“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” -Truman Capote
I arrived on the shores of Venice the afternoon of February 1st. As much as I’d love to say I was overcome with romantic sensations, I was honestly in the mists of the worst day of my trip thus far. As much as I had enjoyed myself in Milan the night before, the next morning was trivial. I had found I had lost my wallet that contained my Texas ID, debit card, and one of my credit cards. Now, before you getting busy blaming ye ole infamous European pickpocketers, I honestly think in the haze of the night I dropped it on the ground. Then, in my state of shock I ended up misplacing my all-time favorite scarf!
Needlesstosay, by the time I reached Venice I was a wreck. Then my compadre and I ended up walking around venice trying to find our hotel for WAY too long but luckily got some much needed guidance and assistance from some lovely ladies in a glass shop.
First of all, the city of Venice is nothing more than a giant labyrinth.
I wish I could state that all glitters is gold, but honestly getting around Venice nearly the entire time I was there was overwhelmingly frustrating. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to think so because at one point, on our way to a Carnivale festival Saturday night, I overheard a man get distraught to the point he cried out “I’m so done with this city!” to his less than cheerful wife.
Venice is also one of the most depressing cities I’ve ever encountered.
The cold, the dreary fogs, the decomposing buildings. All of it was wildly melancholic. Even the people didn’t seem all that jovial.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I went to Venice. If you are ever to find yourself there, I would also recommend going during their Carnivale festival as I had. Yet, Venice is exactly how Thomas Mann describes it: “half fairytale, half tourist trap”.
Once you’re on the island, you’re basically stuck there. And everything is crazy expensive. The water bus is 7,50 euro for a one-way trip! The gondolas are 40-80 euros for less than 40 minute ride. The food can be outrageously overpriced and absolutely no attraction is free. Doge’s Palace was 20 euro to enter (And they played it off stating the ticket was useful for multiple musems. But what if I only want to see the palace!) And even the palace was set up in a way that felt more like a maze than a landmark. St Mark’s Campanile is 8 euros to ride an elevator to the top. To stare off at Venice. And then ride the elevator back down. They don’t even let you go to the other 7 levels!
Okay, so now that my small rant is over, let me tell you the great stuff about Venice.
Carnevale di Venezia
There’s a lot to be said about Venice. The city is an intricate connection between water and land. There are supposedly 118 islands connected by 177 canals.
Now, I’m about to give you way more information and history then you necessarily need. But I found this all wayyy too fascinating to condense further, so bear with me.
The city of Venice became it’s own republic around the 5th century. (That’s you know, something like 1600 years ago…) by the 12th century Venice held the title for “leading sea power in the Mediterranean” and was surely becoming one of the richest cities in Europe.
It’s believed the Carnival of Venice began around 1162 to celebrate the victory of “Serenissima Repubblica”. People danced and rejoiced in San Marco Square. The festival wasn’t official until the Renaissance and during that time it became a ten-day festival that ended on the day of Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras anyone?) In order to signify the time before Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter in which fasting occurs).
The wearing of masks was a way to break down all social norms. Carnival was the only time in which the nobles and working class mingled, enjoying the festival as equals.
Through the wearing of masks, anyone could become anyone they wanted, eliminating all forms of personal identity: social class, religion, gender, and even attitude or behavior.
Masks were a huge part of Venetian life even outside of Carnivale festivities.
It should be noted Venice was the Vegas of its time (casino is even a Venetian word).
Venice was a bustling port city with thousands of sailors flooding it’s shores each year. Around the 15th century, prostitution was a hot business to be in, with an estimated 11,000 prostitutes in the city with a population of 150,000 (That’s 1 in every 13th person!). The trade was even protected by the law.
Both women and men participated in the trade. There once was an ordinance in the 15th century that required women to bare their breasts while soliciting in order to encourage young men to visit the tax paying official brothels. Their male counterparts were enraged at this ordinance, stating that it gave females an unfair advantage in the trade, and so, in turn, took to standing at the windows of their brothels wearing nothing but masks.
Since all debotchery in masks was considered play, they couldn’t be prosecuted. At least, not until more laws were passed.
There was always a party in Venice, masked as one religious festival or another and, as the saying went, ‘A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale’ or ‘anything goes at carnival’.
Two men, dressed as women dancing around San Marco Square during Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel), Carnival’s opening ceremony
Homosexuality was also wildly accepted in Venecian society. It was viewed, especially among young men, as part of their sexual evolution.
When Venice was hit with the plague, it was hit hard. Between 1630 and 1631, the city reported casualties of 46,000 of 140,000. Due to the drastic loss of life, religious officials declared it was these sodomous acts that brought this downfall on Venice.
All’s fair in love and war, and by the turn of the 17th century, homosexuality faced wide-spread oppression. Carnival was then used as a chance for homosexual lovers to be together in public without facing persecution.
Over 600 years of celebration was completely shut down in 1797 under the rule of the King of Austria. The festival was outlawed entirely and the use of masks became strictly forbidden. Which although sad for the people to have their festival taken away, it was a smart move for the King considering at these festivities things like treachery, planning of political assinations, and other illicit activities occurred. It only reappeared gradually in the 19th century for private feasts.
The rebirth of Carnival only came about in 1979 and is now once again the festival of the year to attend for both tourist and Venician alike.
The costumes and colors that fill the streets cannot be compared to anything I’ve ever experienced. The air that surrounds the city is of nothing but joy and excitement. I’m sure that the festival that occurs today is everything 12th century Venetians intended it to be.
Celebration at the Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel), Carnival’s opening ceremony, once the angel had decended from the tower
Expectations and Reality
If I were to go and redo my trip to Venice, here’s what I would do differently:
- Map out the whole city BEFORE arriving
- Plan for the Carnival events (I found out they have a website, and even an app!)
- Take a guided tour of the city
- Spend some time at San Giorgio (see the city from the island’s bell tower instead of San Marco)
- Come with a pocket full of extra money to spend and go all out on a typical Venician costume (maybe even attend the Gala!)
My recommendations if you plan to go to Venice:
- Get a day pass for the water bus, it’s 20 euros for the whole day instead of 40 euros per person like the water taxis
- Visit the islands outside of Venice (like San Giorgio), less people and better views
- Don’t be afraid to ask for directions
- Avoid the overpriced food of San Marco Square
- Get lost in the Jewish Ghetto (it’s the most authentic part of the island where I only heard Italian being spoken)
- Participate in Carnival (even a simple mask will do!)
- Dusk/nighttime is the best time to stroll around the streets of Venice, just as beautiful with less crowds
- Go see the Bridge of Sighs from INSIDE the bridge by going into the Dogeneral Palace (it’s a lot more interesting this way)
Pro tip: if you hear good music, go join the party and dance. Even if the bar can only hold 10 people at a time. Just join those dancing outside the pub if you can’t fit.
Pro tip #2: Do not accept 2 euro pizza from strange Venetian guy. Although friendly, and although you didn’t ask for the pizza, he may try to molest your face with kisses.
The Labyrinth and Me: Two Drifters
I believe the intention of Venice is to get lost and see what you can find.
Every corner brings new and unexpected views of such an obscure city. Everything about the city truly excites the imagination.
The irony of Venice is its view of being romantic. The place was brewing with debauchery for hundreds of years. Adultry was widely accepted. The Bridge of Sighs, the most sought after of all the attractions, was a bridge that connected criminals with their imminent death and yet local folklore states that if a couple kisses at dusk on a gondola under this bridge, they’ll remain together forever. How morbid. And yet, even after all of this, it remains a huge honeymoon destination.
So why the Capote quote?
Venice truly is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go. First, you find it so delicious, so you keep eating and eating and exploring until you’re sick to your stomach. You consume so much in so little time you decidedly can’t have anymore for quite some time.
That, and Italian food truly is the best in the world.
I also found the quote acceptable for the fact the entire time I was in Venice, Moon River played on repeat in my head. (For those of you that don’t know, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a novel by Mr. Truman Capote before Audrey Hepburn captivated audiences on the big screen as Holly Golightly).
So the questions begs, what makes Venice so romantic?
Probably the likelihood that in 100 years, generations will stare down into the sea and see the city that once was. Knowing you’re standing on a small slice of human history, a modern-day Atlantis if you will.
It’s a city we know won’t withstand the grips of time. Unlike many of the world’s marvels, it can’t be saved.
Moon river, wider than a mile
I’m crossin’ you in style some day…
Venice cages you in. It makes you take a good look at yourself and your surroundings. You get lost in her depths and drown in her canals.
Old dream maker, you heartbreaker
Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way…
You find that every turn takes you on a journey elsewhere and nowhere at the same time.
Two drifters, off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see…
Our paths are crossed, but only briefly. I see her as she sees me. And we lie and wait for the day when the ocean shall bring us back together again.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waitin’ ’round the bend
My huckleberry friend, Moon River, and me…
You can’t run away from her because you’ll only find yourself at the edge of her shores. You’ll always continuously run into her, and yourself. Oh that labyrinth and me.
You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”
― Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s