When I discovered I would be heading to Italy with my colleagues for the annual company retreat, elation set in for nearly a week before anxiety gripped me. It was, after all, my first time in Europe, not to mention my maiden experience travelling in the depth of winter. Considering myself someone who doesn’t take very well to colder temperatures, it was indeed a struggle trying not to go overboard with the amount of winter clothing and heat packs to pack. Some say that in life you should focus on the journey and not so much the destination. In this case, focusing on the destination — Venice, in particular, a city I’ve long admired — helped distract me from the worry of not being able to adapt to the cold in the lead-up to the trip.
Having studied extensively about Venice back in school, Venice did not strike me as unfamiliar as vivid images of beautiful waterways and masquerades come to mind with ease. As our boat sped its way towards our hotel at Piazza San Marco, the city’s main square, Venice proved to be as dreamlike as I had always envisioned it to be, and the unfamiliar embrace of wintry air that welcomed me at Milan’s Malpensa Airport was quickly forgotten.
Fairy tale comes alive
In the absence of modern skyscrapers, stepping into Venice is like going back in time to the medieval age, with Renaissance-style buildings lining the riverbanks, fancy masks of all shapes and colours peeking out from shop display windows at every turn, and boatmen plying the canals in their gondolas. My idea of a real holiday is to be in a foreign land entirely different from the modernity of my homeland, and this was it.
One of the first sights to greet me upon arrival was the massive and opulent Basilica Santa Maria della Salute, a domed church constructed in the 17th century at the mouth of the Grand Canal as a dedication to the Blessed Virgin after a devastating plague. A few steps away from our hotel was Saint Mark’s Basilica, another famous church adorned with intricate mosaics and ornate bronze statues. Historical and architectural wonders are aplenty in Venice and over the course of the trip, I found myself constantly drawn to these architectural masterpieces and also unceasingly reaching for my camera to snap pictures of them.
Navigating the catacomb of narrow streets and bridges proved to be a challenge — even with the help of the modern GPS — but that also brought many surprises at the same time. There were unexpected finds of ancient churches with names that remain unknown to me, and the occasional encounters with locals and tourists decked out in elaborate masquerade costumes not unlike a scene out of Cinderella’s ball.
Made in Venice
We dropped by Atelier Marega, a famous maker of Venetian masks, where owner Carlo Marega could hardly contain the passion and knowledge of his craft as he walked us through the history of mask-making and the painstaking process of creating the pieces that adorn his shop. From white Bauta masks that allow the wearer to eat and drink without exposing his or her identity, to the Medico della peste masks with a long beak worn by plague doctors, to Arlecchino masks with elaborate headpieces, to cat-shaped masks that seem perfect for anime cosplayers, literally every inch of wall is covered with Venetian masks, such that his shop could easily double as a museum. Commonly worn during the famous Carnival of Venice and bought as a souvenir or decorative item today, the masks were once worn to withhold one’s identity or social status so that the Venetians can have fun (legally or otherwise) without restrictions.
Another notable find during our jaunt was Cantina do Mori, a rustic drinking hole and also Venice’s oldest bar filled with wooden barrels and copper pots hanging overhead, This respected bàcari in the San Polo sestiere or district has such an aura, you would half expect a pirate to come sauntering in for his rum. A rare gem here was none other than Veneto Fragolino, a red wine homemade and produced in the city using the Isabella grape. I may have drunk more wine than I ever had during the week-long trip, but this sweet sparkling wine with a tinge of strawberry trumps them all. A good complement to the delectable cichetti (Venetian tapas), what makes Fragolino even more special is its rarity due to the ban on its sale in Italy and Europe. Reasons for this are varied and conflicting; one theory is the ban was imposed out of health concerns due to the difficulty of controlling methanol levels during wine production. Even for those who do manage to buy a bottle, getting it past the Italian customs and onto the plane is apparently impossible. Alas, what Fragolino you drink in Venice, stays in Venice.
Islands, I learned
After the initiation to the main island, we embarked on a day tour to the smaller islands of Venice in the lagoon, which were equally rich in traditions. A short boat ride away, we found ourselves on the island of Murano, famous for its art of glassblowing due to the congregation of expert glass-makers who were driven out of the main island in the 13th century as the furnaces were deemed a fire hazard to the city’s historic buildings.
At the workshop of Massimiliano Schiavon, a local glass-maker whose works are exhibited in galleries around the world, we gratefully huddled near the furnaces to observe him and his skilled team at work. It was a pleasure witnessing the glass masters handle the heavy tools with precision as they slowly fashioned the glass from a molten mass into a piece of art that may eventually join the crowded shelves of completed vases, chandeliers and lamps, and home decorative items. Some of us even had a go at glassblowing!
We were soon whizzed off to our next destination, Burano, which is easily my favourite island in the lagoon because of its serenity and picturesque landscape. As the boat approached the island, I was intrigued by the sight of the leaning bell tower of the 16th-century San Martino Church, reminiscent of the leaning tower of Pisa. A leisurely stroll through the idyllic town took me past multi-coloured shop houses — one with a quirky statue of an oversized gelato and one selling miniature figurines of Burano’s colourful houses — lined along rivers filled with gondolas, which were all in all a lovely sight befitting of a postcard.
Adding on to Venice’s long list of traditions is lace-making, which was a thriving industry of Burano in the 16th century. In one of the shops, the walls were framed with numerous fine lace handiworks, and a 75-year-old white-haired but sprightly lady sat in her rocking chair finishing up a piece featuring dolphins. We could not help but be drawn to a piece of lace depicting the iconic The Last Supper featured in a glass showcase; the elderly lace maker we just met had spent an entire year of her 63-year career on this masterpiece!
A fairy-tale ending?
By the time we got to the last stop of our island tour, Torcello, it was already dusk. The setting sun cast a sad glow upon Torcello, formerly an important administrative and trading hub in its heyday in the 10th century but now reduced to an isolated island with fewer than 10 residents along with a few ageing churches in its sunset years. As the darkness crept in and enveloped the almost-deserted island, the silence became deafening, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a once-thriving city could be reduced to such insignificance.
Even back at the bustling main island, the threats faced by Venice are hard to go unnoticed. Each morning, a loud siren reminiscent of those used in the Second World War, echoes throughout the island, signalling the arrival of “acqua alta” or “high water”. Like clockwork, temporary raised walking platforms are erected on flood-prone areas, locals don their boots, and tourists happily splash their way into the newly-formed ‘pools’ as the water rises to submerge low-lying paths and squares. When the flood recedes, the platforms are packed away where they can be easily retrieved again for the next occurrence. While it is a known fact that Venice is sinking, the extent of this threat only hits home by experiencing the flooding first-hand, outside of the ‘normal’ periods.
While roaming around the streets of Venice, I couldn’t help but notice the sheer number of tourists (of which most seemed to be young South Koreans armed with DSLRs) in contrast to the locals, who were mostly adults or elderly. Venice may be blessed with stunning ancient architecture and a rich local culture, including well-preserved traditions, but with tourists outnumbering locals and souvenir shops selling Venetian masks at every corner, the place can come across as overly-touristy at times.
Like a fairy tale, Venice has been a dreamy and magical place that doubled as an escape from real life. Yet the sunset at Torcello, though beautiful in some way, seemed like an ominous foreshadowing of the future of Venice. Will Venice get its happily-ever-after? I hope it does, because I for one would like to relive this fairy tale all over again.