Thursday, January 31, 2013

Venice - Is it worth the hype - Part 2

Before I answer the question on "Is Venice worth it", let me tell you about our next few days there.For our first morning in Venice, we got out of Venice. You read that right. I was so convinced that I won't like Venice that I researched on all the day trips one could take around it. During my random browsing, I found out that every year,  some towns in Italy celebrate the weekend of Corpus Christi, (a religious holiday that comes 9 weeks after Easter) with what they call L'Infiorata. It translates to flower art festival where they decorate the streets leading to the local church with mosaics made of flower petals. Residents take weeks to decide on a theme. Then they spend a few days cleaning up, gathering flowers and drawing sketches on the ground. Petals are laid out the day before the festival. It is quite a process, but must be a fun event for the community. I love flowers. I mean who doesn't? So, we took a bus to a small town called Noale which had the flower festival. Noto in Sicily and Spello/Orvieto near Rome celebrate this festival in a scale ten times that of this little town.

I loved the flower mosaics and after taking a zillion pictures (at least it felt like a zillion to Saru who indulges my flower-mania but doesn't quite understand why I go nuts around them. At least this wasn't as grand as Kukenhoff gardens in Netherlands or the flower fields outside of San Diego where I was apparently quite unbearable). When asked locals pointed to a nice family restaurant and I can't remember what we ate, but it was much better than the Americanized Italian food you get in Venice.

Back in Venice, it was HOT. The best thing you can do in that kind of heat is to duck into a museum or a church where Saru can take a nap and I can spend some uninterrupted quality time engrossed in the spirited tales narrated by the audio guide. This particular afternoon, Saru chose the Scuola San Rocco for his nap. A Christian charity school, it is most famous for the works of renaissance artist Tintoretto. The Scuola San Rocco was considered Tintoretto's Sistine Chapel and that comparison is what made me visit the place. Large colourful canvases and ceilings of the halls were decorated with gusto using themes from the life of God. The dramatic angles, lighting and illusions he used created a 3-D effect that was quite amazing and different than what I saw before. When not scaring away little kids with his snoring, Saru was busy trying mnemonics to remember names of artists. Tintoretto became Quentin Tarantino and Titian (pronounced Tishian) became Titan (like the watch) and for the rest of the trip, I had to hear what an awesome painter Tarantino was!! I suppose I should take comfort in the fact that he accompanied me to these museums without complaining and found his own source of entertainment. 

We also visited the Frari church that was next door. By the end of it we were churched out and luckily, the peak heat passed and we were able to step out and enjoy Venice the way one should enjoy Venice by walking around and getting lost in the back alleys. We walked to St. Marks square to watch the sunset. A giant cruise ship was just leaving the port and with it, it took half of the day trippers. With darkness covering the decay and soft lights accentuating the beautiful buildings, it was a great time to walk and enjoy the city. Unlike Rome which is alive till after midnight, Venice sleeps early. By 11:00 pm, most of the streets are deserted, so it was not a big deal for us get back to our monastery room by the curfew time.

The next day was set aside for the grandest sights in Venice - The St. Marks Church and the Doge's Palace. In the middle ages, Venice exploited its strategic location to facilitate east-west trade and accumulated vast amounts of wealth. But religion trumped money in those days and Rome was still the power centre. This changed when a couple of ingenious merchants stole the remains of St. Mark (one of the original followers of Christ) and brought them back from Egypt to Venice. A church was built over the ruins and overnight Venice gained religious significance. A number of historians actually believe that the remains under the church are those of Alexander the Great but nobody is interested in digging up skeletons of the past. 

By now, I had seen most of Europe's important churches, so this was more of a 'check-it-off-the-list type of visit. I did not expect much. In fact, I was quite bored of seeing the same old basilicas and the long line and crowd did not help the attitude. Once I stepped inside, all those misgivings went away. I realized that after a long time, I was in awe of a church. This was unlike any other church I saw in Europe. The church was built in the 11th century but felt much older and had a very distinct byzantine (4-8th century I think) feeling to it. My guide book said that rulers those days built retro-style churches to give the feeling that it was there for a lot longer than it actually was, sort of like the fake-antique business. I had seen some Byzantine art in Florence and Siena in a previous trip, but this was a whole church, glowing in golden mosaics. If you thought only Indians had a gold fetish, check out these pictures. Loud and gaudy in those days translated to wealth and prosperity. 

Next we headed to the adjoining Doge's Palace. Doge was equivalent to a Duke, but was elected by the nobles. They were essentially the kings who ruled Venice. For somebody that had never heard the word 'Doge' I was quite shocked to discover that their palace was one of the best attractions in Venice. See....this is what surprised me about Venice. When you talk to others who have been there, almost everybody will tell you about the floating city, canals, renaissance buildings and pedestrian streets, but almost nobody will tell you that you HAVE to see the "Doge's Palace" or for that matter the "Scuola San Rocco". If you ask people about Rome, they will mention the coliseum or the Vatican or the St. Peter's church. But with Venice, everybody is so besotted with the Venice-ness of the place that they forget to mention these attractions and THAT was the surprise element that made my trip. This is what I love about travel. You think you know everything, you think you have seen everything, but something unexpected catches your eye and before you know it, you are super excited like a little girl and gushing about it. 


Going back to my question - "Is Venice worth it?" There can never be a straight answer to these kind of questions - just personal opinions.  How much people like a place depends a lot on their individual preferences of the weather, the company, the food and their interests. When I told somebody that I did not care for Florence, they were ready to push me out of the bus (figuratively). I on the other hand was quite shocked when a friend told me that Paris did not impress her. Norway was not as impressive because it rained most of the time we were there and we were shell shocked by how expensive it was. I was so disappointed in Denali National Park, Alaska that we cut short our days and went to another town. Against my advice, a friend went there in fall and saw the beautiful carpets of reds and oranges and came back to tell me she was glad she did not listen to me. I am not shying away from giving an answer but saying that how much a person likes a place depends on a lot of things.

In my case, I liked Venice. The canals were beautiful, but the highlights for me were the three sights I mentioned. The scale of those rooms, the never ending frescoes, the large canvases and the golden mosaics blew me away. Will I go back to Venice - yes but not so soon. I have many more places I want to see first, but I do have great memories from this trip.