Italy’s newest theme park? Venice

Photo by Jill Kimball

The restaurant had taken advantage of every inch of its tiny corner-of-the-block space. Tables were crammed into the corners and smashed against the front windows, leaving barely enough space between them to allow waiters to pass. Across from our tiny sitting area, pushed uncomfortably underneath the stairs to the second floor bathrooms, was a huge case of chilled five-dollar water bottles. Customers’ expressions revealed feelings of worry, harriedness, stress and slight unease, with the exception of two couples in fluorescent Hawaiian shirts laughing and boisterously singing the chorus of “Hotel California” with the waiter.

No, this wasn’t Disneyland. This was Venice, Italy.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Or was it? I doubted many other Italian cities considered English their primary language and attracted about 20 times more annual visitors than permanent residents. Maybe this was Disneyland after all.

Though the claustrophobia of the restaurant did nothing to calm my nerves, it was at least an escape from the hordes of tourists and pigeons only a block away in St. Mark’s Square, one of the most visited spots in the city.

When you’ve only got a day to spend in Venice, as my friends and I did on this rainy Sunday, seeing the square is a visitor must—especially when the visitor in question, like me, has gazed at photos of the cathedral, the clock tower and the Doge’s Palace in wonder for years. I had dreamed about visiting Venice, particularly this venerated square where so many scholars and poets before me had passed through, since eighth grade, when I sang in a play called “Viva Vivaldi!” which celebrated the life of the famous Venetian composer and his lovely home turf.

Photo by Jill Kimball

With all my senses, I routinely imagined the red-roofed city’s atmosphere: the tiny, romantic canals lined with orange and yellow houses, clothes strung between the crumbling balconies; wafts of warm pasta and pesto sauces lingering in the air; a cool, salty breeze from the Grand Canal.When I finally arrived at the square in person, though, only two of my senses awakened: sight and smell. The former spotted dark, ominous clouds threatening to pour rain down on us, and the latter couldn’t ignore the repugnant rotten-egg smell emanating from the canal 200 feet away. To make matters worse, a large construction banner covered a ring of scaffolding around the red-brick bell tower, obscuring the full view of the square and making it even more difficult for the huge crowds to maneuver around each other.

Was Venice always like this, I wondered? What happened to “bella Venezia”, the city of Vivaldi, the capital of romance?

Here’s what happened: the Disneyland effect.

Photo by Jill Kimball

In June, city officials estimated that somewhere between 18 and 19 million people visit Venice every year. This statistic looks astronomical even by itself, but juxtaposed with the number of residents within city limits—62,000, according to a 2006 census—it seems downright insane. Actually, it closely resembles tourist figures at Disneyland. In 2007, nearly 17 million people visited Disneyland, which means in the high season visitors staying in hotels could easily have outnumbered the fewer than 350,000 Anaheim, Calif. Residents.

Venice wasn’t always so overrun with non-Italians, though. Fifty years ago, its population was twice that of today, and according to an article in the New York Times, the city saw half the amount of current annual tourists 20 years ago. No wonder my high school Spanish teacher, who visited Venice in the 1960s, reported a very different experience from mine: she called the canals and the square “charming” and said most people there were Italian, not foreign.

Venice has changed, and mostly for the worse. In 1960, I could have gotten off the train at Santa Lucia station and said, “What do I want to see first?” When my friends and I got off the train, we spent 10 minutes elbowing our way through the crowds to reach the station and my friend Mark aptly said, “So basically what it comes down to is, where do we want to wait in line first?”

Photo by Jill Kimball

We chose the hundred-person-long line to the baggage storage room. Then, we waited in line to buy tickets for the “vaporetti,” or water taxis. Then, we waited in line to get on the taxi. By the time we had waited in line twice more, once to ride the elevator to the top of the bell tower and again to see the unfurnished, musty and dark interior of the Doge’s palace, we were entirely too hungry and tired of crowds to bother with the line that snaked from the cathedral’s wrought iron entrance doors all the way to the edge of the canal.

There were no lines in front of the restaurant. But there was a Venetian waiter there who, when I tried to ask him about life in the lagoon city, drowned out my questions with talk of L.A. and another rousing chorus of “Hotel California”—all because I told him I was from San Francisco.

Clearly, Venice is no longer the cultural destination it once was—the city seems more American than it does Italian—but it is nevertheless home to 62,000 more people than Disneyland. It must, therefore, retain some sort of distinct local spirit, though it may be buried deep in the narrow, windy streets and tiny straits of water a little further from the Grand Canal. I hope to return to Venice in the off season and with a little more time on my hands to veer from the oft-tread path and discover the city as it once was. You’ll probably see me: I’ll be the underdressed American attempting fluid Italian sentences and murmuring under my breath about Disneyland tourist traps.

Advertisements

A taste of home in Padova

It had been quite a confusing day, first with the difficulty of orienting ourselves in Trieste long enough to catch some of the sights before afternoon, when we stumbled through the town in search of the train station, where we’d catch a regional train to Padova. Our confusion was only temporarily abated on the short hour-and-a-half train ride between the two cities; at the Padova station, it all started again. We were to catch bus number 19. I couldn’t remember how to say “nineteen” in Italian. Lynn and Mark couldn’t find the bus stop. If we ever got on the bus, we realized we wouldn’t be able to find the “big blue bridge”, our cue to request a stop, in the dark of the night.

A half hour later, we stumbled down a quiet alleyway a mile outside the city center, with very little streetlamp light to guide the way, to our bed and breakfast. An Italian couple greeted us at the door in broken English, and I greeted them back in the best Italian I could muster in my exhausted state. Ten confusing and not entirely grammatically correct minutes later, we had our room keys and directions to two of the nearest restaurants: a traditional pizzeria and Le Chevalier, an Irish pub that also served Italian food and cheeseburgers.

Somehow the idea of a French restaurant with an Irish theme serving Italian and American food didn’t seem appetizing, so we opted for the more predictable option. Though it was 9 p.m., a fairly typical time for Italians to eat dinner, the pizzeria was almost deserted; as we ate our pizzas and sipped on our two-euro water, we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk above a whisper for fear of disturbing the two other couples quietly eating near us. I glanced wildly around for something that might inspire a conversation topic, but only one sentence came to mind: “This is good pizza.” Lynn and Mark nodded. That was the end of the conversation.

The next day was a whirlwind of churches, outdoor shopping, public transportation and frescoes; it was a day in which we explored all that was unfamiliar to us. We returned to the bed and breakfast with the collective desire for a louder, less strained dinner than last night. We were wary to try the pub in all its cross-cultural oddities, but we were so hungry that we went anyway.

We were greeted warmly by a twentysomething Italian woman in Chanel glasses who was pouring beer from the tap into four two-liter containers. It was fairly early for Italians to be eating dinner, but at least half the wooden tables and benches were filled to capacity with young people. We took seats at a table and gazed at the menu: Cheeseburgers! French fries! Fried mozzarella! Chicken Caesar salad! Fruit bowls! On television: American pop stars! Was this home?

No, but it was a taste of home. I realized that this weekend, and this entire semester, I thought I’d completely immerse myself into the unfamiliarity of Italian culture as entirely as possible. I wanted something new, something un-American—and I got it. But even though I was willing to throw myself completely to the mercy of foreign people, places, and things, I needed that little bit of familiarity to get myself through the day.

Photo by Jill Kimball

The weekend’s whirlwind tour!

Being a student in the CIMBA program means you’re constantly throwing yourself into one thing after another. This weekend, Lynn, Mark and I threw ourselves into Trieste, Padua and Venice. When we returned Sunday night, we threw ourselves back into homework and haven’t had time to breathe until now.

The first leg of the trip was a CIMBA-run Friday trip to sights near Trieste. First, our super-touristy buses stopped at Redipuglia, a World War I memorial and former battleground. It’s a huge, concrete-and-marble expanse that holds all the graves of the 40,000 known soldiers who died in the war, plus the remains of 60,000 unknown men, in a terraced motif. What struck me about the memorial was the stark contrast between its very white and cold expanse and all the trees and little houses dotting the countryside around it. After staring at a sea of green interspersed with little yellow and orange houses, the brightness and unnatural quality of the memorial was a little shocking–appropriately so.





Next, the bus stopped at Castello Miramare, built right on the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea in the late 19th century. We didn’t get to go inside (we were only there for an hour, so the 4 euro admission price didn’t seem worth it), but we saw the pretty grounds via many staircases and even a little tunnel, and we made our way around the perimeter of the castle to the expansive balcony overlooking the ocean. The view of Trieste from the castle was outstanding, if a little hazy.

Photo by Jill Kimball



Photo by Jill Kimball

Then, after the bus dropped off the 3/4 of the student body who had decided to visit Ljubljana, Slovenia, three of us strapped on our backpacks and wandered around Trieste proper for a while. The city was full of beautiful, crooked alleyways that were perfect for the casual wanderer. The city clearly bore the mark of many different Western cultures, as it should given its location and involvement in so many land disagreements. In the same square was a canal that recalled Venice’s reign over Trieste, a church with Roman columns that hearkened back to its Roman roots, and a Serbian orthodox church, which reflects its interesting east-meets-west geographical position.


Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Lynn Hurley

In the late afternoon we caught a train to Padua and got to our B&B by nightfall. The couple who owned the little hotel, a large converted house, barely spoke any English–good news for me, because I got to practice my Italian; bad news for my friends, who knew not a word. Also staying at the hotel was a handful of students from Cal Tech, backpacking around Europe before the school year began. (I still can’t believe that most of the CSUs, UCs and U of O haven’t even started yet!) One girl was originally from Bucharest, Romania, but in the first five minutes of conversation with her we could barely pick up any accent at all.

When we woke up in the morning, we set off for the Cappella degli Scrovegni, where we had to reserve tickets online ahead of time to see Giotto’s famous frescoes. Much of his art had been damaged by a combination of centuries of neglect and exposure to polluted air, which caused the paint to peel. Since the 1960s, preservers have been trying to restore the frescoes. They’ve set up a complex system of air-churning machines and special waiting chambers to make sure the doors of the chapel aren’t opened and exposed to the elements for extended periods of time. They only open the doors for visitors every 20 minutes, and photos aren’t allowed…although we took a ton in the chapel’s lovely green grounds while we waited.

Photo by Jill Kimball
After the chapel, we found our way to the historic city center and took to street wandering for a few hours. We stumbled upon a few blocks of the biggest Italian names in fashion–Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.–then found more affordable goods at an outdoor market in Piazza delle Erbe, one of the city’s main squares. I was glad to see there were very few tourists; everyone in the city center seemed to be locals or area visitors taking a day trip to go shopping.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

We saw and went inside several churches, but the most impressive by far was the Basilica of St. Anthony, where the actual remains of Padua’s patron saint sit in a tomb inside the sanctuary. The church, as you can see from the picture, is impossibly huge inside and out. It had about 20 chapels inside, and at every one there was at least one person kneeling or stopping to whisper a “Hail Mary”. The basilica is obviously considered a sort of Catholic pilgrimage destination to Italians.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

Hilariously enough, we were so sick of Italian food that night that we decided to forsake pizza and pasta for bar food at Le Chevalier, an Irish-style pub with a French name, Italian menus and good ol’ American food. We watched a pathetic Rome soccer game while we munched on french fries and burgers.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Sunday’s adventure: Venice.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Let me just preface my impressions of Venice with this: we knew from the beginning that we were crunched for time and that we’d only be able to spend four or five hours in the city. On top of that, the weather was crummy and prevented us from doing some things we had planned, like wandering around for hours and grabbing a coffee in St. Mark’s Square.

That said…Venice is overrun. It’s Disneyland. While it looks exactly as I pictured it, and while no other city looks anything like it, there are so many people there that it’s hard to remember to look around you when you’re pushing through the crowds. There are lines everywhere: we waited 20 minutes to check our backpacks for the day at the train station, 10 to get tickets for the vaporetti (water taxies), another 10 to actually get on a vaporetto, 20 to go up the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square, 10 to get into the Doge’s Palace…and the line was so long to get into St. Mark’s Cathedral that we skipped it altogether, something I wish I hadn’t had to do.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

I sincerely hope anyone else who goes to Venice has a better experience than I had on Sunday. It’s a beautiful city, and I think if I’d had more time to enjoy it, I would have found different parts of the city that were less crowded by foot traffic. I also would have found places where English was not the primary language, since the whole point of visiting a foreign country, to me at least, is experiencing a culture different than your own. I didn’t get that foreign experience in San Marco, or on the Rialto Bridge, or on the vaporetti, so I hope to return closer to winter and find that Venice really is the beautiful, romantic city I always pictured it to be.

Photo by Jill Kimball

UP NEXT: A NIGHT OUT IN BASSANO DEL GRAPPA

Photo by Jill Kimball

First post!

My overseas flight was four days ago, but I’m still wrapping my mind around the fact that I’m in Italy. The evidence is all around me–beautiful landscapes, little yellow-, orange- and whitewashed houses, scary drivers and crucifixes everywhere–but I’m still catching up on sleep, so half the time I forget where I am because I’m so focused on just staying awake.

Photo by Jill Kimball
The Istituto Filippin, an Italian boarding school where all of us American students are also staying and taking classes, is beautiful and a nice change of pace from the expansive University of Oregon campus. It used to take me 20 or more minutes to walk all the way across campus; now it hardly takes me five. Our dorms are expansive, with tall cielings, huge old-fashioned windows with thick wooden shutters, and a private bathroom with a bidet (?!). Once a week, maids come to change the towels and linens. There’s also a dining hall that serves all three meals every day, but so far it isn’t very popular with students–most meals consist of pasta, some sort of pork dish and a cup of pudding or yogurt. We may never eat pasta again once we leave here.

Photo by Jill Kimball
The campus is divided in two: one half is for dorms and classrooms, and the other is for athletics. Today I spent most of my day in the latter half for the Da Vinci Challenge, a leadership and team-building series of exercises that demanded cooperation, trust and all the strength I could muster. With my team of ten, I climbed over a 15-foot wall and made my way through a tangled web of ropes. I even fell from a high tower to demonstrate that I trusted the eight boys below to catch me.

Going through the day, which included other difficult strength exercises that tired us all out pretty quickly, was difficult, but I felt proud at the end. All those trust and group exercises proved to me that I’m no longer that shaking sixth-grade girl who can’t muster the courage to complete the ropes course at science camp.

The rest of the week, including Saturday, will be taken up by seminars and leadership workshops. Two friends and I hope to take a day trip to Venice on Sunday, but it may rain, so we may stay in the area and go somewhere closer instead.

READ NEXT: TALK OF TRAVELS AND RAIN