Happily lost in Venezia
By Rick Olivares
Ronald McDonald. Kurt Cobain. The Simpsons.
They’d be the last “attractions” you’d expect to see in an ancient city like Venice.
Only they are. And the unexpected is what you should expect when navigating the streets of Venice that in case you do not know has been named by UNESCO as a “World Heritage Site."
Like any other tourist, I was on my way to Piazzale San Marco when I took an unexpected turn and found myself along Calle dello Spezier. Instead of working my way to the former that is a celebrated square that houses several of Venice’s attractions, I stayed for a good 20 minute in the calle for by happenstance along that short stretch of cobblestone,I chanced upon the Contini Gallerie D’Arte.
Oh, an art gallery in Italy… but there must be thousands. Indeed. However, this gallery houses some of the most important modern and contemporary art in the world today. On this day, the works of controversial Italian painter Guiseppe Veneziano are on display at the Contini Galleria D’Arte. Veneziano’s pop art depicts the late Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung as Ronald McDonald, the Madonna of the Third Reich (a remake of Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna) where in a baby Adolf Hitler is cradled by the Madonna, and a naked painting of Patty and Selma Bouvier (characters from the animated television show, The Simpsons) to name a few. A crowd gathered with expressions ranging from the hilarious to the mildly bemused to the this-is-the-greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread-hence-the-mad-clicking-of-cameras.
That’s Venice for you.
Any online check will automatically list its top attractions — Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, Casino Veniere, Scala Contarini del Bovolo, I Gesuiti, Scala Contarini del Bovolo, and the Basilica di San Marco to name but a few. And they are rightfully so for their grandeur, agelessness, and historical importance.
In order to get around, one oft asks for maps that seek to make sense of the labyrinthian maze of streets that lead to here, there, everywhere, and seemingly nowhere. Truthfully, the top site attractions are easy to find. They all appear on the map and all one needs to figure out the major piazzales they are located. One simply follows the street signs that indicate say, the direction going to Piazzale del Roma or San Marco. And if you are directionally challenged, then just know where the Grand Canal is then work your way alongside the river. If it works for Paris (the Bastille, Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre, Tuileries Gardens, and Eiffel Tower are in a line next to the River Seine), then it must surely work for Venice.
The streets can seem confusing at first and you will inevitably make some wrong turns. But don’t fret. Getting lost in Venice means an unexpected turn into off-track art galleries ala Contini, curio shops, picture perfect views that you simply have to capture on camera, impromptu street performers and painters, and well, Venice’s citizens who seem oblivious to the tourist horde but realize they are vital to the city’s economy.
If Calle dello Spezier is any indication then it’s fun getting lost. By the Chiesa San Vidal, I came across the works of Venetian street painter Walter Berton. Sure there are lots of them. By Berton has a style unto his own. Instead of the usual gondolas by the canal or picturesque and scenic illustrations, Berton prefers to inject his paintings with a Norman Rockwell-esque sense of humor. Depicting real life gondoleris Manolo and Vittorio, he shows then humorously interacting with that other denizen of Venice — the seagull.
Near another chapel, Hungarian-Israeli trio, Matana, gave a free performance to a crowd of over 50. In another alley, a man played Strauss, Brahms and other classic music greats using glasses of water!
There was a shop that sold “magic wands” while another boasted that it sold the widest array of Venetian masks on account of its modern versions of Star-Lord of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, Iron Man, and Zorro to name a few.
Some streets are more than simply residential. Whether for their quaintness with a raft or boat moored in front of a doorstep or for their solitude that finds lovers in one another’s arms or on bended knee with someone making a proposal, the streets make for great photo essays. Or selfies that are all the rage today.
And there’s the ubiquitous gondola.
“I don’t have a car,” pooh poohed one local merchant. “But I do have a gondola.” The price for a gondola ride might be steep (80 Euros for 40 minutes per person) but what a ride for a memory that could last forever. And what a stark difference it is from Manila with the four-wheeled vehicle a status symbol in a class system!
“In Venice,” boasted that local merchant who makes his living selling vegetables and fruits from his boat, “our status symbol is our being a premier tourist spot.”
True enough, for a city of 180 islands and a population of 60,000 people, Venice accommodates millions of tourists every year. Last 2012, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation released data that showed that Venice saw 62.4 million people book hotel room for at least an overnight stay.
Said street painter Walter Berton, “Venice… is like romance. You will not know what you will find in its streets and canals but when you do, you will fall in love."
Once upon a time, Italian-American singer Connie Francis once celebrated the capital of the Veneto region of Italy in song:
"I dream of the summertime.
Of Venice and the summertime.
I see the cafes, the sunlit days with you, my love.
The antique shop where we’d stop for a souvenir.
The bridge, the boats below, the blue above."
Save for the unrequited love, I too, now dream of Venice in the summertime after a wonderful four days in the city of 118 islands that are separated by canals and yet linked by bridges make for an alluring, charming, and unlikely romantic setting that has been celebrated in literature, song, and the arts.