On A Slow Boat to Venice

Venice, the last stop on my journey across northern Italy, is 75 k from Vicenza. I could have driven, but it didn’t make sense to hold on to the car for an extra day, just to drop it off at the rental agency the minute I arrived.  Especially when, for only 7€, I could take the train and be there in 44 minutes.  Besides, as much as I love the freedom and flexibility the car gives me, I was looking forward to a few, car-free days.  I booked my entire trip – flights, car, hotels, garden visits, cooking class – everything that needed a reservation.  Months later an old bit of trivia floated up out of the depths.  Years before, when I had been researching my previous trip to the region I had come across another way, a much, much more interesting way to reach the lagoon city.

Villa Pisani (previous post) wasn’t the only villa that had more to do with pleasure than farming.  And it wasn’t the only one that was built, not in the middle of fields where owners could keep an eye on their crops, but along the banks of the Brenta Canal.  At the first hint of summer, Venice’s elite would set off from Piazza San Marco in luxuriously outfitted boats called Burchiello.  Feasting on sumptuous meals to the accompaniment of musicians – the entire household retinue and much of the furnishings were brought along –  they would wine and dine their way to their summer pleasure villas, far from the sweltering heat, humidity and stench of summer in Venice.  It was the beginning of the beloved Italian custom of villeggiatura.  Summer in a villa.  The recently surfaced memory was of a cruise today’s travellers can take in a modern day version – comfortable, but definitely not luxury – of the 16th century Burchiello.  From Asolo, where I had stayed on that previous trip, the logistics were too complicated, but from Vicenza, it was absolutely doable. The only question was, would my dates work out? I remembered that the starting point alternated between Padua and Venice.  I checked the website.  Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the route was Venice >Padua.  Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays it was Padua>Venice.  But what day of the week would I be leaving Vicenza? By now my heart was set on the cruise.  If I was one day off, that would be a big seccatura (sake-kah-too-ruh).  Drying up of the spirit.  I fussed around for a while.  Cleaned up the kitchen.  Put away some clothes.  Watered some plants.  When I started to think about doing a bit of dusting, that was it. I got out my itinerary.  My departure date from Vicenza was Oct. 4.   A Sunday.

It was pouring when the train pulled out of the station in Vicenza and it was still raining, although not quite so heavily when I arrived in Padua.  By the time I reached the landing, the rain had stopped and there was even a patch of blue.

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Leaving the Pontile del Portello, the ancient landing in Padua.

Most people make a mad dash for the front seats when they get on these pleasure boats, but I have learned that unless you manage to snag a front row seat, your chances of a clear view and photos without a bunch of half-cropped heads along the bottom are much higher if you go to the rear.  I left my backpack on the bench next to the rear door (to save a seat in case it started raining again) and went up top. I flicked off as much water as I could from a front row seat and sat down. I’d had so many wet bums this far, I was beyond caring. Besides, the view and the air and the peace and quiet – there was no-one else up here of course – were absolutely enchanting.

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Gliding along in another world.

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The winged lion of Venice stands guard over an arch in the 16th century wall that once guarded Padua.

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We had all, I am sure, hoped for a gloriously sunny day, but then we would have missed this misty, dream world.

Along the route, in addition to gawking at the villas, there is also the fun of going through the conche (cone-kay). Locks.  It takes five of them to accommodate the 10 meter difference in water level between Padua and Venice.

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The first lock. La Conca di Navigazione di Noventa Padovana.

Shortly after we passed through the first lock we came to one of the most beautiful villas. It is set back a distance from the canal and is called Villa Giovanelli di Noventa Padovana.  It was in the headlines of the local newspapers recently following its sale to a misterioso soggetto.  For five million euros.  Più o meno.  More or less.  The estimated cost of restorations is another five million.  The previous owners, the monks of the Villaggio Sant’Antonio, had been very particular about the nature of the buyer.  They rejected all offers from private companies and joint stock companies, eventually agreeing to accept the offer from a trust which will be in force for 90 years.  One of the clauses in the sales contract prohibits the mystery buyer from splitting up the property.  Another restriction the monks had insisted on was that the property continue to be used for il benessere sociale.  The social good.  (The monks had operated an orphanage in the villa.)  What happens at the end of the trust’s 90 year term is, like the identity of the buyer, a mystery.

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So many stories behind those walls.

By the time we reached the lock below, the sun had come out and so had many of the passengers who were now up on the top deck with me.   But the good spirits the clearing skies had brought were somewhat dampened when it became clear that the gates, or whatever you call the moving walls of the locks, were stuck.

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We all stood there, staring, willing the gates to move.

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Finally, after close to half an hour – the captain was not happy – it wasn’t a figment of our imagination, the gates really were inching towards each other.

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Some of the villas have been converted into luxury hotels.

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I’d seen giant squashes hanging from fences along the Amalfi Coast. Had the gardener planted them at the base of the fence and now that it was fall, stripped away the foliage?

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At the lock of Strà we got a real sense of the change in water level.

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Between the locks there were stretches of tranquillity you wouldn’t expect to find so close to an urban centre.

Even more interesting than the locks for the non-technologically inclined were the ponti girevoli (jeer-eh-voe-lee). Swing bridges.

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Our (much larger) boat and a smaller one arrived at this swing bridge at the same time.  What was going to happen?  Was is nautical protocol or common sense that led the smaller one to pull over?

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Like many of the villas, this one looks a little worn for wear from the outside.  But you never know with these historic monuments.  The interior may be immaculately maintained.

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In some cases, the barchesse – the farm buildings attached to the residence in the centre – have been converted into individual, private residences.

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At one bend in the canal, the tranquillity was shattered when the captain leaned on his horn. The swans took their time moving out of the way.

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The old swing bridge in the foreground is no longer used.

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Its ‘modern’ replacement is not as charming, but undoubtedly more reliable.

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There were all sorts of variations on the girevoli theme.

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It was utterly fascinating to watch and see what would happen.

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This pedestrian bridge lifted up.

At one point our captain pulled over to a landing.  We had arrived at the first of three villas we would be visiting.

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Villa Widmann.

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Unusually, the barchessa (farm building) here is separate from the residence.

Only one room in the villa is open to the public, but that one room is all that’s needed to get a feeling for what these villas were all about.  It’s rather small so the tour leader divided us into two groups.  By language. German and Italian.  That left three people – two Americans and me.  Back at the landing in Padua, as we climbed on board the tour leader had checked our names against a list, where the length of cruise we had signed up for (there was a 1/2 day option) was noted, as well as whether we had ordered lunch, and our country of origin.  This last presumably to let her know which languages she would have to  use for the day.  I had told her that notwithstanding the ‘Cdn’ next to my name I was perfectly comfortable in Italian.  She was very happy to hear this, because, of course, it meant that at least for the second half of the day – the Americans would be leaving at lunch – she would only have to deliver what turned out to be a very detailed and thorough script in two rather than three languages.

She motioned to the Americans to go with the Germans.  I stood there for a moment, feeling like the last one picked for teams in gym class.  But she hadn’t forgotten me.  ‘Lei va con loro‘ (You go with them), she said, waving me over to the Italian group. It appears I had been made an honorary Italian for the day.  It was unseemly, but I have to confess to feeling a bit puffed up as I walked over to join the Italians.  While we waited for the Germans to have their tour, we wandered around the garden.

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It wasn’t a garden that, as the Michelin people say, ‘vaut le détour’ but it was nice to stretch our legs…

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It didn’t take long to go around the whole garden, so after a few minutes I joined a small group from the Italian cohort who were waiting by the entrance to the villa.  They were a party of three couples, old friends who lived in and around Milan. The cruise was part of a weekend getaway for them.  I learned all this because we ended up sharing a table in the cabin.  The first time it started to rain again and I’d had to come down from my dreamy post up top, things had been a little awkward. Six people were sitting at my table and my backpack had been moved to the end of the bench.  Buon giorno, I said guardedly.  But I needn’t have worried.  They were lovely and I was sorry to say goodbye to them when we went our separate ways at the landing in Venice.

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…and there was the most extraordinary pond with trees growing out of the depths. Eerie.

As we stood there waiting for our turn, one of the women asked me what I thought of the garden.  (During one of our rain shower chats they had asked me about my trip and I had told them about visiting gardens.  Italian and French gardens.) Beh… mah…eh…allora.  I stalled. Finally I just told them what I thought.  Then another signora asked me which I liked better – Italy or France?  A-a-a-llo-o-o-ra-a-a, I began.  Before I could think of anything even remotely diplomatic her husband came to my rescue.  ‘Oh dai, che la stai imbarazzando!‘ (Oh come on.  You’re embarrassing her!)  ‘Mi piacciono tutte e due’ (Both are pleasing to me), I cautiously began, and then, I’m not sure why – maybe because I was a bit rattled, I felt a need to balance things out – I had already told them how much more time I spend in Italy so ovviamente (obviously) I must like it more, I added, ‘Anche Parigi’.  (Even Paris.)  Why I felt the need to defend Paris is beyond me, but now that I was on that track, I talked about how so many people I’ve talked to hadn’t enjoyed their experience in the City of Light, which, from what I could gather, usually meant they hadn’t liked the Parisians, who I have generally found to be quite simpatico.  Any that aren’t, I just try to steer clear of.  ‘Ha ragione, Signora‘, my saviour said, ‘bisogna evitare gli antipatici’ (an-tee-pah-tee-chee) ‘You’re right, signora.  The trick is to avoid disagreeable people.’  Since that day, whenever I have to deal with an antipatico, I think of his words.

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Chandelier – Venetian glass of course – in the entrance hall of Villa Widmann.

We crowded into the Sala delle Feste.   Odd to think that the now priceless frescoes were, at the time, an inexpensive alternative to the tapestries the owners used to cover the walls of their palaces in Venice.

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But there was no need for thick, draft-blocking tapestries in a villa occupied only in the summer.

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The Sacrifice of Iphigenia.  Like the frescoes, the elaborate mouldings were also a cost-cutting measure.  They are all trompe l’oeil.

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On the opposite wall, the Kidnapping of Helen of Troy. Unusual subjects for a party room.

We continued on our way.  I was looking forward to our next stop – il pranzo (lunch) which had been delayed because of the stuck lock gates.

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A lot of local pride here…

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…and the fellow who turned the wheel put on a good show for an appreciative crowd.

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Finalmente!  Along with the fritto misto a helping of the quintessential Venetian carb – polenta. 

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From here on the canal had a different feel. More built up. You could almost sense Venice approaching.

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A retractable bridge. What must it be like for the locals who are forever dealing with these bridges? Maybe it’s not all that different from waiting for the subway.

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As much as I enjoyed gliding along the canal, I don’t think I’d want to eat anything caught in it.

Our next stop was at Villa Pisani for a tour of the interior, which despite the tour guide’s enthusiasm and knowledge, left me cold.  It was packed and I don’t do the herding thing well.  Besides, it was the gardens I really wanted to see and they were closed because of all the rain. (previous post)  The last villa we stopped at was Villa Foscari.  I’d toyed with visiting it on my previous trip, but it was too close to Venice and on the ‘wrong side’ of the canal to make me want to tackle what I knew would be a stressful drive from Asolo and later, when I was in Venice, too far for a quick outing.

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Villa Foscari aka La Malcontenta. (The Unhappy One)

A lot has been written about this villa suburbana.  Words like majestic and magnificent come up a lot in articles by people in the know, so I had been expecting something not quite so formidable.  Even if the light hadn’t been all wrong – because of the delay it was late afternoon by now – I’m not sure how much less imposing it would have looked.   I sympathized with the beautiful, young wife – la Malcontenta – who centuries ago had been exiled here by her husband on the pretext of adulterous behaviour. As if all of Venice’s elite didn’t engage in such extracurricular activities at the time.

Part of the formidable feel comes from the fact that unlike Palladio’s other villas, this one is raised.  The ground is on the swampy side, so rather than digging down to create a basement, Palladio built it above ground which had the twofold advantage of making the living quarters somewhat less damp and of adding to the overall sense of grandeur, which is what the owners, one of the most powerful families in Venice, were really looking for.

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Like the façade of the Loggia del Capitaniato in Vicenza, the exposed brick of the ‘temple’ columns is an example of Palladio’s genius in creating a grand effect with humble materials.

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Bathed in the light of the late afternoon sun, the rear has a much less formidable feel.

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In this 16th century print of Villa Foscari – no willows to block the view of and from the villa – horses on the banks of the canal tow a Burchiello toward Venice.

Finally we reached the open water.  To our left the industrial city of Mestre stretched out from the western limit of Venice.

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A few minutes later, off in the distance, we saw them.

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Floating cities. The bane and the life blood of Venice.

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I was glad when our captain changed course and went behind the mammoth.

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Like all the other passengers I was gawking at the ship when I chanced to glance ahead.  A bunch of idiots – crazy, thrill seekers is what I thought at the time  – were heading for the ship.

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As we got closer, it became clear that the people in the boats may have been a bit crazy, but they were no thrill seekers.

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They buzzed around the ship, horns blaring and shooting off clouds of vile-smelling smoke…

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…while high above them, passengers lined up along the decks watched the scene unfolding in the water below …

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…and on the opposite quay.

We left the demonstrators behind and continued on toward Piazza San Marco, the heart of this magical and doomed city.  Our cruise ended at a landing to the right of ‘the drawing room of Europe’ as Napoleon described the square.  My suitcase was in a back storage area so I had to wait until all the other passengers had disembarked. I was so engrossed in watching – in horror – as the young woman struggled with my suitcase along the narrow gangway – she had insisted on performing this last servizio for me – I didn’t notice a small group waiting on the landing.   It was the three couples I had, in a way, spent the day with.  They had stayed behind to say goodbye and to wish me a ‘Buona continuazione’.  As each one of them reached out to shake my hand, I was reminded of why I really travel.

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Next :  I’m off to Puglia – tonight in fact – so will not be sending out any posts for a while.  Hopefully I’ll have something ready from my adventures in Italy’s ‘heel’ by mid-June.  In the meantime – tante belle cose!

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