Getting lost in Venice, for the fun of it

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Fyllis Hockman

The Rialto Bridge spans Venice’s Grand Canal. No cars are allowed in the central city, and boats are the primary mode of transportation.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

Venice is an old city. The water-logged foundations date back to the 11th century. The newer building facades are as recent as the 15th.

So many buildings were stripped of paint and plaster on both sides of a small alleyway that I expected them to crumble before my eyes — until I reminded myself they have looked pretty much the same for over 500 years.

This other-worldly city is filled with canals, gondolas, water buses, cobbled streets, alleyways, bridges and cafes. Picture everything that makes any city run — buses, taxis, fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, postal services, FedEx deliveries, garbage pick-ups — but they’re all boats! And the city still runs.

Expect to get lost. And thank goodness for that, because it’s the best way to explore the city and discover those gems that are not part of the major tourist itineraries.

Magical marionettes

Among those gems is Pinocchio Island, located in the Cannaregio District in the northwest area of Venice.

It’s home to a local Geppetto whose real name is Roberto Comin, maker of magical marionettes. These brilliant little string creatures represent all aspects of Venetian historical and theatrical culture, lovingly produced by Comin for 25 years in a workshop over 350 years old.

Requests now come in for characters from Shakespeare to Cleopatra, and even a Johnny Depp look-alike that was given to the actor for his birthday.

The costumes rival the intricacy and elegance of any Medici gown or regal accessory. Want a marionette dopple-ganger of yourself? It’s doable, but it’ll cost you about $600.

Another possibly surprising find — in such a Catholic city, home to well over 100 churches — is the world’s first Jewish ghetto. This small square is referred to as Ghetto Campo de Nova, possibly because it was the site of a getto (foundry) in the 16th century.

Today, there are five renovated synagogues, several kosher restaurants, and residents and tourists sporting traditional Jewish yarmulkes. The kosher menus range from antipasto and spaghetti, to bagels and potato latkes. Talk about an ecumenical meal!

Lost and found

As I said before, getting lost is a given. Tourists seem to spend as much time looking up at the signs designating different sections, squares and churches of the city as they do looking down at maps, phones and GPS’s.

In part, this is because it’s so difficult to give clear directions. My favorite response from a young street vendor I had inquired of: “Go right, over the next bridge. Then ask someone else.”

And then, when you don’t think things can get any worse, you see the sign you’ve been searching for — and it points in both directions! I thought about giving up and going home, but I had no clue how to get there, either.

We wandered everywhere, sitting at cafes to eat or drink wine, always aware of how little English we heard — reinforcing the romantic idea of living like a local.

And the more we wandered, the more enjoyable the discoveries: a delightful mask store, street musicians in jeans playing Vivaldi, an out-of-the-way Leonardo DaVinci Museum. 

The island of Murano — world famous for its glass figurines, jewelry and home décor since the 11th century — is a must destination if you want to be absolutely sure you’re buying Murano glass and not a knock-off.  It’s about a 40-minute vaporetto (water bus) ride away from Venice’s tourist mecca, St. Mark’s Square.

A factory visit offers insight into how Venetian glass is made, the colors created, the intricacies of the designs, and the skills of the master glass blowers. It makes you better appreciate the high prices you then encounter in the gift shops — sort of.

I was amazed at the intricate convoluted shapes in colors so vibrant and translucent that the light passing through intensifies the whole experience. I wanted to decorate my whole house with cups, vases, dishes and elaborately designed decorative pieces. But I settled for a pair of earrings.

Relaxing after a day of sightseeing at our favorite neighborhood trattoria, we sat and watched everyone else in Venice try to figure out where the hell they were.

Rest reassured that no one has ever been irretrievably lost in Venice. But if so — how lucky for them. They’re still there!

For more information, see www.visit-venice-italy.com and http://europeforvisitors.com/venice.