Venice: Fewer Miles of Canals Than Birmingham But Far More Gondoliers.
The one city I’ve always wanted to see is Venice – and good fortune took me there for a five-day holiday recently, so here are a few thoughts, reflections and comments on those days. I’ll ramble chronologically to give some form to the outpourings of an unquiet mind. I’ll put a few photographs in the text to illustrate the subject and post the rest at the end for those insomniacs among you to flick through if you’re having a particularly bad night.
The 6:45 flight from Birmingham necessitated a brutally early check in at 4:45 a.m. – this is not helped by the ambience of the duty free and departure area. International brands names, all screaming chrome and blinking neon, repeated ad-infinitum like situationist slogans at a punk convention shouting “buy me or your life will be incomplete” at the sleep deprived traveller from duty free till they emerge into a departure lounge bright as a thousand suns. Perhaps they think we are all going trekking over miles of Arctic Tundra and are preparing us for the effects of snow blindness. The semi-comatose travellers scatter like newly disturbed woodlice into the semi-darkness of the cafes and shops around the perimeter and reach for alcohol, sunglasses and food in that order. The consumer is now all but consumed.
So to Italy and a very quick reminder that we were now indeed in Italy, for as instructed by the ever helpful Marco Polo airport staff we headed for the water bus stop – checked the board to make sure it was the correct jetty – and when a boat that looked like a water bus arrived we duly got onboard along with the other 20 plus tourists on the dock. Venice came into sight and er… went out of sight – the block of flats that appeared on the horizon resembling an up market Castle Vale development from the 1980s turned out to be an cruise liner. Thought the word liner bestows upon it a potential for aesthetic beauty that is akin to calling Ian Duncan Smith a champion of the poor and dispossessed. For this behemoth had all the grace and charm of a breezeblock as it teetered upon the Mediterranean. Soon another appeared and what should have been the elegance of the Grand Canal became the terminal for the cruise ships that disgorge swarms of tourists (1.7 million in 2012) for their box ticking eight hours in Venice where they spend almost 200 million Euros a year. This is not popular with all Venetians there is a link at the end of the blog for those interested in the protest movement: Our waterbus turned out to be a courtesy water taxi that takes the next batch of Euro-sprinklers from airport to cruise ship terminal – no ticket was asked for – and no sympathy was given as we tried to explain out plight. Fortunately we were not the only unwitting tourists who made this mistake as we were told the only way out of the harbour was a private water taxi – a snip at 80 Euros for a one-way trip to the Grand Canal. As we had the apartment key holder waiting for us at midday and it was by now 11:40 our choice was somewhat limited – though upon arrival Evelyn, our key holder informed us you can do the journey for one Euro – so welcome to the sometime venal Venice. Interesting to reflect that this was the last transport we would use till we got the (correct) water bus back to the airport – perhaps it was an unconscious decision – though the only real way to see Venice is to walk and walk and walk, it is perhaps the finest place for urban walking on the planet.
We had a double booking that meant we ended up in a 16th century apartment – close to St Mark’s square (a major upgrade) – with a cardiovascular testing 89 steps up to it. But Venice is not a place for anyone who is not keen on steps (the original title of this blog was going to be “Venice – Italian for Steps”) – there are steps everywhere – up to the bridges – in the museums and galleries – I don’t think I saw a lift till we got back to the airport. So Venice – just as I pictured it – or just as Canaletto pictured it – literally. It soon starts to become almost surreal – like being on a film set – Don’t look Now – Death in Venice among the 60 odd movies set here – from William Shakespeare to Ian Fleming the appeal of Venice has called to authors and playwrights like a siren. It has been home to many artists, explorers, composers and even womanisers (Casanova). It is a living museum – a bit like the Black Country Museum – but its both very real and very much unchanged. It took a little while for me to realise what was so unusual about it. That something is nothing – an almost complete silence save for the odd conversation (American usually – funnily enough) drifting on the breeze, a silence due to the lack of the car. This is just the most important contributor to the preservation of Venice – and it is just brilliant. I know full well the joy of the car but I now also know just how great it is to be rid of the noise and pollution and to see small children running free – no neurotic mothers yelling at them to “come away from the road”. It engenders an urban tranquillity I have never known elsewhere. But Venice is very genteel – if the Daily Mail was to design a society it might well base it on that of Venice. They have somehow culled all the teenagers – gone, as if smitten by some enlightened Herod (proof of this is the fact that I saw not one Grand Canal sign with the ‘C’ blocked out). The only black people we saw were rich American ones. We saw one beggar, no rubbish, no drunks, we were told it was crime free – we felt totally safe walking down the darkest and narrowest of back alleys late at night – for to be a tourist is to be protected by some impregnable force field in Venice – one that just leaves a hole to permit easy access to your wallet – via legal means only – but you don’t feel a thing as you are distracted by the all encompassing delights of Venice. Venice also likes an early night – gazing out over the City at 11:00 pm ours was the only light on – this is a city where you have to put your rubbish out every day between 6:00 and 8:00 am, for to do it later is a crime of some considerable magnitude. Venice is the total antithesis of Naples, a well cultured maiden aunt to the hyperactive ADHD teenager of Naples.
Sunday and time for the culture vultures to start pecking – first, on the recommendation of Evelyn we visited the amazing Palazzo Fortuny to see “An Intimate View of Antoni Tapies a Catalan artist. It featured not only his own work, but also items he had collected himself from Picasso, Rothko, Kline and Pollock as well as many African tribal artefacts. The tapestried grand ballroom being a particular highlight, a great chance to see some works from private collections not often on display in a stunning setting. For those readers that might be considering visiting any or some of the places featured in the blog it might be worth mentioning it seems just about everything in Venice is 10 Euros at least to get in plus whatever guides you choose – for 2 people visiting a number of different galleries it can prove to be quite refreshingly expensive. The exception to this are the churches, many of whom have great art inside – often for free or a small entrance fee of one or two Euro. Then we headed to the Accademia Bridge, as well, you can never had enough steps in your life. The view is one of the classic views of the Grand Canal and great for spending a propitious 20 minutes or so just watching life flow down the immobile waterway. The queue for the Academia Gallery (more later) coupled with the drizzle changed our plans and we headed for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection – a highlight of the trip for me. Again no cheap seats here but a brilliant audio guide that gets you right into the art on display – a mixture of biography, influence and meaning. I’m no art critic – I just know what I like – but the Jackson Pollock room was quite intense and I have a new favourite painter in Max Ernst – never really got it off the printed page but hung in context it is simply remarkable. It is not a big gallery but just full of high quality items – we spent hours there – and if you want a break you just wander out to the patio and gaze at the canal, or the erotic (?) statue for a while.
Monday – and we again hit the Academia – a shorter queue as it closes at 2:00 pm on a Monday. Well I have to say it I felt that the attention to detail that made the Peggy Guggenheim Collection such a treat was nowhere to be seen here – the audio guide is at best perfunctory. No English room guides to be seen – we almost missed a couple of the best rooms as they are almost hidden away – there is little in the way of variety – it sells itself as the greatest of the Venetian galleries but is effectively dull and shoddy. Its does have some huge biblical canvases, that demonstrate how for the 15th Century church goer it must have been the equivalent of today going to an Imax cinema. The Academia was sadly disappointing overall, but there are much better galleries to give your Euros too, The Scuola Grande di San Rocco does exactly right, what The Academia gets so wrong.
So the day was saved by the remarkable The Scuola Grande di San Rocco (“Confraternity of St. Roch”) was established in 1478 by a group of wealthy Venetian citizens, next to the church of San Rocco, from which it takes its name.
In 1564 the artist Tintoretto was commissioned to provide a series of paintings for the Scuola — there are at least 40 Tintorettos decorating the interior of this building, all of them with a Biblical theme. It is perhaps the Sistine Chapel of Venice – reasonably priced for what is a remarkable experience. If when entering the magnificent upper floor you are taken aback by all the people walking round looking at antique wood framed iPads fear not – there is a supply of mirrors to save your neck when looking at the ceiling painting, but do be careful not to bump into anyone else likewise engaged.
Tuesday and we thought we’d have look at St Marks Square – world famous for the Tower, Basilica and Doges’ Palace – and the Disneyesque queues. Even having to stand on staging to keep above the flooded square did not deter the determined tourist (that’s not a description of us by the way) for we headed to the The Museo Correr. None of the day trippers seem to bother with this fine museum and art gallery which takes up one and a half sides of St Marks Square, allowing us to enjoy the rich art and history inside, in almost solitude at times. An intriguing mash up that mixes modern art installations next to archaeological artefacts and paintings from all eras. You can even find time to smugly look out of the window on the waterlogged day-trippers below. I’m not saying the famous three sites are not worth seeing – but there is an incredible amount of things to see, so there is always a plan b, c, d, or f in Venice – if you just have to queue for hours, well, you might as well wait for a sunny day to do it.
The evening was spent at my first Opera – by “Musica a Palazzo” (there is a link to their web site at the bottom of the page) performed to an audience of about 70 in a restored palace, it was an education to see opera in such an intimate space. There is a link below for all the details – the people who run it are a delight. I managed to book the wrong night and they sat us down and gave us a free drink while we waited to see if we could get in. If nothing else an evening that demonstrated that Schopenhauer was right when he said “Music is the profoundest of the arts, intelligible yet not capable of translation into our faculty of reason, it expresses nature of all life” For I understood nothing of what I heard while understanding everything. That said, I shan’t be ditching my Clash albums just yet…
So the final day, and as the sun was out we decided to walk the long way round to the Ghetto, aiming to take in a couple of recommended churches first. Most churches close between 12:00 and 4:00 to tourists so that dictated the order of play today. The first was San Zaccaria; The Church is dedicated to St. Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, whose body it supposedly contains. A Doge built the original Church on this site in the 9th century.
The church houses one of the most famous works by Giovanni Bellini, the San Zaccaria Altarpiece. The walls of the aisles are entirely covered with paintings by other artists including Tintoretto, Angelo Trevisani, Giuseppe Salviati, Antonio Balestra, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Palma the Elder and Van Dyck. Eight Doges are buried in the crypt, which was slightly flooded during our visit.
The next church was Madonna dell’Orto mainly for the Tintoretto paintings that grace the interior, including St. Agnes, Presentation in the Temple, Adoration of the Golden Calf, Last Judgement and the Four Cardinal Virtues, all painted during the years 1562-1564. This was said to have been Tintoretto’s favourite church and he was one of several people who took part in the refurbishing of the church during the 1500s. He, his wife, and his two children are all buried inside Madonna dell’Orto.
Then followed lunch at Ostaria Da Robia and the only truly great meal we had, this was off the beaten track but worth searching out. Most food is ok, good even – but priced at would be fine dining prices in England. This came from another recommendation from Evelyn and was one of the best meals I have ever eaten.
So to the Ghetto, I will say little about this, as this is getting to be an unintentionally epic blog – and there is much about the history of this area on the web. For me and my Shakespearian pretentions it was a crucial part of Venice to see. It is way smaller than I had ever thought. Trying to imagine 5000 people living in the tiny tenements really gives you a feeling of how they were treated – floors were put in between other floors to make more living space. To make matters worse they were confined as if in prison between sunrise and sunset. Only freed of this unjustified nocturnal incarceration by Napoleon after he invaded. It certainly adds another dimension to Shylock’s character and attitude in the play. The museum is small, and does not take long to see but the Synagogue tour is a must. The guide was knowledgeable and very funny – you tour three Synagogues, two that date from the 16th century. They supply the males with a Kippah so you can conform to their religious convention.
We finished by doing what is such a joy in Venice, walking. This time via the Rialto Bridge – getting there just as the sun descended – at that time there is only one thing to do –order two Campari Spritzers and watch the world go by accompanied by the tamest posing very Italian sparrow I have ever seen as the light that so fascinated Turner slowly faded to black.
So walking in Venice – you will get lost – guaranteed. It is a perfectly designed maze – you can see no sky line features to orientate you, the way the alleys dog- leg back and forth means you have the directional abilities of a blindfolded child spun round before a game of hide and seek. That is part of the fun, but if you need to be somewhere for a time just buy a street map, they are amazingly accurate and there are signs so you can locate your position. If you are lost and map less, remember Venice is like two jigsaw pieces and the Grand Canal runs along the join. So you soon find something to follow. But also remember your only means of transport is your feet or an 80Euro Gondola ride, so don’t end up exhausted at wrong end of Venice
A few final random thoughts – there are mask shops everywhere – and manufacturers workshops – there must be hundreds of thousands of them all over, yet in five days of walking I did not see one person in a mask shop – not one purchased – not one person walking round with one in a bag – weird.
Gondoliers – they are down to their last 400, they see to be the Venetian equivalent of the archetypal London cabby. I think the minimum cost is now 80 Euros for an hour. I never saw any occupants of a gondolier look anything but sullen as the Gondoliers float along generally texting or smoking or shouting at each other as if the tourists were invisible. When business is slow they put on their Boaters, smarten up and tout for business in the squares looking mournful.
The great irony of Venice is that it came into existence as a refuge for the Italians from the invading Germanic tribes and the Hun, but now its total raison d’etre is tourism – which is its only industry of any note and many of those tourists are descendants of the very people it was built to keep out. Five weeks is not long enough to see Venice let alone five days, so go if you can, but plan carefully what you want to see, its expensive but it is worth it.