To Venice, in Chekhov's Wake
March 24, 1891. Anton Chekhov writes from Venice: "One thing I can tell you - in all my life I have never seen any cities more remarkable than Venice. It is utter enchantment, brilliance, joy of life."
How pleased I am that Chekhov enjoyed Venice. My favorite writer in my favorite city abroad.
A day in Venice. I rise early. From the window I see the campanile in the Piazza San Marco. The golden angel at the top seems brighter than ever. Beneath my window, I hear the water of the canal lap against the stone embankment. Across the canal a cluster of magnificent trees is home to local songbirds.
During the morning I visit a museum and several churches. From a stairway by the Grand Canal I watch the Venice version of noon traffic on Fifth Avenue. Crowded water buses, called vaporetti, pass by. Gondolas. Water taxis. Barges conveying vegetables and fruit. A fireboat with flashing lights. Launches of the Guardians of Finance, the elegant designation accorded tax collectors.
Venice, like New York, is a walking city. I spend several hours walking. Chekhov wrote, "There are streets as wide as Nevsky Prospekt, and there are some where, by spreading your arms, the whole street can be blocked."
I board a vaporetto to cross the Giudecca Canal. The waters of the canal sparkle in the sunlight. On the island of Giudecca, Venetians perform a daily drama - running to catch the boat. Children arrive in triumph at the boat station, their parents huffing and puffing behind. In New York, similar scenes play out at bus stops.
The vaporetto passes three Palladian churches: the Redentore, the Zitelle, and San Giorgio Maggiore. I seat myself in the sun on the San Giorgio embankment. An enormous cruise ship, led by a tug, proceeds majestically along the Giudecca Canal on its way to the Adriatic. The ship is 11 stories high. A floating, moving skyscraper. It dwarfs every Venice landmark, including the Campanile.
In the late afternoon I retrace my steps. On the water I hear, as did Chekhov, the pealing of church bells.
An after-dinner walk. Car ferries glide across the water on their way from the mainland to the Lido. Along the quayside I come upon Venetians fishing. For Chekhov, evening was the best time in Venice. He would gaze at the reflections of the stars and light in the dark waters of the canal.
My destination is the customs point. From here one sees the finest views of Venice: the churches of San Giorgio and the Pieta (so closely associated with Vivaldi), the Doges' Palace, the Library, the domes of San Marco, the Campanile, and the two columns in the Piazzetta with their statues of St. Theodore and the lion of St. Mark. This magnificent city built upon the sea!
I return to my pensione. On the second floor landing I pass an antique lantern. Its warm glow welcomes me each time I visit Venice.
Over the years I have seen Venice in the heat of summer and the drizzle and fog of November. I have walked the city's walkways, visited its palaces, churches, and museums, climbed the bell towers, and traveled along the waterways. As it was with Chekhov, Venice has become a part of me.