City of Masks: Unmasked, or Christmas in Venice

Ahhh January 25th. The perfect day to talk about December 25th! The holidays can be a tricky time of year when you’re away from home. All of the European assistants I know went home, and some of the Americans as well. But as for me, Home came to France!!

My family and sister arrived in Chambéry after a much delayed flight on December 22nd. We walked around the town, got some snacks at the market and they got to meet one of the teachers I work with, which was especially nice since my mom is doing a pen pal exchange with her class! The next day we set off in our rented car for Venice, Italy!!!

The drive was long, but as we keep reminding people here, driving 6 hours in the US doesn’t get you all that far, so the fact that we made it through the Alps and across nearly all of northern Italy in that amount of time was actually pretty thrilling.

And when I say we went through the Alps, I mean we really went through them. Not only did we stop for the panoramic of Mont Blanc, we later went underneath it via the 11.6 km Mont Blanc Tunnel. According to wikipedia, this passes directly underneath the Aiguille du Midi, making it the deepest tunnel in the WORLD!

And so, we spent the next week and a half in Venezia. The city, with its roads of glistening water lined by regal and exotic palazzi, its maze of passageways opening onto cozy campi, seems to exist in the world of magical realism. It couldn’t possibly exist, and yet here we are, so it must. La serenissima lives up to its name: the silence in the absence of cars is met inversely with the echoes of footsteps, conversation and the bells that sound out continuously and without schedule from the hundreds of churches all uncushioned by vegetation. Paired with a long, rich artistic and cultural history, Venice evokes magic and mystery better than any city I know.

It is however, a city I don’t think I could live in. It’s not even the boats and the water and that the local cuisine is 85% fish. It’s the tourists. Sadly, Venice seems to becoming somewhat of a living museum. I heard more French and English spoken on the streets than Italian, and never really got a sense that I was walking among locals. To be fair, we were obviously partaking in tourist activities, but even so, in most cities you are able to find at least a little of the local underbelly beneath the shiny tourist sheen, and I have to say I had trouble finding it here.

That said, spending Christmas and the New Year here with my family was absolutely a treasured experience. For one thing, it was the first time my dad had been back since living in Venice for 5 or 6 months in college. I could tell he was beyond ecstatic, and after 22 years of him telling me and my sister he would one day bring us to Venice, we were right there with him. We went to midnight mass at San Marco Cathedral, which was a thrilling affair given in 5 different languages. We walked miles a day, up and down the hundreds of bridges, despite all of us losing feeling in our toes at least once in the week. We cooked risotto and ate a different kind of cheese every night. We watched the New Years fireworks from the Dolgana. In fact, we almost got into a fight with an English couple who tried to stand in front of us at the last minute. Then, we were seated next to the same couple in a restaurant the next day. For all of its charms, Venice is quite a small little island.

Other highlights and tips:

  • Riding the vaporetti up and down the Grand Canal. It doesn’t even matter if you have a destination, seeing Venice from the water affords a completely different – and integral! – view on the city.
  • Drinking spritz. Anytime, anywhere. Paired with gelato from Gelateria Nico for the ultimate waterfront experience.
  • If it is a clear day, I highly recommend you get to the nearest campanile and climb up it. We went up three: San Marco, San Giorgio Maggiore and Torcello. Each has a unique and stunning view of the lagoon.
  • Visits to most of the other surrounding islands: Torcello has charming and very ancient architecture, Burano is a treat with its tropical colors, and Murano is of course the island of glassworks.
  • Teatro La Fenice: This is one of the most well-regarded opera houses in all of Italy, with a fascinating history and even more captivating interior.
  • Palazzo Querini Stampalia: This is one of only a few palazzi that have been preserved to show how they were used at their height. The piano nobile has been effectively turned into a house-museum showing the old collections of the Querini Stampalia family, including a room filled floor to ceiling with fascinating painting of daily Venetian life. The bottom floor was more recently redesigned by Carlos Scarpa (also known by me and my dad as ‘Chuck Shoe’) into a unique space. A must-see for architecture lovers.
  • Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) Protip: if your ticket is pre-purchased, you don’t have to wait in the enormous line that forms by 10am…there is a separate line for ticket holders. I particularly loved seeing all the parliamentary chambers and understanding how Venice functioned as one of the most powerful city-states in Europe.
  • Ca d’Oro: This is widely considered one of the most beautiful palazzi of Venice and it is easy to see why. It now houses a kind of eclectic art gallery, but it was worth it to see the beautiful balconies and courtyard.
  • A million and one churches. Or that’s at least what it seemed like. Bring some change: most churches have offering boxes that will illuminate the richly painted ceilings and chapels once you drop a few coins in.
  • Wandering through Campo San Polo to watch the ice skaters and the Cannaregio to see the Venetian Ghetto.

In his book The City of Falling Angels, author John Berendt suggests playing a game called “photo roulette” the object of which is to go about your day as normal, but stop to take a photograph at random moments – when a bell rings or every time you see a cat – to see how often you are met with a view of exceptional beauty no matter how arbitrary the spot. I didn’t discover this idea until returning to France, but I imagine that Venice would make a winning subject.  ✽

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