Venice, Vidi, Vici
Falling in Love With This Romantic City Isn't Easy

By Chris Lehmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 28, 2002

Venice's first welcome to my honeymooning bride and me, fresh off the water taxi from the airport, was anything but romantic. We were standing at a bar, awaiting the rental agent who would take us to the apartment we were subletting for our two-week stay. Positioning ourselves on the foot rails, we thoughtlessly shifted our luggage into the path of an elderly regular. Before we could manage a "permesso," he sized us up in a single glance and scornfully exclaimed, in perfectly distended Valley Girl vowels, "Oh m-eye-y Gaawd!"

It was the verbal equivalent of a Venetian dagger, skillfully thrust and left to poison our delicate tourist constitutions. The moment summoned forth, in a queasy flash, most of the fears that worry at the edges of any undertaking like the one before us: carrying off a romantic honeymoon in a destination that teeters forever on the watery edge of romantic self-parody.

A honeymoon, after all, is a standard vacation on steroids. It carries the expectation that you'll discover not only diverting out-of-the-way bistros, amusing snatches of local lore or high-culture edification but also the very foundation for a lifetime of wedded bliss. It's pleasurable, to be sure, but also more than a little unsettling: Setting out to make two weeks of your life a thing of swooning and sweet nothings is a lot like trying to argue yourself into falling asleep.

And all the more so when you're taking on a destination as storied and romantic as Venice.

We'd long anticipated a getaway -- any getaway -- after surviving the many overlapping ordeals of our wedding ceremony. But as the departure date approached, I feared that the afterglow of our ceremonial union wouldn't long endure the harsh morning-after glare of tourist-dodging, souvenir-mongering and gondoliering. We might be newlyweds, but we weren't born yesterday: As we pored through guidebooks and histories of the place, I was already acquiring the vague sense that it was, in that enchanted way it has, taunting us.

We had sought to combat some of the fatal self-consciousness of a Venetian honeymoon with our apartment sublet. This, we reasoned, would remove us from the tourist set, holed up in hotels and planning itineraries like search-and-destroy missions. Also, the familiar mundane errands of apartment upkeep, we felt, would give us the genuine feel of living in the place, instead of continually marveling at it.

The apartment scheme did deliver us into an immediate, blissfully unescorted slice of Venetian life, if not exactly the way we'd planned. At about 4 a.m., well into our first evening's jet-lag coma, I stumbled half-asleep into the apartment's blue-tiled bathroom and learned that the electricity had gone out. And this being a ground-floor studio in the back of a former palazzo, overlooking a lightless courtyard garden, the place was pitch black.

My bride, who was rudely awakened by my clumsy, failed navigations around the unfamiliar bedroom, suggested that we seize the opportunity that fate had darkly placed in our path and stroll through the Piazza San Marco.

It was the best introduction imaginable to the storied sights of our enchanted destination. In the half-light of encroaching dawn, Venice hadn't yet become conscious of its charms, or mindful of the numberless tourists in its midst. It reposed in a calm, improbable majesty, reminiscent of the winged lion that serves as the city's official symbol. The great Basilica of San Marco and the neighboring Ducal Palace seemed in predawn silhouette to blur into the water along Via Schiavone like the enormous beached sea creatures that they, in a sense, have always been -- summoned from the trade-fueled merger of the Christian and Byzantine worlds, and willed into a mongrel yet transcendent fusion of architectural styles.

The only other person we encountered en route to the piazza was a gracious Venetian, returning from God-knows-what kind of late night, who not only provided us directions but, after walking past us, proceeded to wait at the campo ahead in order to point us in the right direction. Already, it seemed, the city was showing another face, one that canceled out the derisive snarl of our initial greeting. Fashionable scorn for tourists seemed to exist side by side with a curious sort of courtly respect.

This, we soon learned, was the weird ambivalent pose that Venice at large presents to the footloose authenticity-scavenger. Venetians take a fierce parochial pride in the treasures of their city -- but with their intended audience of foreign admirers very much in view. Venetians often strain to affect worldly impatience with the hordes of visitors, but without these hordes, there would be no one on hand to admire them for being Venetian.

And as we came to know the city by daylight, the tourist anxieties that we lugged along with us began to smooth themselves out. We came to imbibe, together with all that is truly artful, historic and -- yes -- magical about Venice, a fresh appreciation of our role as observers in a city that is designed, above all, to be seen.

Put another way, we soon came to know the sheer futility of being anything other than shameless tourists in a place like Venice. Every feature of the city, from the gondolas to the palazzos to the Bridge of Sighs, has long been detached from its original civic purpose and now operates as a spectator-friendly shadow of its former self. As Mary McCarthy wrote in her splendid 1956 appreciation of the city, "Venice Observed": "There is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice . . . The tourist Venice is Venice: the gondolas, the sunsets, the changing light, Florian's, Quadri's, Torcello, Harry's Bar, Murano, Burano, the pigeons, the glass beads, the vaporetto. Venice is a folding picture-postcard of itself."

This central truth -- that there is no central truth to Venice -- unfolded before us with nearly every step we took. In time, it took on a perverse logic all its own: The more we sought out an authentic Venetian experience, the more it became a subtle mockery of our own wishes.

For instance, after we made our first acquaintances with most of the traditional tourist stops, my wife declared we'd earned a civilian merit badge: a fancy dinner out. Consulting the guidebooks, we settled on Al Covo, in the Castello district, praised on all fronts as not merely among the finest eateries in Venice, but one of the best restaurants in the whole country.

But as soon as we arrived, the place filled up with fellow Americans, together with a handful of dyspeptic Brits. The head chef was Italian, but his wife and co-proprietor was a . . . Texan! Soon a robust cross-table conversation broke out: A gay couple from central California was comparing impressions of New Orleans at Mardi Gras with an older ex-Army officer and his wife. Al Covo, invariably described in the guidebooks as a charming local hole in the wall, was turning into the Olive Garden before our eyes.

From then on, we dined at unpretentious grottoes and sturdy bars serving deli-style food, with quite satisfying results -- and when we were feeling self-indulgent, we repaired to a swank spot one campo north of our apartment, which specialized in, uh, Neapolitan cuisine.

For all its short-term disenchantments, the culinary parable of Al Covo -- i.e., the real Venice is a steadily receding mirage -- did stand us in good stead for the remainder of our stay. It even, in its own way, offered a skeleton key for making sense of the thousand years of Venetian history that represents the most daunting challenge to any foreign visitor. The story of Venice is, above all, a millennium-long study in exuberantly borrowed glory: Among its many other achievements, Venice is the Western world's first capital of fake authenticity.

You reach your most dramatic appreciation of this fact at St. Mark's, with its giddy incrustations of borrowed tradition: its faux-marble exterior, gilded Byzantine mosaics, Gothic altars and fabled sculpted horses that enterprising Venetians snatched from the Hippodrome in Constantinople.

In secular life, too, Venetians seize upon any available snatch of imported tradition to feed the city's bottomless need to sing its own glory. Take the dominant image of the city, replicated in numberless Bugs Bunny cartoons and fast-food ads: the stripe-shirted gondolier, serenading his love-smitten passengers. This scene, too, is a work of canny cultural transplanting: As McCarthy notes, most native Venetian songs make scarcely any mention of great loves or tragic lovers; gondola baritones are reduced to importing much of their material from Naples.

Indeed, from what we could make out of the diversions and taste preferences of today's Venetians, they're anything but hardy parochial purists. Strolling along late one evening, we stumbled upon a local band playing outside a cafe, which was struggling gamely to deliver period ska material in fake Jamaican accents. The only rhetorical concession to localism visible in Venetian public life -- apart, of course, from the reflexively surly attitude of certain elder Venetians toward tourists -- was a healthy dose of anti-globalization graffiti spray-painted in the San Polo district.

Even radical student protest has an oddly placid and typically Venetian feel of insularity and unreality.

As we dined one evening in the student district around the Campo Santa Margherita, a group of local activists staged a demonstration against overdevelopment and gentrification. They dragged out a PA system to blare Italian punk music, which had a bouncy Jan and Dean tunefulness that undercut its anti-capitalist rage. And even this gathering of local malcontents could not, it seems, refrain from commemorating its own good taste: Party organizers laid out a spread of wine and cheese that would have tempted any number of would-be developers or yuppie condo-holders.

Of course, a less unwitting evocation of Venice's character comes from those who have swooned headlong into Venice's gauzy, improbable flight from the fusty realities that shape the lives of other cities. Consider, for instance, the local merchant Gualti, the proprietor of a small but flamboyant jewelry boutique off the Campo Santa Margherita.

Gualti's shop boasts a host of odd plastic-looking pendants, earrings and rings in various shades of purple. Purple, too, is the prose in the explanatory manifesto Gualti has mounted alongside his creations. It explains that the objects are indeed plastic -- or, as Gualti puts it, "little polymeric jewels springing from the skilled hands of our amphitryon."

And he's just warming up. The jewels are evidently wraparound affairs that can shape-shift in any direction, to virtually any size: "Rings with anthropormorphic suggestiveness, bangles which surround the arm in an attempt to wrap the whole body, necklaces that capture the subject like spider webs and transform [it] into a complementary object. . . . Bodies, birds, collars, jewels -- ornaments to dress a way of life that finds its natural status in Venice because in Venice one is masked all the time."

As our faux Valley dude back in the bar might have said, "Whatever." Yet, by the time we stumbled onto Gualti's manifesto, we had to concede he had a point. For a city suspended on poles plunged into the floor of a lagoon, the mundane forces of place and time can seem as frivolous, shape-shifting and self-consciously silly as Gualti's sculpture-jewelry. In the long sunset of its imperial decline, Venice had come to stake most of its identity on illusion. Somehow this reflection, like McCarthy's image of the city as a folding picture-postcard, was oddly fortifying.

As was another: Among other things, the fond civic dreams of Venice, which have inspired enthusiasts from Titian and Tintoretto, Casanova and Henry James, Ruskin and Byron, on down through Gualti, can be an allegory of romantic love, another supranatural wonder constructed in defiance of the grim determinisms of environment and history, and crafted from presumptions ultimately no more outlandish than those behind Gualti's wares.

It was a charming, consoling thought -- and if nothing else, our sojourn in Venice taught us what a deceptively simple thing it is to be charmed. What more can you ask of a honeymoon?

Chris Lehmann is deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World.

Washingtonians are fortunate, then, in having a bricks-and-mortar clearinghouse for rentals in Venice and throughout Italy. Patti Absher founded Great Travels (5506 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 23, Washington, D.C.; 202-237-5220 or 800-411-3728, eight years ago, with the idea of helping people undertake the rounds of domestic life in exotic locales.

"I wanted people to experience Italy the way I had over the years," says Absher, who attended college in Perugia and worked at a Naples hotel in her younger days. "In a rental you can really interact with people -- you have to go to the grocery store and the mercato, deal with the practicalities of life."

Costs vary depending on season and location. Within Venice proper, during high season (April through June, and September and October), rates range from $700 a week for small one-bedrooms and studios to $1,900 a week for two-bedrooms that can sleep four. Our one-bedroom on the Grand Canal cost $1,000 a week in April.

Great Travels works with some 50 brokers in Italy and doesn't maintain an exclusive relationship with any of them. As the agency has grown, it's taken on more Italy specialists -- but they, like Absher, tend to come from outside the travel and hospitality business. Two of her associates are former government hands; one had been a Labor Department official, another from the World Bank. And three of them -- Absher included -- are former Peace Corps volunteers. Maybe this is why they bring a certain missionary zeal to their work. But Absher says the real motivation behind Great Travels is much simpler: "I love Italy."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company