What a fabulous place! It's hard to believe people actually live in these crooked streets, but they do.

We stepped out of the train station to the "street" - the Grand Canal. Somehow it's so much more amazing to be here, with it undeniably in front of you than to read about it. We hopped on the vaporetto (water bus) to San Marco, the slow one, and I feasted my eyes for a glorious half-hour on a fantastic parade of palazzi. It's so quiet! Another welcome change from the noise of mopeds in the city - on land, rather. Streets filled with water.... Beautiful and elegant. It's the kind of city from a fantasy novel. I just never have seen or imagined such a place, such a city of decadent decay. At some places along the Grand Canal, there are doors to the palazzi. Steps, great slabs of stone, thrust down to the water. You can tell that indeed the city has sunk in the last centuries: the steps are all covered in dripping emerald algae.

The city seems to be predominantly gothic or some form of it. Churches everywhere! Perhaps even more than Firenze? Everything seems to be condensed or miniaturized: the Basilica di San Marco was much smaller and lower to the ground than I had envisioned. But inside -- ! Oh, what a wonder! It's by far the most unusual church I've seen so far in Italy: very decidedly Byzantine, with its elegant multiplicity of domes and columns and spires. The dozen domes inside are covered in glittering gold mosaics - 43,000 square feet of them. It's like a cavern in its wandering niches and dimness.

The Piazza San Marco is marvelously grand and graceful, surrounded entirely by Renaissance arcades. It's simply an experience not to be missed, with its hundreds, perhaps thousands of obnoxious pigeons cooing their obnoxious coo, and hundreds of equally obnoxious tourists who insist on feeding them. And the expensive cafes with their expanses of tables spreading out into the piazza, and their dueling orchestras. Each café lays claim to at least a pianist, if not a snazzy quintet of snappily dressed musicians, playing Venetian elevator music. The effect is indeed, as Napoleon put it, that of an elegant drawing room.

The Palazzo Ducale is a magnificent structure, truly unusual with its lower arcade and then the bulk of the pretty pink structure placed almost unrelentingly on top. Gothic-Renaissance, of course.

The best way to really see Venezia is to get lost. Really. Take off into the back streets. It's an island, so eventually you come upon signs pointing to the Rialto bridge or San Marco or you hit water! You can't get lost. Besides, the back streets of a place are always the best. We'd turn a corner from an alley and find ourselves at a tiny bridge over a tiny canal. Piazzas are like postage stamps, streets like ribbons. Peering down these tiny side canals, it is beribboned by little arches of bridges. Without the sound of motors, it is blissfully easy to step back in time with every step you take down the tiny streets, along the calm canals.

The quiet is almost unbelievable. I'm sitting by a canal; a breeze cools me. The buildings are mostly brick, no more than four or five stories tall. I can hear someone's telephone ring, the flap of pigeon wings, a clang of very distant bells. Long feathers of light reflect off the water onto the walls. The air is clean, no stink of diesel or fish. It smells only very faintly of the fresh smell of water. The atmosphere, if I mist use only a single word to describe it, is soft.

From a rooftop terrace, I hear the rattle of silverware from the family's pranzo (lunch).

Oh, the masks! The incredible allure of the masks. The tiny back street shops full, crowded, overwhelmed with masks. Gold, silver, feathers, jewels, colors of the harlequin kind, long beaked hooked noses, short flat noses, no noses. Some have long curling caps, some with tiny bells, some are papered with sheet music. Eyes that are blackly empty, delicate and mysterious, gaze down at you, sweet golden lips smiling Mona Lisa smiles. They know - their eyes tell you of the infinite space of possibility that they hold behind them. And behind a counter, a table, quick, precise fingers piece together another, create a new mask.

The masks can't be a completely a souvenir tourist thing, for these tiny shops line the back alleys, far from the madding crowd. The care and loving work that goes into creating these faces are beyond the careless gaze of the tourist.

And oh! the gondola! Indeed, they are works of art in their sleek, black-lacquered shapes, works of art - the hands of an artist - in how they slip perfectly through the water, seeming to barely touch its surface. The equally long, slender oars that rarely break the surface; only the twist of the gondalier's muscled arm gives the boat - how I hesitate to use such a pedantic name for such a creature! - a subtle turn. They fill the Grand Canal, slipping a whisper away from the clumsy vaporetti, filling the tiny canals.

The morning market: The produce and fish markets by the Rialto are lively, bustling, and somehow still largely local. The vendors shout out the beauty of their wares, customers haggle. A lady stands by a bucket, watching the crowds, her hands absentmindedly gutting fish.

Somewhere in Dorsoduro (perhaps): Dorsoduro, meaning "hard back," is a neighborhood in Venezia. I really have very little idea of where I am, but it really doesn't matter! I'm in this little piazza - campello, rather - with trees growing in it! Isn't that strange? It seems weird to me that a city built entirely on piles could possibly have enough earth to grow things. But they do! There are gardens and trees and plants of all sorts.

These back streets around Dorsoduro are full of light and color. They are absolutely beautiful. It's a gorgeous day; it would be too hot wandering on the Grand Canal, but back here in this amazing warren of streets, it is cool and soft. This is definitely where the natives live. No decadent decay here, only older, well-loved, pretty places. Not too many tourists back here except the "lost" ones. I have all afternoon, and it feels good, this soft, caressing air and tranquility of this place.

Tourist Tip

Venice in summer is insanely crowded, so if you can't make hotel reservations a year ahead of time, then stay in the small town of Padova (or Padua). Even if you can find a room in Venice, the untouristed quiet of this pretty little town is welcome after hte mobs of people in the big cities. An easy half hour ride by train outside of Venice, it gets ignored in the dazzling light of its famous neighbor, and the natives of this town want to keep it that way. Padova is quiet, peaceful, old, dignified, and has a very cheap hostel.

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Copyright 1998 by Jennifer Tyson