Slowly the people below me on the platform began to disappear as the train pulled out of the station and into the bright, Florentine sun. We were headed north towards Verona and then further on to Venice. It was February and we had plans to experience a Ventian Carnival. Even a month ahead of time it had been impossible to reserve rooms in the city itself, so we had decided to stop first in Verona and then to the hotel outside of Venice that had finally been secured.
After checking into the hotel, we went out walking. For a small city, it was surprisingly busy and a moment later we discovered why; a series of hand painted floats were making their way towards the crowd in the main plaza. Each float had several operators moving the various parts, accompanying them were teenagers spraying the audience with colored foam, and the streets were already littered with confetti. I was slightly confused as I had expected Verona to be a quiet stop-over to visit the various Romeo and Juliet sites and to get a good night of sleep before arriving in Venice. Noticing my stupor, a small wrinkled Italian grandmother kindly explained in her broken English: “Day of the Gnocchi”. The citizens of Verona were celebrating the city’s delicious Gnocchi (a potato dish very similar to pasta).
Keeping our distance from the teenagers, we walked around the small amphitheater and then headed to the most famous balcony in literature. There was already a long line of tourists in the courtyard waiting to rub the, now gleaming, bronze breast of Juliet as she stood below her bedroom window. An equally impressive line had been formed in another part of the courtyard where tourists waited for their chance to step into the iconic role of Juliet at the balcony. Hours of wildly different people appearing and disappearing, day after day demonstrated in the most definite of terms the universal,yet commercial, desire to be adored. Inevitably as each hopeful foreigner stepped out onto the balcony and looked down you could see a moment flash across their face when they imagined their own version of Romeo looking up at them. I was amazed by the kaleidoscopic nature of these faces; anticipating, desperate, gratified, regretful, sentimental… each of them comparing their own lives with that of a fictional (and somewhat irrational) couple. Watching a group of Spanish women triumphantly rubbing Juliet’s shiny breast for a picture – a plump Chinese man looked down at them from the balcony, the surreal took over and I got up to walk around.
We were all on the train again the next day with Venice on the horizon. Feeling the festive spirit begin to take hold, I had a glass of warm spiced wine from a street vendor outside the station in Venice before we transfered from train to bus and rolled back out into the countryside. Our accommodations were in an old converted country schoolhouse about an hour away from the floating city. It was dark and all we knew was the name of the hostel, an hour passed and it was developing into a desperate situation. The windows kept fogging up and the landscape was becoming more and more bleak… I could not escape the horror movie cliches that came to mind. Finally the headlights illuminated the painted letters of the hostel’s name and relieved we descended into the night air. A thick, silent mist hung wet and cold around us as we consulted the next set of directions. After some jostling for flashlights and paperwork, we realized that we would now need to trek down a dirt road for a mile to reach the property. A small restaurant operating out of a farmhouse on the corner seemed like a welcome, if not only, option for dinner. Inside the staff welcomed us as the only customers for the evening and seated us at the central table.
Two hours later, energized from the warm hospitality and reassured that there was indeed a hostel down the road a mile or so, we set out again into the night. The road was lined with barbed-wire and at various times, menacing-sounding dogs snarled deeply from the dark fields, rushing the fence. Arriving at the hostel produced a somewhat mixed feeling. The group was welcomed by a very irritable man, chain smoking behind a protective glass window. We were to be the only guests booked for the evening as a result we had a cavernous room full of bunk-beds all to ourselves.
The next morning we walked back along the now picturesque country lane to the highway and caught the bus to the edge of the city. Nothing could replicate the sensation of walking in Venice. There are no cars. This may sound oversimple, but due to this simple fact there are no traffic, no noise, no pollution, no crosswalks… none of the infrastructure that accompanies a city planned around using cars. All places in the city were accessed by foot (or boat) through narrow paths and hemispherical bridges, networked to connect the ship-like buildings. It was like returning to a memory of childhood, crawling in a fort or hiding in a hallway… the playful nature of the city was a physical experience. Carnival focused this mirage-like atmosphere through a diamond-tipped lazer. Hundreds of stupendously elaborate costumes floated across the criss crossing bridges, strange music drew us through corridors and out onto plazas, merchants offered samples of handcrafted wines from tiny ancient doorways, and the cathedral rose out of the canals as a queen bee swarmed with her water taxis buzzing in all directions. The effect was something like watching a classy film noir-style love story while wearing 3D glasses.
With the sun bleeding into the ocean on the second day and the euphoria reaching it’s climax, a city-wide migration began to the main square in front of St. Marks cathedral. The chaotic pulse of the crowd exploded into the open space of St. Marks as if they had borne the litter of Bacchus on their very shoulders. The golden facade of the Catholic building at the end of the square was fully illuminated as if presiding over the celebration and waiting patiently for it’s turn.