Somehow or other, I always seemed to wind up in Italy during Carnevale season. The first time was coincidental, when I went to Friuli to visit the Ledragomma GymnastikBall factory. I had stayed in Udine for several nights, which gave me plenty of time for some day trips—one of which was to my favorite city, Venezia. It must have been a weekday, for the crowds were virtually non-existent, and I had been able to drift along the calli in pure bliss.
The second time was with Mike; we had planned a few days in Venezia before heading on to Udine and then Firenze. Since we had found a quaint hotel on a quiet canal in the Dorsoduro, we were able to avoid much of the Carnevale chaos. With the exception of one weekend, when we found ourselves in human gridlock trying to cross the Rialto Bridge, things weren’t too bad. Or possibly the wonderful moments—like meandering back to our hotel after dinner, hand in hand, alone in the dark mist, with ghostly images of masked figures and strains of Vivaldi echoing through my mind—pushed all the bad ones to the recesses of my memory, because I had the crazy idea on yet another February trip to spend a day in Venezia.
This time, it happened to be a Saturday—a rainy Saturday. Venezia during Carnevale on a rainy weekend—it sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it was the only free day in my schedule, and I just couldn’t bear being in this part of Italy without seeing La Serenissima at least once.
From Udine, Venezia is a leisurely 2-hour train ride. I had no plans for the day, except to wander around the labyrinth of narrow alleys and lose myself in the magic of the city. This was not to be. As soon as I stepped off the train, I did become lost—lost in the throngs of tourists pushing their way to San Marco. The rain was gushing down, and we were packed like anchovies in alleyways barely wide enough for one umbrella. It was impossible to see anything but the tourist in front of you; if your focus strayed for one second to look in a shop window, you risked being shoved and knocked to the ground. A ceiling of umbrellas masked the skyward view but didn’t seem to block the downpour. My pants were soaked up to my knees. My umbrella broke as I struggled to wrestle it free from the gusts of wind that whipped around corners and threatened to carry me aloft.
When the tight passageway finally opened up into Piazza San Marco, I could breathe a little easier, although the masses were still too close for comfort. The line to enter the Basilica stretched halfway across the square! I continued walking westward in the direction of the Dorsoduro, where I hoped the crowds would be somewhat thinner. I was also craving a bite to eat in my favorite cicchetti bar.
The Dorsoduro sestiere lies across the Accademia Bridge, and while it is home to many of the city’s tourist sites—including Santa Maria della Salute and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection—it doesn’t typically see the same crowds as San Marco or the Rialto. So when I reached my destination, Cantinone Già Schiavi, situated on a small canal across from Campo San Trovaso, there was room for me to squeeze my way up to the bar and enjoy a plate of bite-size treats. There were chunks of salami, mortadella, and cheese; anchovies, pearl onions, and peperoncini; and freshly prepared crostoni (mini open-faced sandwiches)—each serving speared on a toothpick. The crostoni came with countless irresistible toppings such as baccalà (both mantecato and alla cappucina); tomato, brie, and anchovy; fluffy herb-flecked ricotta with sun-dried tomato; and tuna salad with a sprinkle of cocoa. All of this I enjoyed with a glass of prosecco.
Heading back to the train station, I took a roundabout path along the outskirts of the Dorsoduro and avoided much of the madness. Even though I appreciated being able to pause occasionally to gaze around in awe, I still found myself continually dodging hordes of people as they streamed by. There was no chance of getting myself lost on this trip—literally or figuratively.