August 21-30, 2005

When walking along the streets and plazas of Venice, I often feel as if I might be in any number of European cities. The architectural facades are beautiful but by no means exceptional given that the lower floors are scarred by a long history of floods. But what really gives Venice its charm is, of course, the canals that serve as the city's main transportation thoroughfares and divide the land into a winding maze of 117 separate islands.

Just like in the postcards, gondoliers in striped shirts ferry passengers through the narrow channels, occasionally ducking under a simply adorned white stone archway. Candy-cane striped pilings in brightly saturated colors identify public and private piers along the Grand Canal, the main thoroughfare that snakes in a backward S-shape through the city.

The tidal fluctuations in the Adriatic Sea are minor, so it's often easy to forget that the Venetian canals are connected to the Mediterranean. A lonely white jelly, pulsing its way through a narrow canal reminded me of Venice's vulnerability as ocean levels rise and the city sinks, increasing the frequency of the floods that threaten the city's extinction. In what appeared to be a near-daily routine, as high tide saunters in, the picturesque San Marco Plaza slowly fills with water that bubbles out of the storm drains. As the water levels rise to a few inches, the thousands of tourists that pack the plaza move to higher ground in an often failed attempt to keep their shoes dry. Meanwhile, at the adjacent San Marco basilica where the regular floods are a part of life, security officials set up temporary elevated boardwalks as a convenience to the visitors.

Echoing Islamic and Byzantine influences, the rich geometric designs of the basilica dominate San Marco plaza. But just as much of the plaza's character comes from the surprisingly aggressive pigeons that frequent the popular tourist district. Visitors can buy birdseed for fifty cents a bag, but they often don't realize what they're getting themselves into. As a burly middle-aged man took a handful of seed from his bag, the pigeons swarmed around him, landing on his shoulders, arms, hands and head as his mind filled with flashbacks from Hitchcock films and his tough-guy expression turned to fear. I wasn't even able to change my camera batteries without a pigeon landing on my right hand to see if the dead batteries were edible.

In an effort to escape the throngs of tourists (and pigeons), I made plans to leave the main island with Michelle, a Canadian solo-traveler that I met in my Venetian hostel. We took the #1 water taxi the full length of the Grand Canal to the adjacent Lido island. It's possible to save a couple euros and take a more direct route, but the extra cost is worth it for the scenic tour.

Lido is a long, slender barrier island with a soft, sandy beach that runs the full 12km length of its eastern shore. It's a popular tourist destination but has plenty of sand for everyone, so when the crowds get overwhelming, solitude is a short walk away.

Following our stay in Venice, Michelle and I traveled together to Verona -- widely considered to be one of Italy's most scenic cities. Like many of the places that I've visited over the last two months, Verona was never on my original itinerary, but the last-minute excursion was possible thanks to a flexible schedule. From the moment of our arrival, we were struck by the city's beauty. A towering brick wall encloses an expansive city center, surrounded by steep hills that are topped by tall, slender cypress trees. Even our youth hostel --the 16th century Villa Francescatti -- was elaborately decorated with frescoes and murals.

The city of Verona may be most familiar as the setting for Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, which begins with the passage, "Two households both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene..." The townsfolk claim that the story is based on a genuine historic incident in 1303 in which lovers from feuding households died for each other. Not surprisingly, a number of the popular tourist attractions revolve around this event, including Juliet's courtyard and grave.

The most most prominent feature of the courtyard is a balcony that was believed to be part of the Capulet estate and the inspiration for Shakespeare's most famous love scene. "O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?" But the questionable history of the balcony isn't nearly as interesting as the lovers' graffiti that covers every inch of the white plaster walls of the courtyard's entry. "I love you," "Ti amo," and "Amore" appear thousands of times, together with the names and initials of lovers from around the world.

Juliet's less frequented grave has an even more questionable history. In a crypt beneath the San Francesco Cloister is an empty sarcophagus that once held the purported remains of Juliet. Apparently the nuns tired of the endless stream of visitors who treated Juliet as a saint, so they opened the crypt and disposed of her body. Today, the sarcophagus is instead filled with unanswered letters to the legendary heroine of heartache.

By far the most stunning experience in Verona was my visit to the first century Roman arena, which has been used nearly continuously since its construction. Even though the outer ring of the arena collapsed during an earthquake in 1117, the remainder of the complex still seats more than 15,000 spectators.

Within the historic structure, Michelle and I attended a showing of Aida, an opera by Giuseppe Verdi that has been performed at the same location since 1913. At that time, there were no electric lights in the arena, so spectators brought along candles to illuminate the scenery and read their programs. That tradition continues today as each spectator lights a candle at the beginning of the performance, creating a stunning display of thousands of tiny points of flickering light. Sitting on the cold stone steps and looking out into the audience, it was easy to believe that I had been transported back two millennia into the early days of the magnificent monument. The performance was overwhelming, featuring incredible sets, powerful voices, elaborate dance sequences and, at times, as many as 200 actors on stage.

Exhausting the main tourist destinations in Verona, Michelle and I took a flight to Rome, the Eternal City. (Incidentally, just because the flight has a 5 euro price tag on the Web doesn't mean that the trip will be cheaper than the train when you figure in taxes, fees, and buses to and from the incredibly remote airports that are often used by budget airlines.)

Wandering through the streets of Rome, I was struck by the sheer immensity of its architectural masterpieces. The seats of the Colosseum have long since collapsed, but it's easy to imagine the arena as it appeared in the first century A.D., packed with some 50,000 spectators. The expansive ruins of the Roman Forum have long been abandoned, but they echo the massive complex of temples that once stood on the site. The Pantheon, in contrast, is still impeccably preserved with its towering dome and circular oculus rising more than 140 feet above the intricate tiled floor. From a photographer's perspective, it's frustrating to try to capture the incredible scale of the monuments, which dwarf the thousands of visitors.

Unlike the red tiles and slender steeples that characterize other European cities, Rome is marked by the ominous domes of its countless cathedrals, scattered among dull brown roofs. Long-abandoned architectural remnants lay strewn about the city -- free-standing pillars and archways that once supported the sprawling roofs of ancient temples.

Accompanying the architectural masterpieces are stunning works of sculpture such as the Fontana di Trevi (Fountain of the Three Roads), designed by Nicola Salvi, and the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) by Bernini. In each case, the larger-than-life subjects are carved with exquisite realism and appear to be in motion, as if they might come to life at any moment, despite being frozen in time for hundreds of years.

Of all the cities that I've visited in the last two months, Rome tops my list of places where I must return with so many sights left unseen; four full days of touring wasn't nearly sufficient. During my visit to the Fontana di Trevi, I took a coin in my right hand and tossed it over my left shoulder into the clear blue waters. If legend holds true, then it will guarantee that I may one day return to Rome to finish my tour of the Eternal City.

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.