I tell him my feet and legs feel almost pain-free.
"Okay." He sounds unconvinced.
I fill the tub with water, with the bath salts.
"No bath foam," he says.
"Well?" I ask when a while later.
He shrugs. But when he's on the phone, I hear him telling our son that the bath helped.
We sample the pastries. We decide we like the little cinammon crisps best and save some for tomorrow.