A mid-morning vaporetto (#1) ride up the Grand Canal from San Marco; past the baroque extravagance of La Salute and Peggy’s collection and then under the Accademia bridge and, around the next turn, under the Rialto. Vessels of all sorts replicate of every kind of land-based activity you could imagine. Observing them as they weave in and out among one another is mesmerizing. Not a personal flotation device in sight. We stand by the port side railing, gazing as this vision of unspeakable loveliness drifts by. Our vaporetto stops at every local juncture, which makes the journey all the more fascinating because of the people watching.
“Jesus Fucking Christ,” I mutter and point to a passing barge. Joss chuckles. The barge is a floating advertisement for a brand of hotdog called – WUDY. Oh, the language of love.
Our destination is Venice’s Ghetto, a place of great historical and emotional resonance. It’s the oldest Jewish ghetto in the world, instituted by the Venetian Republic in the early 16th century. Jews were confined to an island called ‘Ghetto’. Locked in at night, during the day they were free to move about the city, though always with some identifying mark, perhaps a yellow hat or shawl. The origin of the word ‘ghetto’ is disputed; most commonly, it is suggested to derive from ‘getto’, the Venetian word for ‘foundry’. It seems more likely to me that ‘ghetto’ is abbreviation of ‘borghetto’, or ‘little neighborhood’.
We cross one of the Ghetto’s two bridges and step into the main square, the community being encircled by canals. The entrance to the museum is a modern gray one-story addition to the front of an otherwise nondescript building. Security. We thrust our bags into the x-ray device and receive a wand-down and couple of pats. The tour begins in fifteen minutes, so we hurry through some exhibits upstairs and proceed to wait.
There are five synagogues in the Ghetto, three in the New Ghetto (which is actually the old ghetto) and two in the Old Ghetto (yeah, the new one). We are shown the German or Ashkenazi Synagogue, the first built in the early 17th century, and the Spanish/Portuguese Synagogue, built a hundred years later, and then, in the Old Ghetto, the Levantine synagogue. They have been restored and are quite evocative and beautiful. Restrictions required that the German synagogue be constructed wholly out of wood. These were relaxed over time and later ones had ornate, almost baroque, marble elements.
When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, he did away with the restrictions on the Jews and they began to disperse throughout the city. During the Second World War, two hundred Jews from the Ghetto were taken to the camps by the Germans. Eight returned. Venice’s Jewish population considers this the center of Jewish life. The two synagogues in the Old Ghetto still hold regular services, while the others do on the High Holy Days.
Joss’ precision guidance is confounded by the crypto-grid of Canareggio’s canals and byways. Finding the Church of the Madonna dell’Orto involves first being drawn to the vaporetto stop of that name. The church is unremarkable, famous mostly for the Madonna and Child painted in 1480 by Giovanni Bellini and stolen in 1993 and for being the final resting place of Tintoretto.
We could use a resting place ourselves at this point. Our fitful efforts to locate a suitable lunch venue finally bear fruit and we land at an outdoor café. Two pizzas are ordered for sharing purposes. As the meal progresses, a plague of aggressive asshole pigeons completely freaks the couple eating next to us and after they flee, the birds start hopping on the backs of unoccupied chairs and scuttling under the table in an attempt to get us to abandon our meal. Fuck you, lizard brains. Joss finishes her last slice and places the crust on the tray when a ballsy bird jumps on the table. We leap up. Outta there.
Finding the Ca’ d’Oro (the House of Gold) requires maybe five minutes. We don’t fall for the ol’ vaporetto stop trick this time. The Ca’ d’Oro was built around 1430 and after centuries of use and misuse, was purchased by Baron Franchetti at the end of the 19th century expressly to restore it to its former glory. Its façade facing the Grand Canal may be the most beautiful of all the palazzos facing it. Our next ride up the Grand Canal (tomorrow on the way to the train station), we will get to savor the façade. We find ourselves inside, in the entrance hall that opens through a loggia to the Canal itself. The floor is covered with intricate geometrically inlayed marble. The galleries with the Baron’s art collection begin on the piano nobile (the 2nd floor).
Our final stop in Canareggio is Santa Maria dei Miracoli. This small church is unremarkable in every aspect save for its exquisite beauty. Clad in marble of various pale shades and roofed with a barrel vault, it is truly breathtaking. Here is where George Clooney should have gotten married.
We’re pretty footsore, yet efficiently hoof it back to the digs using our internal GPS. Our last night, we have reservations at a Michelin-starred restaurant, Il Ridotto, very near Aquamare. We both get the meat and fish tasting menu. It is fun being treated to cuisine, though the final dessert course is unsettlingly medicinal.