The Real Gondoliers of Venice

The one thing probably EVERYONE knows about Venice is about the Gondoliers. Well I can tell you, they do in fact exist!

I didn’t take a gondola ride myself, because even the cheapest were 80 euros, but plenty of gullible romantic tourists opt for the typical Venetian experience, which means that lots of cheapskate single skeptical tourists get to stand on the canal bridges and watch the show!

They’re a special breed of guy – maybe it comes from wearing a costume all day, particularly one that involves tight pants and muscle-hugging shirts… And of course the adorable hats to complete the ensemble.

I swear this isn’t posed. They really were just standing like this…

The prices for gondola rides start at around 80 euro, and go about as high as you’re willing to pay. The basic ride for two would be one of these guys silently pushing you around the canals in a long black boat for a half hour. But gondola rides are like cars, where you can keep adding luxury features. Or like salads, where you can keep adding toppings (75 cents for veggies, 25 cents extra dressing, $1.00 for avocado or toasted almonds, $3.00 for a piece of grilled chicken or salmon… etc.) For instance, you’re gondolier can sing to you. Ka-ching. Or there can be another guy in the boat playing the accordion. Ka-ching. Or your gondola could have a sun-roof and red and gold velvet cushions upon which you and your lover husband recline and sip champagne while you feed each other fresh Adriatic oysters… Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.

(That song, by the way, is a Neapolitan tarantella. In case you ever need to bust out that trivium at a cocktail party.)

One of the more pimped-out gondolas

And the gondolieri aren’t bad singers, either. Venetians are generally good at music, I’ve found. Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of an actual singing gondolier (ran out of room on my memory card… darn), but here instead is a picture of some Venetian opera singers singing a duet from Don Giovanni:

They were singing “La ci darem la mano.” Super cute. For your own edification, watch this version with Bryn Terfel. It’s the closest Mozart ever gets to soft-core pornography. It should be pretty obvious, but… the duet is about him seducing her.

And yes, the chamber ensemble is decked-out in 18th century costume as well.

I will remember Venice fondly, for sure. Not the exhausting heat and the soul-sucking crowds, but the costumes and the music and the novelty of the canals, which really are as beautiful as everyone says!


What happens in Venice… stays in Venice.

Somehow, despite all the things I’ve ever heard about Venice, I never quite understood this incredibly basic fact: there are no cars. Only boats.

So you can imagine my reaction when I walked out of the train station expecting to splurge on a taxi to my hostel… and instead of a road, there was a river. Whaaaat? I was halfway in a water taxi before the driver kindly informed me it would be 60 euros to my destination. I didn’t know I could move so fast wearing a 40 pound backpack, I hopped right out of that thing. (I ended up taking public transportation, which was… another boat. Sorry, the novelty of it all never really did wear off…).

So, most of my posts have managed to focus on one aspect of a city, but in planning what to write, I’m finding that almost impossible with Venice. Impossible to focus. Which, I think, is actually the overarching theme. Venice is too busy, too varied, too exciting. I really think it’s like the Italian Vegas, except about 2000% more legit, and with fewer skyscrapers. Also the strippers are classier. I mean… what?

Maybe it’s because it’s isolated – a 45 minute boat ride, or a 20 minute train ride – but there’s definitely a certain freedom about Venice. And it’s historical as well – there’s a reason Casanova was Venetian (I’m reading his memoirs now).

I think it all comes down to the masks. You’ve heard of the Venetian masquerades; they’ve got the only Mardi Gras celebration (just called “carneval”) in the world cooler than New Orleans’.

Masks are undoubtedly Venice's most significant product, after gelato of course.

The masks are the physical embodiment of the idea that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Venice boasted one of the most rigid social hierarchies in Europe, which is why the masks proved so useful. According to a mask-maker I talked to (who was trying so hard to sell me one – sorry buddy!), Carneval lasted 70 days at its height. Eventually, laws were put in place restricting it to 3 months, so this was clearly a lot more than just a pre-Lenten binge-fest. There were a multitude of laws restricting the wearing of masks at other times of the year, so it seems that it was somewhat of a problem. For instance, you were not allowed to wear a mask while gambling. Nor were you allowed to wear a mask while entering a nunnery. So clearly, people were wearing masks to allow anonymity, and impunity from illegal activities, like defaulting on gambling debts, and seducing nuns (oh Casanova, you so naughty). But it went the other way too – people were required to wear masks when voting in certain legislative bodies, to preserve anonymity.

A Phantom of the Opera mask AND a V for Vendetta mask in the same shop window?! Be still, my heart! 😉

So it seems like masks are the answer to a hyper-restricted society. In a mask, you are aristocrat or peasant, married or unmarried, upstanding citizen or outlaw, male or female… The mask-maker was explaining to me the shape of the white mask you see next to the Guy Fawkes mask: because people would be wearing these masks for weeks and months at a time, this type of mask (the most basic, called a bauta) allowed the wearer to eat and drink without removing it, allowed him to speak freely, but also changed the voice slightly in order to disguise it.

The mask culture is old, celebrated, and absolutely fabulous. Here we have a mask of San Marco cathedral:

And the costume jewelry is TO DIE FOR:

Sorry, I’m a girl and also a princess. I get distracted by shiny things. Back on topic.

There’s great artifice in everything about Venice. For instance, the simple fact that while I was there, I never saw a single food store or supermarket. Aka, the things normal people who live there would need. Conclusion? No one actually lives in Venice. It’s all just tourists. Of course that’s not quite true, I’m sure some people live in Venice, but I thought this was a pretty telling thing. Stores exist to make money, and if everyone is eating at bistros and hotel restaurants (aka tourists), nobody’s going to be selling groceries.

All this just further confirms the Vegas-Venice connection. Vegas has that same freedom and anonymity – no one is actually from Vegas, and after all, who actually lives in Nevada?!

And to conclude, more pretty pictures of the masks of Venice (including several that are obviously not mine):

Even the kitties have costumes in Venice…

And of course, what discussion of masks would be complete without a POTO reference?

Searching for Catullus in Paradise

I’m not gonna lie, Verona was a little disappointing. The town is lovely and especially the Palazzo Vecchio (I really loved the art collection there), but the hordes tourists and the 90-degree heat just made the place unbearable.

After escaping the chaos at the Casa di Giulietta, I went to the main square to sit for a bit and have an iced coffee. Flipping through my little Verona guidebook, I found a mention that Catullus was born there. But looking further, I could find NO evidence of his commemoration in Verona – not a statue, a street, a piazza, a museum. Nothing. How like the tourist industry, to make millions off of a made-up Shakespearean site, and barely acknowledge the fact that Verona is the hometown of one of the best-known and widely-read Latin poets. Don’t people care about Latin poetry?!?!?! Stupid question, maybe.

But anyway, this connection with Catullus confirmed my disgust with the gimmicky Juliet’s House and made me determined to track down something associated with him. Anything.

I miraculously discovered some free wifi, and wikipedia informed me that Verona apparently does not have a single thing associated with Catullus. Bummer. BUT, Sirmione, where Catullus had a summer villa and which he mentions in several poems, is only an hour or so away. There is an archaeological site at the villa, and a beautiful bust of the poet to take a picture of!

According to Google-maps, this is what Sirmione looks like:

A teeny-tiny spit of land sticking out into the lake. There’s not even a train station. I figured it would be a tiny little village, where I would be the only person, and the only feature of note would be this Catullus site. Instead, I found a massive and crowded vacation spot. It’s like, the Myrtle Beach of norther Italy, apparently:

Actually the place was gorgeous and I would have loved to spend a while there just walking around, lying on the beach, looking at the picturesque castle. But I had to be in Venice that night, and if I didn’t catch the 6:30 bus, I’d be stranded without my backpack (which I’d left in Verona). That gave me… one hour to find Catullus. Shouldn’t be a problem, this place is pretty small, right? Wrong. Looks small on the map, but huge when you’re lost and walking in the heat. I probably asked 20 people where to find the Grotto of Catullus (what the site is called) and they just kept gesturing, like “Keep going that way” “Keep going” “Farther yet…” and I just kept walking and walking to the end of the island. But at some point, I passed the half-hour mark, and I had to turn back or I would miss my bus.

So in summary: I spent an hour powerwalking through a beautiful beautiful town looking for something I never found. Alas, Catullus. My efforts were in vain!

However, I did find lemons as big as my head.

But I found Catullus 31 entirely fitting to this little jewel of a town stuck out in the middle of a turquoise lake surrounded by mountains:

Topographic Information – in real time

Since people keep asking, “Wait, where are you?” (It’s not just you, Steven Feis!)

Trip overview so far:

Rome –> Siena –> Florence –> Ravenna –> Bologna –> Mantua –> Milan –> Bergamo –> Sirmione (Lake Garda) –> Verona –> Venice –> Lugano –> Thun –> Niederhorn (Beaternberg) –> Grindelwald

And a zoom-in of Switzerland:

Understandably, the blog is behind me, so if you’ve been reading, as far as you know I’m still in Verona! But worry not, we’ll catch up eventually!

Juliet’s House in Verona – some strange traditions

In 2010 a movie came out starring Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave called “Letters to Juliet.” In this movie, an idealistic American girl (Amanda Seyfried) visits Verona, where she finds a letter to Juliet from the 1950s that was never answered. She tracks down the sender of the letter (Vanessa Redgrave), who arrives on the scene with her incredibly attractive grandson, and together all three search all of Tuscany for Vanessa Redgrave’s long-lost love, Lorenzo.

Trailer here:

It was a very cute movie, but just like hollywood simplifies and idealizes things like love, redemption, and road trips through the Italian countryside, the film’s picture of Verona as a quiet, sleepy town is not quite accurate.

In this beautiful screenshot, a handful of composed, meditative people sit quietly and compose their heartfelt letters to Juliet by hand in a picturesque Italian courtyard.

Everything is so peaceful…

Here’s what it really looks like:

] Absolute chaos.

But really, the place is so crammed with people it was hard to get from one end of the courtyard to another. The people are loud, and the gimmicks are… gimmicky. Everyone was stampeding each other to participate in the various traditions that have grown up around the Casa di Giulietta.

Tradition 1: Scrawl the name of your lover on the walls in sharpie.

Tradition 2: Stick a piece of gum on the wall, then have someone take a picture of you stretching it out between your fingers. This means that the walls around Juliet’s courtyard actually look like this:


Tradition 3: Write the name of you and your boyfriend on a padlock, and lock it somewhere. Anywhere. It means your love is eternal because no one can unlock a padlock, right…

A padlock is forever… Every kiss begins with a padlock… Padlocks are a girl’s best friend… Now you have a friend in the padlock business, the Shane Company… Etc.

I snark, but actually I kind of like this tradition. There’s something very un-graffiti-like about a padlock. Also they sell them in lots of pretty colors 🙂 But it does lead to some obnoxious tourist stunts…

Must find…. empty spot… for padlock….!

Tradition 4: Juliet’s breasts bring good luck/fertility/longevity/better orgasms. We must touch them and take pictures of it!!!

No but actually, they sell breast-shaped keychains in the massive giftshop just off the courtyard. Maybe it’s the modern equivalent of a holy relic… makes about as much sense as the idea that rubbing Woolsey’s toe will help you get into Yale. Not that it stopped me from doing so. Multiple times.

The “Letters to Juliet” is a real thing, though. People all write letters to Juliet discussing their happiness, their unhappiness, their luck, their bad luck in love, and a group of volunteers called Juliet’s Secretaries answer every single letter. There’s a box in the courtyard where people can drop their letters (not a beautiful billboard of artsy love notes, like in the movie), but most people opt to email theirs in.

You can’t see it, but the tops of the computers are engraved with hearts. Very cute.

After the chaos in the courtyard, Juliet’s house was actually pretty nice. It was five floors of a house furnished to look like that of a Renaissance merchant, and decorated with various artistic representations of Romeo and Juliet through the centuries. The house, of course, is not actually Juliet’s house or Capulet’s house or anything – some guy in the 19th century thought the little balcony over the courtyard looked pretty and started calling it “Juliet’s balcony” as a tourist gimmick. And how it has endured.

Probably the only *genuine* piece of Romeo and Juliet memorabilia in this whole city, is the actual bed from the Zeffirelli movie. You have to admit, that’s kind of neat:

Yeahhhh… get it.

A Detour to Mantua

After a day and night in Bologna, Steven and I headed back to Milan, where I stayed with him for a few days.

But on the way, we paused in Mantua, which has exactly three claims to fame:

1. The first real opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, premiered at the Ducal Palace here in 1607.

2. Romeo spends one scene exiled in Mantua in Shakespeare’s play (probably the only reason you’ve ever heard of it).

3. Vergil is from Mantua!!! (Sorry, I get most excited about this last one!)

So Steven and I spent an afternoon strolling around. The Ducal Palace was closed because of the recent earthquakes (I guess they didn’t want the old building collapsing on top of the tourists… darn), but I got to snap a few pictures of the massive monument to Vergil!

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From Canto I of Inferno:

When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”
He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.
‘Sub Julio’ was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.
A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned…”

Ravenna – The most beautiful mosaics in the world

The title pretty much says it all: In Ravenna (just off the eastern coast), you will find the greatest concentration of collectively the most beautiful mosaics in the world, IMHO. I’m surprised and sad that Ravenna’s tourism is less than flourishing – I was literally the only guest in my hostel – but I guess it just means I’ve found Italy’s hidden gem (and really, the quiet in Ravenna was so necessary after the hordes in Florence).

Ravenna in a nutshell: In 402 AD Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire (this is post-Constantine, so the empire had already been split into two halves, Eastern (Byzantine) and Western), and remained the capital until the final collapse of the Roman Empire in 476. The seat of power was located in Ravenna just long enough for lots of building and construction to take place – and remember too that by this time Christianity was already the official religion of the empire, so they’re not building temples in Ravenna, they’re building churches.

People don’t give Early Christianity much credit, artistically. The basilicas are large, inelegant things designed only to hold as many people as possible, and the imagery doesn’t yet have those story-tropes that developed during the Middle Ages and feature so prominently in Renaissance art.

But the one thing that Early Christians did well was decorate the crap out of churches and tombs – with mosaics.

If you’ve ever taken a European history class or an art history class, you’ve probably seen these two images:

These two panels face each other across the altar of the Basilica of San Vitale. The first is of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (most famous for rewriting and codifying the laws, and for having built the Hagia Sophia), and the second is of his wife, the Empress Theodora (most famous for having been an actress and prostitute before marrying the Emperor). But besides housing these two super-famous pieces of art, San Vitale was 1000% percent worth the visit, because the entire altar is encrusted with more of these gorgeous, vibrant, and colorful mosaics.

More pretty pictures from San Vitale:

(Please do click on the pictures so you can see the large, high-quality versions!)

An overall view of the altar from the nave. You can *just* make out the Justinian and Theodora mosaics in the panels to the left and right of the bottom row of windows.

An image of heaven in the apse above the altar.

To the right of the altar – I love that this shows how sophisticated the narrative scenes are (in the lower half), as well as the beautiful carpet-like decorations that entirely cover the walls and ceiling.

As you can see, the artist used a LOT of gold in the decoration, but the best part is that because of the unevenness of the mosaic surface, the gold glitters and sparkles so spectacularly. I tried to get a picture of it:

You can see in this in detail – look above and below the central angel to see the shimmering gold!

Another example of glittering mosaics, from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (a Roman Empress, buried next door to San Vitale)

Also in Ravenna, completely worth saying you’ve seen it, Dante’s tomb:

There’s a monument to him in Santa Croce in Florence, but don’t be fooled – he’s really right here in Ravenna!

So basically, if you ever get the chance, don’t pass up a side trip to Ravenna – all these things, Sant’Appolinare Nuovo, San Vitale, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, and Dante’s Tomb are easily done in one afternoon. Definitely my favorite day of sightseeing so far!