La Serenissima (Venice, why did I take so long to come back?)

Bona fide train lovers will know that, while Munich and Venice are both technically stops along the route of the Orient Express, they are located on alternative lines and rail travel through Austria from one to the other just does not count. This didn’t stop the helpful German chap in reservations from ensuring I had a lower bunk, ladies-only couchette all the way into Santa Lucia so that I could travel in comfort and alight the following morning right in the heart of the “Queen of the Adriatic”. I even had a whole compartment all to myself and a kind, elderly guard to bring me breakfast in the morning and shoo off anyone trying to come along the wrong corridors during the middle of the night. This service cost about E30 on top of my Interrail ticket and provided me with one of the most comfortable and memorable train journeys of my life. Crossing the lagoon and approaching this fabled city in the glittering morning light was quite an unforgettable experience.

Venice railway station, unfortunately, is not so friendly to visitors, with nothing but rows of ticket machines, patisseries, last-minute souvenir shops and not a single tourist information point offering directions of any kind. I’d picked a small hostel for its simplicity and economy but try as I might, the street name Calle Fiori proved impossible to locate. I knew I was in the right district but, while I walked back and forth past plenty of Italians all working their pitches to sell souvenirs, snacks or gondola rides, no-one was going to spare the time to help me. Eventually I found my way into a tobacconist’s shop and, shaking his head in despair at my attempts to ask for directions in Italian, he took the phone from my hand and discoursed volubly with my host. I was told to wait and moments later Giacomo came around the corner from a nearby alleyway to find me.

The “In Venice” hostel was located up several flights of stairs in an old building accessed by a narrow walkway alongside one of the smaller canals. Simple and easygoing, its romantic environs were made even more commodious by the presence nearby of a large branch of the Coop supermarket (Italian style) selling the sort of wonderful fresh produce that only a hungry voyager, weary of station kiosks and convenience stores, can truly appreciate. Nutritious food is especially important to any experienced traveller but here, in particular, where the utter profusion of and monumental artworks and sublime architecture threatened to overwhelm most first-time visitors, over-priced, fancy eating is clearly the order of the day.

So, stocked up on good, reasonably-priced things to eat, I changed into my comfortable slip-ons and set out to explore a city which I’ve only revisited once (with my mother on a cruise ship in 2010) since I came here as a child more than fifty years ago. Backwards and forwards I roamed through the narrowest streets, criss-crossing the smaller bridges circling the Grand Canal; each corner I rounded was another picture-postcard vista, the Spring light shimmering so delicately on the faded pastel shades reflected in the water that I could have entered a fairytale. The stripy-shirted gondoliers wore warm gilets and woolly hats under their straw boaters and tourist traffic was light enough for me to be able to observe normal Venetian life as small, working boats were loaded and unloaded at every quay. Hammering noises from the various restoration projects echoed around the corners and best of all (absolutely best of all) the legendary Venetian smells of ordure and decay were completely absent.

It is true that almost all of these streets were lined with shops and cafes but, surprise to say, this riotously colourful melange of Murano glass, carnival masks and exotic tableware actually seemed to add to the overall attraction. The vendors, of course, were all doing their best to enhance the travelling experience of those who have yet to learn that this kind of souvenir doesn’t actually travel very well and often ends up looking particularly sad in the charity shops back home. Nonetheless, I do remember cherishing for many years a plastic, light-up gondola that my daughter brought home from an art appreciation trip many years ago. It was probably her idea of a joke but I suspect that she may have got the idea from my own mum following on from whatever treasured piece of tat I’d brought back myself from the school trip all those years before.

Despite the sun, a chill in the air sent me inside some of the palaces to catch up on a bit of history and culture. Once inside the Doge’s Palace, I realised that I had never actually visited it before or learned nearly enough of the glory days of the Venetian traders whose wealth, drawn almost exclusively from Byzantium and the Muslim world, made this the most prosperous city in the Western World. Once you try to get away from the romance and the spectacle it all gets very complicated indeed and sometimes I just have to try to hold onto a few simple markers to keep it straight in my head. If we think of Marco Polo (1254-1324) as a representative of its absolute zenith and William Shakespeare’s play (c1599) as depicting part of the lingering decline that followed the discovery of the New World, we get some sort of perspective.

I did my best in both the Palace and the Academia but the art works are a little bit overwhelming, A few memories surfaced: the way in which oil-based pigments were developed in Venice because the “fresco” method of applying tempura to fresh plaster simply wouldn’t dry properly here in the damp climate of the lagoon but, as for understanding the stylistic development, I was way out of my depth. So luminous were the colours and voluptuous the texture of the paint that I was tempted to believe that the artists gained more satisfaction from depicting the sumptuous clothing of their subjects than they ever did from the people themselves. Nonetheless, I persevered diligently and rewarded myself with a hot chocolate at the Cafe Chioggia in St Marks Square before heading back into the one art treasure of Venice that I value the most.

St Marks Basilica was only lightly attended despite entry being free and I was able to wander around and visit some of my favourites treasures in comfort. Words simply cannot do justice to the four magnificent Roman horses, brought back from Constantinople in 1201. No, I’m not old enough to remember that but I can remember a day when they still stood proudly above the portico of the Cathedral overlooking the Square and scientific analysis had not yet dimmed the mysteries of their origins. (The originals are now on view inside St Marks and it is only replicas that stand above the crowds). Nor can the splendour of the Pala d’Oro be adequately described. This 10th cent. altarpiece of finely enamelled gold, studded with ancient gemstones shimmers in the soft light and draws the viewer effortlessly back through more than a thousand years of history.

But I also love the tessellated pavements, the surfaces of their softly-coloured marbles undulating across the floor in the endless geometric patterns of antiquity. How can I, who have so little patience with modern religious practices, be so enthralled by the glittering mosaics which adorn the multi-domed ceilings? My favourite of all, the Creation is visible in the ceiling of the portico and invites comparison with the Girona tapestry of the same name (sources differ on which is the older, both being of the order of 900 years old). But throughout the whole of the interior of the Basilica these jewel-coloured Biblical illustrations catch the light and stir the imagination. The more prosaic facts that (1) for more than seven hundred years this was actually the private chapel of the fabulously wealthy Doges and (2) an enormous amount of restoration has and is still taking place, has so far failed to dim my admiration.

All in all, this was a magical and very personal visit to the City of Canals and Bridges. As I prepared to leave I knew I would be coming back and made a silent promise to bring at least some of my grandchildren along with me. Let’s hope its not all lost to the sea by then.

Categories: Europe, Mediterranean

Leave a Reply