Piazza San Marco, where the lions weep

An extremely helpful young man in the Wien Hauptbahnhoff helped me to work out a series of onward connections that would get me to Idar-Oberstein, the little Bavarian gem-cutting town where Isobel and I had planned two meet two days hence. I’d deliberately not let Boris accompany me during my cultural sojourn in Vienna: the galleries would have bored him, he’s far too clumsy for the waltz and, as for the cream cakes, he’s definitely portly enough already. But, just to be sure he wasn’t disappointed, I did get a quick snap of him filling his face at the station branch of Weinerwelt (sausage world). My travel adviser agreed that an overnighter to the currently underwater city of Venice would be so under-subscribed that I could chance a seat rather than a more expensive couchette. Sure enough, I had a 6-seater carriage to myself and passed a very comfortable night as we criss-crossed Austria in OBBN’s valiant efforts to get us to our destination despite many of the major rivers being in flood.

What you don’t know until afterwards doesn’t much bother you at the time so I treated getting into Venezia, Santa Lucia more than two hours late as nothing more than an opportunity to drink complementary coffee and stay in the warm. But as we finally approached our destination, the partially submerged farmhouses and gushing, muddy waters of the Lagoon’s many tributaries did not bode well for a city built on stilts. My first encounter with the legendary Venetian contempt for visitors came at the left luggage office where a couple of wise guys made me remove any loose items strapped to the outside of my rucksack and place them into additional bags (at an additional charge of course). Their rates have to have been the highest in Europe and, to add insult to injury, one of these likely lads told me “calm down Lady, this is Italy, we do it our way here”.

But once outside the station I was at least glad that I’d made such a careful re-distribution of clothing and comestibles. Some of the tourists looked right idiots in their hastily purchased, designer wellington boots and, as I got closer to St Mark’s Square, even more could be seen sporting the exorbitantly priced, orange plastic overshoes now on sale beside nearly every canal. My own solution had been to change into my lightweight deck shoes and leggings so that my lower half could dry out reasonably quickly after a soaking and to confine the warming layers to my upper half. First order of business was to skirt the Grand Canal and head to my favourite Co-op for some inexpensive food; after all, most of my day’s budget had already been donated to the “Cosa Stazione”. There I found an abundance of fresh bread and vegetable although the deli cabinets were all emptied and switched off due to power failure.

Laden delivery barges struggled to get under the bridges, so swollen were the canals, but the tourist shops and stalls were all doing their best to continue with business as usual despite the sopping wet devastation around their feet. A very pretty Italian girl broke the tedium of serving endless sickly-looking patisserie by posing with Boris beside a chocolate fountain and the gondoliers continued to ply their trade despite having to bend nearly double to get under the bridges. A fortunate encounter had me stopping off in one of the tiny alleyways at a bijou handicraft emporium owned by sisters Diana & Laura from the nearby town of Mestre. I’m still not sure which of them I was talking to but we chatted for a while, bemoaning Brexit and the terrible state of politics throughout Europe. In particular, she had nothing good to say for Italy’s maintenance of its infrastructure, so riddled with corruption are all public works these days. Despite the fact that she was standing on a damp floor, surrounded by mops and buckets, she took the trouble to attire Boris in a long black cloak with the traditional tricorn hat and carefully pose him against a red satin curtain. Did it make him look romantic and alluring? Not for a million Euros!

Apart from my peregrinations around the city to see the effects of this record-breaking flood with my own eyes, St Marks Cathedral was my main destination of the day. The more I learn about this more than a thousand-year-old relic of Byzantium, the more deeply in love with it I become. And just this month it was made even more precious by President Erdogan of Turkey’s announcement that Hagia Sophia will, whatever its genesis in early Christianity, be henceforth turned back into a Mosque from the non-denominational museum it has more recently become. Anyway, I was in Venice and not Istanbul, so I climbed onto a precarious, elevated walkway above the still-flooded Square and entered beneath the glittering mosaic-lined domes within. A conservator was photographing some recently disturbed tesserae beside a puddle of grubby water and taped-off paths led to both the treasury and the museum of the upper galleries. I have to admire the staff who braved the chilly damp to keep them open for the most intrepid visitors, especially as we were a mere handful compared to the nutcases taking selfies splashing about in the ankle-deep waters of the Square outside.

My special favourites are the ancient, jewelled reliquaries and Roman glassware of the treasury: its modest surroundings almost concealing the fact that these are some of the most valuable artefacts of the period anywhere on earth. I’ve waxed lyrical about the sublime beauty of the four horses of the Quadrega before, I know, but today was my opportunity to have them all to myself and, if I snapped a quick, naughty picture I’m not sure anyone would have minded too much. Out on the loggia, my attempts to photograph the imposing replicas overlooking the square were frustrated by a cheeky seagull but I did at least get a few rays of sunshine to set off the silhouette of the St Mark’s lion atop his iconic pillar beside the Doge’s palace.

The afternoon cooled rapidly (or maybe it was just my wet feet talking to me) so I popped into my favourite cafe for a hot chocolate and a visit to the “gabinetto segreto”, the best concealed toilet in Venice. Then it was back to the station. Let’s draw a veil over my irate encounter with “La Principessa delle toilette”; the harridan who watched over the facilities and took great delight in turning away all who weren’t bearing the exact change, whatever their state of need and despite the fact that the change machine had long since broken down. Obviously some people are coping with the exigencies of the flooding with more equanimity than others.

Categories: Europe

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