The Vision of Venice

Some days in Venice the slow pace of silver-haired retirees and the quiet beauty of historic architecture felt like a time capsule. We will miss the quaintness of this little city on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The center of town with its 1920s and ‘30s hotels, houses, and apartment buildings were all built by developers rightly convinced that someday Florida would be a prime vacation spot. Today, small shops built in Italianate style are juxtaposed against newer buildings, including a the Daquiri Deck with its icy air conditioning, and wall of swirling machines full of icy red and yellow grown-up Slurpees. 

The Venice Pier and the beach as seen from Fins restaurant.

But the original plan is clear. And what impressive forethought Venice represents. It was just an idea—now nearly 100 years old, that has come to pass like a prophecy fulfilled in shady lanes and cobbled avenues. Palms, banyans, and oaks that drip with Spanish moss now dwarf passing cars, half-naked tourists, retirees, and families with children who walk along the old boulevards that once were just drawings on a page. And none of us would be as awed by the carefully curated beauty of this place had not someone thought to plant trees by which they would never be shaded. 

Anoles of shifting colors flit across the sidewalks in this place. Birds flock to the beach; gulls, sandpipers, and the Brown Pelicans aloft on sea breezes like floating gangsters flying low with scruffy feathers ruffling out of place in the wind. 

White and black ibis are ubiquitous in Venice, busy stabbing their foot-long orange beaks into the grass most mornings. Egrets and herons abounded as well, but none as friendly as the one I mentioned earlier, the Great Egret who arrived in three feet of white feathered regalia to the screened porch of our condo in Ft. Myers. We named him “Charlie” and he wasn’t shy. He would stand staring at us, a patch of green beside his yellow bill, and his remarkably long neck moving into an ‘S’ shape and then stretching out to its full length before he would tuck it up and fly away with no more apparent effort than a paper airplane.

A Blue Heron on the Caspersen Beach near Venice, Florida.

That was also the spot where we sighted a Roseate Spoonbill flying over a tennis court. It’s a big, pink bird, like a flamingo’s slightly weirder looking cousin. And since we never saw flamingos, except for the plastic ones staked in yards, this rosy species remains one of my favorites in the area. 

We never saw an alligator, but gopher turtles were plentiful along the bike paths. And I will miss seeing them, as well as all the bicycling, golf carting, and walking we did together. I know I will miss the flats of the sandy soil in Florida. Hills there are usually boat bridges—and we will miss the views from atop those of sailboats, speedboats, trawlers, yachts, kayaks, paddleboards, and jet skis. 

Sadly, I will also recall the fish that swished ashore breathless, as an algae bloom called red tide sucked the oxygen from the water and left them strewn rotting on the beaches of Siesta Key, Venice, and elsewhere. 

Rebecca floating in the Gulf. With the water temperature in the mid-80s we often dove in for a cool-off on our long beach walks.

Venice already pays attention to straws that disintegrate rather than becoming a problem in the ocean. They have dozens of sea turtle nests marked all along a shore lit only in red lights at night to help guide these creatures toward the sea. Figuring out the red tide is a priority.

Maybe the selfless vision of the beautiful plan for Venice, created so long ago, can continue to invigorate the people in Venice today, to sustain its attractiveness—both natural and created. I hope so.

I can still smell the water all around in intracoastal waterways, harbors, estuaries, beaches, and the thick scent of salt and seaweed. I will always remember the sensations of floating in the waves of the Gulf and at the same time seeing the dorsal fins of dolphins leaping just a few yards away from me. Amazing.

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The People In the Neighborhood

We went for brunch at the Cote France French restaurant in Venice, Florida, a few weeks ago and the waiter seemed to recognize us when we showed up again for a special wine pairing dinner this week.

“Good to see you again,” he said in his thick, French accent. 

We haven’t met a lot of people here in Venice, but everyone is so friendly—even French people, passersby, and shopkeepers. They make this little town feel welcoming. 

Murphy is a Havanese. I had a stuffed toy Havanese when I was a kid. It had a little FM radio in its belly and it came with a comb.

A week or more ago, a waitress at another local eatery was cheerfully telling us about a drink special and didn’t realize that the rum she was describing was my favorite. We toured the distillery in Key West when we were there in 2019. It’s a rum named for Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat, which was in turn named for his second wife—Pilar. Turns out the waitress had also toured the rum distillery. I’m not sure if she’s ever read any Hemingway, but I felt connected, nonetheless.

“In order to write about life, first you must live it.”

Ernest Hemingway
Along with our feet and two bicycles, we are lucky enough to have this golf cart to get around the island of Venice.

Shopkeepers also seem genuinely glad to see us as customers. We met a woman who studied art in Paris and now runs a gallery gift shop here. Behind red-rimmed glasses and brown hair pulled back, she gladly told us her story. A checkout girl at the grocery store told us about her recent retake of the ACT and how nervous she was about getting a high score. I asked her if she had taken a prep course and from behind her face mask, she said she had, so I assured her that she would get a better score this time. For a moment, I felt like a teacher again. And for a moment, we were strangers caring about each other, sharing a town small enough, full of enough older people, or maybe Southern enough, to slow down a minute and listen.

Following a pandemic year, all these things can no longer be taken for granted. Following a year that seemed to have torn the country in half politically, friendliness seems to have been placed on the endangered species list in some places. So now, eating at restaurants, shopping, teaching moments, connections with strangers, feel novel again. And for me, these are moments that are filled with gratitude. I missed people. And the kindness of strangers.

We can always find a piece of the beach that we have all to ourselves. And with a summer temperature in the mid-80s the water in the Gulf is perfect for a dip.

One final person in Venice to mention, as we are on the topic of people. Today we went over to visit our new friend C. again. She is 90 years old, maybe 91, and enjoys a good conversation and her little dog, Murphy, who is currently in our care. He spins in circles and jumps around whenever we say we’re going to visit. He likes visits, walks, rides in the golfcart with his furry ears flapping in the breeze. He also likes squirming to try to jump out, and randomly issuing a bark so high pitched it makes me want to jump out. Instead, I tighten my grip on his little red harness and Ron zooms along.

Our friend’s face lit up when she saw Murphy. Then, we chatted about everything from National Geographic television programs, to how people don’t have phone books anymore, to her wicker rocking chair, as Murphy sat in her lap and then licked her shoes. Then he pranced around again excited to end our visit and get back in the golf cart.

“He seems to really like you,” C. said. “So that’s good.”

“We like him, too,” I said.

He likes Ron the best; insists on sitting in the purple chair in the living room with him. He sleeps in our bed. He wags excitedly when we come home from outings. 

“We’re just at the forefront of our housesitting career,” Ron says. So, there may be more dogs, cats, or miniature horses. (I hope.) We may make more acquaintances, or friends. We may visit more places that may become as familiar to us as Venice has. (I hope.) Beautiful beaches, cool sea breezes on hot summer days, long walks on avenues shaded with historic trees hanging with Spanish moss, historic homes roofed in red clay tiles and infused with Mediterranean style, and friendly, smiling faces all around.

One of the historic, tree-lined avenues in Venice, Florida, planned nearly a century ago in a beautifully designed city envisioned by a man named John Nolen.