by Megan Rudloff
This particular boat ride was unlike any of the others I’ve experienced. Usually, seasickness is inevitable, and the dizzy feeling I get doesn’t disappear until long after I have set foot on land. Yet sitting on this small ferry, a thick, heavy fog hanging in the air impeding my view, I only felt adrenaline and excitement course through my body. Although I couldn’t see where I was, I knew one of the items on my bucket list was about to be checked off. As part of my global semester program, I had opted to travel through Italy with seven other students and our program advisor. Unfortunately, this excursion would only last four hours before we had to get on the road again. I sat with my friends and waited impatiently for the boat to dock in Venice, Italy.
Due to the time restraint, my friends and I made our way quickly through the crowded streets until we reached Piazza San Marco, also known as Saint Mark’s Square. The dense fog lingered in the large courtyard, preventing me from seeing to the end of the square. Street vendors stood by and enticed passersby to inspect their merchandise. T-shirts, figurines, selfie sticks and other souvenirs lined their carts. Since it was colder than I was prepared for, I appeased a salesman by purchasing a scarf. Folded wooden platforms leaned against buildings in the street, used to walk on when Venice floods from the high tide of the sea in the summer. Although the buildings were discolored and partially eroded from the frequent floods, they were beautiful in their own way.
Behind me stood Saint Mark’s Basilica, a Roman Catholic Church with breathtaking Byzantine and Gothic architecture. The cathedral’s exterior is comprised of three levels: domes, upper and lower. The lower level consists of five arched portals, with the center slightly larger. Intricate mosaics depicting Venetian religious history appear over these arches. On the large central window, located on the upper level above the main arch, is a symbol of Venice – the Winged Lion. This level also contains the statues of the Theological and Cardinal Virtues, four Warrior Saints, and most notably, St. Mark, that all watch over the city. The highest portion consists of five domes, a characteristic of Roman Catholic Architecture. My friends and I stood in line to enter the basilica, awestruck over its elaborate exterior. I walked inside and was met with utter silence, and I realized that mass was being held. Although I am not Catholic, my grandmother is, and I imagined how happy she would be if she were here. I took this opportunity to experience this moment for her – the priest singing in Italian, church members performing signs of the cross, others praying. I admired the beautiful murals and opulent mosaics, and keeping my tight schedule in mind, I lit a candle and said a prayer before exiting. Then I went off to explore the maze of Venice.
Friends in tow, I wandered through a labyrinth of streets and canals filled with busy passersby. I saw a hotel worker dumping dirty laundry into a boat, since a canal ran along the building instead of a road. Gondoliers paddled quietly through the canals; they only sing at night, which I learned later. They wore jackets since it was a cold morning, but their striped shirts peaked out around their necks. We walked until we reached a stretch of shops that had ornate hand-painted masks, worn for the famous celebration of Carnevale di Venezia. This celebration, which dates back to 1162 and representative of Venetian identity, lasts for about two weeks each year and ends on the Christian holiday of Lent. Beautiful purple, gold, silver and maroon masks boldly stood out in store windows. I witnessed an artisan begin the process of creating one using a papier-mâché mold. This is their livelihood.
We continued through small streets and over canals and found many shops that made and sold Murano glass. Only made in Venetian culture, this glass is created from silica, soda, lime and potassium melted together in a special furnace with different minerals added for color. This mixture is crafted by master glassmakers into vivid patterns and unique creations. We entered a shop, and I watched as the owner dipped the colored glass in a flame and began to create the shape of a small animal figurine. After exploring a few shops, I realized that Murano glass has no limits to what it can be molded into, from small items like jewelry and figurines to larger pieces like vases and chandeliers. Many had signs that read “Do Not Touch” for obvious reasons, and when I accidently broke this rule, the Venetian storeowners made it clear that they were not happy with me by their harsh tones in indistinguishable Italian.
My day trip to this foggy, mysterious place would not have been complete without a gondola ride. My friends and I found an unoccupied gondola, and with the help of the gondolier, I stepped carefully from the high edge into the boat. After the four of us were successfully inside, we had to position ourselves on opposite sides in order to balance the small vessel. The gondola was a dark, royal blue and embossed with gold designs, fit for royalty. I was surprised at how elaborately decorated it was, but I realized that this was just to please the tourists. The gondolier guided the boat with ease through the narrow canals, and I admired all of the buildings built up from the sea. Lightly colored and somewhat dirty due to erosion of rising water, the buildings seemed otherworldly and eerie. We glided past other gondolas and personal boats, and I thought about how different my life would be if I lived here and drove a boat instead of a car. What a strange, brilliant concept to build a city in what was once open water. Our gondola continued through the web of canals until it reached the Grand Canal, where we floated into the main, open stretch of the sea. Here, we passed vaporettos, or water taxis, transporting others through the Grand Canal. Finally we floated under the Ponte di Rialto, or Rialto Bridge, a famous Venetian stone-arch bridge built in 1591, and then circled around to where we had boarded the boat. Our ride was over, and after my friends and I cautiously exited the boat, careful not to tip it over, we realized our time in Venice was almost over. We quickly made our way through the maze again back to the dock and entered the ferry just before it left the port.
Although I could only explore this eerie island for a few hours, it was just enough time to experience the important aspects of Venetian culture. Just as Venice had appeared through the fog, it was mysteriously gone again in an instant.
Read an interview with Megan here