My flight landed in Venice in the late fall afternoon, and by the time I made it to the ferry, the sun had already set. I was curious and excited about this experience—fascinated that I would be taking a craft into Venice like a seaman of old but worried that I would miss my stop. My hand-written notes were my guide: Blue Line to Fondamente Nove…Blue Line to Fondamente Nove…I kept repeating to myself.
Luckily, it was only the second stop. My next challenge was navigating Venice at night. The lamps provided some light, but in the darkness, everything looked the same. The laughs of groups and couples in the night made me optimistic that I would find new friends quickly, but as I noticed the small bridges and dead ends that I encountered along my search to the hotel, I began to believe that I was a mouse in a maze and my hotel was the cheese that I was seeking.
Another long alley is what I thought, as I made another turn after walking out of a passage. Every structure appeared marvelously tall, stretching into the darkness as the sparse clouds stretched pass the moon to make my search just a little harder by making the evening even dimmer. I imagined the people who may have once lived in these homes: wealthy people and commoners all making their living off the sea and trade and commerce. Even my hotel was the old home of a merchant, which is the reason why I booked it. I did not simply want to see the venerable past of Venice but to also feel it all times. To imagine that I was there. To be captured in the moment and see the years in every crack, brick, and sign that I came across.
This was the point of my trip, I told the front clerk as I checked in. Many come to simply spend a few hours and then depart, never really understanding or feeling what makes the city so unique.
I had a crush on Venice. It had been developing for some time. From the stories of fleets going to Constantinople and bringing back spoils to putting into Saint Mark’s Basilica, to its 13th century rivalry with Genoa. It grew when I learned of the daily interactions of Venetians who would throw items out of their windows out of spite and with malice towards neighbors who might be standing below.
Yet it was the front-desk clerk who brought me back to reality as he explained the Alta Aqua system that informs the city of how high or low the tide would be for the coming day and that the next few days were expected to be full of high tides and rain. That warning prepared me for when I first heard it early the next morning and thought it was a ghost wailing while trying to call out but unable to find the right pitch.
Day 1 had a low tide and sunny skies. I pulled my list out while exploring the famous landmarks as I wandered the alleys and passageways. Saint Mark’s astounded me, The Rialto Bridge was like a playground as I ran up and down, poking my head from each side and angle and taking photos of each inch. The Doge’s Palace and The Bridge of Sighs! Gorgeous as I pictured prisoners meeting their fate at either the execution chamber or a prison cell.
As long as there was sunlight, I had the energy to explore and learn the layout, by allowing myself to get lost so I could find something new. It was a playground that would soon be almost flooded because Day 2 started with a high tide.
The base floor of my hotel had a pool of water. I stared at it from the top of the stairs. I had never seen that much water inside of a home, enough to go up past my ankles. The street was more of the same. The canals on either side overflowed and joined in the middle like they were long separated and wanted to kiss once more. My instincts said to hell with it, as I sloshed around allowing the water to soak my feet up to two inches above my ankles. The skies were still gorgeous as I strolled through the water. Salesmen sold leg baggies to tourists and elevated wooden platforms stationed around the city helped crowds stay dry near major landmarks, but for the most part, I found myself simply dealing with the situation.
After a few hours, the water would recede, but by that time, I was tired of the sight. Each day, the water increased to the point it would reach my waist, but by that time I had become used to finding ways to navigate that included using trash bags to keep my legs semi-dry.
It was the history that lured me in, but the nightlife is what invigilated me. The sun set as I ate a pie in the Jewish Quarter, satiating my fetish for pizza. Mixed drinks from Frulala kept me off balance as I tried every combination until we started making our own. Vodka or rum with cranberries, mango, blueberries as I closed one location and relocated to the next. I woke the next day with half a box of pizza and an embarrassing screen capture of me singing to my friends back home via a video call.
Back at the top of the stairs, I watched as the water rose above one-third of them. It was the worse I had ever seen as floors flooded, bridges served as brief reprieves, and the platforms simply left you gliding over a slick surface of water. The entrance to St. Mark’s Square was now almost submerged, allowing those who used that specific passage having to dive into a cavern of leaves and trash to make it in. Those on the other side faired no better. The platforms were useless as those that could fit on the highest structure huddled together as travelers who were planning to head home that day used their luggage as a floatation device as people staying in the rooms above looked down at amazement at how high the water had gotten.
As for me, I was waiting for the tide to fall because I was anxious to explore. As the sun started to set, I made a mad dash to a military museum, the Flooded Crypt of San Zaccaria, which was still submerged but worth the wait, but the most impressive site was the sun setting over the “boardwalk.”
The luminescent glows from the cafes, restaurants, and bars lit up as the puddles of water reflected the world around me in each step that I took. I roamed the alleys and rialtos looking for the ideal place to dry off, have a drink, and enjoy a laugh.
I became used to the way the city twists and turns, how the alleys lead you to something unexpected or a bridge takes you to new places to explore. Both outside and inside of each establishment buzzed with laughter and conversations so soft that they felt like combined whispers luring me to join in.
Was I walking in circles? I could not tell, but I wanted to mingle and I found myself at the Crypt of San Zaccaria, which I found on my first night, but it was partially submerged due to its location on the bank tucked to the left of a bridge. Thus, it was back for more mixed drinks at Frulala. From there, my memory gets fuzzy, but being told that I had already asked these series of questions revealed that my hippocampus had kicked in and I was repeating myself. The annoyance of one patron highlighted that I had been going on for some time.
But this is what I truly wanted: to laugh, to simply enjoy the moment no matter how faded it would sit in my memory. The sounds of the water in the canals around us, the police craft roaming in its obscured waves, the restaurants closing as the staff clean around the last patrons. The water was still in puddles on the rocks that formed the ground and bridges around us. I looked at myself looking back and smiled. I know because I remember that before my memory faded out again.
It was now my last day, and I walked with sullen eyes to all the locales that I may not see again for some time, but I was glad I had the time to spend at each place. Took a ferry to the islands and walked inside of churches as we all went in circles taking pictures of every detail as if we were trying to capture the beauty of these buildings. Roamed around once more and stared out over the water to reminisce about when I was exploring on the other side.
I looked at the heart of sculptor Antonio Canova in its triangular tomb in the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and walked its many halls. That is one thing I quickly learned about Venice: you spend so much time looking in each direction that you are worried that something may be missed, that even a pebble is an intricate piece of art that was placed there hundreds of years ago by imaginations grander than yours but so subtle that its placement astounds you.
It rained on the day of my flight. Winds kicked up, but the water was not high enough to necessitate me using trash bags to keep my legs warm. Waiting for the ferry back to the airport as the “station” rocked on the water, I worried that I was in the wrong place, but even worse, did I miss any part of the city?
There it is, the vessel fighting against the elements and making its way towards us. We each jumped into the craft, some needing assistance to get below deck. Only one station and I would be back at the airport, but the weather would not make it easy. It pushed us like a fussy baby. It took three tries to dock with the next stop forcing the next set of passengers to be even bolder to get onboard.
The airport ferry station looked so different during the storm as the gray skies stole the blue one I had cherished. As the other passengers rushed to the long corridor leading to check in, I stood there watching the other vessels pass as the waves crashed onto the concrete. I wanted to relish my final moments there. To say goodbye to the former Republic of Venezia, albeit reluctantly.