I first travelled to Italy with Don, on our way back from our first big overland car and camping trip in Europe. We went to Yugoslavia (the roads were diabolical) and returned via Trieste, dipping down to Lido di Jesolo and taking a day trip on the boat to Venice, before pottering off to France.
Lido di Jesolo was my first experience of wall to wall sunbeds, backed by wall to wall tents behind the endless sands. We caught a vaporetto from Lido de Jesolo to the islands and wandered the narrow streets of Venice. Gondolas were too expensive to contemplate, as was coffee in St Mark’s Square. But we ate melt in the mouth calamari in a in a delightful side street restaurant restaurant, wandering the canals, peeping over the bridges and admiring the Murano glass in a many boutiques lining the streets. And the arias that accompanied the tourists with money to burn wafted past us, free. 'Just one cornetto…
I'm back, many years later. There are no porters when I climb off the bus from Venice Marco Polo Airport at the Piazzale Roma. They're all still on furlough I assume. There is very little work for them at the moment. So, I have to bump my suitcase over the little stone bridges alongside the Grand Canal to my hotel. I’m not allowed into reception without a mask on. Most of the Italians out in the streets are wearing theirs all the time. Those that don’t, mainly the few tourists, have them looped over their wrists or strung under their chins, ready for entry to shops or transport, where they are mandatory.
Venice on a Wednesday in the middle of summer Covid-19 is like a sleepy Sunday city. Many of the shops are shuttered. Those that are open are eerily quiet. Only a few of the tables in the restaurants are occupied. The doors to Harry’s Bar are still firmly locked. There’s a notice pasted on staying that the bar is shut by law - it’s dated April 2020. Most of the museums are closed. And buffets are not allowed. I have to order my breakfast the night before.
But it’s sunny and there are hardly anyone around. It’s wonderful.
Truman Capote said that ‘Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go’. That doesn’t sound entirely like a compliment to me. I would undoubtedly be sick if I did that. But I haven’t been to Venice since I was 20 and I had forgotten what an immediate and incredible assault on the senses this city is. It is sublime.
Venezia isn’t one island - it’s well over a hundred, linked by 400 bridges, sitting in a lagoon. Terracotta, sepia and ochre Renaissance and Gothic buildings, with the classic pointy Venetian windows line the edges of the water channels between the islets. These form a myriad of canals crossed by ridged bridges, each a masterpiece on their own. Each turning yields a feast for the eye, the rectangular facades interspersed every so often with pale green domes. The Grand Canal, lined with gorgeous palazzos, snakes through the centre, lively with small vessels, standing oarsmen in matching pairs and the vaporetto - water ferries. There are startling yellow landing stages at frequent intervals.
In recognition of its unique qualities this UNESCO recognised city has acquired numerous soubriquets. Take your pick from: "La Dominante", "La Serenissima", "Queen of the Adriatic", "City of Water", "City of Masks", "City of Bridges", "The Floating City", and "City of Canals". Being so beautiful gives rise to challenges. Excessive tourism - too many people, cruise ships sailing where they shouldn't, pollution, rising sea levels (and buildings sinking). How lucky am I to have it all to myself?
Venice has been a major financial and maritime power since the early Middle Ages and Renaissance. It was the capital of the Republic of Venice for over a millennium, from 697 to 1797. the first real international financial centre, an important centre of commerce—especially for silk, grain, and spice, After the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna, the Republic was annexed by the Austrian Empire, until it became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.
The gondolas are bobbing empty, the stripy shirted gondoliers looking forlorn, so I take a half price ride through some quiet waterways, the boatman reciting a litany of famous Venetians who are commemorated here, as we drift along. Venice was the home of several artistic movements, especially during the Renaissance period. And it played an important role in the history of instrumental and operatic music. It is the birthplace of Baroque composers Tomaso Albinoni and Antonio Vivaldi. Moving away from music: Bellini, Canaletto, Tintoretto and Casanova. The list goes on. Venice is also supposedly the birthplace of explorer, Marco Polo. That's disputed and he's thought to be Croatian. Though Croatia was part of the Kingdom of Venice at the time. The gondolier doesn't tell me that bit.
The gondolier ducks his pole under the lowest bridges and then poses for pictures, borrowing his friend’s’ straw hat. He left his at home. The effect is rather spoilt by his luminous pink and green framed sunglasses. There are commuter gondolas too, where everyone crams in and stands staring forwards like Julie Christie in Don't Look Now. These are called traghettos.
The gondolas are moored at plain wooden staves, but the moorings for many of the palazzos (many now museums or galleries) and mansions are marked by stripy ‘pali de casada’, each differently decorated, so that the houses could be recognised at night. Sometimes they even stand flickering oil lamps on top.
Then I’m off wandering, through the districts Santa Croce and San Polo, east to the gorgeous Rialto Bridge, with its arches and shops. It’s the oldest bridge on the Grand Canal. Described as the heart of Venice, it was for hundreds of years the only bridge over the canal. The adjacent mercado is deserted, the stalls empty and shuttered.
Beyond this, the iconic landmarks of St Mark’s Square, generally known simply as La Piazza. The wonderfully ornate basilica is the third church on the site, begun probably in 1063. Astonishing. The four horses which preside over the whole piazza were jusdged to be such potent symbols of the pride and power of Venice that the Genoese in 1379 said that there could be no peace between the two cities until these horses had been bridled. Four hundred years later, they disappeared to Paris, for a while, borrowed by Napoleon. The campanile is almost as internationally recognisable as the London tower, incorrectly referred to as Big Ben. The ruler of Venice, known as the Doge, resided in the pink sugar candy of the fourteenth century Doge’s Palace, sea views, towering columns and a grandly arched perambulation.
The two bronze figures atop the magnificent Torre dell’Orologico (astronomical clock tower) are known as The Moors, a key reference for Shakespeare’s Othello. (Shylock of course also originates from here, an inhabitant of the first ghetto - or salvation area - in the world.)
There are so few people I can pose for my picture in front of the basilica with hardly anyone behind me - unheard of. The square itself is visibly busier even over three days. Booths selling hats and souvenirs have sprouted. And some of the museums have opened, but there are still stacks of empty chairs and large empty spaces amongst the colonnades and arches and the lines are already long due to the obligatory spacing and not many folk allowed in lifts.
I'm wilting in the heat, wandering through the tiny piazzas and campos. The shops are immaculately decorated with gorgeous displays straight out of style magazines. The drinks vendors have little fountains sprinkling cooled water over their cans of cola and orangina. One chocolate shop even has chocolate rollers dribbling over nuts and sweets. It's much too hot to even contemplate those.
To the west, framing the entrance to the Grand Canal. the giant dome of the second most visited church in Venice, Santa Maria Della Salute beckons. It is misty and impressive. Across the bridge from there, Accademia is suitably academic. The narrow lanes leading from here to St Mark’s Square are filled with high end shops and the renowned high-end Cipriani Hotel. Most of the galleries and museums are shut, but they are still gorgeous from the outside.
Wandering alongside the seaward side of Venice, west from St Mark's, the small, limestone Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), connecting the Doge's Palace to the prison. No need to explain how it got its name. Yet another charming area is the Castello, the old red light district. The must see here is the Palazzo Tetta, on its own small island. It's not easy to find, snuck away in a corner. Thankfully, there’s a cooling breeze drifting off the ocean. And ice cream shops (well this is Italy). It’s all totally glorious.
It isn’t easy to navigate. There are so many alleys, canals and dead ends that the map is hard to read - the print is tiny. There are yellow signs on the walls to the major attractions, though as usual these disappear at the moments when you most need them. and I’m suspicious that the route is designed more to take the unwary tourist past the maximum number of shops than to offer the speediest way.
The GPS isn’t amazingly effective, as the buildings are tall and disrupt the signal. And Google throws in sections of the journey by ferry, without warning. Which is fine when you end up weary at a ferry stop on a dead end on a canal without a ticket and no understanding of how to buy one. So, I’m operating on a wing and prayer – especially as toilets are expensive. The public toilets are nearly all closed, necessitating visits to bars where drinks must be bought. But who’s to complain when all the views, even when serendipitous, are so delightful?
The Antiche Figure hotel is three hundred years old, perched on the Grand Canal next to one of the iconic domes, with a view across the gondolier stand and a beautiful bridge. The train station - ferrovia - is directly opposite - that piece of information is less often mentioned scenery wise. But it’s convenient and it’s an attractive if modern building. I’ve got a bargain room wise because the hotel is far from full and my own little salon looks out over the water. The room is suitably ornate, gold cloth damask wallpaper, rococo chairs and mirrors, striped silky curtains and three chandeliers in the bathroom. Breakfast is on the terrace next to the canal.
Dinner in one of the many restaurants at the water’s edge - scallops and saltimbocca bream. The bars here specialise in cicheti, morsels on sticks - the Italian version of tapas. The Venetians spell it differently to the rest of Italy. The cicheti are accompanied by an ombra (or shadow) – a glass of wine. The dining entertainment (or annoyance here) are the intrepid pigeons, venturing onto the tables and stealing potato chips and grissini (breadsticks) with aplomb. The waitresses chase them off with their brooms.
Time to explore further afield in the Venetian Lagoon. The hotel offers a free trip to a glass factory in Murano. I’m all embarked before I realise it’s a one way ticket only. So, now’s my opportunity to get my head round the ferry ticket system and buy a two-day tourist pass from the biglietti machine. It doesn’t like my card, but it takes cash. ‘Mascarino, signora,’ prompt the boatmen. It’s horribly uncomfortable wearing one in the hot sun.
Murano is just a short hop. A smaller, quieter, duller, version of Venice, crammed with glass factories. There is the usual quick demonstration of glass making - the blowers are creating curly chandelier pieces. It’s baking hot with the furnaces roaring at over 1,000 degrees centigrade. The ‘guide’ is keen to get us into the display areas and the shop. The gallery is huge, with a multiplicity of smaller rooms containing everything from the simple and gorgeous to the grotesque and garish. There are even a whole section of Picasso tributes. Sadly, no photos allowed. The salesmen pull resigned faces when we don’t make a purchase; it’s not cheap. You have to request a price for everything in the gallery.
The friendly people at the hotel have told me that Burano is beautiful, so that’s my next destination. It’s a much longer vaporetto ride across the lagoon and almost back to the airport. The boats follow lanes marked out with wooden staves and we weave through tiny islands just visible in the haze. Some are mere dots with crumbling ruins, disappearing into the waves. I leap off at the next stop only to discover, when looking at the timetable, that I’m on the wrong island, so I hare back to the craft and the boatsman loops back the chain and allows me back on. Torcello, an extremely quiet islet and then Burano.
Burano has a very different quiet charm but is well worth the detour. The winding streets and canals here are lined with rainbow coloured houses. Magenta, a rich turquoise, an exceptionally soft jade green and best of all a creamy pale blue, beautifully distressed. The Italians are even stylish with their washing. The clothes and sheets billowing from the windows tone beautifully with the colours of the paintwork.
The whole scene is set off by a tall church tower that has a very decided tilt to it.
Venice post Covid Lockdown has been a unique (certainly once in a lifetime) experience. I’m sad to leave. But it’s Verona next.......
Read more about Italy here.
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