Friday, May 22, 2020

Venice Emerges from Quarantine - And it is Divine

Venetian Cat sunbathing on the Grand Canal at Rialto - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) As Venice yawns, stretches and blinks her way into the sunlight, slowly coming out of quarantine, contrasting stories emerge -- a bit like the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. One individual's version of reality can depend on which part of town they see, and who they talk to -- if you go here, you will see the elephant's tusk. If you go there, you will see the elephant's trunk. Or the knee. Or the ear. Each person's subjective experience is true, but it is not the totality of the whole. Even when Venice is operating "normally," there are many different worlds that exist at the same time as you cross a bridge and step from one campo into another.

Yesterday afternoon, May 21, I took a little tour around town to see what type of Venice was emerging from the cocoon. In areas that catered to tourists, many shops and restaurants were still  closed and shuttered, and it felt isolated and abandoned. But in campi where Venetians and locals live, the ambience was vibrant and pulsing with life.

Even though the international press has misleadingly used images of Venice to illustrate the pandemic in all of Italy, reality inside the historic center is very different. The latest figures still show ZERO cases in Venice's main public hospital, the San Giovanni e Paolo Civil Hospital. Since the beginning of the outbreak, according to the latest statistics, 15 people have died, and 28 people were treated and released. In the entire province of Venice, which includes the mainland with a population of about 850,000, 281 have died. In the Veneto Region, there have been 1,841 deaths. In all of Italy, 32,486 people have died. However, there is always a disclaimer that the numbers may not be accurate.

On Monday, May 18, Italy declared we could finally travel once again between towns, as long as they were within the same region. Shops and businesses could open. Bars and restaurants could serve customers again, as long as safe distancing was maintained. Things started off a little bit rocky as we tried to find some kind of normalcy after such a long time in quarantine, but then slowly started to move. 

Rialto Bridge - Photo: Cat Bauer
In Venice at Rialto, there were plenty of locals out and about, with everyone wearing masks. I saw about six or eight photographers, who were clearly not from Venice. I wondered if they were part of a group, so I spoke to one of them. He told me that he was from a town in the north of the Veneto Region, and that he was alone. He said he could not miss the opportunity to photograph Venice at this special moment in time. I was surprised. "I thought you were all together!" So, it seems that some of the first arrivals from the outside world are photographers hoping to capture some of the remaining silent beauty with their lens. 

At the top of the Rialto Bridge, I found more people who were not residents of Venice. I asked one couple if they were tourists, and they said yes. "Where are you from?" "Verona," they said. I smiled. "Well, you're not really tourists."

Two middle-aged women were also taking photographs. One was from Vicenza, and the other was from Padua. They said that they just had to see Venice in all her glory. "Venice is the capital of our region," said the woman from Padua. "Now is a great opportunity for Venetians from all over the Veneto to have Venice to ourselves. Be sure to write that down."

Instead of "tourist menus" that once catered to tourists, many eateries are offering a "daily menu" with a first (usually pasta) along with a second (usually fish) for around €15-€20, with discerning Venetian appetites in mind.

Even the boat taxis have come up with special (temporary) rates  to certain destinations -- for example, you can go from Piazzale Roma to Rialto for €20 -- still pricey, but a lot less than they were charging before. Since the vaporettos are still not running as frequently as they used to, perhaps they hope to capitalize from people eager to get somewhere in a hurry who don't have the stamina to walk?

Frankly, Venice is a lot more pleasant without the boat taxis churning up the water in the canals. Wouldn't it be nice if the gondoliers could offer special rates for the same service? A set price to go from Piazzale Roma or the train station to Rialto? A throwback to when gondolas were actually used as a method of transportation to move around town?

Leo - the next generation - Photo: Cat Bauer
At Sant' Aponal, I ran into Leo, a young woman I know from the gym. She's 22-years-old, and very smart -- she majors in law and economics at Bocconi University in Milan. I asked what she thought about the situation in Venice, and what she wanted to do after completing her studies. She felt the atmosphere was positive, and that Venice would bounce back. She was still not sure about a specific career (but had decided it was not law -- I told you she was smart). One thing she was sure about is that she wanted to stay in Venice, and do something "to help my city."

Giovanni Pelizzato of Libreria Toletta - Photo: Cat Bauer
One of my touchstones is Giovanni Pelizzato, owner of the Libreria Toletta bookstore in Dorosoduro. Giovanni became a social media star when he created his own home delivery service during the pandemic -- you could order books and he would deliver them himself to your house, better and faster than Amazon. Giovanni said he had done well enough during quarantine because "Venetians like to read." What he misses are the students. Actually, I think much of Venice will have a new appreciation for the students, and all their zippy, youthful energy that spices up the air.

Walter Mutti of Edicola fame - Photo: Cat Bauer
Walter Mutti is another fixture in Venice who leapt into the spotlight when his newspaper kiosk was swept into the Giudecca Canal during the November 12, 2009 flood. Walter's edicola was its own little world -- not only a place to buy newspapers, but a place to leave messages and somewhere to go for advice. Walter now works out of a space on the Zattare just across from where the news stand was, and he, too, has managed to survive because of the curiosity of Venetians and their desire for news in print.

Cat Bauer in Campo Santo Stefano, Venice - Photo: Silvana Di Puorto
Cat Bauer in Campo Santo Stefano - Photo: Silvana Di Puorto
Since I've gained about 3 kilograms (around 6 lbs.) from eating way too many sweets during quarantine, I've cut out carbohydrates (it works -- after about a week, I've already lost 2.5 lbs.) and, therefore, forced myself not have a spritz, the greatest Fine della Qarantena reward. It took all my willpower not to succumb, but I settled for a glass of Pinot Grigio in Campo Santo Stefano. It was divine. I actually enjoy my solitude, and have worked at home for decades, so the quarantine was not a big upheaval for me. I didn't realize how starved I was for human companionship until I tip-toed out into familiar spaces.

It was pure bliss to sit once again in a campo, chatting and watching people go by, comparing masks and gloves (I opted for a black mask and white gloves -- in fact, I'm hoping white gloves make a comeback). It's so nice to be able to see each other again without the blur of tourists blocking the view. If a tour guide had barged through the scene followed by a herd of tourists, they might have gotten pelted with peanuts.

Venice and the Veneto are united when it comes to reopening an economy not based on mass tourism, but on respectful, intelligent travelers. Some of you regular readers of this blog, who have been traveling to Venice for years, have written to me saying that you have already made reservations for later in the year. This is wonderful news. Venice is eager to welcome you back again. For there are chunks of Venice that focus on the quality traveler -- and not mass tourism -- that cannot recover without you.

This type of traveler is loyal to certain hotels and pensiones and has become part of the Venetian family and community, another necessary ingredient that gives Venice its special flavor. They support local artisans and eateries, museums and art galleries, and are an integral spoke in the wheel that turns Venice's economy. One artisan told me, "When the regular visitors return, they will find Venetians so happy to seen them, and with a joyful attitude... We will be able to give them the time they deserve because we won't be so stressed from the over-tourism."

As Venice opens one door, and then another, it will be fascinating to see if the people who enter the lagoon can help the Queen of the Adriatic get back up on her feet with dignity.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Friday, May 8, 2020

Venice Royal Gardens Reopen (Again)

Iris Dalmatica - Photo courtesy of Venice Gardens Foundation
(Venice, Italy) Tomorrow, Saturday, May 9th, Venice's Royal Gardens come out of quarantine, ready to welcome Venetians back into its lush embrace. Since its conception back in the times of Napoleon, the Gardens have faced many challenges, but like true royalty, they have always managed to bounce back, more charming than before.

The Royal Gardens had reopened on December 19, 2019 after undergoing a dramatic restoration headed by Adele Re Rebaudengo, President of the Venice Gardens Foundation. Then, all the green spaces in the Veneto were closed in March due to the health pandemic. I wrote a detailed post  about the opening at the time, including some history:

Good News from Venice: The Royal Gardens have Re-Opened!

Grand Canal seen from Accademia Bridge during Venice quarantine - Photo: Cat Bauer
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic prevented the public from enjoying a normal spring surrounded by sunshine and blooming flowers, birds and bees. But while human beings remained closed inside their homes, nature thrived. The Internet was full of images and videos of the calm, clear water in Venice's canals, so clear that jellyfish, octopuses and even a seahorse were spotted frolicking in the water, undisturbed by boat traffic.

Tulips - Holland's Glory - Photo courtesy of Venice Gardens Foundation
Even after being challenged by several bouts of acqua alta in the winter, followed by a dry and windy spring, the Royal Gardens still produced many beautiful blooms. Yellow Daffodils burst forth during the first week of March, along with red-orange Tulips and the violet Redbud tree.

Tetrapanax and General Schablikine Rose - Photo courtesy of Venice Gardens Foundation
In April, different shades of Wisteria brightened up the Gardens, along with Irises and Lavender. The Tetrapanax evergreen shrubs have thrived, creating exotic islands between the four central flower beds. The Gardens are not only colorful, but fragrant, attracting many desirable insects, especially bees. A colony of wise sparrows has never left the Royal Gardens, knowing a good home when they see one.

As humanity takes its first tentative steps back out into the world, hopefully we will come out of this surreal experience stronger, wiser and more dignified. The transformation of Venice's Royal Gardens from a neglected jungle into an oasis for contemplation is a prime example to follow. Venice's Royal Gardens are now open and waiting for you.

Note to subscribers: Feedburner recently sent out several old posts as if they had been recently published. My apologies for any confusion.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Friday, April 24, 2020

UPDATED: Reopening the World? La Biennale in Venice Announces 2020 International Festival Schedule

Photo: La Biennale di Venezia
(Venice, Italy) Like all public gatherings where large groups of people congregate, La Biennale di Venezia's schedule has been upended by the COVID-19 coronavirus. As everyone knows, Italy was hit hard and early by the virus, forcing the International Architectural Exhibition to postpone its opening, which was scheduled for May 23. La Biennale has announced the new dates for all its different international sectors — real-life events, not cyber.

The Architectural Exhibition is now scheduled to open on August 29, 2020, with press previews on August 27 and 28.

UPDATE MAY 18, 2020 - Due to the ongoing pandemic, La Biennale announced today that the Architecture Exhibition has been postponed until 2021. How Will We Live Together, curated by Hashim Sarkis, will open on Saturday, May 22, 2021 and run through Sunday, November 21, 2021.

La Biennale International Art Exhibition, curated by Cecilia Alemani, has been posted to 2022. It will last seven months and be held from Saturday, April 23, 2022 through Sunday, November 27, 2022.

“The last few days – declared President Roberto Cicutto - have clarified the real state of the situation we are all facing. With the utmost respect for the work done by all of us, the investments made by the participants, and considering the difficulties that all countries, institutions, universities, architectural studios have met together with the uncertainty of the shipments, personal travel restraints and Covid-19 protective measures that are being and will be adopted, we have decided to listen to those, the majority, who requested that the Biennale di Architettura be postponed. I have received many messages asking for a postponement to 2021. We now plan to open the 17th Biennale Architettura in May 2021 and allow it a longer life until November, as it was before the pandemic. Nevertheless Architecture will be in Venice this Fall organizing several events keeping at the center of the stage the question, more relevant than ever, of “How will we live together?”.”

Actress Cate Blanchett attends the premiere of the film "A Star Is Born" during the 75th Venice International Film Festival in Venice in 2018.
The Venice Film Festival starts on September 2 and run through September 12, as originally scheduled. The international film star, Cate Blanchett, is the president of the jury.

These international events normally draw large numbers of journalists and visitors from all over the planet. In normal times, during the openings, Venice's lagoon is often full of yachts and jet-setters, as well as a vibrant, educated general public. There are parties in palaces, bustling restaurants and busy bars. It is difficult to get a hotel reservation.

Venice looks forward to La Biennale's openings because they attract a valued type of traveler. The private and civic museums, art galleries and local businesses often schedule their own events based on La Biennale's schedule. Contrary to the destructive over-tourism that feeds off masses of tourists and daytrippers whose sole purpose seems to be to pose for selfies, the educated travelers who visit the lagoon for cultural events bring a welcome, dynamic energy.

It will be fascinating to see how Venice and La Biennale organizes these events with the COVID-19 coronavirus health crisis lurking in the background. La Biennale is a wise organization who understands well how to manage large crowds and keep people safe with military precision. We can imagine that this year will present one of its greatest challenges, with the eyes of the world watching how it goes.

Prophetically and appropriately titled, "How Will We Live Together?" the Architecture Exhibition directed by Hashim Sarkis will have 113 participants from 48 different countries, all of which you can find on La Biennale's website.

La Biennale International Architecture Exhibition 2016 - Photo: Cat Bauer
La Biennale also has a new President, Roberto Cicutto, who was born in Venice in 1948 and has a background as a film producer and distributor. His production company, Aura Film, won the Golden Lion in 1988 for La Leggenda del Santo Bevitore directed by Ermanno Olmi. Cicutto replaces the beloved and highly-respected Paolo Baratta, who has steered the vast organization through times of political turmoil and threats of terrorist attacks while hosting everyone from world leaders, to renowned artists and architects, to Hollywood celebrities.

The new Board of Directors met online on March 19, 2020 due to the current health emergency. President Roberto Cicutto stated:

“The exceptional conditions under which we are beginning our work must compel us not only to find the best solutions to pursue La Biennale’s mission, in the interest of its international prestige, of the city of Venice and of our country, but above all to enrich it with new initiatives and new ideas for the dissemination of the contemporary arts. Nor can we forget La Biennale’s role as a factor in the growth and development of the city of Venice itself and of our nation."

Immediately after the Venice Film Festival ends on September 12, the International Theater Festival will open on September 14 through 24. The next day, on September 25, the International Festival of Contemporary Music Festival opens, and runs through October 4. There is a brief pause until the International Festival of Contemporary Dance kicks off on October 13 through October 25. These events usually draw a creative, intelligent and young-minded crowd, interested in the cutting-edge of what's in vogue.

Here is La Biennale’s program for the remainder of 2020:
·         August 29th to November 29th, the 17th International Architecture Exhibition directed by Hashim Sarkis
·         September 2nd to 12th, the 77th Venice International Film Festival directed by Alberto Barbera

·         September 14th to 24th, the 64th International Theatre Festival directed by Antonio Latella

·         September 25th to October 4th, the 48th International Festival of Contemporary Music directed by Ivan Fedele
·         October 13th to 25th, the 14th International Festival of Contemporary Dance directed by Marie Chouinard
Venice Over-tourism - Photo: CNN Travel

The masses who were flooding Venice and the businesses who targeted them were like a virus themselves. The disease of over-tourism infected everything, creeping into all aspects of Venetian life -- the high cost of AirBnBs priced residents out of apartments. Supermarkets raised their prices, catering to tourists, not residents. Cruise ships barreled through the Giudecca Canal, unloading thousands of passengers at once, who flooded the streets, making it difficult to conduct everyday business. Daytrippers swarmed into the lagoon on trains and buses from newly-constructed hotels and hostels on the mainland, where tourists slept cheaply, crammed eight beds to a room. Venice was being killed in front of the eyes of the world. Then suddenly, the whole frenetic mess was brought to a grinding halt by the COVID-19 coronavirus.

We have a new opportunity in Venice to reopen the city with wisdom and foresight. The model of mass-tourism that Venice was practicing must be completely overhauled. Venice can be a leading example for the rest of the world, spinning straw into gold, transforming the sacrifices that all of humanity has made, and is still making, into worth and value. Let us hope that Venice and the travelers who visit the city have learned something during these demanding times and rise to the challenge.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Monday, April 13, 2020

Thoughts of Venice during Holy Week & Easter - Quarantine 2020

Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) I left Los Angeles for Venice twenty-two years ago, on April 8, 1998, planning to stay for three months to write, the amount of time an American could stay on a tourist visa. When the three months were up, I stood in the middle of Piazza San Marco, weeping. I didn't want to go back to Los Angeles. My then-husband didn't want to come to Venice, so I went back to LA and started divorce proceedings. I was back in Venice by September with an extended visa, and have lived in Italy ever since.

I fell in love with Venice on our first vacation here, back in 1991. I wandered off alone, strolling through the calli and campi, astonished that such a city could exist. I took the vaporetto to the Lido and back, sitting outside in the front seat, not knowing exactly where I was going... swept up in the journey... just enjoying the ride. Venice felt so familiar, so comfortable, like coming home. I visited again in 1995 and 1997, and the feeling of familiarity only grew stronger.

Venice bewitches many people, of course. But it is an utterly different experience to have the privilege of being a resident rather than visiting on vacation. I was talking about this during the quarantine with a friend on Facetime. He said, "You can't genuinely be in love with a place where you've never lived. Otherwise, it's just a fantasy."

On vacation in 1995 - Venice as a fantasy
When I first arrived in 1998, Easter Sunday was on April 12, the same day it was this year. I briefly lived in an apartment on Calle Santa Maria Formosa Lunga, right across from where the Acqua Alta bookshop is now. I bought my cheese from a little shop owned by Marco Contessa and his father -- I have a weakness for Gorgonzola, and they always cut me a gooey piece. (These days, the shop no longer exists and Marco has transformed into a popular photographer whose images of Venice have captured the haunting stillness of the coronavirus lockdown.)

The apartment next door to the one I was renting was being restored, and the noise was disturbing. So I moved down to Castello to a tiny ground floor apartment in Corte Sarasena, off Via Garibaldi. Elderly women sat outside their doors, sewing lace and chatting. Laundry stretched across the courtyard like color-coordinated works of art from house to house, and people spoke Venetian. I wrote about the experience in an 2001 article for Italy Daily:

Miracle Madonna in Corte de Cà Sarasina - Venice

I only knew two Venetians when I decided to come to Venice -- one was the concierge at Hotel Flora, and the other was Sergio Boldrin, a mask-maker whose shop, La Bottega dei Mascareri, is at the foot of the Rialto Bridge. My husband and I had bought one of Sergio's masks a few years before, a happy sun, and it had a starring role in our living room in L.A.

Sergio's prophetic Sun Mask on the wall in L.A.
So I went over to visit Sergio, whom I hadn't seen for several years. He was in the process of wrapping up a box to ship to the United States. To my astonishment, it was addressed to a friend of mine in Los Angeles. "I know him!" I said. Sergio replied, "Your friend is leaving today for Rome. Maybe he's still here. I have the number of the man he was staying with."

My friend had gone, but that is how I met Jack Cope -- Jackson Irving Cope -- a Leo S. Bing professor emeritus of English at the University of Southern California. Jack was living in an apartment at Rialto overlooking the Grand Canal, and working on a monograph about Ernest Hemingway and his circle and their attachment to Harry's Bar. Jack was thoroughly engaged in his research, and invited me to Harry's for a drink. He was quite a character, a small, wiry 72-year-old man and former Golden Gloves boxer from Chicago, who had morphed into an eminent scholar with a rich knowledge of Italian theater. Jack still practiced the art of seduction and was in the process of drinking himself to death -- a goal he achieved a year later on August 9, 1999.

In another strange coincidence (actually not very strange when it comes to Venice -- coincidences are woven into the fabric of the city), at the last minute, the apartment I was about to rent on Riva degli Schiavoni down in Castello overlooking the lagoon fell through. I had to scramble to find a new one. I answered an ad in the paper, and was shown Jack's former apartment on the Grand Canal. He had promised me a wooden cat as an inheritance, and the cat was still inside, as if it had been patiently awaiting my arrival. So I rented the apartment, which would later become the perfect theatrical setting for much festivity, drama and trauma.

Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge during quarantine 2020
This Easter we are in a state of suspension, quarantined due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. We are finding new ways of communicating through ZOOM tea parties and SKYPE video chats. I have spoken to friends and family members that I haven't talked to in years, reliving fond memories and reinforcing lifelong relationships. The entire planet has withdrawn into their private spaces as we watch heroic health and essential workers put themselves in life-threatening situations to keep the Earth's vital heart beating. Characters are being tested. The masks of leaders are being stripped away. The voices of truth ring out over the rumble of deception.

While a few profiteers look to capitalize (as always) off human suffering, much of the world has realized what the prophets and Jesus Christ have been telling us all along -- that the engine that runs this planet is fueled by Love.

Buona Pasquetta from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Monday, March 30, 2020

Imagining the World - How can Venice transform after coronavirus?

Grand Canal during coronavirus - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) Dear Friends & Readers -- please forgive me for not updating. I've started writing about 10 different posts, but the situation changes so rapidly that it seems that before I finish one sentence, it is already out of date.

I am well. Everyone I know is well. Personally, I don't know a single person who has the COVID-19 coronavirus, nor do any of my friends, but that is a limited circle. Everyone wants numbers, and so do I.

I am focused only on the numbers inside the historic center of Venice. Most of the time the official numbers about Venice get lumped together with Mestre, or with the province, or with the region, or with all of Italy -- it is difficult to get accurate numbers.

As far as I can understand, there are about 7 people in intensive care at Ospedale San Giovanni e Paolo. There are around 10 or less inside the hospital that are non-critical. There are less than 50 cases inside the historic center who are confined inside their homes. Those numbers are not official or accurate. It is just to let you know that all of Venice has not fallen victim to the pandemic.

I am a great believer in Mother Nature, the gods, Jesus Christ and the stars. I am also pragmatic and logical. Most of all, I believe in the power of Imagination. Venice only exists because of the powerful imagination of committed, enlightened, honorable souls.

This tragedy can transform into an opportunity. Mother Nature is creating a new world in front of our eyes. After the coronavirus, what kind of world do we want? Together, we can imagine anything. Together, we can re-imagine the world.

Stay strong from Venice,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog