The disenchanted visitor: A Venetian spring story

The event I’m telling you in this post happened three years ago, in mid-April, so the pictures show you a Venice in which spring has made more progress :) This is the story of a visitor who stayed at Lina’s hotel. On the second day of his vacation, he approached Lina and said: “I’m done with Venice. Everywhere I go, I’m surrounded by crowds, pigeons, seagulls, and cheap eats. Waiters call out to me forever, stopping me five times between here and Piazza San Marco. Living in this town must be a nuisance. I’ve been longing to visit Venice for more than ten years, and now I’m just so disappointed.”

It was Palm Sunday in Venice, which means the city was booked out and Piazza San Marco really crowded. The quiet time of Lent, which sets in after Carnival and feels like a balmy breeze after a couple of fast-paced Carnival weeks, was drawing to a close. Our guest was caught up in the crowds of a Palm Sunday noon, brought about by the start of the “cruise ship season”.

I think there aren’t many hosts like Lina when it comes to explaining Venice. She can become totally absorbed in a topic, talking with guests for hours. What I hadn’t seen her do for decades!!  was show guests around (which we could do as certified guides). But then, Lina never took people around Venice, she was already working full-time at her hotel and restaurants. In fact, I only recall her showing the city to visitors once, friends from Tel Aviv in the late 1990s. And three years ago, she did just that, despite having turned 93 and all her difficulties walking and crossing bridges.

So, Lina just said to our guest: “Come along, I will show you the real Venice. You will now see the city we really live in.” She opened the door and turned right when the guest stopped her: “This is not the direction to San Marco??” Lina waved him to follow her, and I was very curious and came along as well.

Lina was walking very slowly along our fondamenta, a familiar and comforting sight. We went past people drinking morning coffee and eating fragrant brioche in the cafes on this misty and warm spring day. We made very little progress, though, as Lina stopped at every door and window, telling the story of each building, courtyard and secret garden that may hide inside. Slowly, we were enveloped by a magical atmosphere and the sounds of the water lapping against the fondamenta when a gondola was passing. We were blinded for a few moments by sun rays trying to make it through the morning mist. Finally, we arrived at Rio dei Greci and saw its water rippled by a vegetable boat passing under the bridge. These vegetables looked so lush and green, like they had been harvested this morning in the Lagoon.

When we had passed the bridge, there were just the voices of blackbirds and swallows coming across from the courtyard of San Giorgio dei Greci, the Greek church of Venice. I noticed the guest drawing his breath when another sight came into view, a mighty wisteria in bloom, growing on a terrace overlooking the water, and we could smell its fragrance across the canal. Lina said to her guest: “Stand on the top of the bridge, and take in this view. This is the gift Venice gives to the turista frettoloso (hustling and stressed visitor).”

Standing on this massive bridge in Istrian stone, built in the year 826 AD, our guest took in the view of San Giorgio dei Greci ahead. To the left, he could see the wisteria-overgrown terrace on the canal and a boat anchored at its doorstep. To the right, our guest could see a window sill on which a purple-blooming lily and young wisteria were growing. Behind him, on the left, was the church and campo of San Lorenzo. Lina then told the story of a miracle which had happened here, on the bridge, in the year 1369, during a time when the Genoese fleet appeared in the Lagoon, almost conquering Venice. And this Lina’s story:

A priest was carrying the reliquary of la Santa Croce (Holy Cross) across this bridge, during a procession leading the parishioners to the monastery of San Zaccaria, when the reliquary suddenly fell into the canal. Now in 1369, this wasn’t a fortified canal like it is today, surrounded by stone and brick-clad fondamenta, but a muddy garden area, where the nuns of the monasteries were growing vegetables, rosemary, vines and their orchards. The parishioners were looking on in dismay, but the reliquary didn’t sink and was floating on the water. Thus, the priest jumped into the water to retrieve it. In 1500, Giovanni Bellini recreated this scene in Il Miracolo della Santa Croce, you can see his painting in the Galleria dell’ Accademia.

Here we are in the oldest part of Venice, on the ancient island Ombriola, consisting of two parts, or rather, heart-shaped twin islands, overgrown with rosemary when the nuns of the monasteries San Zaccaria and San Lorenzo first cultivated it in the year 360 AD. Ombriola was the first commercial center of Venice, where the Byzantine diplomats and merchants were living. The family of Doge Partecipazio built the church of San Lorenzo in 825 AD, and Romana, another member of the Doge’s family, founded a monastery for suore benedettine in the year 853. Today, the monastery houses the Casa di Riposo next to the church. A chapel of the original church was built where the Casa di Riposo, is located today, and Marco Polo and his family were buried there as he stated in his Last Will. The island Ombriola represents the center of the Lagoon, it is located exactly between Fusina, where the Lagoon ends in the south-west, and Torcello, the ancient harbor island where the Lagoon ends in the north-east. While the Rialto area was populated by Eneti, Ombriola is the heart of Byzantine Venice, whose real story we are telling here.

The church was dedicated to the martyr San Lorenzo, doing charity work in Rome around the year 257 AD. San Lorenzo died aged 33 on 10 August, which is why La Notte di San Lorenzo, the night of the shooting stars, is called after him. We call these falling stars le lacrime di San Lorenzo here, the tears of San Lorenzo.

The spell was broken all of a sudden when two shoppers were approaching us with their bags. As the guest wouldn’t move, Lina waved to me and we left him in his own dreamy place, on top of the bridge, this time, seeing Venice with the eyes of Lina, a  special Venetian grandmother.

PS: The church of San Lorenzo, closed with the exception of short intervals, will be open to the public from 23 March 2019 when TBA21 Ocean Space opens. Click here to view the program. Thanks to JoAnn Locktov of Dream of Venice for sharing this news.

PS: If you are a first-time visitor to Venice like our guest was, or if you know somebody who visits Venice for the first time, please share or take look at this post on our blog: Venice for First-Time Visitors.

5 responses to “The disenchanted visitor: A Venetian spring story”

  1. Piotr Szymczak Avatar

    Thank you for sharing this story. La Chiesa di San Lorenzo has a special significance to me — this is where the real magic of the Venice Biennale was revealed to me, more or less by accident.

    It must have been my third trip to Venice. On the previous two occasions my wife and I were just turisti frettolosi, stopping in the city for a day or a few hours on our way somewhere else. This time my wife saw a sign for a Biennale di Venezia event by an unassuming church, and we walked in.

    Inside, we saw a disused Baroque interior that was completely gutted for conservation work – the floors had been stripped all the way down to the marble foundations, and the church was a kind of marble lunar landscape with a vaulted ceiling and a spectacular 17th-century sculpted altar. We later learned that the church had been used for rehearsals by Antonio Vivaldi. Now it was taken over by a Mexican artist who had filled it with cool, steampunky devices that picked up electromagnetic waves and turned them into sound, so you could hear the “music” of plants, whales and sun rays as you wandered around the magnificent scenes of marble decay. And that was just one of the many hundreds of events all taking place simultaneously as part of the modern art Biennale. I was hooked!

    I’m very glad that the renovation work in San Lorenzo is finished, and I’ll be sure to visit TBA21 Ocean Space this July when we come to Venice with our friends. Thanks for the heads up!

    1. Iris Avatar

      So nice to hear this story, Piotr! We are also very glad that this special church will be open to the public soon!! It is one of those churches that hold so many secret treasures, from mosaic floors to the legends we told in the blog post.. This is the REAL Venice, reflected in art and style. Venetia, as Venice was called in the past, also makes an appearance in the other church of this area, la Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, also closed to the public for most of the time. We hope you will enjoy the TBA21 Ocean Space. xx Iris

  2. Travel Gourmet Avatar

    I love Venice and people say to me, but the crowds, the smell (they imagine the canals make it smelly), it’s so expensive to eat … and I always say I know it so well it’s easy to avoid areas like San Marco and find peaceful spots and nice places to eat where locals go. To be honest, the same could be said of most cities … you just have to throw the map and guidebook aside and take off in the opposite direction to the crowds!!

    1. Iris Avatar

      Absolutely! Every city has its busy corners, and there are some people who love the Piazza while others look for peace and quiet, and they find it just a few corners away. And like other cities, Venice has her expensive restaurants and hotels..

  3. […] San Lorenzo is so much more than just a “place hiding myths about Marco Polo”. Discover the story of a traveler lost in Venice in this blog post as inspiration for a morning walk in […]

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