Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pittoresco Torcello

Torcello is one of three islands off the coast of Venice and perhaps the least visited.  Murano is known for its glass, Burano for its colorful buildings and its lace and Torcello, well Torcello was where the Venetians came BEFORE there was Venice.  We decide that it’s Torcello we really want to see and while everyone has said (“You must see Murano! You must see the glass!  You must see the lace!”) the idea of traipsing through a factory that makes glass under hot temperatures when it’s already incredibly hot, is too much to consider.  Besides. We only have a limited time and it’s overwhelming to think of seeing all three islands so we buy a 24-hour pass, jump aboard a vaporetto outside our hotel door, and change at Fondamente Nove to take the fairly long boat ride to Torcello by way of Burano.  I’ve noticed that my feet are sunburned in the pattern of the straps of my sandals  that is how intense the sun is but aboard the boat watching the beautiful waters and the buildings as we chug on by makes it all breathtakingly beautiful.  

Waiting on the small dockside enclosure for our last boat change before heading to the island, I whisper secretively to Chris, “Do you know who that is?  THAT is Joyce Carol Oates!”  There she is, the frail but fiercely prolific author whose early works were the subject of my senior paper in American Lit over  35 years ago!  Joyce is waiting anxiously for the boat we are, accompanied by a fairly grumpy guy she keeps looking to for guidance and he keeps not having much to deliver.  As we get on board and head for the very back of the boat where it’s open and we hope to enjoy a steady breeze (no such luck it turns out) we end-up sitting right next to Joyce and her companion.

“Miss Oates,” I say hesitantly and a bit shyly, “I don’t mean to bother you, but I just want to say I’m a big fan and we both saw the play you did at Duke a few years ago.”

“Oh how nice,” she says very sweetly and brightly and holds out her hand to introduce herself and her husband, Charles.  Charles it turns out is a brain scientist and I think is more interested in what’s on the inside of a person’s head than the outside.

“I did my senior paper in college on Them and Garden of Earthly Delights,” I wanted to gush but these books are probably 40 years in her past and not of much interest.  I also don’t share that I tried her 2004 The Falls: A Novel and could not get past the first third.

Charles asks to borrow my map which shows the water routes of Venice while we pass the trip marveling at the water and the buildings and the beauty of the light which Joyce Carol Oates remarks on.  They disembark at Burano but we switch to the boat that will take us to Torcellothe end of the line.  With us are a German family mother, father, daughter and perhaps sister-in-law.  It’s funny seeing these charming Germans, we can tell them of our travels in Berlin and unbelievable we are still saying “Danke” and Bitte” even though we've already been in Italy for five days!  The restaurant we had been hoping to try, Locanda Cipriani (of Harry’s Bar fame) is closed on the day we arrive, but the Germans tell us to try Villa '600 that the food is good and the place is lovely so we head straight there  passing by gates and two doghouses (!) that I stop to admire.  

 The restaurant (left) is located in a quiet landscaped field under a tent and we order I try the spaghetti Vongole a Venetian specialty of pasta with clams, and when it arrives it is a beautiful sight with 20 or 30 dime-sized clams (I have never seen clams this tiny with beige and brown softly striated shells.  It is delicious!  Delicate and garlicky and buttery good.  I am so hungry that I ignore what I've been told (Italians NEVER pick up their food with their fingers) and I just pick at the tiny clams, slurp the fish inside, toss my shells and enjoy my really al dente buccatini.  I am in heaven  sipping a crisp white wine and enjoying the birds hopping from stone to stone on our patio.  At the table near to us I see an older couple and the man has ordered what I have.  He meticulously takes his fork and spoon and carefully holds the shell in place with one utensil while using his fork to gently pull the teeny clam from its home.  He does this until he has amassed about 6 or 7 clams.  He puts down his fork, uses his spoon to scoop up the empty shells and then deposits them carefully in the bowl.  Then he puts down the spoon, picks up his fork and gathers a swirl of pasta and clams and eats that his food forkful by forkful until his stash of clams is gone  and then he painstakingly repeats the entire process with a great delicacy that matches these minuto clams. I on the other hand wolf down my plate in about a third of the time it takes him to finish the same meal.  I am ashamed and I am not.

Torcello is home to a simple and yet rustically majestic  Duomo Santa Maria Assunta, that has been in existence since the 7th century!  I am amazed at the artistic work inside  one entire wall of the church, 30-feet high is covered in very detailed mosaic depictions of the Last Judgment.  For all the parishioners who came and could not read, it is a powerful Biblical pictorial to both enrich and warn.  Here are your Bible teachings in mosaic form and wonder.  Snakes coming out of one’s eyes, blackened faces of the devil’s workers  it is a rich and gorgeous stone tapestry that has been enthralling and educating for centuries  I am in love.  While it is the simplest and most “ruined” of all the churches we have seen thus far, it has a beauty that is indescribable.

Outside we tour two other buildings where we see the works of artists over the centuries.  I am shocked to see a lance /mask with a small swastika etched in the metal. I am delighted to see a small figurine of an Etruscan acrobat!

I hope you can see the little acrobat from the 6th century!

It has been a rich and rewarding day, and we hop on a vaporetto in hopes of traveling to San Lazzaro the home of an Armenian monastery.  We arrive too late to San Giorgio for the connecting boat.  The two Hayr Soorps at the dock (Armenian celibate priests, as opposed to Der Hayrs, priests who can marry and serve in a parish but not rise in the church hierarchy)  gently tell us that we will not be allowed to visit the monastery or even walk outside on the grounds as they are strict about closing times to visitors.  

As they board the small boat and ride away without us, in their wake, I irrationally burst into tears at the lost opportunity to connect with my Armenian heritage. 


  1. Denise,

    I really enjoyed your story and wish I could do something similar one day, but I doubt that I'll get the chance.


  2. Jorge you never know...I saved up "miles" for this trip so it IS possible! I hope you do get to go one day...nice to hear from you, Denise