STORY & PHOTOS BY TOM WEBER
With the Adriatic Sea gurgling underfoot, The Palladian Traveler races against a growing high tide to get out to a Venetian glass-blowing factory. He documents it all, while puddle jumping around the Lagoon, in his 19th Country Roads dispatch.
I’ve just been punched, a real roundhouse to the old breadbasket, by that “time flies when you’re having so much fun” realization that your temporary taste of la dolce vita (the sweet life) is about to come to an end.
You see, today’s the final activity day for our now tightly knit band of merry media — 23 travel writers and photographers along for the ride on Insight Vacations’ (Insight) abbreviated Country Roads of Italy journey through Umbria and Tuscany, bookended by Rome, and where we are right now, Venezia (Venice).
All together now. Repeat after me: veh-NET-zee-ah. Bravissimo!
It’s a jam-packed “signature” day, too, filled with plenty of “Kodak moments,” as we take to the calle (streets) for an informative, non-touristy look at Venice, watch an artisan demonstration at a traditional glass-blowing factory, get serenaded during a gondola ride, and, perhaps, a few other surprises will be thrown in for good measure, just because Insight can.
Excited about what we’ll see, hear, smell and savor, we’re also a bit preoccupied. Sometime late this morning — 11:07 to be exact — the phenomena known as ACQUA ALTA (high water), which raises its ugly head at this time of the year, will crest and parts of La Serenissima will be under a lot of saltwater; so, getting around the Lagoon and staying on schedule will be challenging. Umbrellas open, we better get moving.
Meet Anna, Insight’s resident Venetian art-history expert. Under an overcast sky and a light drizzle, this grand lady in a floppy hat leads us through two of the six sestiere (neighborhoods) that define Venice’s Centro Storico (historic center), San Marco and San Polo, stopping here and there to point out landmarks, discuss everyday life of the anonymous Venetian, and keep us out of harm’s way as the Adriatic begins to gurgle underfoot. Looks like we’ll be puddle jumping the rest of the way.
Living in Venice, our sweet grandmotherly guide notes, is a real struggle. Mainlanders have it easy compared to us. Our buildings are quite old, the majority without elevators, she says with a sad look. We travel mostly on foot, sometimes on the ferries, and have to carry everything we purchase back to where we live then lug it all up many flights of stairs. Anna wraps up this little nugget of insider info by admitting, We shop often, but as light as possible.
Despite the daily struggles to keep one’s head above water — Venice IS slowly sinking, you know — locals wouldn’t have it any other way. We love our city, Anna notes, It’s like no other place in the world. So rich in art, culture and history. We’re quite an innovative people, we Venetians, and take whatever Mother Nature throws at us with a smile.
From the Teatro La Fenice, where world-class tenors and mezzo-sopranos perform, to the Ponte Rialto, filled with fine shops open for business underneath its ornate porticos, we pause often for cultural and historical footnotes that only “Nonna” Anna can describe, then quickly move on as she announces softly through the radio ear buds: Yoo-hoo! We all giggle; she’s a hoot.
The walking tour now over, cut short by the rising aqua alta, we regroup at a watercraft landing in the Quartiere Rialto.
Bidding an ARRIVEDERCI! to “Granny Annie,” we hop aboard the fleet of awaiting motoscafi (water taxis) and immediately shove off and into the traffic along the Grand Canal, zigzagging towards Giudecca Island and our scheduled visit to a glass factory.
With 150 canals, Venice, just like cities on terra firma, has its fair share of traffic, only instead of cars, trucks, motorcycles and scooters, it’s simply boats, LOTS of boats. Some 30,000 watercraft traverse the Lagoon daily, and of those, between 4,000-5,000 maneuver up and down the Grand Canal.
Our skipper’s cruising as fast as legally permitted — 7 kph (4.2 mph) max along Grandlasso — staying close to the rest of the Insight flotilla.
We bob and weave around larger craft, slowing down as we enter the mouths of the smaller rio and riello (canals), then almost drop to the floor as we glide under bridges where clearance continues to get tighter and tighter as the aqua alta rises and rises. It won’t be long before passage will be impossible.
Not to worry, Insight’s little armata (armada) is past the threat and in the clear, and gunning it, at a reduced speed of 5 kph (3 mph), to Giudecca.
Just south of the center of La Serenissima, Giudecca is an island in the Venetian Lagoon. It’s separated from the rest of the nearby islands by its namesake canal that eventually merges with the Grand Canal in the latter’s basin. Giudecca was historically an area of large palaces, but became an industrial base at the beginning of the last century. Once bustling with shipyards, a gigantic flour mill and a full-time film studio, Giudecca fell into decline, but is now getting its second wind and making a comeback.
We’re ready for an all-stop as our pilot throws out a line and the water taxi snuggles up to a small dock that fronts the Arti Veneziane alla Giudecca (AVG) — Venetian Arts on the Giudecca — a fairly new glassmaking factory. Our band of merry media disembarks and is immediately greeted by Franco, the head of AVG’s public relations department, and our host for the next hour.
Not simply centered on glass, AVG also showcases other Venetian artisan traditions: Carnevale masks, fine lace and pearls, and gondolas. Outside the entryway to AVG sits one of the sleek, flat-bottom boats from the mid 1800s. According to Franco, a new, handmade gondola fashioned by expert craftsmen will run about $45,000 USD.
Inside, we take our seats in a small industrial theatre where two artisan glass-blowers, fronting a more than 2,000°F solar-orange furnace, begin a demonstration showing how they skillfully turn liquid silica into works of art, just like it was done back in 800 A.D. Today’s demonstration highlights two pieces of glass: a horse and a snail. Unlike the slow moving terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusk, this little show clips along at a pretty brisk pace.
Demonstrations are nice, but I’d prefer to see the big-ticket items coming out of these high-priced, glassmaking furnaces. Franco obliges, and we head into the showroom.
Once behind the counter, he jumps right in with a Venetian Glass 101 primer, warning us that there are lots of imitations out there, but only one original. In the end, it’s more a sales pitch than a class on the basics of the fine art of glassmaking. But, hey, they have to pay their bills, too, right?
It’s nice to browse around and see gorgeous handmade Venetian glassware up close, but I don’t want to go into debt for the rest of my life. Some of these items on the shelves are leaving me with sticker shock.
No, I’ll just keep my hands glued inside my pockets and continue window-shopping. Care to join me?
Did we just hear something shatter over there?
O…M…G. There’s a BULL in the glass shop!
To learn more about traveling in style on one of Insight Vacations’ 12 Italian premium and luxury escorted itineraries — where you’ll meet great local personalities like The Etruscan Chef along the way — or one of its 100 other journeys around Europe, visit insightvacations.com, or call toll-free (888) 680-1241, or contact your travel agent.
Meet me in St. Mark’s Square next and we’ll join the masses and go for a walk…ON WATER.
Tom traded in his hometown St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap in the United States for a Borsalino and now hangs his cappello in the City of Palladio — Vicenza — in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy.
From his creative hideaway, Tom authors ThePalladianTraveler.com, an eclectic, visually stimulating, travel-food and wine-photography blog devoted to the pursuit of happiness within the Bel Paese and occasionally beyond.
A veteran print and broadcast journalist, with well-worn passports that have gotten him in and out of 42 countries and counting, Tom has a great eye behind the lens, a magical touch in post-production, and is a graphic storyteller.
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