Friday, January 16, 2009

Stoning Venice

I won’t write a great deal about Venice because much better writers than I have set the bar too high. If you want to understand the history and culture of the place, I suggest you read ‘The Stones of Venice’, ‘Death in Venice’ or ‘Men are from Mars Women are from Venice’. I will settle for a series of notes and sketches.

The best way to approach Venice would be from the sea in a small boat low to the water. We came by train via Mestre, which is a low scrubby desolate wetland of the kind your father used to drag you to because, despite its bleakness, it was a good fishing spot. The only difference is that someone built a factory on the low depressing wetland.

Never mind, the train heads away from Mestre so you don’t have to look at it for very long. Looking ahead you see the Serene Republic looking, well, serene like a child’s toy city standing on a mirror. No shoreline, no landscape… It is a magical sight.
The hotel we stayed at was a converted abbey. At least, I hope it was converted or else I am going to have a word with the Vatican’s accounts department. The hotel was about 50 meters from the train station and pretty much fronted on the Grand Canal. It was separated from the train station by an enormous baroque church that housed the world’s worst campanologist. The location was convenient but, unfortunately, was also one of the main tourist drags. But so is every street in Venice that is wide enough for two people to walk abreast.
After settling in we crossed the canal via the Pont Something or other and entered the state of permanent disorientation that is the back streets of Venice. London cabbies boast of ‘The Knowledge’ and claim it increases their brain capacity. Well, the people that deliver the mail in Venice must have brains the size of planets!

Anyway, the only way to enjoy Venice is to wander about without having a particular destination. That way you can be constantly surprised by beautiful buildings, quaint little canal-based micro vistas, crumbling churches and closed museums. It also means that when you hear the approach of tourists you can duck down the nearest side street – in most cases this will be a cul-de-sac, but never mind there is usually something to look at down there anyway.

Here are a few things for visitors to Venice to remember. Firstly, knowing where you are only defeats the purpose. Secondly, there is no such thing as a short cut in Venice. Thirdly, the streets are narrow and winding, and may or may not lead to a canal. Forth, the canals are smelly and wet and may or may not lead to a bridge. Lastly, you can sort of find your way about with a map by using the plazas and squares for a reference… or not.

Shiralee and I wandered about aimlessly for a couple of hours snapping off a couple of megabytes of pictures. When we finally decided to head back to the hotel we made the journey into a paper-chase-like game. Step one – find a church or plaza. Step two – look at the map and locate another church or plaza in the direction you are heading. Step three – head in that general direction. Step four – wander down some street/laneway that looks interesting. Step five – realize you are lost again. Step six – repeat step one.

On day two I was laid low by the remainder of the cold I had nurtured all the way from England. Shiralee went a wandering while I lay a bed suffering from the aches and pains and the attentions of the tone-deaf Quasimodo next door. Really, you would imagine that someone who got to ring the bells every hour on the hour would eventually get better at it! Maybe they let tourists have a go for a small fee. I don’t know, but every hour on the hour (between 7am and 7pm) there was the sound of a blind person parking a Cadillac in a room full of gas cylinders.
Whilst JB lay around feeling appalling, I heartlessly deserted him and stomped around vast amounts of Venice through squalling sleet and mini-tempests. My intention had been to go to the Ducal Palazzio Museum, but not even the arctic conditions prevented a queue of several hundred people forming before I got there. Surely these people should have been happily occupied taking photographs of each other posing in front of various famous landmarks like the other 82000 people in St Mark's Square? Anyway, all was explained when I realised that St Marks was not open for visits, it being a Sunday and therefore in use for various ceremonies. So I shuffled in with a crowd of worshipers and attended the first Mass I've been to since high school. .. and, I have to say, having a huge massed choir, a congregation of thousands, and vast golden mosaics covering every surface certainly makes a difference... Didn't stop me from sneaking photographs tho'... (ss)

That night we had a meal in what passes for a restaurant in the tourist drag. We got to overhear a British hypochondriac bore his mail-order bride about his bowels to the point where we were hoping she would kill him in his sleep (or any other time, it didn’t matter that much). I have never read a culinary guide to Venice and now understand why. The Venetians live next door to open sewers – what can you expect?

Our last day started with clear skies and fresh air. We bought day tickets for the Vaporettos and started out. I can recommend this without reservation. Buy a ticket, hop on a boat and see what happens. We were taken to the island of glass blowers. A look at the huge atrocities they decided to display on the shore-front was enough to convince us to hop on the next ferry off the island. I have seen ancient glassware dredged up from the bottom of the Mediterranean that is so fine as to make you weep. Murano glass makes you weep for an entirely different reason.
Luckily, the ferry we jumped on to took us to the Isle of the Dead. Ever since I was a romantically inclined youth, I have wanted to visit this island. It is striking from a distance. Dark cypresses look like stilettos aimed at the heart of God. Curves, corners and towers poke at heaven. Once you are there it can’t compete with Milan’s monumental cemetery. It is smaller for one thing and less monumental. However, we found Ivor Stravinski’s grave next to that of his wife. Ivor’s grave had been covered with tokens of respect. Weirdly enough, many of these were the business cards of audio-technicians – a little late, I thought.
The next port of call was the island of Burano. This isle was traditionally the home of Venice’s fishermen and lace makers. I can understand why they sent their glass workers away, but the fishermen do something worthwhile, if somewhat environmentally destructive. But I suppose you can’t hang a dead fish from your ceiling and impress your neighbours. Nowadays the island survives as a test bed for a paint company. Every house is a different colour from its neighbour. The affect is delightful. Sadly, apart from this, a very crooked bell tower and tatty (pun intended) lace work imported from China, the island has nothing to offer. However, the eccentric colour schemes kept us amused for a couple of hours.
The trip back was delightful beyond the power of words. But that won’t stop me. As the sun set the lagoon took on a shade of blue I have only seen in the plumage of parrots. The wavelets caused by the wake of the vaporetto caught the sun’s rays and flared the most gorgeous pink. On one side the buildings were roseate, on the other they were black silhouettes. Breathtaking.

There is always a ‘but’. Venice is cursed. In the way the ancient Greek gods cursed mortals. Venice cannot live up to expectations. Venice is a dream. It is also awash with tourists who turn that dream into a nightmare. It may seem hypocritical to disparage tourists when one is touring but the raucous voices of British and American visitors spouting inanities into their mobile phones or to one another is jarring. We heard people loudly discussing the most inane subjects, seemingly immune to the beauty around them. Maybe it is the fact that we can understand their language that makes it noticeable, and maybe I was unaware of all the garrulous Turks and French that surrounded me. But I doubt it. There is an arrogance certain tourists display that sits ill with any thinking person.

It is not just the visitors that dismay one. The streets of Venice are lined with booths selling utter rubbish. Everything is overpriced. The churches charge admission – even I know that this is called simony and is a venal sin. Maybe Venetian is the root of the word venal. Maybe it is just History balancing the books – the sack of Constantinople, anyone? I can sympathise. The city has a smaller population than Canberra and is visited by millions of tourists each year. Even in the off-season, St Mark’s Square struck me as the perfect location for testing modern weaponry.
Whatever, in hindsight I think we all have to admit that Venice has had its day. Instead of the World Heritage Foundation giving the Venetians money for flood prevention – maybe, they should spend the money on a huge party and we can all watch Venice sink beneath the waves with what little dignity it retains.

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