Venice in winter; moody, magic, and medieval

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The sun is rising over foggy streets and canals Boat and factory chimneys are waking up in a smoky yawn. Shadows of hurried passers-by haunt the labyrinth of streets and bridges. It's Venice in winter.

It's Venice without crowds, Venice without artifice, the Venice of the Venetians, not of the tourists; Venice with its gray heavy light, its chilly wet wind; Venice where twilight sets so early even the most alert person is fooled, because suddenly, in a blink, it is dark, and the fog comes up thick and heavy, obliterating all landmarks.

Here native people may be familiar only with their own neighborhood, as in a very small country town. Sometimes they may even be involved in neighborly rivalry with the people from "across the bridge."

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The winter visitor will live a quiet town life, amid all the treasures of Italian architecture and art. One absurd vision of the City of Love: huge tankers in the lagoon resting beside Byzantium-pink palaces.

Colors and odors melt in misty atmosphere left over from the summer sirocco, that humid wind that blows in from the sea. From time to time an older couple will stroll about the deserted, windy banks that run along the lagoon. The beach of the Lido is one large spread of humid sand, and the gray- green sea blurs with the luminous sky.

Suddenly, it is possible to imagine the Middle Ages in Venice, where spies would pursue their after-dark missions or duels would take place in the streets at midnight. Indeed, there are no streetlights, which adds to the uneasy yet magical feeling one has here at this time of year.

On Christmas Eve, churches hold their religious services at midnight. Crowds swarm down the streets, discreetly singing, laughing, ducking in and out of all the churches they pass, swept up in blend of Italy's religious traditions and love of street celebrations.

When I was there, I often felt like a lone "queen of the city," just wandering around, getting lost, visiting small churches or museums I discovered by happenstance.

Once I came upon a church built some hundreds of years ago. The main facade was not particularly beautiful, but the people who lived on the side of the church where they could see only the blind wall were so jealous of those with a front view that, in the end, the church was rebuilt with two main facades.

I once walked into a school by mistake, thinking it was some museum. The floor was of pink marble, and the students were playing basketball on it. The main staircase and classrooms were splendid, with high ceilings, huge windows, colonnades, and frescoes.

What struck me was the absence of youngsters. Most abandon the old, cultural Venice to go to Mestre, it new, "industrialized" twin. All the administration has moved there. So not only are the palaces of Venice dying, sinking into the lagoon, but also its spirit and heart. Only the museums, the churches, and the major schools and universities remain in Venice, symbols of a past greatness.

All these moods can be left only in the winter, while the city belongs to its inhabitants. In the summer, Venice is taken over by millions of tourists, who obliterate the spirit left over from centuries of trade, art, architecture, religious, and political influence over the rest of Europe and the Orient.

In the winter, one feels that Venice once was "Queen of the Adriatic" and the City of Love. All the marvels are apparent. Whereas the summer hides them in a warm coat of people and sun, the winter is crude and harsh, its nakedness only one more trump to the beauty of Venice.

The nearby factories and proofs of the industrialized world are just one more reason to feel out of time, propelled into another era.Every thought that comes to my mind today reinforces my first impression of Venice in winter. It is one of magical serenity, tranquillity, amplified by the mist, and cold, and the emptiness.

It is a feeling that the city stagnates in the past, and that no one will come to fish it out.

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