Archive for Bacino of San Marco


Redentore: the shore report

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A glimpse of the Bacino of San Marco at 7:00 PM, when the wind and waves made the prospect of staying out on a boat all night something less than appealing. But what are wind and waves when you’ve paid money to drink and dance to deafening house-techno-grunge music for hours?

After all the mutterings on and about the eve of the big feast day (the eve, as you know, being at least as big as the day itself), here is how it all came out.  I’ve waited a few days because I needed to let all the post-festa hot air, super-heated words, pumice dust, and floating cinders all burn out from the assorted arguments about what did and didn’t happen.

Here goes:


The wind dropped.  The rain did not fall.  There were something like 90,000 spectators/participants that evening, according to the Comune. (The firemen and the gondoliers at the Molo at Piazza San Marco estimated many fewer.)  Whatever the number, I guess that’s good — anyway, people didn’t stay home in front of the TV eating soggy pizza.

This inexplicable vessel was boarding passengers on the Lido, down toward the Alberoni. Whatever it’s usually used for, it didn’t seem to fit any of the categories that were made to worry about fines.

Also good, though not a Good Sign: We didn’t go out in a boat, a decision we spent all evening congratulating ourselves on having made.  We’d have been rammed to splinters, then sunk.  And anyway, it wouldn’t have been any fun to be in a small wooden boat in the midst of the masses of floating migrating mammoths.  We also discovered that being on shore meant you could see lots of other things going on, which was more diverting than settling for what you can see from a boat tied to a piling for hours on end.

People at Sant’ Elena have known for years that they’ve got the best seat in the house without leaving solid earth. Picnic tables, blankets, room for the dogs to run around — what’s missing but a few trillion waves?

Not so good:

We didn’t go out in a boat. Like almost everybody else who has hung on to the Old Way, who even accepted the gracious concession a few years ago of a tiny patch of water dedicated to boats with oars where we could feel safe, we finally faced  the fact that a motorless boat is a suicide boat.  I don’t believe anyone went out in a craft powered by fewer than 40 horses.

There were very few topomotori and pescherecci, as far as I could see and rumor can report.  The Gazzettino said that there were estimates of some 800 fewer boats than usual.  In fact, they were almost completely absent. That’s a lot of no-shows.This has been interpreted as precisely the result desired by….. I don’t know who.  “They.”  “They don’t want Venetians anymore.”  “They only want tourists who come and spend money.”

The waterfront which has customarily been left free for the pescherecci to tie up to was occupied by yachts.

In any case, the threats from the Capitaneria di Porto evidently had a powerful effect. Only 6-10 topomotori braved the hazardous waters of the Bacino supposed mined with fines.

One of the few hardy pescherecci, or fishing boats, that made the trek up to Venice for the fun. All the men on the bow are probably yelling “Land Ho!”

The Laguna Trasporti company decided to face the risk of fines straight on and sent three boats out into the fray. After dark, may I note.

This is a not-atypical boat heading for the Bacino of San Marco. It’s not how they look that’s so unnerving (a lie), it’s how they sound. Boats like this turned the entire lagoon into a pounding roar that was like standing inside a throbbing boil on your knee.

I add, for the record, that the newspaper states that the Comune had repeatedly denied that there were going to be massive document-checks — the mayor says it was a mysterious rumor accumulated via the internet that created all the tsuris. But the mayor also made clear that the Comune wasn’t in charge of the waters patrolled by the Capitaneria.  This is akin to saying “I didn’t forbid you to get married, but I’m not a Justice of the Peace.”  The mayor also denied that the threat of fines had any effect on the decision of people to come in topi or fishing boats.  Next he’ll be telling us that gravity isn’t really what keeps everything stuck to the surface of the earth.

The sub-mayor for Tourism cheerfully said the absence of boats was probably due to the discouraging weather forecast, and that the absence of the working boats (full of Venetian families, I note) made the departure of smaller boats safer.  My own experience of nearly 20 years out on the tumultuous waters of the Bacino after the last firework fades leads me to doubt this.  The most hazardous boats aren’t the topomotori, but the big shiny craft loaded with people from the hinterland. It was noted that most of these craft were visibly overloaded, but nobody in uniform pulled up to demand to see their license and registration and lifejackets and safety flares and on and on and on.

Here is a summary of the no-working-boats-or-you’ll-be-fined situation.  A mere 40 penalties were imposed, and that was for “viability violations,” which I take to mean parking in the middle of the road, so to speak.

The mayor said “The campaign spread (about the checking of working boats) turned out to be a boomerang.  I myself denied many times any intention to turn the screws on the boats during the festa, but they preferred not to listen and now everybody can see who was right and who was wrong.”

“We took the warning seriously,” said Giovanni Grandesso, representing the working boats that belong to the artisans’ association.  “The people were afraid.  But what we were supposed to do?  The vigili (local police) told us this in the presence of the sub-mayor for waterborne traffic.  If this is said in an official meeting and the sub-mayor keeps quiet, what were we supposed to do? They also said, ‘You know perfectly well you’re not allowed to carry people.’  And this made us think.  We then asked for a meeting with the office of the sub-mayor, but it was all too late.  All that was needed was to have clarified this at the beginning — it’s too easy to tell us now that we misunderstood.”

As you see, all the fireworks don’t explode in the sky.

And speaking of fireworks:

The fireworks: Quantity:  The show was curtailed from 45 minutes to 32.  (Lest we might be tempted to forget that “no ghe xe schei.”)

The fireworks: Quality:  What we saw was evidently culled from the “factory seconds,” “slightly defective,” “previously owned” barrel because they were possibly the most boring pyrotechnics I’ve ever seen.  I am a fireworks fanatic, so it actually takes very little to please me. But these were so generic, so predictable, so perfunctory that even ten minutes of stale rocketry seemed like 45. Lino and I (we discovered later) were both standing there thinking, “Can we go home now?”  Of course we could have gone home, but we each thought the other wanted to stay, so we said nothing in order to be good sports.  That shows how much difference it made for me to learn to speak Italian: None.  You might know 15,000 words and be able to conjugate every verb down to the remote past imperfect, but  in order to communicate you’ve got to actually say something.

Forget the fireworks: It was more fun watching the kids from Chioggia jump into the canal from the ponte dell’ Arsenale. You’d be amazed how much foam three people hitting the water together can make.

Terrifyingly Not Good:  While everybody was getting themselves worked into a lather about what could happen to somebody out there in a boat, nobody gave any thought to what could happen to somebody on a packed-solid vaporetto dock at 1:30 in the morning.

Because the dock was mobbed — and mobs tend to think in big simple terms like “Me! First! Now!” and not in terms like “Watch your step” or “After you, my dear Alphonse” — somebody almost got crushed between the arriving vaporetto and the dock.

As the vaporetto (also overloaded with people thinking in big simple terms) began to pull up to the dock to tie up and let people on and off, the heavy waves caused by the departing mammoths in the darkness made the equally heavy and bulky vehicle leap and plunge.  The mob on the dock began to push forward get nearer the edge to be ready to get on (“Me!  First!”).  The girl slipped and fell between the dock and the boat.

She managed to grab onto the edge, thanks to her backpack snagging on something on the way down, so she didn’t fall completely in the water.  It’s not clear how the vaporetto managed to avoid performing one of its famous plunges against her, the kind that even on a normal day make the dock shake and the metal of the boat’s hull reverberate.

Somehow she got dragged up and out before she was reduced to kindling.  The ambulance took her to the hospital, where the doctors stated that she’d been “miracled,” as the Italian verb so neatly puts it.  If the waves had been bigger she’d have had at least a shattered pelvis.

Solution: Station pontonieri on every dock all night.  These are the individuals at work on certain busy docks who keep the chain stretched that prevents the public from moving toward the boat till it’s stopped and the passengers have gotten off.  The fact that evidently human instinct doesn’t lead you naturally toward this behavior means that a person has to be paid to stand directly in your way with a chain.  But it works.

My conclusion, based on nothing remotely resembling scientific calculations, is that the truly Venetian festa has already begun to move ashore.  It’s a hell of a note, but it was more fun to be with the families and dogs on the street than out on the water surrounded by drunken disco dancing outlanders. The mayor would probably disagree.

Tables began to appear in all sorts of neighborhood nooks.

Even in via Garibaldi, there were as many impromptu parties as there were overflowing restaurants.

This happy group made seats out of anything solid — I’m pretty sure the pair in the middle are on a dismantled desk.

It’s like being in a boat, but without the hassle. I’m thinking we should try this next year.

Or you could do like the gang from Chioggia here — do the boat AND the table ashore. Next to the bridge from which you will soon be hurling yourself. They didn’t need no stinking fireworks.

The banquet set up outside the Navy non-commissioned officers’ club was impressive. Speaking of fines, I’d be doubting that they (or anybody else with a table and a chair) paid the required fee for occupying public space.




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America’s Cup hits Venice

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I’ve noticed that there are people who don’t like to change their minds, but I do.  It generally means I’ve learned something.  Here follows my most recent advance.

For the past two weeks or so, there were intermittent and increasing signs of the arrival of a Very Big Time sailing race to be held last weekend: Catamarans battling it out for a title belonging  to something known as the World Series of the America’s Cup.  There were to be races in the Adriatic just off the Lido, and races in the Bacino of San Marco.  The idea of a boat race in what amounts to the center of downtown struck me as extremely strange, possibly not appropriate, probably not very successful.  This reaction wasn’t the result of actual thought, just the force of habit.

Essentially, it sounded like it was going to be Just Another Thing.  Specifically, just another of those many things which exploit Venice as a stage set, but which have nothing to do with the city and which only create problems for everybody.

Wrong again.

The banners were lovely. I only noticed later they had chosen the papal color scheme. I wonder what it all means.

Yes, I had observed intriguing new elements, such as the various crews walking around the neighborhood (the boats were kept in the Arsenal).  These were men of various sizes who seemed to have been hewn from oak: All young, all strong, all superbly confident.  I don’t mean confident of winning, I mean confident of existing.

It was also announced, in what seemed to me to be a cute sort of “go team” spirit, that a prize would be awarded to the shop on via Garibaldi which was deemed to have created the most imaginative window display with a nautical theme.

That’s as far as I’d gone with tuning into this event.

Then, on my way home Friday afternoon about 5:00, tired and cranky, I found myself at San Marco, stuck because the vaporettos had been suspended because of the races.  First reaction: Oh swell.

Second reaction: My God, that’s a lot of helicopter racket from overhead (there were four).  As I began my inevitable walk home, plod plod, I looked out at the water.  Then I stopped.

Maybe those people on dark Kentucky back roads who find themselves in front of a UFO feel something like what I felt.  Because the Bacino had suddenly been transformed from its usual condition of resembling the Wal-Mart parking lot on the last Saturday before school starts into an arena that could only be described as epic.

The Bacino had been taken over by majestic beings skimming with a speed and precision that made it hard to believe they were even touching the water.

It was thrilling.

On your average day/week/era, Venice makes it far too clear that however much it wants to bill itself as a world-class city  (credible only because it once was), today it’s essentially a small town in Ohio.  And nothing could have made this clearer than to suddenly find the city in the throes of what was in fact a truly world-class event.

I don’t especially care about catamarans and I don’t spend much energy on the America’s Cup.  Of course I’m vastly proud of it and know that it’s a huge deal, but I suppose if everybody said, “oh well, let’s not do this anymore,” it wouldn’t have much effect on the fate of the world.

But this was beyond dazzling.  The sheer magnitude and splendor of these creations, the diabolical skill of their creators and their sailors (not to mention their owners), the stunning effect of seeing something this important here in little old Venice — I literally stopped in my tracks. And beyond the beauty and strangeness and scope of it all, behind the roaring of the helicopters, you could also hear the roar of the cataract of money which had created all this, which, in a strange way, also added to its fascination.  It was like standing under an Iguazu Falls of dollars.  Euros.  South Korean wons.

It was too much.  Venice, which spends most of its time plinking out the same drab little melodies (“We have no money, there are too many tourists, we hate/love/hate/love the big cruise ships, we don’t know what to do about anything…….”) was suddenly on center stage in the middle of the Ride of the Valkyries.

And she pulled it off.  There were thousands and thousands of spectators for the finals over the weekend, the hotels were full, and the weather exceptional (except for Sunday afternoon, when the wind wore out). All told, a spectacular success. In fact, it may have been the first time that I glimpsed some sliver of the sheer magnificence which used to be the order of the day here, the grandeur which overwhelmed every visitor who ever got within eyeshot of the place.

That’s where my mind changed. Ideas here, however good and even expensive they may be, are usually left only partially realized, or fully realized and then abandoned, or briefly put aside and then forgotten.

But this was brilliant.  Which brought to mind my high school choir director.  The first time we managed to do something exactly the way he wanted, he’d stop. “Now you’re in trouble,” he’d say. “Because now I know you can do it.”

Venice, over to you.


PS: Many photographs will be coming as soon as a technical seizure is resolved.



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