The following, in two parts, is the tale of my sole trip to Venice.
Italy to me means much more than to most. Besides the hot ladies, pizza and pasta and Rome and Naples, and St Peter's cathedral, to me Italy is special since my own blood brother is an Italian in mind, body, spirit and soul but that's certainly not the reason that I visit Italy whenever I do. There are two distinct regions of Italy that particularly finds favor with me – Italian Alps (bordering France / Switzerland) and Italian Dolomites. Most of my entries into Italy have been either over land on foot across some high mountain ridge or summit or cycling or on board a bus through the Mt Blanc tunnel, including one illegal one, where I had to go back into Switzerland across the summit of Mt Matterhorn or Cervino as Italians call it, since that year I had only Swiss visa and not the Schengen.
Over the years whenever I had a valid permit and reason to be in Italy, and on occasions being bullied by my brother, I did end up seeing all the touristy Italian spots as well, including Milan, Florence, Naples, Sicily, Pisa, many of the Mediterranean Islands like Capri, did wine routes, church routes, and even climbed Mt Vesuvius after paying an exorbitant fee of Euro 5 to a guide whom I could have carried in my backpack and outrun to the summit. By no means am I saying that I did not enjoy these visits, beautiful and enchanting as Italy is and the abundance of liberal and free kissing women at every corner, I would have certainly loved the country but for the over-gesticulating gentile people who, in order to say one word, gesticulated a dozen. And I certainly abhor male kisses anywhere on my person.
There's another reason that pulled me to Italy. It was my search for the Holy Grail, which to me was the world's finest Tiramisu. History and gastronomic guidebooks say that such a thing, if it existed, must be somewhere in Italy. For those who have not yet been initiated into Tiramisu, it's a concoction of mascarpone cheese, raw eggs, sugar, espresso coffee, ladyfingers (savoiardi biscuits), liquor and cocoa. Heavy cream is optional. It’s pure sin and is often called the dessert of heaven. But mind you, if it is not properly prepared, then it is no more delectable than a tightly packed punch of soft tissue paper dipped in coffee and cheese cake. As I scoured from north to south and then from east to west (can you do that in Italy, thin in its width as it is!) climbing the highest and lowest spots or carousing at its lofty or cavernous corners, I did hear 'Venice' being mentioned several times as the place to find world's finest and smoothest Tiramisu, though despite that I did not feel like making a detour to Venice. Come on; how exciting can a sinking city be! But when once in the company of my 'all-knowing' brother in Rome, while polishing off a bottle of fine wine, he mentioned casually that it indeed is Venice where I would find my Holy Grail (though he took great offence, being a pure Roman Catholic, that I would demean Holy Grail to such a sinful pleasure as Tiramisu). That swung my mind totally. If my brother says something as true then it is, period. He never says anything in jest and he knows everything.
Soon enough I took a train to Venice and dozed my way to the end of the Roman world while draped on the shoulder of a big Italian mama on one side and a pretty Italian lass dressed in a short dress that if it were shorter would not be a dress any more on my other shoulder. The Italian mama took an immediate and intense dislike to my bohemian and rhapsodical looks while the lass took an immediate liking to my full smile and honest eyes. I am sure she also liked the fact that I was totally checking her out. We struck up a cute conversation; her English rivaling my Italian perfectly. I was brazen she was coy. During that trip for some reason I had made a hand printed visiting card for self and had few of them in my torn pocket. During the spell of our eyes peering into each other, at some point I must have slipped one such card innocuously into her perfectly manicured palm. She must have read it too, at some point of time, for when we neared the end of our train journey, she suddenly bent towards me more than can be considered civil in public places, and asked in the most honeyed tone possible, drawing out the 'r' and the 'l' in a manner that left even me speechless for that fraction of a second that stands between a pair of heartbeats.
'Why a criminologist?'
'Excuzi!' I used my Italian.
She held up my visiting card, which among my numerous activities, mentioned 'criminologist'. And she repeated, 'Why a criminologist?' 'Why not?' I croaked while my eyes ogled just below her throat.
'You are most interesting, where are you staying, how long are you in Venice?'
'I have no idea, may be a day or two. Once I find my Tiramisu…' I trailed off. How could I possibly tell her that in the world's most romantic location (to Italians at least) I was on a measly gastronomic mission.
'You are so funny, you stay with me ok, at my uncle's place, I will show you around and I want to know you more, by the way I am Maria.' She finally said.
'Tell me something new' I muttered within my mind, 'Nice to meet you Maria.' I finally shook her hand though our bodies have been colliding now for more than few hours.
The train chugged in at the Venezia station with much aplomb and cheer from my fellow passengers nearly all of whom seemed honeymooners or mooners certainly with at least one striking member of the opposite sex draped carefully around their arms. Now even I had Maria, albeit at a hair's breadth away, within the reach of my arms, a distance which I was certain would diminish during my days of Venetian voyage. People cheered, clapped and smooched. The sound of kissing, long drawn out 'hold-your-breath' kind filled up the coach. It seemed as if the mere sight of Venice train station had finally awakened the amorous passions in every bosom, who till now were hibernating within a crystal globe of inactivity and torpor.
'This happens every time, you see. People visit Venice looking for love or for the love that they have lost with those with whom they have lost it or wish to find it. But many return empty handed or with the realization that they will never find it with the person with whom they arrived here. So they either file for a separation or return deluded. It's sad really. Love does not reside in Venice, though we would like to believe it; it resides in your heart and in your eyes… I am glad you are not looking for love in Venice… or are you!' Maria said as we alighted.
'I am not looking for love in Venice, may be love is looking for me. What I always look for is an adventure, something that I don't expect and don't know whatever it is.' I replied mysteriously. It always worked with beautiful women.
'Then you are at the right place, Sat,' Maria pressed my hand, 'you have no idea what's going to happen to you in Venice.'
'I like it that way for sure.' I pressed her back and we waddled off into the waddling crowd.
I had seen enough pictures and movie scenes to have a fair idea what Venice would visually be. Even then the zigzagging canals and the antediluvian baroque and Gothic architecture rising straight out of the sea and water and the cute little darkened alleys and by-lanes girdled by kiosks selling masks, muslins and Murano glass figurines caught my fancy. American, German and British tourists jostled past, literally pushing us out of their way, with one eye glued into the travel brochures and the other on to whatever they fancied, trailing their companions with hair flying into the wind. What was the hurry I wondered? Was Venice supposed to sink into oblivion today, I pondered.
Anywhere I looked people ran in all possible directions and jumped in and out of the water taxies indiscriminately, or so it appeared. Only the locals, easily discernable by their phlegmatic gait, prominent stupor (as if their left ear was careened into the wind coming from the sea), superior air (I have seen it all) and monochromatic attire, took it real slow and real easy. ‘Almost all these people would leave Venice in few hours by the night train so they want to do everything before they leave, including gondola ride and a quick trip to the islands.’ Maria explained as she tucked her left arm into my right.
Canals, narrow and wide, spread out in all directions like a carefully and intricately woven cobweb. We walked along the tightly squeezed narrow lanes lined up along the canals that weaved in and out of the shadows cast by the sinking sun across the high roofs. Soon Maria led me away from the busy and the tourist-marked canals and lanes and I suddenly found myself in a silent waterway, on which boats stood transfixed like stone since not a ripple moved anywhere. The towering and tottering ancient buildings did not let out even a whisper and their beautifully colored and carved baroque façade looked too proportionate to be real. I stopped and took a sharp breath in amazement.
Oddly enough, viewed from the sky, the main island of Venice resembles a giant fish, with the Grand Canal (Canal Grande) twisting and turning through it like the transparent gullet. Every tourist brochure recommends a promenade along the 3 km long banks of the Canal and it is delightful indeed; not to be missed if you ever visit Venice. The Canal can be crossed on foot only at three points (bridges); Ponte Degli Scalzi, Ponte Di Rialto, and Ponte Dell’ Accademia. If you wish to swim across then you can do so at almost any point since the canal width doesn’t exceed 50 m anywhere and there are often more than a handful of gondolas or boats zipping by in case you begin to drown.
We now walked along the Canal, hand in hand, swinging our bodies and light bags like the children in Sound of Music. We had returned to the normal buzzing world of colorful tourists and bargain hunters, and the thousand year old cobblestoned pathways that were choked with curio shops and eatery kiosks almost every possible inch. Venice is festive and feasting every day of the year, year after year, and never is there a moment when Venice is out of season, Maria confided.
‘We are in San Polo,’ Maria said, ‘my uncle’s house is here. Let’s first keep our bags and get something to eat then I will take you around.’
At a point we turned to our right along a thin artery of the Grand Canal and came to an opened courtyard frilled with garden and ivy plants that had a house each on its four sides.
‘This is Rio Terà and we are just a hopping distance from the famous Campo San Polo, which I will show you later.’ Maria went up to a dark green door with a lamp hanging from the top and groped under the doormat. ‘This is my uncle’s house,’ she found the key and threw the doors open with a flourish. ‘Welcome Sat, to the original house of Tiramisu. This is indeed the place where world’s finest Tiramisus are created.’
‘You are serious!’ I said.
‘Remember Sat, we Italians never joke about our food and wine and this is Tiramisu we are talking about, the ultimate ambrosia, food for the gods,’ She said, ‘Roman Gods.’ Maria hastily added. ‘My uncle’s father perfected the art of Tiramisu. Everyone knows the name of Garibaldi, the handmade Tiramisu family.’
Well, I didn’t, I mused silently. But with a free roof over my head and possibility of free food and a convivial companion in hand I wasn’t the one to complain.
While I dumped my bag in the room Maria directed me into, she got busy in the kitchen that was right next to the entrance.
After a light lunch we took to the roads. ‘I hope you don’t mind walking, that’s the best way to experience Venice.’ Maria said as she skipped along.
‘I love walking, remember I am an alpinist. I trust my feet more than anything else.’
‘Out here trust me more, ok,’ Maria laughed her natural trill.
‘Hmmm… where should we start from? I will show you the islands tomorrow, we have our own boat. I am sure you know boat handling!’
‘Of course, I am also in the Navy, remember!’ I was loving this more and more. ‘And I am a navigator, won’t lose my way for sure.’
‘Well as your first sight in Venice, we shall begin from Mercati di Rialto, or the Rialto Market, where you would get to see real Venice.’
‘Won’t we see the Rialto Bridge?’ I enquired of my guide, as we pattered along through narrow lanes.
‘At this time there won’t be a place to stand, I will take you there at night, when it is most beautiful and empty.’
Suddenly we exited a nearly deserted lane and came out into a maddening bustling hub of human activity. It was a true blue bazaar if I have seen one, raucous and lively enough to rival the flea market of Istanbul.
‘This is Campo Della Pescaria, the greatest market in the world,’ Maria pulled my right arm and threw me right into the middle of the bedlam.
I would have been surprised if it weren’t, I mused. A regular Italian’s nationalistic fervor (including that of my brother) compelled him or her to proclaim anything and everything within its national boundaries as the greatest and finest of its kind in the world. That is not to say that I wasn’t visibly impressed and suffocated. I am intensely averse to crowded places and the Rialto Market was crowded to the point of being choked with people, shops, curio sellers, hawkers, mobile kiosks, an entire tsunami of human and edibles jostling and bursting for space in the narrow market street, which was bordered on the other side by the dancing waters of Grand Canal. I marveled how no one actually fell off or was being pushed off into the Canal! What lacked in natural splendor was more than adequately covered up in colors of humanity and cacophonous ramblings of the most explicitly Italian pantomime. If I could find a space to stand on my two feet at one place then I could have spent an entire day simply listening and observing these people, so varied and humorous it was. If you just walk up and down with a video camera for an hour through this place then by the end of it you would have a magnificently vociferous and animated film on humankind without the need of any dubbing or editing at all. The Italian and Venetian bargain hunters and the delicately decorated tourists were the funniest to watch. Those who claim that the art of bargaining has been perfected by Indians and the middle-east Arabs must come here to see what it is all about. I was totally taken in by the fruit and vegetable stalls and even tasted the local delicacies of baccala montecato and pasta e fagioli with risi e bisi. Despite Maria’s best efforts I decided to skip the fish market as I have had enough of the crowd and we headed out.