Mike Vouri: The Invasion of the Veneto
- Written by Mike Vouri
Blood cells! That’s what I’m reminded of when navigating the warrens of Venice; those microscopic films of blood cells shooting through arteries, veins and capillaries, slowing, bumping, rushing, bound for the heart of whatever matters most to each little cell.
Burano. Mike Vouri photo
Welcome to more post-Covid shock…Venetian style. People! Thousands of them. In cramped quarters. What happened to the €3 to €10 fee for day trippers, mainly from monster cruise ships, the city decided to level to cut down on the crowds? According to the grand pronouncement last January this was going to have an immediate effect—especially when they said they would be leveling €300 fines on evildoers. As far as I could see, nobody’s paying!
We experienced vaporettos (water buses) so jammed that the dock hands were turning away passengers. On board it was like a mobile crowd, a packed street frozen in space and time while, in one example, our vaporetto sought the dock at Burano, one of Venice’s outer islands. The horde then animated and spilled down (or up, depending on the tide) the off ramp. Meanwhile, another mass queued, waiting to board our boat, the line snaking into the waterfront park, where peaceful moments once existed around the old cistern. The inbound “cells,”meanwhile, elbowed through the choke point that leads to Burano’s paint box central canal—a concentrated mini Rialto—lined with shops and bistros.
Heaven help you if you stop to pull up your socks.
Ok, none of this was unexpected, especially the streets (more properly alleyways) of Venice. It is the price you pay to enjoy this unique city during the fairer climes that mark the tourist season, which is considerably longer this year, even in the view of those in the industry here. Even the beggars are exhausted by it. Wait until mid-morning to go wherever…and you’re in trouble.
We dashed out slightly behind schedule one morning, trying to remember our tried-and-true routes from five years ago. Tried and true. I like that. You shuffle along streets so narrow you can extend your arms and touch both sides, seeking the paths indicated on the boiled-down maps issued by your hotel or the Rick Steves guide (missing critical details). The signs, posted overhead on building corners, will vanish mysteriously just about when you congratulate yourself on having mastered the city. Consequently, you turn down a boulevard and encounter a brick wall or a canal and no bridge. And then, finally you emerge quayside on the northern shore and the choppy waters of the lagoon, roiled by wind and hundreds of motor craft hurrying by in a score of directions. Finally we approach a vaparetto stand, but it’s not the one we’re seeking. I scratched my head. Which way, now? Julia smiled sweetly at a dock worker and asked, “Torcello?” He grinned broadly and pointed down the quay:
“Due ponti!!!” Two bridges that-away!
The Fondamente Nove stop is composed of four distinct floating docks (A through D), each trimmed in yellow with black lettering, lashed to the quay over half a mile, separated by two bridges. These are the primary terminals for those wishing to go to the glass factories and shops on the island of Murano or farther on to Burano and Torcello. You might also see a funeral procession bound for the Cemetario stop on a small, rectangular island, encased by a brick wall, about a mile off Venice’s north shore.
I had forgotten that day excursions to the outer islands usually begin mid morning and terminate starting after lunch.
Santa Maria Asunta from garden. Mike Vouri photo
Our destination? Torcello, the rural gem where Roman Italians from Aquileia and Altino and other mainland communities fled the Huns and assorted barbarians in the fifth century AD. It was the first urban center in the lagoon, predating Venice by a couple of hundred years. A bishopric was established on the island in the seventh century when Bishop Paul of Altino arrived with his followers and the sacred remains of St. Heliodorus (died 410 AD). That is when the first iteration of the Basilica of Santa Maria Asunta was erected, with the blessing and funding of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. All that is left of the original basilica is the pond just shy of the front steps where the baptistry once stood, and the original mosaic floor, which you can view through two small ports in the nave. Heliodorus is still there as well, his bones a pile of dust in one of the burial vaults. The current church was completed in the early 11th century, which still makes it the oldest church in the lagoon, which is evident from the worn columns and capitals, and the dissolving brick facings. But more on that in a moment.
(Incidentally Helidorus, in addition to preserving the holy mystery from the Arian sect —who believed Christ was not divine—is most renowned for looking down at his rich vestments one day and asking, “Would Jesus wear these?” If you’re not drunk with power or a raving egomaniac, the answer was as obvious to him as it would be to anyone who has read the New Testament without blinders: No, of course not. With that, he shed his robes, donned some rags and scuttled off to live the hermit’s life in a cave.)
The rising might of the city to the south, expanding on the dunes out of Rialto, combined with killer tides (known locally as Aqua Altas), malaria and silted canals doomed Torcello’s economy, which spurred her business leaders to relocate to more lucrative climes. And most everyone who wanted to eat regularly went with them. The island was left as a backwater, it’s canals home to herons and buzzards, local fishers and a modest, though high quality, tourist economy hoping that visitors will catch the shuttle over from Burano.
They were not disappointed today. Gosh. I had expected that, as in 2017, the masses would clog the choke point while we would proceed serenely onto the shuttle that departs on the half hour across the channel to Torcello. Nope. About a third of them turned right at the gate and crowded on board.
“Oh, I can go there? Where do I sign up?”
Following a 10-minute crossing, we were dropped at Torcello’s modest dock, and followed the serpentine along the herring-bone pattern modern brick walkway that traces the ancient grand canal into the older-still piazza, overgrown with grass and dotted with assorted archaeological scatter—disembodied heads, burial vaults, a stone chair, apocryphally attributed to Attila the Hun on the ground—the smaller concrete and clay affixed to the eroding brick walls.
Santa Maria Asunta. Mike Vouri photo
The church is a revelation, a classic Roman basilica with pillars running parallel along the nave, ending in the apse at the end of the room. The walls are festooned with Byzantine-style images that functioned as story boards, as it were, for the illiterate (most everyone except the monks and selected upper classes). At first look, they appear to be rendered in paint, and then you move closer and realize that they are mosaics; tiny bits or glass and ceramic rendered into saints and angels. The stars of the show, as always, are Jesus and his mom. There are also the assorted wretched men being consigned to hell with demons lying in wait. All the usual stuff meant to terrify the masses into obedience to the cross and the sword. The ceramics and glass, the marble slabs and columns with Corinthian capitals remind that Santa Maria Asunta was built with the “this and that” of dying civilizations. Save for the mosaics, it is not opulent and overdone. It was meant for worship in a very basic sense, however that was worked out in those early days of Christianity. We paid our 4€ and spent an hour enjoying the experience.
Santa Maria Asunta. Mike Vouri photo
We then had a marvelous lunch at a first-class restaurant overlooking an open field that gave onto the north end of the lagoon and the Marco Polo airport 20 miles off. And it was quiet, and empty and the staff warm and helpful, and we watched birds and had a few laughs.
Then it was time to go. Rebecca had never been to Burano, so after the crossing, we ventured into the choke point alleyway shortly after landing. Ack! I could only stand 20 minutes at most, which says more about me than the folks just out for a good time. Sidewalks were clogged, narrowed especially by the cafe owners, who set up their outdoor tables two-deep from the placid canal, where the boats are tied up in the still waters, but never seem to move. Burano is as well known for lace production, as Murano is for glass. In addition to the gossamer originals, woven by locals, there were also lace versions of San Marco and the Campanile, the molo pillars, gondoliers and the Doge’s palace…all stamped out with care in China.
It was time to go.
Like Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise, I reached my “orbit decay” for the day while homeward bound in the vaporetto terminal. Fortunately, we arrived first with our seven-day passes and were among the first to gather at the chain barring us from the dock proper, which was only open to local residents with “city pass” cards. I gazed longingly as only a handful passed us by. And I was beginning to feel the pressure of the mob mounting steadily behind us, all hell-bent on grabbing a seat on the boat, preferably on the fantail where only a dozen seats align the stern. As we used to say in the Air Force, it was asses and elbows when that chain dropped and the voyagers began to sprint past us, some throwing those elbows. This is serious business. We managed to grab three of the seats. I tried not to look anyone in the eye and focused on my Venice city map to divine how not to become as lost as we were in the morning. But then mal di mare started to creep up my gullet. We’d simply have to wing it again.
So follow the signs, you might suggest. “Per Rialto” or “Per S. Marco,” or both, might get you were you want to go…IF the signs remain posted and IF they don’t point in both directions. Your first instinct is to follow the “cells” that stream through the passageways with purpose. Surely they are attracted to both locations as drones to the hive. Remember what I said earlier?
By the time we reached our hotel at St. Moise, we discovered that we’d logged nearly six miles on the day (though few stairs). There’s a bit of an irony about St. Moise, a massive pile dedicated to Moses, who is shown casting the tablets from the peak of Mt. Sinai, while the miscreant tribes cringe below. No golden calf. But there was what appears to be a golden jug of some kind. It might even be a water pipe. There are plenty of glass animals in the neighborhood, perhaps a calf is among them? Rick Steves mentions in his pocket guide that St. Moise functions as the parish church for those who live in the San Marco district. The basilica is too much of a zoo these days for that.
All this in a city surrounded by water and supposedly sinking! But the only sinking I experienced was when I slipped into bed, where I drifted off amid hustle and bustle below our room and the final ding-dongs of the church bells at day’s end.
Ding dong. Ding dong.
Soon the tourists retired to their hotels, the streets and campos cleared and reclaimed for few hours what has been lost. Venetians will emerge in the morning to walk their dogs, sweep their stoops, and have a coffee with friends and neighbors at a local spot. I’ve found one, but am not going to tell.
That’s why, despite it all, I love Venice.