Slow boat to Abbondanza

The Fifth Avenue of Venice offers uncounted opportunities for grand gawking, from the lifestyles of the rich, to regular Venetians getting on famously

July 14, 1999|By Alice Steinbach | By Alice Steinbach,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

VENICE -- All arrivals in foreign cities are difficult, but arriving in Venice is difficult in its own way.

Why, even so sophisticated a traveler as humorist Robert Benchley was moved to cable home upon first arriving in Venice: "Streets full of water; please advise."

Remembering this witty summation of Venice's greatest tourist challenge brings a smile to the face of one American in Venice -- we shall call her Signora S. -- as she notes the dazed looks of those just arriving in La Serenissima. It is, as the signora well knows, a not-so-serenissima experience.

First-time visitors to Venice are particularly distressed at finding themselves and their luggage deposited by a vaporetto -- the local water bus -- not at their hotel but at some nearby location.

There is no more forlorn sight, observes Signora S. from her vantage point at the San Marco landing, than that of a confused tourist attempting to drag several pieces of luggage through the maze of alleys in search of his hotel. Si, si, of course, there are porters who, for a price, will drag it for you; the trick is finding such a helpmate before someone else finds him.

And woe be unto the tourist who arrives at the Piazza San Marco during the acque alte, as Venetians call the high tides that occasionally flood the square. Signora S. has seen such a sight, and a pathetic one it is, too: Tourists, pulling their luggage behind them, are forced to walk across the square on narrow planks supported by metal trestles that rise a few feet above the water.

Water, it seems, is very much on the American signora's mind today. She is about to catch the No. 1 vaporetto, a water bus that stops at every landing along the two-and-a-half mile Grand Canal. She could take the faster motoscato, an express bus with fewer stops, but that would defeat the purpose of her trip: to continue her self-appointed task of cataloguing the 200 or so palazzi along the banks of the Grand Canal. Or, as the Venetians call it, the Canalazzo.

Si, si, of course such a listing of Venetian palazzi has been done before -- by scholars and the like -- but not by Signora S. If there is one maxim the American signora violently disagrees with, it is Gertrude Stein's pronouncement that "If it can be done, why do it?" Indeed, she approaches life from the other end, thinking always, "If it can be done, why not do it?"

So with great confidence and little justification for such an attitude, the signora has set out with a small satchel containing three reference books on the Canalazzo, its history and architecture; several No. 2 pencils with erasers; and a sheath of notes culled from such publications as Women's Wear Daily and Vogue magazine.

Also, in her purse she carries a dog-eared copy of "Harrap's Italian Vocabulary: 6,000 Words and Phrases in 65 Subject Areas." To facilitate her coversational skills, she has marked with little yellow Post-It notes several subject areas. Describing Things. Greetings and Polite Phrases. Likes and Dislikes. How Are You Feeling? Shopping.

The ride on the No. 1 vaporetto, which she boards at the San Marco landing just outside her hotel, takes 45 minutes each way. Signora S.'s plan is to look only at the palazzi on the left bank going up and, on the return trip, only those on the right bank. Focus, she has learned from studying her cat during his numerous daily mealtimes, is all.

As she looks about, a thought occurs to the signora, one she writes down in her notebook: If Florence is the city where one goes for a room with a view, Venice must be the place to come for a canal with a view.

It is like nothing else in the world, this broad S-shaped curve of water that runs through the center of the city. Although Signora S. has taken this ride dozens of times, the views still give her intense feelings of delightissima.

Palaces on both sides rise like cliffs out of the water in which their images are mirrored. Here and there one can see a secret garden through a gate, a bit of wisteria hanging over stone walls. Pots of red geraniums crowd the palace balconies, their flowers reflected like red brush strokes in the lapping water. Blue-and-white striped mooring poles, odd cousins to the lowly red-and-white barber pole, mark the entrances to each palazzo's private watergate. And all along the canal, tethered outside the palazzi are the gondolas, riding up and down on the water like restless black steeds.

The Canalazzo is the Fifth Avenue of Venice, a posh thoroughfare where the city's richest families built fabulous palaces to showcase their wealth. The history of Venice lies in the names of these buildings.

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