Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Venetian glass, art and shopping; Murano and Dorsoduro

Venice, May 2006: Day 4 (part 2)
> Previous entry: A Venetian honeymoon gone wrong
It was a sunny day, though windy, as I set off early to see some art. The gorgeous paintings by Carpaccio in San Giorgio degli Schiavoni provided a lovely start to the day - very refreshing for the soul after the troubles of the night.

Next on my list was Santa Maria Formosa (Curvaceous St. Mary). The church is pretty good, but personally I think the name is even better.

Then I walked northwards past the hospital (another one of Venice's most beautiful buildings, offering glimpses of ornate halls). From the ferry stop at Fondamenta Nove I took the vaporetto past Venice's cemetery island to Murano. Murano is an island most famous for its glass-makers – who were apparently pursued and assassinated by the Venetian state if they took their secrets abroad. I'd been warned about tacky souvenir shops and gaggles of ripped-off tourists but I was pleasantly surprised.
Fruit, veg and flower boat in Murano
Murano is a pleasant island, although the area around the glass shops tended to be lined with other foreign tourists. I enjoyed the more domestic scale of the buildings, and was struck by a fruit-and-veg boat moored in a canal. The glass shops ranged from tacky to stylish. I picked one which was obviously a workshop, and which displayed militant posters declaring war on 'chinese glass'. I bought a tasteful glass ring as a souvenir of my Venice trip.

I ate lunch in Campo S. Stefano, a little square on the far side of the canal with lots of outside tables laid with cheery bright yellow tablecloths. Ignoring the generous range of seafood on the menu, I opted for tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms. The meal wasn't special, but I was entertained by a bold and aggressive sparrow with eyes on my bread. It tried hopping onto my lap, snatching bread from my hand, and did eventually get away with a strip of pasta. A few tables away a loquacious red-faced man emerged from the restaurant's interior to display a dead fish to a tableful of diners, his fingers thrust proudly through its gills.

While on Murano I added to the day's tally of churches with visits to S. Pietro Martire (a nice Giovanni Bellini painting of the Virgin with a doge) and Santi Maria e Donato (super mosaics in the apse and on the floor). Even the churches here have glass chandeliers, and I also saw a glass Madonna in a shrine overlooking the canal.

I returned from Murano to San Zaccaria by taking a boat around the eastern end of Venice, including some shore I hadn't yet navigated. The journey took nearly 50 minutes, but I had an outside seat and it was an enjoyable ride. I saw several teams in boats training for a regatta.

I wanted to do some more glass-shopping in Venice, and I returned to a shop I had found previously. It was mid-afternoon but the shop was shuttered so I ordered a cold orange juice at a cafe table outside and asked the waitress when the shop would re-open. 'He doesn't have an orario' (timetable), she replied, 'but I expect he'll be back soon'. Knowing Italian time-keeping I was slightly doubtful, but I sat at my table alonside this pretty canal and enjoyed the scenery.

Sure enough, the glassblower soon returned, and helped me select several of his handmade little glass figures as gifts for my friends. 'Do you know the story of Pinocchio?' he asked me. I replied that I didn't think the whole story was very well-known in England – I, at any rate, had never heard the whole tale. So as I compared miniature wizards and courting couples, he told me story with plenty of flourish, up to Pinocchio begin eaten by a whale.

Then it was back to my hotel, glass figurines carefully boxed, to collect my suitcase and change accommodation once more. Sorry to leave the Campiello, I headed along the Grand Canal to my next hotel, the Tivoli. This was in Dorsoduro, a lovely area which combines picturesque canals and a few of Venice's greatest tourist sights with a surprisingly laidback 'local' feel. This is where young people head out at night to drink and meet friends.

I spent the afternoon exploring the little lanes and canals in the area, taking far too many photographs of every scenic corner. One of the most interesting sights was another fruit-and-veg-boat, selling fresh produce to passers-by. I saw a gondola dragged up on its side to be mended, parents wheeling buggies along, and young students sunbathing along the Zattere shore.

Dinner was a plate of pasta in a pleasant bar close to the hotel on Crosera San Pantalon. Called the Improntacafe, the place tried rather too hard to be Milanese-trendy, though service was friendly. Glass-fronted and on a busy T-junction, it was great for people-watching. I saw a blind young man feeling his way past with a cane, and tried to imagine being blind in Venice. Of all places.

A picturesque evening wandering the illuminated passageways, bridges and squares, and my last day in Venice came to an end.

On foot in Venice

I decided that one of the things about Venice which charmed me the most wasn't the art, or the beautiful palazzi, or the canals (although obviously they played a major part). I loved the pedestrian lifestyle and the friendly scale of movement. Unlike Rome, say, where only the unfortunate and the foreign use public transport, here in Venice everyone has to take the ferries. And walking isn't a third-class option; it's the norm. After the difficulties I've experienced in Rome trying to meet up with friends at night when they all hop about on scooters or in cars and I'm struggling with buses, I found the Venetian system very egalitarian. Everyone has to take the boat and to walk, it's as simple as that. Instead of roads, Venice has pedestrian lanes where people can hail their friends, and stop for a chat. It's healthier, too - I doubt there are many overweight Venetians.

> Day 5: Train from Venice to Rome

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