“There are palaces to see everywhere, and precious churches, and bridges, and pictures by the thousand, and all the criss-cross pattern of antiquity that is picturesque Venice, mocked by the materialists, sentimentalised by the Romantics, but still by any standards an astonishing phenomenon.” Jan Morris – ‘Venice
For those people who have never been fortunate enough to visit Italy, to go to Rome, Florence, Palermo, to Verona, Pisa or Milan and have relied instead upon a visit to EPCOT to see the country then they might be forgiven if they believe that it all looks like the Venetian lagoon and is permanently under-water. To be fair however World Showcase does a pretty good job of recreating St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace – you can buy Italian ice cream and pizza and someone will be singing the inevitable ‘O Sole Mio‘ for sure.
Disney describes the visit like this:
“Enter this beautiful pavilion filled with architecture reminiscent of the city of Venice and feel the allure and romance of this remarkable locale. Find true attention to detail in the bridges, gondolas, colourful barber poles, the Neptune fountain in the central Plaza del Teatro and a stunning 83-foot version of the bell tower, Campanile of St. Mark’s Square. Buon giorno!”
But Disney, I have to tell you, cannot possibly be compared to the real thing:
The original concept for the Italy Pavilion was to have a rather obvious gondola ride through the canals of Venice but when the money dried up during the construction phase this idea was abandoned so the only place to take a gondola ride remains the real city of Venice – except perhaps for the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas!
EPCOT gondolas and the real thing:
In October 2012 I visited Venice with the main objective being to take a gondola ride so after breakfast we made our way to the railway station for a second train ride to the city and after arriving there plotted a walking course around the northern loop of the Grand Canal in the general direction of Ponte Di Rialto.
The plan was to choose a gondola in San Marco but after a while the girls became impatient and spotting a handsome gondolier in his trademark black and white hooped shirt and straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons and after some sales talk and a little negotiation we had agreed to take the ride earlier than originally planned.
At €80 for forty minutes it was still ridiculously expensive of course but it was something that had to be done, there were six of us to share the fare and to be fair to the gondoliers, they invest a great deal in their boats, about €20,000 for a traditional hand-built wooden gondola with a life expectancy of about twenty years.
The handsome gondolier in the black and white hooped shirt and straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons then passed us on to a colleague who was not so handsome, wore a black fleece and didn’t have a straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons and the man who had done the deal went about finding more gullible customers.
The substitute gondolier led us to a sleek black boat (actually like a Ford Model T they are all black) with elaborate paintings on the interior and black velvet seats with crimson brocade and after we had settled into our seats we set off into the labyrinth of tiny canals slipping quietly through the water, boring into the network of waterways as he expertly paddled his way through the pea green water, barely wrinkling the surface as we slipped through.
Rather like a London taxi driver not just anyone can become a gondolier and the profession is controlled by a guild which issues a limited number of licenses granted after a long period of training and apprenticeship and a comprehensive exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills as well as the practical skills of handling the gondola necessary in the tight spaces of Venetian canals.
On a visit to Venice Mark Twain wrote: “I am afraid that I study the gondolier’s marvellous skill more than I do the sculptured palaces we glide among” and I like to think that I understood that as our gondolier navigated tight corners and narrow bridges, slipping past brick walls within barely a hairs-breadth (which in a collision could strip the varnish down to the wood), skilfully avoiding other boats and never making a mistake as he rocked the paddle back and forth and from side to side in its intricate wooden cradle.
Our friendly guide took us first through some narrow back canals heading for the Grand Canal that without pavements or people were curiously quiet as we passed by the back doors and water garages of mansions, shops and restaurants but the main canals were busier, lined with cafés and restaurants and with crowds of people crossing the narrow bridges every few metres or so.
At water level there was a completely different perspective to the buildings and down here we could see the exposed brickwork and the crumbling pastel coloured stucco, sun blistered and frost picked and giving in to the constant assault of the waters of the lagoon as it gnaws and gouges its relentless way into the fabric of the buildings.
Our boat was in perfect condition and lovingly cared for from aft to stern. Gondolas are hand made using eight different types of wood, fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime and are composed of two hundred and eighty pieces. The oars are made of beech wood. The left side of the gondola is made longer than the right side and this asymmetry causes the gondola to resist the tendency to turn toward the left at the forward stroke from the right hand side of the boat.
From the busy Rio di Noale we emerged into the Grand Canal where the gondolier had to have his wits about him as he competed for space with the Vaporetto the motor boat taxis and dozens more gondola each one full of gaping wide eyed tourists admiring the elaborate mansions and palaces that make this Venice’s most exclusive area.
The ride continued past rows of gaily coloured mooring poles and almost to the famous Rialto bridge but we weren’t going that far so we had to make do with only a look before he turned the gondola into the calmer waters of Rio dei Santi Apostoli and we began a new journey into the back canals of Venice which after twenty minutes or so returned us to the bridge where we had started.
From the Disney Web Site:
FUN FACTS: To say “hello” in Italian, say “buon giornio” (boo-on JOR-no)
I still remember how you laughed when I told you last Xmas about Robert Benchley’s famous cable to his travel agent in NYC.
Benchley was a member of the Algonquin Round Table set (I went to to the Algonquin Hotel once and had expensive tea and sandwiches there, but even being seated just a few metres from that famous table, did not help me. None of the wit of the Dorothy Parkers and the Robert Benchleys rubbed off on me that day, alas!)
Anyway, to cut a long story FAIRLY long: Benchley was given a large advance by his publisher, and used it to set off on his first ever tour of Europe.
All was going famously, until he got to Venice, and then he cabled his travel agent in NYC.
Just six little words. But words of pure genius.
This is what he wrote:
“STREETS FULL OF WATER [STOP] PLEASE ADVISE”.
Of course, Andrew, as I said to you at your house last Christmas: that cable has its real punch NOT with the first four words, but with the last two!
It’s as if he is suggesting that the travel guru in NYC might cable back with “RELAX [STOP] WEATHER REPORTS ARE GOOD [STOP] THE FLOOD WILL DRAIN AWAY IN NO TIME”.
I’m packing my bags. I’ve never considered Venice before but now I must experience a gondola ride. 🙂
You won’t regret it!
What a salesman you are…
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