As we drifted down the Venice canals last week, bystanders stopped, stared, whipped out cameras and, in one case, applauded. Not for me and my husband, I assure you. They were reacting to the sight of a woman rowing a gondola.
We sought out Alexandra Hai to ferry us around the city after reading about her in a guidebook, not because of gender but because she was said to take passengers through less traveled sections of town.
She met us nearing sunset, settled us into her sleek craft with the plush blue seats and pushed off, away from the crowds. She steered us into the canal equivalent of back alleys, past the gondola repair shop and the apartments with laundry hanging from the windows. The famously elaborate facades along Venice's main shorelines look too fantastic to be real, but these byways afford a glimpse of everyday life.
Eventually we circled back to the busier areas, past the houses where famous people had lived -- Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Peggy Guggenheim, Angelina Jolie, while she was filming "The Tourist."
Back on the Grand Canal we passed a string of gondolas four abreast. They were packed with Asian passengers, including a conductor and an accordionist who played "O Sole Mio" while the riders sang along. Apparently, they'd been rehearsing for just that moment.
It was a floating cliche, but it's hard not to feel some of that in a Venetian gondola, even without music. At some point you just have to surrender to the hokiness and admit that you, too, are a tourist.
We went to Italy to celebrate a milestone birthday. All the places we'd dreamed of seeing together -- Venice, Rome, Florence, a vineyard in the Tuscan countryside -- were on the itinerary. So was Cinque Terre, the string of five little towns on the coast of the Liguria region of Italy that have clung to the rocky cliffs for centuries.
It was all fabulously fun and interesting. I learned, for example, that color is out among Italian designers, except in handbags. All clothes are black, white, grey or beige. If a window has pink sweaters, they're for men.
Everyone wears neck scarves, of course. But there is hardly a woman's shoe to be seen on the city streets. Leather boots are the required footwear -- ankle-length under trousers, mid-calf atop skin-tight jeans or over-the-knee with micro skirts. It's quite impressive to see women of all ages making their way in four-inch spike heels across the uneven stone surfaces without so much as a downward glance. Maybe it's something in the vino.
We returned with memories of ancient ruins, wonderful meals and wines, gorgeous art, architecture and music -- and a camera full of contraband.
Just about every museum or church we visited had guards stationed throughout whose principal job was yelling "No foto!!" over and over at the hordes of tourists.
Many people took great offense at this. They had bought tickets to see these famous artworks and interiors -- all of which have been photographed thousands of times already.
The real and virtual worlds abound with pictures of Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, his sculpture of "David" at the Accademia Gallery and Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" at the Uffizi Gallery, both in Florence, or the Titians and Tintorettos at the Doge's Palace in Venice. Of course the visitors wanted their own photos to take home.
The same was true at La Fenice (The Phoenix, in English), the fabulous Venetian opera house dating to 1792 whose interior looks like a gilded candy box, and which can be toured in off-hours for an entry fee. The theater is unique in all the world, and has burned to the ground twice, 160 years apart. Both times it rose from the ashes like its namesake. Guards are stationed in every room to scan the crowd for cameras like Secret Service agents guarding the president against assassins.
I took pictures anyway, of almost everything. It's not hard to do with a small digital camera. You just turn off the flash, duck behind a pillar and snap. Lacking cover, you can wait until the guard is distracted by a fellow transgressor. Or just keep the camera low, point in the general direction and hope to catch what you're aiming at. In this way I brought home images of many great works. They're not great shots, of course, but they're my personal mementos.
I can understand the desire to protect 500-year-old paintings from camera flashes, but there's only one reason to prohibit photos with ambient light: money. These establishments want visitors to buy the picture books and posters from their gift shops. In a few cases I might have, too, if the shouts of "No foto!" hadn't put me off.
The ban took me by surprise, seeing as how I've snapped art at many American museums where cameras are welcome. So I called Ellen Wilson, spokeswoman for The Carnegie Museum of Art, to ask what she made of it. She said the only good reason she could think of was copyright considerations, which expire after 80 years. That would seem to make the works of Leonardo da Vinci fair game.
Anyway, we enjoyed Italy immensely and want to go back. But maybe not to Venice, at least not me. Much as I loved it there, I couldn't quite get over the creepy feeling of the 1973 Nicholas Roeg film "Don't Look Now," in which Donald Sutherland pursues a mysterious child-sized figure in a red cloak through the labyrinthine city. So, while I was surprised to see that Halloween has invaded Italy, none of the children's costumes spooked me out as much as the little girl in a red rain slicker, holding her mother's hand.
That's when I knew it was time to go home.
Correction/Clarification: (Published November 8, 2010) Cinque Terre is on the coast of the Liguria region of Italy. An incorrect location appeared in Sally Kalson's Sunday column.
Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412 263-1610).