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  • Writer's pictureNora Studholme

The Beaver Republic

The only way I feel able to tell about a weekend in Venice is to speak on its own terms, to share a wandering labyrinth of discoveries and dead ends, magical moments that briefly tear the curtain that separates the past and future.

Even arriving out of the train station was one of those moments. The station itself is grand and modern, brightly lit and high-ceilinged, echoing with the rumble of rolling suitcases. The automatic doors slide open and let you out into another time. Wide stone steps leading down to the fondamenta along the Grand Canal, the slow lights of water taxis unzipping the mist. Across the canal, the sudden rise of a massive structure, chaotic with pillars and statues, crowned by a coupola. It would be grand anywhere, a massive marble structure lit by the lights of evening, but what makes it pause-and-stare-worthy is the fact that it seems to come straight out of the water. There is not strip of fondamenta on that side of the Grand Canal, just a sharp border from water to stone.

I read later that a French writer once referred to the buildings of Venice as “lavish headboards.” It is just how they appear. The same writer referred to the city as “a double labyrinth of land and water” and later as “the beaver republic.” This guy really got Venice.

A wandering journey of alleys and water busses leads us to our hotel, which turns out to not be our hotel, because they decided that they would outsource us to another hotel. It smells of rotting ocean water or something more pungent — eau de canal — which for now, is charming.

As we venture out into the city, we meet our first version of Venice — a Venice at night, a chilly, quiet city, most streets empty, with only a few surges of humanity pooling in a hum of revelry outside certain wine bars or in piazzas. She’s not one of those glittering night cities — she’s solid and gray. Her stones are worn deeply and her bricks are tattered. But when we turn down a street and find ourselves, as we often do, along a hidden canal, the sounds of the water licking up against the stone city are gentle, sweet, not at all sad.

The next day we meet Venice in mist, a thin shroud that seems to pull the haze of green up from her canals and drape it gently over everything. It’s a mysterious Venice, it feels like there is magic hiding itself down thin streets. Most likely there is.

We spend that morning in the Doge’s Palace, the seat of government for thousands of years. We walk through rooms of escalating opulence, listening to an audioguide that explains the rooms that burned and were rebuilt, the secret passageways and sinister punishments carried out by the few, the anonymous accusations slipped into the Council of Ten (another fantastical name that speaks of legends) through the mouth of a carved lion. We wander through rooms more and more grand, their ceilings feel like they are dripping in gold, not just frescoes but interlocking golden carvings that extend dizzyingly, suddenly ending in elaborately carved harpies or griffins, women with sad and elegant faces. Then just as suddenly the tour brings you down into the prisons, the tiny doors and rough hewn walls all part of the same building, a strange testament to the spirit that architecture can give to a place. A strange reminder that the Venicians used this architecture to subdue. The audioguide tells us about the horrors of the republic, the aggressive punishments, the dubious justice system. We hear more of these stories in our few days in Venice, these macabre brutalities seemed to be conveyed with as much delight as people spoke of the brilliant three-day parties at Carnival, the moral hedonism in every category, the bustling diversity of silks and spices, the joie de vivre that seemed to border always on chaos.

Another small delight — like the eskimos (supposedly) have 50 words for snow, the Venicians have dozens of names for streets. Campielli, calli, rami, jetty, Corte (dead end), Fondamenta, rio tera, sotoporteghi, sestieri. It felt fitting to know this as we wandered our way through narrow alleys that widened suddenly into cobbled piazzas, or ducked their way beneath buildings, or ended, suddenly, in a quiet canal, a set of stone stairs leading down into the water expectantly. It seems to be true that, as Edward Sapir suggested, one needs to have words commensurate with how often you experience a thing, and how important that thing is to your daily culture.

The Venicians also have a lot of words for “wine and snacks.” Just saying.

Another magical use of words in this city of surprises is the street names — and here I use the word magical more literally. There are streets that named for those who make gold out of nothing, streets named for the prostitutes who were given their own district to practice freely, streets named for larger than life figures who came here to trade, explore, and partake in hedonism of all types.

Not that we ever found our way around well enough to remember which street was where. They came upon us suddenly. We’re lucky enough to find a “guidebook” in an old bookstore — I use the term guidebook loosely, it is more of a catalogue of interesting Venetian lore and hidden stories. Which, of course, is far better than your standard guidebook. There are endless things to notice — a carving here from an Arab trader, this hunched statue in the market where the city crier would announce those guilty of crimes who had been banished from the city, this carving of a coat of arms over a courtyard all that remained of a spurned lover whose friend betrayed him and ran off with both his love and his livelihood. One gets the sense that every stone here is saturated in story.

Our final day, we meet Venice in the sunshine, bursting with people who laugh, take selfies, sitting in gondolas or posing with elegant Carnivale costumes. It's a Venice you can get cheerfully lost in — we take the wrong water-bus and end up in what feels like the “local” part of the city, down south where we look out toward the ocean. We get a gelato and sit with our feet dangling over the edge of a jetty. This Venice invites you to get lost, to have no plans, to be frivolous.

In some ways, the city feels like a place that was, rather than is. Venice is currently celebrating its 1600th anniversary (that’s a lot of candles). There are still people out in lavish costumes, promenading along the fondamenta and pausing on bridges and in piazzas for photos and admiration. Did I mention that it was Carnivale? ;) It feels fairly quiet the whole weekend, even though we see newspapers with headlines claiming 45,000 tourists will descend on the city. There’s an air of subdued celebration — more than seeing people partying, we hear about the legendary parties of old (I mean, old, like the 1200’s) when the city would throw balls that lasted three days, weeks of parties attended by noblemen and women from all over the world, Europe and Asia alike. Parties where masks were worn for weeks and under the glitz and paint of concealed identity, noblemen danced with peasants, monks courted with prostitutes,

Now, it seems that most of what’s left of Venice’s world-renowned debauchery has been sterilized into tourist offerings, stories and souvenirs. But even these parts of the city still feel “real” in a way. On one of our wanders we stop into a small piazza where we find a tiny mask shop. A man named Mario helps us try on dozens of masks, talking nonstop in Italian. We understand most of the words he’s saying, but it doesn’t always make sense why he’s saying them. It’s charming. He helps us select our perfect masks and tells us warmly how happy he is we’re here, living here in Italy, how much there is to see, to learn.

Another frivolous wander in the sunshine brings us to a beautiful canal-side restaurant for ciccietti and spritz — both “endemic” to Venice. The waiter is busy and proud, delighted when we let him order for us. The sardines with saor (a sweet fruit sauce) are the strangest and most wonderful of our typical Venetian feast. I get the sense that we’re finally experiencing the way Venice is meant to be experienced on our last sunny day. Wandering, stopping to marvel at some strange carving from the Byzantine era, gazing up at the oriental arches that give the city such a unique facade, stopping in for a spritz here, a spritz there.

By the time we leave, we know we want to come back — if only to get to know Venice a little better, to learn more of her moods, to stumble on more of her hidden stories.

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