When it was The Most Serene Republic, a community of art and achievement that valued the individual and barely tolerated the Pope in Rome; when it was the undisputed nexus of eastern and western trade; when Lord Byron or Wagner or Dickens tarried in creative leisure among its palazzi and canali–when Thomas Mann’s doomed, depressive Aschenbach came to seek solace, only to find death–the traditional approach to the city was by boat and virtually the only point of entry was through the Plaza that honors St. Mark.
Today, all but the final journey into Venice’s pulsating, floating heart can be made by train, plane or automobile, and the final leg of the trip across the Adriatic lagoon will not necessarily take one into Piazza San Marco–through what Napoleon famously called the drawing room of Europe.
The traveler by train will cross a rail causeway from the mainland built by Venice’s onetime Austrian rulers in 1846 to considerable local displeasureⴭand disembark at the severely functional Santa Lucia railway station, built nearly a century later, before boarding a lumbering water bus.
The air traveler will descend into Marco Polo airport and, after a frenzied, yet reassuringly human-scale, scramble to retrieve luggage, also will board a vaporetto (diesel-powered now, but once powered by vapore, or steam) or perhaps a private water taxi.
Those who come by car will have the least romantic time of it.
They will make the journey from Mestre (the mainland, or terra firma) along a motorway parallel to the rail line and deposit their cars at Piazalle Roma, a mammoth nondescript car park in the northwest corner of the city, whose security and available space never is guaranteed.
Only then, shorn of all connection to fast modern travel, will these wanderers finally, perhaps even gratefully, immerse themselves in Serenissima’s ancient, liquid tranquility.
On our first trip, two decades ago, I said we would deal with the water tomorrow.
But emerging that night from the railway station, suitcases in hand and descending a long flight of steps leading directly to the canal, we quickly learned that, for any number of reasons, water in Venice compels one’s attention immediately.
We had taken the train from Geneva to Milan; Milan to Venice. It was early November, 1984, the week after Election Day–a delayed honeymoon. My life then as a Washington political writer had demanded that I pay full attention to Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan, not to my wife Judy. We had been married the previous April 28th. Two days later I was in Dallas to cover the Texas caucuses. I stayed on the road for nearly all of the next six months.
But this delayed luna di miele became for us the happy accident that provided our first exposure to Venice in Winter not to the tourist-dominated summertime Serenissima, when crowds vie with aromatic canals to create the oppressive wet theme park that Venice can be. In truth, Venice back then was more a curiosity to us, not the old friend she ultimately became. That relationship had to build over time.