I can think of no place as hauntingly alluring as Venice. Other than New Orleans, it’s the only place I’ve ever visited that’s every bit as secretive as it appears. Although this Northern Italian city is best known for canals, gondolas, Piazza San Marco, and “Spritz” apéritifs, hundreds of other pieces help tell its story. So during our recent visit, we resolved to see The Real Venice.
Comprised of 117 islands and 400 bridges, the car-less Venice is interwoven with macabre history and deep elegance. Our hotel was located in the heart of the Grand Canal, where tourists from all parts of the globe take in every morsel of exterior beauty. But a city flanked by never-ending tourism must retain some inner splendor, so another, quieter world lurks in Venice’s residential neighborhoods. Among these is the Jewish Ghetto in Cannaregio, where hundreds of years ago, Venetian Jews were locked into the area every night by three massive gates. Now, the area is home to a few hundred Jewish inhabitants, five synagogues, Judaic shops, and kosher restaurants. At the Rialto Market, little old ladies fill wheeled handcarts (resembling carry-on luggage) with fresh fruit, vegetables, and seafood. We toured a gondola-making factory, where it takes a group of laborers four months to build one $85,000 gondola from seven different types of wood. We found a brilliantly chaotic bookstore with books piled everywhere (even in gondolas), but the owner could locate the title of your choosing within 10 seconds. We visited an exhibit of Salvador Dalí drawings and sculptures, and saw the villa where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart once lived. And we searched for secret gardens, but the closest we got was a few peeks between slatted gates. Across the lagoon, we visited the islands of Burano, with its multicolored homes and lace factories, and Murano, where the world’s finest glass has been handmade for hundreds of years. The art of glassblowing is passed down from generation to generation, and one must apprentice for 10 years before becoming a glass master. During our tour at a glass factory, we saw the lovely and talented Sela Ward with her family.
Italy is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary as a unified country. It’s a place of many distinct regions, and most Italians are extremely proud to come from their particular province. Romans are Romans, Sicilians are Sicilians, and Tuscans are Tuscans. But Venetians have, and will always have, their own living, intriguing menagerie in which to call home.