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July 22, 2014

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Don’t worry: These gondoliers know how to avoid a watery collision

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John Katsilometes

A gondola is navigated through a busy canal in Venice. The guy in the foreground is Tony Moreno.

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Strolling performers at St. Mark's Square, Venice.

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St. Mark's Basillica in Venice.

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Procuratie Vecchie, built by Bartolomeo Bon the Younger in about 1520.

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Gondoliers, awaiting passengers. These are the rock stars of Venice.

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Look familiar? The Campanile at St. Mark's Square in Venice, finished in 1514 and rebuilt after famously collapsing in 1902.

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The boat ride into Venice.

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An old guy smoking in Venice. He's a local.

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Gondola's push off in the shadows of the Hard Rock Cafe in Venice.

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A look from the front of a gondola as we drift through a canal in Venice.

VENICE -- Our gondolier nimbly guided his watercraft through a very tight, aquatic alleyway. Just as it seemed we were about to be involved in a splashy collision, he tilted his oar hard to the right, slipping expertly between two vessels pinching us on either side.

We rocked a bit, laughing at the near collision and appreciating the fundamental reality that those who pilot gondolas in Venice are more sea captains than entertainers. What also struck me at that moment (and again, luckily, it was not a couple of off-line gondolas) was I’d never taken a gondola ride at the Venetian in Las Vegas.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I won’t feel compelled to do that any time soon.

This was a couple days ago. What was it? Thursday, I guess, that we took the Trenitalia line from Florence into Venice. I’d been told that the first time you see Venice is unlike any other. Spilling out from the train station and facing the Grand Canal and that iconic cityscape is to understand the term “breathtaking” does have a real meaning. The setting steals your breath. Your eyes can well up, too, unless you happen to be made of ceramic.

I won’t profess to be the expert on this city, to play the role of haughty Uncle Venice after spending parts of two days and one night there. It irks me when writers visiting Las Vegas for a weekend return to their homes and tell you everything you could possibly know about Sin City. What I can tell you is that St. Mark’s Square is so physically imposing, you nearly fall backward looking up at its vast and ornate craftsmanship. I can’t imagine looking at some of the architecture in Las Vegas and being so affected -- though it is unfair to compare Venice’s elegant, centuries-old structural design to any other city.

Those who have traveled all around the world many times say Venice is the world’s most beautiful city and has to be the most uniquely appealing city anywhere. The power of water, all those interlocking canals and bridges, cannot be overstated.

We’d initially planned just to stay the day, as our traveling group of the Moreno brothers (Frankie, Tony and Ricky) with the delightful Peggy Ann Armstrong (representing the great state of Texas) now joined by masterful photog and dear friend for, oh, 12 years now, Denise Truscello. The adventure is to be chronicled as a journal of how these guys write songs in these dazzling international outposts. A late addition to our traveling party, Denise has been snapping photos (as we all have) and recording video of the trip. How and where this winds up is going to be an adventure unto itself.

I am feeling pressure to write words suitable enough for Denise’s visual account of this trip. You know you are in rarefied air when the photojournalist says to a gondolier in Venice, “Can we take one more ride so we can shoot more video?” It also is a rarefied experience when the photographer realizes, several minutes later, that she has misplaced her cellphone and finds it under a pillow in that gondola.

Venice is a wholly different city at night than during the day; that is evident from an overnight stay. Thousands of international visitors (I am really trying to use that term in place of tourists from here forward) flood St. Mark’s Square, shooting photos in every direction and buying trinkets from the storefronts and kiosks ringing the public meeting space. If you enjoy pigeons, St. Mark’s Square is heaven. Mike Tyson would love St. Mark’s. But they are fearless, greedy, gluttonous, annoying -- several times we were nearly clipped by low-flying pigeons homing in on an unsuspecting international visitor’s gelato cone.

The reason to stay the evening in Venice was simply because we’d run out of time to accomplish all of our required goals in the city. We’d not yet eaten nearly enough, and a hallmark of visiting this region is that you are eating almost constantly. Yesterday (or was it Wednesday?), Frankie asked if I was hungry. I said, “Well, we haven’t eaten since we finished the tiramisu 2 hours ago.” Yesterday (Thursday?), we actually had a quick meal at 6 p.m. just to prep for our “real” dinner 2 hours later.

The overnight was spent at Hotel Cavalletto, the oldest hotel in Italy. This place has soap older than any hotel in Vegas (hashtag-SheckyKats). It’s also owned today by Best Western, so it is friendly to U.S. tourists -- international visitors -- and overlooks a packed-with gondolas push-off point. For the boys in the group, the lodging was laughable -- four of us in a single room. The three Morenos took up two queen-size beds pushed together as one, and I was set next to the bathroom (water closet) in a single bed rolled into the suite. Room, actually.

We looked a little like the snoozing Temptations. When we awoke, my alarm was drowned out by the resounding sound of bells tolling from St. Mark’s. We looked down from our third-floor window, and dozens of gondolas were floating emptily, ready for passengers.

Across the canal is a Hard Rock Cafe; there is a heavy corporate retail influence, and an influence of commerce of all variety, in Venice. Even the small shops are not immune; set next to ornate, handcrafted masks and glass sculptures produced by artists of the region are T-shirts bearing the image of Homer Simpson drinking from a can of Duff beer.

Walking through Venice is itself an adventure. We felt it was a good idea to find a little cafe off one of the walkways leading to the square -- mistake. It took us an hour to find ourselves back in the city’s center. I have read where people wander into the city with no map, intentionally becoming lost just to observe the old architecture on a self-guided tour. Once I glanced up and saw a long line of laundry hanging from windows overlooking a canal.

It did rain a little, at dusk, after most of the visitors melted away. In the gray clouds, the city was more muted and somber than when the sun poured down hours earlier. It was high tide, which means enough water seeped up and flooded over the walkways lining the city. Our own hotel restaurant was under several inches of water, which is not all that uncommon. One of the hotel officials padded the large puddle in a blue suit and galoshes, splashing across the floor and setting up a much-used water vacuum to pump out the water.

At night, we saw a performance of Vivaldi E L’Opera, a tribute to the compositions (though, sadly, not the “Four Seasons” of Antonio Vivaldi, born in Venice and a frequent concert performer in the city). The music was performed by Virtuoso di Venezia -- San Marco Chamber Orchestra, in the prestigious Ateneo di San Basso in St. Mark’s, replicating nearly the exact environment in which Vivaldi himself composed.

It was a dreamlike performance, delicate and powerful, and afterward we strolled the largely uninhabited city late into the night as the Morenos worked out a new song they started, and finished, on the train ride from Florence. The guys usually visit famous, far-off cities to find inspiration, and, yes, in Venice, they found it.

We all did.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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