ON MY FIRST MORNING IN THE fabled city that floats on water, I wake up early, nudged by dormant excitement. Glass of succa d’ arancia (orange juice) in hand, I go to the terrace of my apartment and this is what I behold. A couple sunbathing in the nude in their private enclosed garden just below me. They look at me looking at them but make no attempt to cover up. No moral police here, just lovers.
But I mustn’t let my voyeur inclinations stop me from other discoveries. Like the ceremonies that are to take place in the world’s second most famous square. My Roman friend Massimo Vanini who for two decades has introduced me to his country’s manifold charms, takes me for my first vaporetto ride. A swift 15-minute water taxi ride later, we are at Piazza San Marco – bustling, heaving with tourists of every nationality under the sun.
It’s Italy’s National Day an every kind of uniform is proudly present. Army, Navy, Air Force, National Security. You name it, they are out in full regalia, chests emblazoned with medals and ribbons, brandishing swords, twirling rifles. Surrounded by VIPs and other dignitaries, the Mayor of Venice addresses the assembled, the invited and the tourists. Like all government functionaries, he too is distinguished by his remarkable inability to smile.
Last year, 51 million tourists visited this city that has no roads. Only canals. Some impossibly narrow piccolo and grande bridges connecting slices of land that comprise the various islands collectively knows as Venice. These islands could be called quartieri (quartier in French) as in other Italian cities. But in Venice they are called sestrieri.
In the absence of roads, narrow boats of all lengths perform quotidian functions. Boats collect garbage, keeping this tourist-swamped city spick and span. It’s the boats in which police patrol the city and in which the fire brigade – vigili del fuoco – keep vigil. It’s the boats that ferry electricians, plumbers, masons, carpenters, couriers, postmen. For the citizens and tourists, there is of course, the vaporetto, Venice’s bus on water.
Every morning I buy a daily vaporetto pass for 14 Euro. It allows me non-stop travel for 12 hours. Every day, for eight glorious days, jumping on and off at vaporetto stops (which appear every five minutes), I explore the hidden secrets of the various islands, lagoons, basins and valleys that collectively make up Venice. And I compile my own list of attractions.