Most Beautiful

Portrait of a Young Man by Lorenzo Lotto

I knew there was a lot of water in Venice, but I didn’t know it was this wet.

Venice Umbrellas

The photo was shot from the Rialto Bridge.

I’m back on the island of Giudecca, just across the water from Venice. Putting my feet up and drying out and warming up after 16,000 wet steps in the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

I’m very tired.

I bet I crossed over a hundred bridges on foot today.

But who knows?

If a city can also be a maze, then Venice has done it. How people could find anything before smart phones, I can’t imagine. I have a good map, but it is more confusing than helpful. The streets? Alleys? Paths? whatever they are make no sense. They stop, start, bear multiple names… So I just let my feet lead me into warrens of narrow Fundamentas, Rios, Rivas, Calles, Campos, Salizadas, Cortes, Vias…

Venice has over 400 bridges. Many connect to its 120 islands. Some just cross a narrow canal to a single house’s doorstep. Some are marble and stone. Others simple wooden planking. Some seem to be crowded all the time. Tourists bustling to and from popular destinations. Most have steps. The steps have to go up high enough so boats can pass under them on the canal—the “street.” So, although the city is essentially flat, there are a LOT of steps.

Wednesday and Thursday, it was all complicated by thousands of umbrellas. Some alleys are not much wider than a single umbrella. You just need to figure out if you’re going higher or lower than the oncoming umbrellas. Or you can just surrender if space is too tight and close yours up.

No one wants to lose a day of vacation here. So the crowds were out. Wet, drippy crowds.

And to try to figure anything out in the wind and rain, I had to find shelter to pull the guidebook or paper map out of the wet plastic bag I was carrying.

I didn’t know what to expect when I got into the city on Monday.

There are no roads or cars or motorcycles or bikes.

You either walk or float.

There are very many “streets” however. The hundreds of thoroughfares are paved with… water. The traffic is boats. Lots of traffic. All kinds of boats. Contractor construction boats. Taxi boats. Small personal boats. And, of course, gondolas. 100s of black wooden swanlike gondolas.

Monday and Tuesday were beautiful sunny mild days. I quickly came to discover Venice is incredibly beautiful. There are vistas it seems at almost every one of the thousands of turns set to a medieval grid that has no right angles.

Venice Grand Canal

This is a shot down the end of the Grand Canal.

Rainy Wednesday and Thursday were beautiful as well. I covered a lot of ground Wednesday. 18,000 steps. Thursday… I surrendered after 6 hours or so and returned to the hotel. Too much of a good thing.

The text above is pretty confusing.

Let’s go back to the beginning:


What was I thinking?!

I don’t know where I’m going. Well, I know the hotel, and I think I know which island it is on, but damned if I have a clue how to get there from the airport. We are over the Atlantic, about 30 minutes from Philly. We are bumping through some turbulence.

What will I do?

Well, I can plan. As soon as we land, I’ll contact the hotel and ask.

The DK Eyewitness guide I have in the seat pocket offers a lot of choices. But damned if I can figure it out. All the choices involve boats and water and Italian.

It was a long day.

Sunday, May 7. A getaway day. A getaway weekend. So much to do. I always work hard, but somehow you find another gear when the pressure is on.

I created a couple thousand “bag and hangs” for Terry to sticker a price on their backs and put them in clear plastic bags. Some were in a pile.

Weekend Bag & Hang

These were mostly prints removed from defective books. Salvaged, I guess you would call it. Pages of woodcuts, steel or copper engravings, chromolithographs or any number of arcane types of printing processes.

I can’t bring myself to destroy… ummm, “pulp” them.

They can be beautiful—miniature artworks.

Or historical—broadsides of protests and politics and events.

Or just funny, quirky or… interesting.

The stores have 1000s of these things.


It’s not the best use of time—for me. Plus Terry’s labors. The staff at the stores will need to pin the plastic bags on walls or wooden bookcase endcaps or… wherever one can find a place to hang a bag.

(I’m trying to figure a way to display them on the ceiling. The Frederick store is 11,000 square feet. Imagine carpeting the ceiling tiles with art! Perhaps the term “carpet” is not apt.)

“The Wonder Book Sistine Chapel of Hodge Podge Papers Pieces.”

My, that would be grand.

How would they be retrieved? You don’t want customers standing on the top of ladders!

Think of the stiff necks! Customers wandering the aisles gazing above, walking into things. LOL…

And more and more. WW1 magazines, some original artwork, Japanese greeting cards with scenes handpainted on silk…

What can you do with such things?

Present them as best you can and hope they find matches with the people who come to browse.

Oh! And I dumped a bunch on Annika for the Georgetown Book Fair. If you want some 1960s Washington Senators programs, we will have some.

There are a couple of vintage author engravings—Tolstoy and Turgenev.

You don’t see those every day. For ten bucks our so, you can be the only one in your circle to have an homage to your favorite Russkie Knigi author on your wall.

Sheet music. Some Penn State student mags (“Frosh”?) with Vietnam era graphics on the cover. Johnson and Humphrey looking demonic. GIs drawn as monstrous Visigoths pillaging some village.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some World War 2 leatherneck mags. The marines on the covers doing tough, good work to save the world.

Sheet music. Piles of it. A lot of it frayed and dog-eared, but some fine. Like the nearly perfect Disney’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.

Every leaf or pamphlet or bound item reflects a time and place. Bits of history battering my brain with sensory flashes. One after another after another… Rarely do I give an item more than a couple of seconds before it is dropped into a box. Boxes will be designated with prices—$3.95, $5.95, $8.95, $12.95, $19.95. The boxes will go to Terry’s desk, and she will do her thing.

How do I decide? Experience. Experience and guesswork. I’ve handled millions of things. My mind works well enough to almost instantly estimate things like popularity and scarcity and quality.

That’s what we do.

One of the work areas I left looked like this.

After Weekend Boxes

There will be a lot at the Georgetown Fair.

Fragile or more expensive non-book items I took to Ernest’s area. He will make sure they are packed safely to be transferred to the stores. Larry had brought a load of nice silver-plate a few weeks ago. I forced myself to sticker each piece with a price which I hoped was not too high, not too low.


My deadline to head for Philly was 2 p.m. I stopped working on the warehouse floor just after noon.

I made sure everything was labeled. On Monday morning, warehouse staff will mark prices and store destinations on all four sides of each cardboard bankers box. “Terry” labeled boxes will be marked and rolled to the office area where she shares a desk. By 9 or 10 o’clock, all my weekend’s work will be cleared off the floor and dispatched to their proper places.

It was a beautiful spring day. Close to 70 and sunny. Every hour and a half or so, I’d rise and go for a brisk walk across the dockyard. The new warehouse building towers over the much shorter old warehouse. How lucky I was that Chris Kline pushed me to buy the building. It has turned out well. Millions of books and things have been saved in the last 10 years. There are a number of career people here who seem happy in their work, happy enough to keep showing up week after week, month after month, year after year. And I have a place to go to, a place to “hang my hat” as my dad used to say. I rarely wear a hat.

With all my work prepped so people would know what to do with it, I went out to the south side of the building. I took about a dozen packs of seed with me. Mostly sunflower and cucumber. The tomato and pepper plants were watered. I scratched little troughs in the soil with the edge of an adze. I dropped seeds in every few inches and then smoothed the soil over. I put in a few hundred seeds and went back inside. I’ll plant some beans and other stuff when I get back. I get great satisfaction working in the soil.

Then I went back inside and settled in at the conference table. I sorted papers, reviewed statements and tried to get that part of the business in order. While I love working with books and stuff and gardens, I dread paperwork and “business.” Wonder Book is very lucky to have great management layers that don’t seem to dislike that kind of work as much as I do. Nothing looked terrible on paper. Wonder Book will get through another month.

It was just after 2 that I headed out to Interstate 70, just a couple of minutes away. I’d checked and double-checked my passport and chargers and money and meds… essentials. The Philly airport is almost exactly two hours away.

I’m tired.

In the air, we are passing over the Maritimes.

I think the new meds slow me down.

I watched Charlotte’s Web during the food service. It was a live version with CGI melded in.

A beautiful story. A love story.

“You don’t often have a good friend who is also a good writer.”

I’ve dreamed of creating something so wonderful.

I have a signed first edition somewhere. It is inscribed to the author’s sister.

I can touch the book that touched the author, the genius who created such a masterpiece.

Tears at the end. Sad, happy, bittersweet tears.


And me? I can grind it out. Work hard until exhaustion slows me down and I can’t lift another thing—beside a glass.

Well, I can hope for a Grandma Moses epiphany.

Grind it out.

I embrace the lowliest books with no prejudice. I relish rescuing them by the tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands…

It is such hard work.

And so much fun.

I hope it never ends…

Damn! I sorted and saved a lot of things this weekend.

I watered the newly planted redbuds before I left for work today. A few don’t look so good.

Well, there are plenty more. I’ll just have to go deeper and wider and get more roots.

I slept a little, I guess.

I awoke to see the dawn at 40,000 feet. First, the top edge of the sun rising over France was a deep red—bloody or magenta—sliver. It climbed quickly as we were flying just over 600 miles an hour toward it. The glowing orb continued to rise, disembodied, with no reference below or above it. And, now, it is an off-white disk somewhere above the Bay of Biscay. Suspended in an amorphous sky with no point of reference above or below. A different striking beauty than I ever recall seeing before. It is as if we are above some alien planet, stark and barren, with no surface in view.

I will have traveled over 4000 miles by the time we land.

The sun is well above the horizon now. It floats above a fuzzy blanket of clouds. As the world brightens, that blanket could be some otherworldly landscape. Ridges and peaks and plains all uniformly white. The White Planet.

We are heading over Grenoble, Innsbruck, Torino, Turin… we are crossing the upper neck of the Italian peninsula. Soon we will land in Venice at the very top of the Adriatic. The cloud cover is so high I haven’t seen any Alps.

Did I think I would ever get here? Probably. But a lot sooner than at this point.

I got through customs quickly. Facial recognition. A machine knows who I am.

Marco Polo Airport is on the mainland north of the island complex that is Venice. How will I get to my island of Giudecca?

I emailed the Concierge at the Molino Stucky Hilton as soon as I cleared customs. Then I thought better of it and called.

“Take the Alilaguna Blue Line. Our stop is one of the last on that line.”

Wow! Even I can figure that out. There are Alilaguna signs pointing you in the right direction everywhere.

The hotel has its own designated stop!

So easy!

I bought a roundtrip ferry ticket and waited in line to board.

There were a few dozen low-slung speedboats in the water off to the side of—I came to learn it was called a lagoon. The lagoon. I was to learn later that those are water taxis. The reason they are so low is that they need to get under the bridges on the canals. Many are wooden. Stained, polished and sealed like furniture. Beautiful, sleek and fast. The fares are pretty expensive. It can be 135 euros from the airport. My ferry tickets were about 13 euros each way. Of course, if you’re in a large group, you can share the fare. Confusing…

There were about 50 or 60 people on the ferry. We pulled out slowly and headed south. The water is very shallow, and it is a pretty narrow delineated channel that all the boats must share. The lagoon spread out in every direction. Until you actually visit someplace, it is impossible to get a feel for size and context. Soon the speedboats were flying by us like hot rods on the highway. There was no concern about creating wakes. The ferry would frequently slow and steer into them to make the voyage less rocky. At speed, the sterns of the taxis would sink down, and the bows rise in the air.

The spray from the wake waves striking the ferry often came in through the sliding windows. Soon, all the windows were closed.

The first stop was on the island of Murano (famous for blowing glass.) There were four or five on the north and south sides of Venice.

Then, up ahead, I recognized the hotel. It is a stunning repurposing of what had been a 19th century pasta factory/flour mill.

Hilton Molino Stucky

Pretty impressive.

It took just over an hour until the ferry docked at the Hilton’s bespoke landing. I slung my knapsack over my shoulder and rolled my big bag into the lobby.

At check-in, I was treated like a celebrity. Why? I don’t know. My hand was shaken a few times. I was told my room was ready and that it faced the water. I didn’t need help with my bag, so I was alone when I opened the door to my room.

There was a party going on inside, though no one else was there.

Balloons on the bed? Prosecco in an ice bucket.

I looked at the “Welcome” card. The names written on it weren’t mine. I guess the real guests hadn’t shown up, and I’d inherited their gifts.

I laughed out loud.


It was just after noon. I wanted to see Venice! The hotel has its own “free” ferry that shuttles guests from Giudecca Island to Venice. The body of water it crosses is the Giudecca Canal. It is a major thoroughfare for large and small waterborne commerce. I’ve used it a lot this week. That canal is always sloshing with wakes of other boats and ships. It is always a bumpy ride over. But in about fifteen minutes, we were docking just off the Piazza San Marco.

I had no plans and was pretty spacey from the overnight flight and no sleep. So I just let my feet lead me into warrens of narrow Fundamentas, Rios, Rivas, Calles, Campos, Vias…

‘Beautiful,’ I thought. ‘The most beautiful city in the world.’

It is Wednesday, May 10.

I am back in my room after a very fancy dinner and a 50-euro bottle of wine. The remaining half a bottle of Donnafugata Sicilian Rose will perhaps be my companion tomorrow night.

The wind is whipping the island, as it has all day long.

The view from my dinner table had chairs blowing across the patio, which had a tent over it last night when I had dinner at the same restaurant.

The noise of the wind rattling the floating dock down below my window banged all night.

Both meals were very creative. And expensive. But I’d skipped lunch and had a very small (included) breakfast. Bacon. Burnt toast. A tiny Caesar salad with chunks of anchovies, which I spooned over it. (Really!)

(I just bought a group of signed Rackhams from a friend half a world away.)

Amazing what technology can do with primitive things like wondrous books.

I’d be long gone had we not embraced internet bookselling in 1997…

Drying off. Warming up. Calming down. Wednesday and Thursday were identical. Cold. Wind. Rain.

The balloons are still on the empty twin bed next to me.

The yacht I rented is parked just across the water from my room.


It was the closest parking place I could find.

(I’m lying, of course. I overheard a young woman on the shuttle boat from Venice yesterday. She was looking at her phone. She quoted the yacht could be rented for $1 million a week. “It comes with a crew of thirty.”)

I’m back on Giudecca Island on Thursday afternoon. The weather was the same as Wednesday. Cold rain. Cold wind. WIND… so many umbrellas were turned inside out—some beyond repair. I wore my black raincoat. My sneakers were still a bit damp from Wednesday. Soon my jeans were soaked below the knees. My sneakers were wet.

(They don’t smell so good hanging to dry in the armoire. I’ll need to get new ones when I get back. These must be ten years old.)

I went to some more museums and churches today. The line for the Basilica San Marco was about 45 minutes long. Hundreds of foolish people standing in the cold wind and rain. Water dripped from my umbrella down my sleeve. Periodically, a gust of wind would threaten to turn my umbrella inside out. Sometimes one would succeed.

But it was worth it. Not a contemplative visit. The basilica has millions of tiny stones creating mosaics. It was awe-inspiring.

Basilica Mosaic

The floor was covered in stone art as well.

Basilica Floor

All the museums had lines. For all the tourists in town, it was either “go to a museum” or stay in your hotel.

I braved as much as I could. I didn’t sleep last night. I’ve crossed over apparently, and there is no going back. A new doom. An unhappy surprise. Not exactly a sword of Damocles, but a case could be made.


It is Friday morning. 2:16 a.m. back home. I need to send this off, so I can head out into…


Home… I feel safe there. I want to get back and plant some trees (…in a forest! LOL.) I want to play with books.

A month ago, things were relatively normal.

I met a friend last night. He moved here in 1985. An artist. I guess he is more of an acquaintance. He’s the brother of a friend who is the… complicated—even more so by marriages and relations.

We chatted in the Skyline Bar overlooking Venice across the Giudecca Canal. I had orange juice. He had grapefruit juice. Delicious.

He visited the warehouse in Maryland about 5 years ago. I think he visited over a couple of days? I can’t recall what he was looking for.

Before COVID.

(Do I now have something else to blame on COVID?)

We caught up on family and friends and life in Italy and life in the States.

He enjoyed the unique view from the highest bar in the area. He pointed out various buildings in the city.

“Canaletto… Bellini… Tintoretto… Titan… Veronese… Giorgione… Tiepolo…” and so on.

He would point to a church or other edifice and explain what masterpiece or masterpieces were housed inside. I’d discovered a number of them on my rambles. Some fairly humble churches will let you into the sacristy or other “back rooms” for a few euros, only to astonish you with their own private gallery of glories.

He gave me a few hints for my remaining days.

When I complained about all the rain, he replied, “It hasn’t rained here for months. The Po River is nearly dry.”

A cruise ship appeared in the canal. It was being towed out to sea. It dominated the city.

Cruise Ship

“And that’s not even a very big one. There’s a lot of controversy about cruise ships coming to Venice.”

A vision occurred of the tourist planet in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide “Trilogy” (5 books.) He wrote of the universe’s most popular tourist destination and the problems caused by so many visitors. Bits of the planet would leave on visitors’ shoes or whatever. Billions and billions of pieces of the planet. Thus it had an erosion problem:

For years, the fabulously beautiful planet of Bethselamin increased its booming tourist industry without any worries at all. Alas, as is often the case, this was an act of utter stupidity, as it led to a colossal cumulative erosion problem. Of course, what else could one expect with ten billion tourists per annum? Thus today the net balance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete while on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave; so every time you go to the lavatory there, it is vitally important to get a receipt.

I love that series. I remember anxiously waiting for each new book to be published. It has been a rare thing for me to get a book the day it is released. I would go to the little Waldenbooks in Fredericktowne Mall and get my copy.

My kids repeated the phenomena in a much more formalized way with the Harry Potter books. Each book’s release date became an event. Fans, young and old, would go to bookstores at midnight to get the first copies. I wonder if that will ever happen again?

People lining up to get into a bookstore.


My artist friend and I chatted some more and then parted. His daughter was visiting from Germany. She’s a veterinarian. So many different ways to live a life.

It was too windy and rainy to go out again. I went to the hotel restaurant Bacaromi. It specializes in a unique Venetian dish: cicchetti.

I wasn’t really hungry. My doom weighed over me. But I thought I should experience what I could here.


This was a small platter.

Oh, my! The taste sensations that stimulated my palette! A dozens things I’d never experienced the like of before! I drank San Pelligrino.

Sleep last night was deep and peaceful. I dreamt of packages, brown paper packages, with book treasures inside.


Of course, I sought out bookish things in Venice.

Portrait of a Young Man by Lorenzo Lotto

The Correr Museum has a large library of rare books and maps. It’s hard to choose what pictures to put here. You’ll just have to go see them on Instagram. (#wonderbookandvideo, #booksbythefoot, #merryandpippinlotr)

In addition to actual books and paper and maps, there is so much art with literary allusions.

Daedalus and Icarus by Antonio Canova

This masterpiece of Daedalus and Icarus by Canova has me stop in my tracks and slowly circle it. The artist used heavy wire to simulate the father tying wings on to his doomed son.

Daedalus and Icarus by Antonio Canova

The Fortuny mansion was loaded with oddities. The artist’s atelier—office—containing his art reference library was carefully preserved.

His legacy is alive still in the shops and design firm that bear his name.

Well, it is time to send this off through the ether, across Europe and the Atlantic to Frederick, Maryland and my little world there.

Warning, poem below:

Below Hephaestus
Written in Athens in March and finished in Venice on 5/8/23. I’ve had a number of professors of ancient history and lit. One consistent is that all used different pronunciations of Greek names. For this work, I will use a pronunciation that rhymes with the (not “thee”) festus. Hephaestus—”the festus.”

A spring breeze flows over me
I rest beneath old pines
Doves land before me
Blossoms are just beginning
Little bursts of color pop here and there
Seated alone in a tiny grove
the Greek stones speak
Marble columns rise
to the bluest sky
and a gold yellow sun
“Hephaestus,” the wind whispers
‘Hephaestus,’ I silently echo
The sweetness of newly threshed grass
wafts from somewhere unseen
This city is paved with marble
Smooth slick worn by millions of soles
I sit among millennia
and brood on forgotten sleeping gods
The same sun shines on this temple
as the day the final piece was placed
Worshippers whispered then, “Hephaestus.”
Is that their echoes I hear?
Or today’s air breathing through the pines

4 Comments on Article

  1. Livia commented on

    Hello Chuck,

    Venice is always a treat….I will be back to that beautiful city in October. The views from the rooftop terrace of the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi are gorgeous…

    Enjoy the rest of your trip…

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Livia!
      So good to hear from you.
      It is an amazing place – everywhere.


  2. Kathleen Arnold commented on

    Brings back so many memories–visited with daughter prior to an AHS Garden Tour lower down the peninsula, and commuted from Padua (Scrovegni Chapel, Orto Botanico! & cheaper hotel!) to wander Venice for one packed day. We splashed through Acqua Alto & clomped on wooden walkways. Had recently read City of the Falling Angels, so had to visit La Fenice. Great fan of Donna Leon. SIGH. Keep on traveling, as the man says. Hope I may sometime! Really enjoy your blog.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you, Kathleen.
      I was indeed blessed to go – even though there was so much wind and rain!
      Thank you so much for writing!

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