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  1. Sajid January 6, 2008 @ 5:03 am

    Its amazing that you are finding time and energy to pen down all these experiences during the hectic travel. They are surely a wonderful read, and I particularly, enjoy them since I have seen most of these places and have had my own experiences, though I never penned them down in such elaborate details. There are a few sketchy writings though, which I might share with you after you return to office having completed this journey of a life-time. Good luck with the rest of your adventures,


Day 4 – Dispatch from Venice – In the City of the Merchant

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Venize, December 29, 2007 – 1900 GMT – on Board a EuroStar from Venice to Florence

I am on my way out of Venice, described sometimes as the most unusual and the most unique city in the whole world. This several thousand year old city is built, literally, on canals. Several times during the life of the city the canals have suffered flooding and the city buildings have received considerable damage. Yet, the persistance of Venetians to live this ambibious existence, come what may, has always survived the floodings. Venetians, as I’ll talk about later are a remarkably creative and artistic people and roaming around this city and admiring their colorful and artistic spirit one tends to wonder what would these people do if they weren’t subjected to such a precarious existence. Perhaps, it is these vulnerabilities of the Venetians that find expression in another realm. Doctors, I’ve always thought, were pretty good at performing arts – singing, playing an instrument – because they dealt with vulnerabilities, death, and disease all the time and if they don’t vent it out somewhere they will just drown in the depressing reality of our existence. So do Venentians, perhaps…

I arrived in Venice late last night on a Eurostar. The Venezia Santa Lucia Station brings you right to the mouth of the edge of the Grand Canal in Venice. As you come out of the station and climb down the stairs, you’re welcomed by Boats – water buses, as they’re called here — rather than the usual buses and taxis. If it is too late, and you’re a little sleepy as you climb down the stairs, you actually stand a very good chance of being awaken from your slumber by a nice cold water dip in the Grand Canal. I had booked my hotel carefully, right within the walking distance of the hotel on Via Lista Spanga which is the “main road” — looks like a small gullie of raja or bohri bazar, though — running parallel to the station. After the bad experience in Milan, I had carefully looked for a hotel with a few stars. The three star Hotel Zechhini with 100 euros a night was putting a little strain on my budget but I was determined to make ammends for the Duca experience in Milan.

As I walked through the Lista Spanga looking for my three-star paradise, I ended up going quite far along. Something was terribly wrong. I must have missed Zechini. I did my check-T-L-V (check-T-L-V is a drill movement that troops do to make an about turn. This is one of those things they taught me at the PAF Academy that I still remember and practice once in a while) and returned back. Looking more intently this time, I spotted an old run down building that had the board of Hotel Zecchini on it. It surely was better than Duca, but hardly anywhere near the three star I was expecting. In Italy, I’ve learnt, hotels use stars quite liberally and at free-will. There is hardly any “standard” on how many stars you can put out in front of your ruin and raise the price accordingly. While quite a disappointment from outside, Hotel Zechhini was much better inside – quite well furnished and decorated according to Venetian sensibilities. I was shown my room which, once again, was somewhat of a disappointment but I decided to get over it soon enough. The major disappointment, though, was the television. A small 14 inch television in the room with a remote that looked like it came from the 1940s only showed 4 channels somewhat clearly, 3 with dots, and the rest none at all. This, once again, seems to be a norm in italy, especially in the kinds of hotels I was attracting on this trip.

True that I haven’t really been very generous with my “hotel allowance” spending, instead, on other important aspects of my travel but at least basic business sense demands that when you promise a TV with satellite receiver you should deliver one that is actually working and not just a mere box of hardware. Anyways, without the TV and internet the room felt so gloomy that I decided to get out of the hotel. There was a bar-cum-pizzeria next door with a nice colorful atmosphere that remained open till 12 midnight. I decide to sit down there and ordered a shrimp pizza and a coke just for the heck of it. I opened my laptop and started to catch up on some left-overs since before the start of my trip. The pizza was OK. I sat there till mid-night and knowing that there was nothing better I could do came back to my paradise and went to sleep.

Waking up around 7am next morning, I went down to the breakfast room, which was surprisingly good. Croissants, black coffee with milk, and jam – the usual stuff but well served in a nice atmosphere felt quite good. The lady serving the coffee greeted me with Bon giorno (good day, in Italian). I had become used to the Bonjour in France and so didn’t know what to say in reply. I kept quiet. After finishing my breakfast, I went through my usual drill of packing my backpack, putting it in the hold at the hotel, and then starting my day. I went to the train station to get a map of Venice and some ideas on what to do and where to go. Every journey in Venice must start with a boat trip through the Grand Canal. This is the stuff of movies. We’ve all heard and read about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and seen this in tens of different movies – the last one being Casanova – and after such a long wait, here I was ready to trace the very same path that I had thus far only seen in movies.

The public transport ticket for 12 hours costs 13 euros that includes boat rides for the entire day. I hopped onto a waterbus bound towards St. Mark’s Square (Piazza St. Marco) at the other end of the Canal. We passed though a number of different places in between. The map that I had described each of these in some detail. I also had my “Eye Witness” book on Italy that described the Canal and its various landmarks. Names like Palazzo Grassi, Palazzo Mochenigo, Accademia, Ponte de Rialto, and Santa Maria de Salute are some of the more prominent ones. These are all names of buildings, some big some small that fall on either side of the Grand Canal. The waterbus stops at each of these “stations” on its way to St. Marco’s. While some of these buildings were really spectacular, others were quite ordinary. I wondered why they had to mention the name of the house of every Venetian nobel on this list of “landmarks”.

I am OK if you highlight an ordinary looking house where Cassnova lived, for example, but anybody less famous than that, I am not really interested. I got the same feeling that a foreign tourist passing through the old Lahore city would feel if he were told at every house that he encounters that this was “bholoo ka ghar and this was aslam ka ghar just because bholoo and aslam were once the leaders of Lahore’s bhangi class” or to take that anology to the new extreme to tell everyone passing through Rawalpindi that this is lal-hawali whose inhabitant Barron Rasheed was once a contender of the top position in Kingdom but somehow things didn’t go right for him. He is still a very important Pakistani nobel, though, who controls the inflow and outflow of traffic on Pakitan’s information superhighway.

On the way, we also came across several of those “Gondolas” – the sleek boats for romantic “excursions” being driven by beautifully uniformed oarsmen in which Cassnova used to “lock” his targets before firing his sidewinders. Now, today’s cassnovas have carried on with the practice of their inspirational leader. You could see several couples getting quite “frank” with each other and very well imagine the many stories that were shaping in these Gondolas. One noticeable thing was that all the Gondolas were now black and gold under a government decree to ensure that colors would not become an avenue to show off one’s wealth and prosperity. Color is a central theme in Venentian life as I will demonstrate later and probably a symbol of status as well. 

The boat reached St. Mark’s Square at around 10am. Three landmarks exist side by side here. St. Marco’s Cathedral is one of the main attraction and it looks wonderful from outside. The second attraction worth visiting is the Doge’s Palace. Doge was – for around one thousand years – the official ruler of Venice. For one thousand years prior to 1797 when Venice formally joined the republic of Italy, it practiced a form of democracy – a democracy of nobels and aristocrats- that provides for quite a fascinating read. The fact that this arrangement survived without a written constitution for around thousand years before being formally voluntarily abolished is mind-boggling as well. The third and final attraction at St. Mark’s are a series of Museums that provide an insight into Venetian history and culture.

I wanted to start with the Cathedral but it was a sunday and a mass was going on inside the church. The ticket office told us that the cathedral would not be open for visitors till about 2:00 pm. It was quite cold outside and I was almost freezing despite all my precautions. I started looking for a place to sit down and have a cup of coffee. Entered one cafeteria in the courtyard of the St. Marco’s and asked for a coffee. The lady at the counter asked me if I wanted to take my coffee standing or sitting. “Is there a difference”, I asked. “Yes, in the price”, she answered. “Well, I’d prefer to take it sitting”, I replied. She ushered me to sit down on the chairs outside and wait for the waiter. As I glanced at the menu, I was quite astonished to see that the 1.75 euro cappiccino costed 11.50 euros if you wanted to take it sitting. No wonder most of the chairs in the courtyard of St. Marco’s were empty and all the people were having their coffees standing inside cramped coffee shops. Who, in his or her sane mind, would pay six times for the same cup of coffee just because he or she can sit down in a cold windy courtyard for five minutes!

Doge’s palace is not only a Royal Palace but is an entire government complex from where Venice used to be run for several centuries. It houses an armory, a parliament, a ministerial area, a court of justice, and even a depressing and deadly prison. The one ticket for the Museums – I bought a 6-month all-museums ticket, thinking that I would be back here with my wife and child the summer – gives you access to the Doge’s palace as well. The palace’s entrance is through the “Golden Staircase” (La Scala d’Oro) and then the guided tour begins through tens of different rooms (Salla, in Italian). In older days – and probably still today – Royals used to have rooms for everything that provided multiple layers of Royal access to the people. In addition to the Royal rooms, the Doge’s Palace also has several rooms dedicated to the government officials. There was a room for the Senate (Salla del Senato), a room for the Council of Ten (Salla del Consiglio dei Diece), a room for the Council of Forty (Quarantia), and a room for the Full Council (Salla del Collegio), and the Chamber for the Great Council (Salla del Maggio Consiglio). There are many more that I dare not write about…

As you can well imagine, I got quite absorbed in this maze of Sallas until I came across the Bridge of the Sighs (Ponte di Sospiri). This is the entrance to the Doge’s prison is named for the simple fact that as a prisoner was being transported from the Magistrate’s chamber to the prison this bridge, which is really a tunnel that connects two buildings across a canal, represents the last time the prisoner would see the open sky. Soon enough, I found out why. As you walked deeper and deeper into the dungeons of the prison the temperature kept on going down. I was really standing below the ground next to some of the canals that transversed through out Venice. It was unbearably cold by now and I seriously doubt if any prisoner, in his or her sane mind, could survive this kind of cold for too long. It was time to leave the Doge’s palace. I came back out.

The last attraction on the St. Marco’s was the Museum of Venetian History. It was a nice Museum that contained interesting pieces of history – for example the entire collection of coins throughout the history of the Venetian empire including the famous Duomos – the Gold Coin that was once seen as very prestigious, something akin to a dollar today, in whole of europe. Exhibits were organized into various rooms dealing with different subjects. There were some objects – maps, a book, some instruments – with Muslim significance as well. I walked through the various rooms

and tried to make sense of the Italian inscriptions. Quite quickly, though, I had had my full and was merely “counting” rooms. One final thing that I wanted to visit was the Study Center and Museum of Costumes and Textiles which was several stops down the Grand Canal. On my way back, I stopped here and found the Grand sounding Museum in a small building. The Museum was about to close in 10 minutes and the curators allowed in for only a little while. This was a major disappointment as I had imagined a big collection of colourful Venitian costumes and textiles and hoped to learn how they made them. This little collection was quite far from that.

As I concluded my day in Venice, I came to famous Rialto Bridge – again, the single arc bridge over the Grand Canal that is regular feature of movies made in Venice. The bridge is lined on both sides by restaurants, hotels, and shops. Shops selling very colourful things. You can trust the Venetians to put color into everything starting from white clay faces, to masks men and women put on in those famous Venetian balls, to artciles of jewelery, glass and crystalware, and even icecreams, candies, and other eatables. Venice is about color, lots of it. I can’t imagine how anybody visiting this place could remain unaffected by the color and geity in the air. No wonder this city has been an object for such romanticism and and joyful exuberance.

It was already past dark and I had to catch my Eurostar for Florence – the fifth stop on my Eurotrip. I took the waterbus for one last time, picked up my backpack from the hotel, and began walking towards Santa Lucia. I had ticked off one more item on my list of “things to do before you die”. 

admin @ January 5, 2008

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