Archive for Padova

Mar
09

The daily peregrination

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I know there are people who hate the morning, but I don't understand them.

I know there are people who hate the morning, but I don’t understand them.

We are having perfect March weather (windy, chilly, sunny), which translates to perfect walking weather.

That’s a silly remark; it’s always walking weather here.  But these mornings are much more appealing than some others.  (August, I’m looking at you.)

So we are getting up and out the door early, when the streets are still almost empty and appear to be waiting just for us.  Or if that’s a little too egotistical, they appear to be doing just fine without us.  Or anybody.  In any case, they look great.

Today we meandered as far as the Sacca San Girolamo, otherwise known as the “Baia del Re,”  in remotest Cannaregio.  And along the way, reminiscences sprang out.  Lino doesn’t look for memories, they practically run into him.

Take, for example, the little, very old man who approached us as we sauntered along the fondamenta de la Misericordia.  He was medium height, robust in a block-of-cement-like way, with a face that boasted three bright apples — his chin and both cheeks.  His eyes were clear, if somewhat distant, and he was shuffling along very, very slowly.

He glanced at us both as we got nearer and somehow I had the impression that he recognized Lino.  But no gesture was made, so we three continued on our way.

“You know who that was?” Lino asked me.  I accept this rhetorical opener by now and resist making any sarcastical reply.  I just wait.

“He was the coach of the national women’s volleyball team,” is the answer.  Why would Lino know this?

“His job was driving the garbage barge in my old neighborhood,” so naturally they would have seen each other around.

“But he was also a kind of hoarder,” Lino continued.  “I read in the Gazzettino that the neighbors finally complained about the smell, and the Public Health officers came to investigate and they made him move.”  Like many trash-collectors, he not only nabbed good stuff that he could resell, but evidently also perishable items which, as we know, often get thrown away in medium-to-good condition.  But then the organic matter began to go the way of all organic matter, hence the complaints.

“He moved to somewhere on the mainland,” was the conclusion.  My next questions were fruitless. “I only know what was in the paper about that.  It went on for months.”

But that remark wasn’t the conclusion.  “I once offered him our family’s old Singer sewing machine.”  It was an early foot-treadle model that his mother and sisters used to make all of his clothes for most of his childhood,  “He gave me a 2-liter bottle of wine.”  An excellent example of turning gold into straw.

How can it be that they ALL wash their clothes on the same morning?  Do they tap code messages on the walls?

How can it be that they ALL wash their clothes on the same morning? Do they tap code messages on the dividing walls?  Or it one of those pheromone things that women respond to?

We proceeded over the bridge and he pointed at one of the anonymous modern apartment buildings on the other side.  In fact, he pointed to a particular door.

“Roberto used to go there for his piano lessons,” began the next chapter.  I had met Roberto once; he was born blind, and we would encounter him strolling around Dorsoduro with his wife.  In fact, I never saw him without her.

Robert was born at the corner of Lino’s courtyard and the main road near Campo San Barnaba, so they were always playing or hanging out together.  (Roberto once told me that they would organize soccer games in their courtyard, and he was always the goalie.  “They made the goal just a little bigger than I was,” he said.  So cool.)

At least once a week, Roberto had to report for his piano lesson, and Lino and an undetermined number of friends would take him there, walking from Campo San Barnaba to the Baia del Re.  “We’d wait outside while he did his scales, or whatever, and when he was finished we’d walk him home.”

“How long did that take?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  An hour.”  Tracing the route, I see they went about 2 km (1.3 miles) each way.

“His mother spent a fortune on him, with doctor’s visits and so many other things.  His father unloaded flour at the Molino Stucky.  He would stand by a chute, and the bag of flour would come down onto his shoulder and he’d load it onto the boat.”  The bags of flour typically weighed 25 kilos (55 pounds).  Does the term “herniated disc” come to mind?  How about “chance fracture”?

“After a while, his mother sent him to an institute in Padova.  These were common after the war, for children with various disabilities or injuries. Maybe they’d have picked up an unexploded mine.  Or been kicked by a horse, or whatever.

“She thought it would be a good thing for him to have some time with his friends, so on Sunday my brother and I would take the train to Padova with her to visit him.  We walked from the station all the way to the Prato della Valle.” That would be 2.6 km (1.5 miles) one way.

“There was still a lot of damage around, I remember, from the bombing.  She’d buy us hot chocolate.”

The florist is playing a serenade to spring.

The florist is playing a serenade to spring.

We walked under a large archway separating two streets, not far from the train station.

“See this archway?” he asked as we passed under it.  You have to start a story with a question, it’s something Talmudic.  Of course I said yes, and waited.

“One night during the war my father was walking home from the station” (his father drove a train with a coal-burning engine, so he was pretty much one color on his way home, the color being black.  Not that that’s especially important to the story, I’m just setting the scene).

“It was late, and the curfew was on — nobody was supposed to be out — and he got stopped here by a group of patrolling Fascists.”  One remembers that they were also known as the Voluntary Militia for National Security, and they too were wearing mostly black, but for a different reason.

“They asked him who he was, and where he was coming from, and where he was going, and why, and show them some identification now.

“He explained the situation, and after a few very tense minutes they let him go.”

I am not romanticizing the past, and neither is he.  Washing in cold water and short pants winter and summer. No plumbing.  No central heating.  I’m not talking about the Middle Ages, there are plenty of people who remember how life was.  But when I say it was a small town, I’ve said everything.

Of course we can all fit in here, if we cooperate and nobody gets all huffy.

Of course we can all fit in here, if we cooperate and nobody gets all huffy.

 

Categories : Venetian History
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May
21

What was your name again?

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IMG_9546  baiamonte tiepolo

Walking home the other day, I cast my eye, as usual, on the building corner which Lino refers to as “The Wailing Wall.”  Meaning no disrespect to the original place of that name, our little angle is the perfect spot to tape up death notices.  I’ve mentioned on other occasions that the cost to publish such a notice in the Gazzettino is totally fantastical, so these rectangles of plastic are extremely useful in keeping people up to date on for whom the bell is tolling.

But I don’t usually expect to see names I recognize, mainly because the number of people I know who might be likely to demise is very limited.  And although some surnames are a little unusual, there are very few which hurl one back 700 years into one of the most complicated and desperate conspiracies ever formed to attempt the overthrow of the Venetian Republic.

So I was unprepared to see a new notice stuck on the wall, complete with photo of the deceased, announcing the death of Baiamonte Tiepolo.

This name may not connote much to you, but anyone who has skimmed Venetian history knows it as the name of one of the most audacious revolutionaries who ever tried to scuttle somebody’s government.

It was like seeing a notice for some innocuous little person who just happened to be named Benedict Arnold, or Oliver Cromwell, or Ernesto Guevara, or Gregory Rasputin.

As for someone bearing the name of a renowned Venetian noble family, this isn’t quite so startling.  I interviewed a descendant of doge Jacopo Tiepolo some years ago, and I know that there are Grimanis and Zorzis and Da Mosto’s still roaming the city.  I have also met a young woman carrying forward the storied name of Bragadin.

But it’s one thing to bear the last name; if you were a Bragadin, I think it would be cruel to name your son Marcantonio.  The name is certainly worthy of remembrance, but the boy’s life would be hell.  There are only so many witty remarks you can make to someone whose forebear was flayed alive after an epic siege that lasted almost a year, and the lad would have to hear all of them.

On the same note, the Venice phone book lists two men named Marco Polo.  They must have been doomed to a life of a steady drizzle of really funny remarks.  “Hey, Marco — back so soon?”  “Give my regards to the Khan, next time you see him.”  “Did you really invent pasta?”  And so on.

For the late Baiamonte, the drollery would have had to be more erudite, and I won’t risk any here because life is short, and by the time one (that is, me) has related as much as possible of his ancestor’s spectacular, if also scurrilous, story, the potential for humor would have dried up and blown away in the wind.  But I feel safe in saying that, thanks to his namesake and his cohorts, the year 1310 stands out in Venetian history as much as 1492 or 1776 stands out in the American annals.

Here is the drastically condensed version of his story. The plot was foiled, he was exiled for four years, and his palace was torn down.  He spent those years traveling, visiting Venice’s enemies (Padova, Treviso, Rovigo, and some very powerful families therein) doing everything conceivable to convince them to join him in another conspiracy. He just wouldn’t give up.

Not amused, Venice changed the sentence to perpetual exile.  He wandered around Dalmatia seeking new collaborators.  He was imprisoned.  He escaped.  The Venetian government forbade anybody to have anything to do with him.  Finally, in 1329, the Council of Ten decreed that he had to be eliminated, by any means.

The details of Baiamonte’s death are uncertain, which is not surprising when a person has to be eliminated. (The “Caught a cold and stopped breathing” explanation has often been sufficient.)  As for location, at least one historian states that he was in Croatia, staying with relatives, when his last day came and went.

For the Tiepolos of Lower Castello, maybe it was a point of pride to name their son Baiamonte. It couldn’t have been inadvertent.  I can’t imagine somebody saying “Heavenly days, it never crossed my mind that somebody would think of the old subversive of blackened fame.”

I notice, though, that he named his son Andrea.  Maybe he had had enough.

The great conspirator's palace was razed, and a "column of infamy" detailing his crimes was erected in its place.  Eventually the column was broken up, and this abbreviated summary placed on the pavement: "Location of column of Baiamonte Tiepolo 1310."

The great conspirator’s palace at Campo Sant’ Agostin was razed, and a “column of infamy” detailing his crimes was erected in its place. Eventually the column was broken up, and this abbreviated summary placed on the pavement: “Location of column of Baiamonte Tiepolo 1310.”

 

Categories : Venetian History
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The big water event in the Veneto region in November has had nothing to do with Venice and high water and the temporary walkways and how inconvenient or amusing the tourists find it and how aggravating it is for the merchants to deal with some water on the floor for a few hours.

Part of downtown Vicenza, a part of the world which is not accustomed to seeing water in its streets.

A scene of downtown Vicenza, a city which, unlike Venice, is not accustomed to seeing water in its streets. (Photo: Stampalibera.com)

The real story, which is still unfolding in all its drama and grief, has been the catastrophic flooding in large areas of the region caused  by diluvial rains and overflowing rivers.

I mention this as part of my modest personal crusade to give acqua alta some useful context for people beyond the old Bel Paese who read the endless and fairly repetitive  articles on Venice.  I’d like  to provide some recent perspective on the subject of water in these parts.

On November 1 the sky fell on the Veneto region.  I actually can’t remember whether we got acqua alta in Venice — if we did it couldn’t have been a problem. But what happened out beyond the shoreline showed, at least to me, that anyone living near a river is going to be facing bigger and uglier problems than anybody does  in Venice when the tide comes in.

The town of Caldogno has declared 80,000,000 euros in damage.

The town of Caldogno has declared 80,000,000 euros in damage. (Photo: Stampalibera.com)

Areas in or near Vicenza, Padova, Treviso, the mountains of Belluno and the countryside around Verona have been declared disaster areas.  In a 48-hour period 23 inches of rain fell on Belluno, 21 inches on Vicenza, 15 inches on Verona, 14 inches on Treviso.  Roughly the amount that falls in a normal year.

The total damage to houses, property, municipal infrastructure and agriculture in the Veneto has been estimated (this will undoubtedly increase) at over one billion euros ($1,365,530,000).

Garbage: Many of the Veneto’s 200 km (124 miles) of beaches, usually covered by vacationing Germans and other families, are now covered by seven million tons of garbage deposited by the swollen  rivers emptying into the Adriatic. By “garbage” I don’t just mean bags of coffee grounds and orange peel but plastic of every sort, sheets of metal, uprooted trees.

Experts meeting in Treviso are trying to figure out not only how to remove this amount of material, but how the sam hill to pay for getting rid of it, seeing that this type of trash costs between 170 and 180 euros ($232 – $245) per ton to destroy.  I’ll help you out: That comes to more than one and a half billion dollars just for the garbage.  I’ll send them a contribution but it probably wouldn’t pay for destroying more than a shopping-bag’s worth of detritus.

Mudslides: That amount of rain has drastically undermined the character of the land in many places.  Cleaning up and consolidating the areas of mudslides is another entire problem which will cost an amount of money I’m not going to bother calculating.

Businesses: On their knees.  Loss of merchandise, damage to buildings and interruptions in transport have immobilized many businesses.  Parts of many roads are still under water.

A scene of the countryside outside Vicenza, where traffic has ceased to function.

A scene of the countryside outside Vicenza, where we see that traffic has run out of road.

Agriculture: Fields and crops destroyed.  Some 500 farming operations are now at risk of going out of business. The government has estimated the damage at 25 million euros ($34,138,250).

I realize that you can replant sugar beets and chardonnay grapes but you can’t replant the Doge’s Palace, should water ever inflict comparable damage on this incomparable monument.  But still.

Very recently, but before all this happened, Giorgio Orsoni, the mayor of Venice, took a trip to Rome to make the rounds of government ministers and rattle the tin cup.  He didn’t come back with much, and now the future will inevitably be even more austere.  It’s not hard to picture how urgent it’s going to seem to preserve a couple of palaces and churches  to a government struggling to help an estimated 500,000 people get their lives back.

These are the most recent figures on the damage, which probably need no translation.  The numbers will undoubtedly rise.

These are the most recent figures on the damage, which probably need no translation. The numbers will undoubtedly rise. Among other items is the damage to the Prosecco vineyards, so don't expect an excess of this delicacy next year.

Categories : Events, Problems, Water
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Sep
28

Brenta: the “flowered riviera”

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Blessedly, there is an antidote to the histrionics of the racing world, and it is composed of the assorted boating events strung across the calendar which are conducted by us plain folks.

IMG_0986 brenta comp

One of the roadies helping to organize the start.

One of the prettiest, for the rowers, at least, is called the “Riviera Fiorita,” or “flowered riviera,” which consists, among many other events, a boat procession (“corteo“) which meanders down the Brenta Canal from Stra to the lagoon over the course of one long and (one prays) sunny day — usually the second Sunday in September. Participation is optional, so the number of boats and rowers can vary, but some years have seen nearly a hundred boats.

Two weeks ago was the 33rd edition of this event, which means that by now many of the participants have long since forgotten two of its basic motives, if they ever knew them in the first place.

One, that it was conceived in order to draw attention to the calamitous condition of this attractive and very historic little waterway, which till then was known primarily (and still is) for the ranks of Renaissance villas standing along its banks. There are anywhere between 40 and 70 of these extraordinary dwellings, depending on what source you’re reading; plenty, in any case.

Back in 1977, in the attempt to rally the public to the aid of this stretch of former Venetian territory, a few local organizations engaged a number of the fancy  “bissone” and their costumed rowers from Venice in the  hope of drawing some spectators, raising awareness and concern for the river’s plight, and so on.  As you see, the plan worked.

Second, that the event is intended to recall (“evoke” would be impossible for anyone today even to imagine, much less pay for) the corteo which was held in July of 1574 to welcome Henry III, imminent King of France, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, on his approach to Venice.

Henry’s visit inspired all sorts of memorable incidents; every time you’re reading about the 16th century hereabouts, he keeps turning up. The magnificence of the entertainment provided by all and sundry over the week he spent in the Doge’s territory makes it a little hard to remember that the basic purpose of his visit was to ask the Doge to lend him 100,000 scudi, without interest. Next time you want your buddy to spot you a twenty, see what happens if you ask him to organize a boat procession in your honor. And a couple of masked balls,while you’re at it.  But then, your buddy probably isn’t the only thing standing between you and the Spanish Empire.

Then this thought crosses my mind: If the Doge had had any notion that some two centuries later the republic would be ravaged, wrecked, and exterminated by a Frenchman, maybe he would have thought twice about lending him the money and giving all those parties.  One of countless useless afterthoughts gathering dust in my brain.

The Brenta in its natural state, descending the Valsugana at a brisk clip.  Here the water of the spring-fed Oliero River pushes its way in.  You can see why modifications needed to be made by the people living on the plain.

The Brenta in its natural state, descending the Valsugana at a brisk clip. Here at Valstagna the water of the spring-fed Oliero River pushes its way in. You can see why modifications to this waterway needed to be made by the people living on the plain.

So why is there a Brenta Canal (“Naviglio del Brenta”) when there’s a perfectly good Brenta River? Because the river, which springs from the lake of Caldonazzo in the foothills of the Alps near Trento, and wends 108 miles (174 km) southeastward till it reaches the Venetian lagoon, is too unruly and too silt-laden to have been permitted to continue its traditional path to the sea which was, in fact, the Grand Canal.

A clear rendition of where the Venetians cut the natural eastward path of the Brenta to send the majority of the flow southeast and out to sea.

A clear rendition of the cut the Venetians made at Stra in the natural eastward path of the Brenta, sending the major flow southeast and out to sea.

Thereby creating an ideal waterway for carrying goods, people, and sundries between Padova (Padua) and Venice.

Thereby creating an ideal waterway for easily moving goods, people, and anything else between Padova (Padua) and Venice. And providing a marvelous setting for beautiful country houses.

The Venetians had been fiddling with the river’s course since the 1330’s, and by the 17th century had diverted the main river south, to debouch into the Adriatic at Brondolo, leaving a more docile little arm of the river, plus several crucial locks, to use as a direct connection between Venice and Padua.  It was perfect for the transporting of all sorts of cargo in barges towed by horses, some of which cargo included patrician Venetian families with lots of their furniture shifting to their summer houses/farms for as much as six months of partying.

Two versions of the "Burchiello" in 1711, which carried patrician families upriver to their country estates.  The boat obviously could be rowed as well as towed.  (Credit: Gilberto Penzo)

Two versions of the "Burchiello" in 1711, which carried patrician families upriver to their country estates. The boat obviously could be rowed as well as towed. (Credit: Gilberto Penzo)

That’s the short version.

This waterway has now come to style itself the Riviera del Brenta, sucking up new streams of tourism by promoting its amazing collection of villas.  These vary in size and splendor, from the monumental Villa Pisani at Stra (yearning to matchVersailles, or at least Blenheim) to many elegant and winsome mansions — my favorite, the Villa Badoer Fattoretto — down to a ragged assortment of deteriorating properties whose history deserves something better than what they’ve been doomed to suffer.

These are just some of the boats at Stra being readied for the corteo.  A few of the fancy "bissone," and a very workaday red caorlina.

These are just some of the boats at Stra being readied for the corteo. A few of the fancy "bissone," and a very workaday red caorlina.

The boats, fancy or otherwise, were towed upstream from Venice on Saturday.  Sunday morning we took the bus to Stra, where we joined the throngs getting themselves and their boats ready to depart.  We were on a slim little mascareta, just the two of us.  At about 10:00 (translation: oh, 10:30) the procession moved out.

The sun was shining, the air was cool, the spectators were happy, and I was feeling pretty good myself.  We had 17 miles (27.3 km) to go, but by now I knew what the stages would be, so I was prepared not only for the effort of rowing (not much) and the effort of not rowing (strenuous).

The prow of a bissona, nuzzling the shrubbery.

The prow of a bissona, nuzzling the shrubbery.

Lino spiffing up the mascareta before we all get moving.

Lino spiffing up the mascareta before we all get moving.

Bissone milling around.  The trumpeters aboard the mother ship, the "Serenissima," will be providing the occasional fanfare.  Here they are taking on passengers also dressed in 18th-century garb.  They're going to be very hot in all that velvet  before long.

Bissone milling around. The trumpeters aboard the mother ship, the "Serenissima," will be providing the occasional fanfare. Here they are taking on passengers also dressed in 18th-century garb. They're going to be very hot in all that velvet before long.

Waiting around can be fun, no matter what hat you're wearing.  This man is one of hundreds of costumed passengers who provide atmosphere.

Waiting around isn't too bad, no matter what hat you're wearing, if it doesn't go on too long. This man is one of hundreds of costumed passengers who provide atmosphere.

And we're off!

And we're off!

“Not rowing”?  What do I mean?  If we were to row at top speed, bearing in mind that we’re going with the current — slight as it may be — we could theoretically make the trip in three hours.  But speed isn’t the point, and there is also the factor of those three pesky locks and three pesky revolving bridges we to have to pass through. As in: Wait to be opened for us to pass through.  Wait for everyone else to catch up so we can all get moving as a group again.  No stringing out the procession, it loses all its charm if we’re not together.

We start cheek by jowl with the Villa Pisani.  This is how it looks to the people ashore.

We start cheek by jowl with the Villa Pisani. This is how it looks to the people ashore.

And this how it looks to us, a sort of boat's-eye view.

And this how it looks to us, taking the boat's-eye view.

Here’s what I love about this event: The families clustered along the shore just outside their gardens, where picnic/barbecues are in full swing.  I made a game of counting the number of houses we passed from which the perfumed smoke of ribs grilling over charcoal was billowing.  When I got to five I gave up, because I knew I wasn’t going to be getting any and it just made me hungry.

Kids, dogs, people on bicycles, babies, fishermen, little old ladies — they’re watching us but I think they’re hundreds of times more fun.

People clapping just because we're rowing? What a great idea for a day out.

People clapping just because we're rowing? What a great idea for a day out.

Our first lock.  Couldn't fit anybody else in, but there are at least three more lock-loads of boats that have to come through.  So they wait for all the water to be released, for us to row out, and for the lock to fill up again.  Takes time.  People get cranky.

Our first lock. Couldn't fit anybody else in, but there are at least three more lock-loads of boats that have to come through. So they wait for all the water to be released, for us to row out, and for the lock to fill up again. Takes time. People get cranky.

Almost down to the level of the next stretch of river.  The boats along the sides have to attach a rope to hang onto as we descend.

Almost down to the level of the next stretch of river. The boats along the sides have to attach a rope to hang onto as we descend.

Time for a break.  Whether you're hungry or thirsty or have to go to the bathroom OR NOT, the boats in the lead (and the biggest) block the river.  This forces the by-now somewhat strung-out corteo to bunch up again.  It looks better.

Time for a break, sandwiches and water provided. Whether you're hungry or thirsty or have to go to the bathroom OR NOT, the boats in the lead (and the biggest) block the river. This forces the by-now somewhat strung-out corteo to bunch up. It looks better. So we hit the "pause" button on our progress one more time.

So here we are, all together, on the road again.

So here we are, duly bunched up, on the road again.

You can't smell the ribs on the barbecue, but they're just behind those trees.  People can be so cruel.

You can't smell the ribs on the barbecue, but they're just behind those trees. People can be so cruel.

Lunchtime at last.  We all stop at the Villa Contarini dei Leoni at Mira, where hot food is awaiting hot rowers.  No silver salvers, though.

Lunchtime at last. We all stop at the Villa Contarini dei Leoni at Mira, where doge Alvise I Mocenigo met Henry III on his approach to Venice. A simpler welcome today: Hot food for hot rowers. No silver salvers, though. Or doges.

The garden is lovely.  What the organization may lack in charm it makes up for in efficiency.  That's no small feat around here.

The garden is lovely. What the set-up may lack in charm it makes up for in efficiency. That's no small feat around here.

This bunch brought their own vittles.  I have no idea where or what the "Comune de Pan e Vin" (commune of bread and wine) might be, but it's clear that its members regard rowing as an amusing sideline to the real entertainment in life.

This bunch brought their own vittles. I have no idea where or what the "Comune de Pan e Vin" (commune of bread and wine) might be, but it's clear that its members regard rowing as an amusing sideline to the real entertainment in life.

A caorlina from the boat club at Cavallino-Treporti, which is still at least partly farmland.  They are clearly faithful to their agricultural roots, down to the chili-pepper belt the first rower improvised.  After lunch, the day does begin to drag somewhat.

A caorlina from the boat club at Cavallino-Treporti, an area which is still at least partly farmland. They are clearly faithful to their agricultural roots, what with the festoons of eggplant and bell peppers and all, down to the chili-pepper belt the first rower improvised. After lunch, the day does begin to drag somewhat.

Enlivened by one of the swing bridges which we all have to pass through in some kind of orderly manner.  Now it's the drivers who have to wait.  Nice.

Enlivened by one of the swing bridges which we all have to pass through in some kind of orderly manner. Now it's the cars who have to wait. Nice.

Applause and cheers are always appreciated, but my thoughts are beginning to wander from the adoration of the masses to getting home and taking a shower.

Applause and cheers are always appreciated, but my thoughts are beginning to wander from the adoration of the masses to getting home and taking a shower.

Here’s what else I love: Passing the  Villa Foscari “La Malcontenta.” Not only is its elegance and repose something especially beautiful when we pass in the dwindling afternoon, when the sun begins to descend and the light warms to honey and amber.  Reaching this emerald curve also means we’re almost at the end, an idea which is gaining appeal with every bend in the channel.

The Villa Foscari "La Malcontenta," one of the most beautiful buildings on earth.  I think the partial screen of willows increases the allure.

The Villa Foscari "La Malcontenta," one of the most beautiful buildings on earth. I think the partial screen of willows increases the allure.

Here’s what I don’t love: The aforementioned locks and bridges, not in themselves but because of the sort of frenzy that overtakes people trying to squeeze their boat in when there obviously isn’t enough space for a toothpick.  They start to get tired and cranky, and maybe they’ve had one or two glasses of wine (it could happen) and so these little solar flares of emotion begin to overheat my own sense of benevolence toward my fellow man.

Moranzani, the last lock.  We are in pole position to get in as soon as the gates open.  It's past 6:00 PM and at this point everybody wants to be first.

Moranzani, the last lock. We are in pole position to get in as soon as the gates open. It's past 6:00 PM and at this point everybody wants to be first.

Here’s what I especially don’t love: Wind in the lagoon.  It has happened more than once that by the time we were leaving the river at Fusina and heading into open water, we were facing a wall of wind.  Which brings waves.  Which means just when you really want it all to be over, you have to seriously get to work rowing.

In 2001 — a date branded into my brain — there was so much weather that the trip to the Lido in the 8-oar gondolone which normally would take an hour took three times that long.  Doesn’t sound so bad?  Maybe not now, but we had no idea when it was going to end, if ever, as we were struggling through the tumult, crashing along, the boat stopping every time we went into the trough between the waves, of which there were many.  I also lost my oar overboard.  Having to retrace lots of waves we’d just conquered in order to recover it is not a memory I revisit with any pleasure.

You might think that this kind of experience would really build your muscle mass, and I suppose it does.  I counted several whimpering new ones the morning after. But what it really toughens up is your mental mass.  Mental stamina, some level of fortitude you never needed till now. Plain old grit. You’re out there and suddenly realize you’ve completely run out of the stuff and you’re still not home?  You’ve got to make more grit right there. There is no alternative.

One of those nights we were rowing back (it’s always getting dark in these return voyages, which adds to the dramatic element) in the six-oar caorlina with four teenagers who hadn’t done much rowing.  I was in the bow, so I couldn’t see anything but night ahead of me.  Rowing, rowing… It felt like we were rowing in a sea of cement, pushing against a brick wall.  And as I rowed, I gave myself comfort in the only way I could: Swearing a series of oaths in my mind, more sincerely than any juror with both hands on the Bible, oaths which I fully intended to voice to Lino whenever we made it to shore, and calling on the angels, prophets and martyrs as my witnesses, as follows:

“Forget my name.  This is the last time.  I’m never doing this again.  This is insane.  I hate this.  Why am I here?  What was I thinking? Forget my name. This is the last time…..”

I can’t remember how long ago that was, and well, I’m still doing it.  So much for my oaths, and I think my witnesses have all gone home.

But this year the return row was heavenly.  We were towed, with ten other boats, from the last lock at Moranzani out into the lagoon.  When we got as far as the Giudecca, at about 7:45 PM, we untied our little mascareta from the others and rowed through the darkness back to the Remiera Casteo, at Sant’ Elena.  The other end of Venice, in other words.

The lagoon is always beautiful, and even more so when you're heading home.

The lagoon is always beautiful, and even more so when you're heading home.

I love rowing at night.  The sky gleams like black onyx and the darkness somehow makes it feel like you’re going really fast.  There is almost no traffic (it’s not summer anymore, thank God) so the water is smooth and silky.  It’s dreamy.

Then we had to cross the San Marco canal– sorry, dream over.  There’s less traffic at 8:30 at night, but there are still waves, spawned by an assortment of vaporettos and the ferryboat and some random taxis, none of whom is likely to be looking out for any stray mascareta.  Yes, we had a light.  No, it wasn’t a floodlight.  This created enough tension to inspire me to speed up. and we briskly made it across in only a few minutes.

Home free.  And very sorry it was all over.  And very ready to shut the door on today and turn on the shower.  Boats are great but 12 hours in one is plenty.

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