In über-romantic Venice, eating dinner alone can be awkward— or exhilarating, as writer J.R. Moehringer discovers on a solo trip to explore the city’s past, and forget his own.
I’ve been traveling in europe on business, and finally, my work is done. I board a train in Leipzig, Germany, press my face against the window and tell myself, You’ve earned this. Soon I’m chugging through the Alps. The air becomes clearer, colder. I read, listen to music, feel the knots in my back and neck begin to loosen. Suddenly the train comes to a bone-jolting stop. The conductor makes a tense announcement. “What’s he saying?” I ask the woman beside me. “He say we, eh, hit”—she smacks her palms together—“a person.” I jump up and run with other passengers to the head car, where we learn that someone from a nearby town has thrown himself under the train. The body, which police have covered with what looks like Christmas paper, lies in two distinct pieces on the tracks.
Because this is now a crime scene, we can’t move. The conductor goes to phone a judge. An hour passes. The sun drops to eye level. I ask myself, Am I going to spend the first night of my vacation in an Alpine meadow?
At last the conductor reappears. The judge, he says, has cleared the train to proceed. Passengers cheer, looking relieved, but also preoccupied. Pulling away, we can’t help but wonder what depths of despair drove someone to choose our train for his journey to the hereafter.
In Verona I learn that, of course, I’ve missed my connection. I wait, and wait, and by the time I get to Venice, it’s the middle of the night. Luckily, the vaporetto, or water bus, runs around the clock. Floating down a boulevard of glittering water, past a palazzo built 500 years ago, and another built 700 years ago, I feel instantly renewed, which is the eternal promise of Venice. The Most Serene Republic vows to distract you, calm you, rock you into a new state of mind, even if you’ve just disembarked from a death train.
I tell myself, This feeling is why I’ve come.
Though it’s not the main reason.
Venice, I realize, is an unusual vacation spot for a bachelor. It’s the classic destination for couples, for lovers, and I’m here alone, single, “between bad dates,” as I often tell friends. I’m here because I’ve pushed myself, overworked myself, and now I’m mad at myself, fed up, not speaking to myself, and what better place than Venice for a self-reunion? If their relationship is to be salvaged, work me and play me need time alone. They need a romantic getaway. They need food, art, beauty, literature. They need a little Italy.
Also, I’ve never been to Italy before, and Venice felt like a good place to start. I’ve long been struck by how many of my well-traveled friends have seen Rome, Florence, Milan—but not Venezia. They are saving Venice, I suppose, until they can visit with that perfect person. I can’t wait that long. The city might be underwater by then.
The vaporetto stops beside my hotel, the Bauer Palladio Hotel & Spa, at the edge of the Giudecca, an island across the basin from Venice proper. Designed in 1500, the Palladio was originally the Venetian Home for Unmarried Women. Sheltering 200 teenage girls, their families too poor to provide a dowry, the home was a sort of virgin orphanage. Girls came here to learn a skill, work, earn their own dowries, and men came to “adopt” suitable wives. I didn’t know about the Palladio’s provenance when I reserved my room, but once I know, I can’t help laughing: Five centuries later, the place is still giving sanctuary to singles.
Francesca Bortolotto Possati opened the Palladio last year as a sister hotel to her family’s iconic, 127-year-old Bauer Hotel and Il Palazzo, directly across the water. A native Venetian and a driving force behind the city’s restoration, Possati says that even though she’s turned the Palladio into a three-floor, 50-room boutique hotel and spa, she wanted to keep that austere convent-like look and feel. Some may balk at the sparse furnishings and cold stone floors, but I like them immediately. In a city full of crowds and history, the Palladio’s cool simplicity and spaciousness are a relief.
As I step into the dimly lit lobby, a long-faced man at the front desk, bifocals perched on his nose, greets me with a half smile. He looks as if he’s escaped from an old Italian movie—as if an Italian movie is playing somewhere, right now, with scenes in which he’s notably absent.
He gives me a room on the top floor, a cozy L-shaped suite with a wine-red carpet, a handsome writing desk, and all the modern conveniences, including a flat-screen TV. But the only thing I want to watch is the water. Two enormous windows afford a stunning view of the basin, and beyond it the Venetian “skyline,” a jagged vista of ancient church spires and campaniles. Straight ahead is the Santa Maria della Salute church, built to appease an angry God during the plagues of the 1600s. (In Denver, where I live, there are virtually no buildings that date back before the Civil War.) I slide into bed, reveling in the antiquity of my surroundings, and drop into a timeless sleep.
At dawn, I wake to the sounds and smells of the sea. Gulls. Brine. Sailors. Boats. Few alarm clocks can beat the Adriatic. After a long, hot shower, I inhale the coffee and almond croissants sent up by room service, then run down to the solar-powered boat that always sits at the Palladio’s pier, waiting to whisk guests to and from the city. After a three-minute ride, I land in Venice and do what everyone does upon landing: walk and gawk. I walk until I get lost, which takes two minutes, since Venice is a bizarre maze, with no grid, few signs and an abundance of inadequate, inaccurate maps. Exploring Venice has been likened to working a puzzle, which even natives can’t solve. When I ask one woman the way to a certain street, she points, sighs, then takes me there herself—a five-minute walk. It’s easier than trying to explain.
The more I walk, the more grateful I am to be alone. I couldn’t explore like this with someone else. I’d be worried about their feet, their fatigue. But of course, I’m not totally alone. I’m with John, Mark, George, Ernest, Giacomo and Henry. That is, Ruskin, Twain, Byron, Hemingway, Casanova and James, Venice’s greatest explorers and explainers. I’ve bundled them all into a messenger bag and slung them on my back, like boys in a papoose.
I come to Rialto Bridge, a 24-foot arch, 400 years old. I pause and savor a majestic view down the Grand Canal. Byron must have stood right where I’m standing. He must have hurried across this bridge many times, late for some romantic assignation. The poet came to Venice single, but he wasn’t single long. He fell in love, then fell out of love, then fell in love with someone else. So giddy was he with love one night that he fell into this canal while trying to get into a gondola and showed up to his date soaking wet. And yet it was in Venice that Byron wrote his paean to solitude:
For the sword outwears its sheath, And the soul wears out the breast, And the heart must pause to breathe, And Love itself have rest. For dinner I stop at the venerable Harry’s Bar, founded in 1931, where I’ve been wanting to eat since I was a kid and first read Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees. Birthplace of the Bellini, hangout for artists and starlets, Harry’s might be one of the more touristy spots in Venice, but that’s no knock against it. Venice—a museum, a graveyard, a ruin—is mainly a giant tourist trap, and no less lovely for it. As Mary McCarthy wrote in her famous book Venice Observed, “The tourist Venice is Venice.” I’m seated upstairs in a dining room painted a cheerful yellow, with matching tablecloths and napkins. The place has that old creaky-wood-and-oiled-leather feel of a university club, with the attendant power crowd. A curt waiter guides me through a traditional menu, one that pays scant attention to the Veneto region’s seafood-focused cuisine. At his suggestion I go for the ravioli Piedmontese, a half-dozen envelopes of pasta drenched with olive oil and filled with pureed veal—rich and satisfying—and a main course of light, lemony veal piccata. I’m stuffed, but I’m stubborn, so I boldly forge ahead and order dessert anyway: a slice of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a double espresso.
My bill is more than a night in my room at the Palladio. Shocked, I tell myself, No one can call you a cheap date.
Lingering over my coffee, I glance around the room and notice that I’m surrounded by couples, the standard two-person type, and they don’t look as if they’re enjoying themselves half as much as I. The husband and wife across the room just don’t go together; they look like a pair of mismatched socks. The tandem over my shoulder are dozing through dinner, speaking only to wake each other up for the next course. The young Brits before me are arguing. Actually, she’s arguing; he’s staring, sullen. “You’re not listening,” she says, and he sinks his head deeper into his neck, as do I.
Venice can be hard on couples, I think. Finding themselves in the Shangri-la of love, they must feel pressure to be worthy of its ambience, to enjoy the deepest talks and best sex of their lives. If reality fails to meet their expectations, they panic. I try not to indulge in any smug, bachelor schadenfreude. But it’s hard.
I spend the next day walking, reading, wallowing in my aloneness. By nightfall I’ve worked up a voracious appetite, so I head to Al Covo, a 22-year-old restaurant that has the snug feel of an Italian country house, with exposed brick, wood ceiling beams and an antique sideboard. Ex-Texan Diane Rankin, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Cesare Benelli, doubles as Al Covo’s pastry chef.
Like most menus in Venice, Al Covo’s has lots of fish. Venetian cuisine—never as celebrated as that of other Italian cities—focuses on local seafood and simple preparations. The waiter starts me with a platter he calls “taste of the lagoon.” I can be a bit squeamish, and the plate’s generous portions of regional delicacies like snails and anchovies look a little too Fear Factor for me. But I chastise myself: You’re in Venice, be adventurous. I dive in, and I’m glad I did: The creatures are tastier than expected. For a pasta course, I have the delicious gnocchi with baby calamari and try not to watch the squid’s black ink stream all over the plate. My perfectly cooked rack of lamb comes garnished with mint jelly and sits on a layer of soft lentils. The dessert—Rankin’s creamy hazelnut ice cream served with biscotti—is the highlight of the meal.
After dinner I take a long walk, get lost, linger on a bridge while sleek black gondolas slide beneath my feet. Twain said they looked like little hearses; to me they look like little whorehouses, filled with velvet cushions, silk ribbons, and giggling couples groping in the shadows.
The next morning, I find Venice flooded with people, as if some great Hoover Dam of humanity has burst. “Italian holiday,” the Palladio staff explains. The whole country is off work, on the move. Good day to run errands and buy my return ticket, I tell myself.
Approaching the station, however, I see a mob flowing toward me. Another train has disgorged several hundred more tourists. Fighting my way upstream, I buy my ticket, then look for a restroom. There is only one, and it’s blocked by a line, the sight of which changes me forever. The line stretches on and on as far as I can see, and the people at the end, when I finally reach them, wear grim, Twilight Zone expressions, clearly thinking, We’ll never make it. Also, I happen to know that the toilet for which they’re waiting is a pay toilet. Heaven help them if they don’t have exact change. When nature calls in Venice, it calls collect, and it will cost you exactly one euro to answer.
Fleeing the station, I take myself back toward the heart of the city and duck into the Institute of Sciences, Letters and Arts, alongside the Accademia Bridge, where I see a marvelous exhibit of self-portraits dating to the 1500s. Particularly striking is the 1792 self-portrait titled “Autoritratto” by Antonio Canova, who depicted himself gazing confidently into a mirror. The expression on his face turns me inside out, makes me think in new ways about the self as subject, object and travel companion. It also sends me back into the streets feeling refreshed, less separated from my other half and my fellow tourists.
I eat dinner at Lineadombra, a breezy new restaurant right on the water, hard by the Santa Maria della Salute. Again, I’m surrounded by couples. I bury my nose in Ruskin. The waiter discreetly removes the other plate and utensils and asks what wine I’ll be drinking. I tell him I’m not drinking. He glares. Venice is the capital of the Veneto, one of the great wine-producing regions in Italy, and Venetian waiters take pride in their restaurants’ cellars, usually stocked with local wines like Bardolino, Soave, Valpolicella and Prosecco (and a Venetian grappa that will send you floating downstream faster than a gondolier). When he recovers from his disappointment, the waiter asks me to at least let him guide me through the menu. I don’t dare say no. He starts me with zucchini-wrapped scallops in saffron sauce, each one perched on a large shell like an outsized pearl. Delicious as it is beautiful. Next comes tonnarelli pasta, smothered with radicchio and smoked scamorze cheese. Even better. The last dish is the best: whole roasted sea bass sprinkled with herbs and topped with wild cherry tomatoes and a delicate eggplant mousse.
As my time in Venice winds down, I attack my to-do list with a frenzy. I buy some Murano glass; see a fantastic exhibit of John Singer Sargent paintings at the Museo Correr; splurge on a water-taxi tour of the Grand Canal; and have a bite at Florian’s, the world-famous café, where a tuxedoed orchestra has been playing the same campy waltzes for a century. I take a long look at the Doge’s Palace, which James called “the loveliest thing in Venice.”
Last on my list is Palazzo Barbaro, the mansion where James stayed during many of his visits. I not only find it, I find the window of the room where he slept. Sitting beneath it, I read a few lines of James, the great loner of Venice, and ponder one of the most revealing sentences he ever wrote: “The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life ”
Heading slowly back to the Palladio, I realize that I don’t want to return to the world. I could stay in Venice another month and still not be ready to go. I promise myself that the next time I fight with myself, the next time I feel close to “breaking up,” I’ll bring myself back here.
And yet, climbing the stairs to my room, gazing one last time at the hypnotic Adriatic before sliding into bed, I admit to myself that it might be nice to see Venice with someone else. Is it the waves brushing the hotel steps below, or do I hear the orphanage girls whispering the very same thing as they douse the last candle and bid each other good night?
J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist and author of The Tender Bar, is based in Denver.