Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Italy Day 8 Venice: Rialto Bridge, Vaporetto, Gondolas, Jewish Ghetto, Murano Glass, Bridge of Sighs, Indiana Jones

Watching TV on the high speed train from Florence to Venice:
Ilana is very hard to amuse.
Let's talk about Venice for a second. Venice is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The place is quite frankly the most different place I have ever visited. Venice is an archipelago off the coast of Northeast Italy. The main island looks like a fish. There are no roads in Venice, only canals. The city exists without cars or trucks. All transportation within Venice consists of walking on narrow paths and by crossing Venice's over 400 bridges, and floating. Here's how it looked a couple hundred years ago: 
The river flowing through the island is "the grand canal", the closest equivalent to a highway in Venice.
We love the map room!
Venice was once a major world power. It was a staging center for the Crusades, the most important merchant city in the world (perhaps because of the easy port access?), and like most Italian cities, it was an important place in the development of every kind of art during the Renaissance. Check out this map showing the influence of the Republic of Venice on the world:
Big shot Venetians.  The dark red and pink areas represent former Venetian territories.
Venice declined. Largely this was because of the rise of Portugal and Spain as merchant nations, and encroaching Turkish/Albanians. Napoleon's forces delivered the killing stroke to the city-state. Venice became a part of Austria, and then was incorporated into Italy when it was formed in 1866. Since then, Venice has become a city-sized museum. The only industries on the formerly powerful island are tourism, art, and glass-works. 

The population of the island has shrunk from 170,000 in 1951, to under 60,000 today. Native Venetians are going extinct while 20 million tourists visit the island per year. The population decline is largely attributed to lack of opportunities on the island, an aging population seeking easier lives on the mainland free of flooding and high living expenses. The island has also reportedly been slowly sinking, or at least more and more susceptible to flooding over time. Venice is quickly becoming a millionaire's playground. A Disney World for adults.

It has changed just a bit since it looked in that picture above:
They built the train/car bridge to the city for one. The black lines through the canal represent the public boat-bus system. All those blue lines are minor canals that are the equivalent of roads. Oh, and that white area on the left side is basically an island that was added as a dock for cruise-ships and as a designated parking-garage island.
We arrived in Venice by train with all our luggage in hand. There was no way we were going to carry our bags over all the bridges between there and our hotel (which was located just about halfway down the Grand Canal). We bought vaporetto tickets. 

The vaporetto is the public water-bus service of Venice. It's relatively expensive. A single ride (good for one hour) is €6. A 12 hour ticket is €13. We bought four 12 hour tickets so we could get around Venice for the rest of the day. And down the canal we went...
One of the four bridges that cross over the Grand Canal.
We're here!
Of course my parents would make friends with strangers on the boat. 
We got off the Vaporetto and crossed over the Rialto Bridge to get to our hotel.
The bridge.
The Rialto Bridge is the oldest and most famous of the four bridges that span the Grand Canal. Like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Rialto has overpriced souvenir/jewelry shops lining either side of the bridge facing inward. It's one of the most famous landmarks of Venice.
View from the top of the Rialto.
For some reason the souvenir of choice in Venice is elaborately decorated masks:
Because nothing says "I've been to Venice" like a $300 mask...the real reason for the masks can be found here 
The Hotel Marconi, in all honesty, had the lowest rate of any hotel I could find that was located on the island. It also turned out to be incredibly nice - and about a hundred years old.
It looks nicer inside, trust me. 
Check out these old-school postcards for the Marconi from the first half of the 20th Century:
As per our usual mode of operation, we headed towards the Jewish sites in the city. This meant getting back on a vaporetto and heading back up the Grant Canal towards the train station, and taking pictures along the way, imagining that we were in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade like this guy:
At least we weren't crazy enough to... go between them!!!
A quick word about gondolas. You've definitely heard of gondolas. They are the prototypical boat of Venice. Long, skinny, black boats designed for private conveyance - usually of a romantic nature -  through the canal system of the city. Goldoliers are seemingly required by law to dress in striped shirts and flat topped straw hats. In cartoons and movies, they are also required by law to sing "O Sole Mio" - but we didn't hear anyone singing while we were in town... Look! Here comes one now!
Newlywed gondola ride.
Gondolas were the primary mode of transportation in Venice for hundreds of years. Today, nearly all of them are for hire by tourists. Various gondola services have certain colored poles throughout the city. The poles designate which gondola company has the right to tie up at a given spot. See?
Gondola/barber poles. Moving on...
As I said before, Venice is different. It couldn't be more different. Many houses jut right up to the water, and are only accessible by bringing a boat right up alongside the building. Native Venetians must all own boats... right?
A produce market. On the right, that boat is a taxicab
Still heading to the Jewish Ghetto.
Just soaking up Venice along the way.
On the left, that's what a waterbus station looks like. Beyond it, some gondola poles. 
OK. We took the water bus back up to the train station. Hung a right, and crossed over the Canale di Cannaregio (the second largest canal in the city) over the Ponte della Guglie. On the other side of the bridge we confronted this sign:
Even if I didn't know Hebrew I could probably translate it: Jewish stuff this way. 
The Kosher restaurant, Gam Gam is right at the other end of the Ponte della Guglie. The restaurant also functions as the Chabad center of Venice, which I'm sure is very nice. Once again, to support the Jewish businesses, although this one didn't by any means appear to be struggling, we sat down to enjoy lunch there.
Taking a photo with the menu = tourist tendencies. 
Not even a railing between my seat and falling right into the canal.
The food was more Israeli style than Italian, but everything was delicious. There was some serious presentation put into the dishes:
Lamb medallions... check out that drizzling action!
Curried chicken.
Some kind of goulash, it would appear. 
Vegetarian lasagna, but no cheese. It's a fleishig restaurant.
Venice is where the word Ghetto was invented. Did you know that? Generally, a ghetto is defined as an area inhabited by only one ethnic group, usually due to various socio-economic reasons. In the case of the Jewish Ghettos of Europe, Jews were forced to only live within a certain area. The first ever "ghetto" was in the north of Venice. In 1516, the Jewish presence in Venice had grown in size and influence to such an extent that the leaders of the city-state enacted a decree that restricted the residences of all Jews to a few city blocks. The result was an eclectic interspersing of Jews from all over Europe. Unlike other Jewish Ghettos, the one in Venice did not form its own identity. The different backgrounds remained separate, retaining their own languages and Synagogues. 
The main square of the ghetto.
Today, the ghetto is a regular residential area - hardly any forced ethnic clustering at all! It's popular among tourists, especially Jews. Lots of Kosher dining and the Jewish ghetto museum and walking tour is top notch. One side of the central square of the ghetto is dominated by the Jewish rest home for the elderly. Surprising, seeing as there are only 500 local Venetian Jews left in the city - the rest home has about seven residents. The rest of the building has been converted into a completely kosher hotel and restaurant.
Ilana and I in front of the rest home.
Because glass is a specialty of Venice souvenirs, and because there are many Judaica pieces to fashion from glass, there's a common theme in the local souvenir shops:
David's Shop in the Ghetto. David's sister does all the work - every display has a sign like this one. 
Don't touch his sister! More on David's shop and his sister in a future post. 
The ghetto museum and companion walking tour doesn't allow pictures. Suffice it to say that the museum is small and contains a nice collection of artifacts from the history of the Jews of Venice. The walking tour is the real draw to the museum. The tour consists of visiting all of the various synagogues in the ghetto. They're all elaborately decorated and have a lot of exposed wood. Most of them are smaller than you would expect. Finally, they're all upstairs, and give no indication from the outside of their actual purpose - all thanks to the decree set forth by the government of Venice.

Please enjoy some pictures of the Synagogues here, and if you wish, there are descriptions and layouts to be found here.
Don't let that smile fool you... Tensions are running high:
We spent the rest of the day zipping up and down the grand canal and around the Eastern half Venice.
Speed Gondolas! They were going for some kind of record.
Can you imagine living in there? Crazy.
Standard minor canal - this could be your morning commute if you lived here.
Where to go next? I'm pretty good at navigating - gotta figure out the right route to take next.
Maps on maps.
Where are we?
water-bus stop.
I've said it many times - but being a tourist can be hard on your legs. Having a chance to sit on the vaporetto gave us a much needed rest:
We arrived to the Piazza San Marco bus stop on the southern end of Venice and walked around just a little bit.
The tourist season hasn't quite started yet... lots of gondolas are out of commission.
When we took the following picture we weren't even aware it was a particularly interesting attraction. The Bridge of Sighs connects the Doge's palace to the old prison. It's an enclosed with bars in the windows. The bridge was so named because of the prisoners sighs as they caught one last glimpse of beautiful Venice on their way to imprisonment.
And we thought we were just taking a great picture...
More on Saint Mark's square tomorrow, we only strolled around for a few minutes anyway... We got back on the vaporetto and went all the way up the grand canal and then finally back to the Rialto bridge.
Venice at night.
We had a late dinner in one of the restaurants adjacent to the Hotel Marconi, right on the grand canal with the Rialto Bridge in the background.