The Not So Old Man and the Sea

I heard him before I saw him. Pounding his keys to a ragtime tune resembling Joplin, his head bent forward, his fingers flying. I can’t say his playing was the best I had ever heard, but his stage was the most unique I had ever witnessed. The young musician and his piano were parked on a small barge heading down the Grand Canal. These sturdy vessels normally haul building materials, boxes, and sometimes mail…but a grand piano? This was a first, at least for me, but probably not for Venice.

I inquired about the floating musician, however, no one seemed to know who he was, nor did they think his impromptu concert unusual. Canal traffic proceeded along as usual: vaporetti, taxis, gondolas, traghetti.


ice cream delivery

ice cream delivery


Life among the canals is always surprising. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a guy goes by on a bicycle…a floating bicycle that is. When I came across him I thought my eyes were deceiving me. No, it was indeed a bike in the middle of the water with a young man pedaling fiercely, trying to get his contraption to work. Mounted onto two large oblong floats, the innovative machine was struggling against the wind. The acqua-cyclist didn’t have any fancy moves like the gondoliers, nor a motor to ease the pain, only his toned legs and their ever-increasing speed. A man dressed in striped boxers appeared on a hotel balcony snapping pictures with childlike joy. There was no way he way part of my vivid imagination, so the scene must have been real.

The men of Venice love the sea, they always have. When they’re running late and need a ride, they don’t ask a friend with a car, but rather the guy coming down the canal on a boat. The driver slows down and the hitchhiker hops on board. They greet each other like long lost friends, and who knows, maybe they are.


casa bonito lunch crowd

Casa Bonito lunch crowd


Starting at 1pm the simpler waterside osteria come to life, first with men jockeying to park their boats,  then with banter and laughter at the full tables. Locals refer to these places as worker’s restaurants, family-run establishments where you can get a good two-course lunch with a quarter liter of wine for 15 euros—a reasonable price for Venice.

The men eat a hardy meal and then head back to the sea. Some work on vaporetti, transporting  hordes of people to their destination, others row gondole for camera-clutching tourists or drive delivery boats packed with anticipated goods. They spend their days on the water. Their skin is bronzed and their bodies lean.


entrance Arsenale

entrance Arsenale


For almost a thousand years Venice’s Arsenale was one of the largest shipyards in the world. There, craftsmen built the great battleships that made the Serenissima the master of the Adriatic and beyond. Through the centuries boats were launched against the Ottomans, the Genoese, the Turks, any entity that dared to hold the Venetians back. They were not about to relinquish their control of the sea, nor the accumulated wealth that built the most spectacular city on earth.

But as we know times change. The Venetian Republic is no more; its power stripped away long ago. However, its relationship with the sea is the same…well, maybe except for those battleships that once filled its waterways. (I did see a enormous Italian navy boat recently docked by the Tronchetto though.) Barges carrying stacks of toilet paper and modern-day appliances have replaced the wooden vessels that once sailed up to the Rialto, their hulls full of silk and spices.

Oldest spice store in Venice, from 15th century

Oldest spice store in Venice, from 15th century


Roaming the many magnificent museums in town, I see painting after painting of Venetian men and their boats. The landscape is familiar, the daily happenings the same. Inspecting the historic canvasses, I notice the only  differences today are the clothes and pairs of Nike that have (fortunately) replaced big, bass buckled shoes.


Historic boat parked alongside St. Marks

Historic boat parked alongside St. Marks


It’s wonderful to be in a place of time-honored tradition, surrounded by men and the sea.


Tourist Tip #5:

Worker’s Restaurants—off-the-beaten track places where you can get good, satisfying two course lunches (meaning pasta and meat or fish) for under 15 euro. My favorites are all in Caneregio…and yes, if you’re lucky, they’ll be room for your boat:

Dalla Marisa—Fondamenta San Giobbe, 652

Bea Vita–Fondamenta de le Capuzine, 308

Alle Due Gondolette—Fondamenta Coletti, 3016

Casa Bonito–Fondamenta San Giobbe, 942

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