Venice Remembered – 3


Third time in Venice, we flew in to Marco Polo, arriving by train at the Stazione Santa Lucia late in the evening. We took the Vaporetto down the Grand Canal, sailing beneath Ponte Degli Scalzi to ride the few stops till our pontoon. Darkness fell and a nimbus rose from the water as we approached our rendezvous.

It was one of those meetings which should happen at least once in a person’s life, one which you have seen many times in the movies. Sometimes I dream of Veronica at the Vaporetta stop. As the cool cloak of the canal shaped itself, tangible and ostensible, the Vaporetto stuttered to a halt. there she was, alone amongst the crowd waiting on the pontoon. At last, I was in a movie, about to step into that scene, like Bogey and Bacall, when monochrome celluloid blossomed to a full spectrum. She was perfect; calf length Macintosh a quiet half white, dark felt fedora aslant. I just knew her eyes would glisten softly, the colour of deep water in moonlight.

Well, it was all of sixty five years ago

when the world was the street where she lived

and a young man sailed on a ship in the sea

with a picture of Veronica.

Veronica by Elvis Costello

Veronica is our host for the air b’n’b we have booked. She welcomes us warmly and guides us through the labyrinth to the house where we’ll be staying. Once we’re settled she gives us a brief tour of the quarter, recommending the right places for us to eat and drink. Then she smiles and glides off to her own home on some other island.

We are staying in the Sestiere Santa Croce San Polo, near the fishmarkets whose faint hum guides us home of a night. Nearby is Rialto Bridge. We had our two charges, and a list of things to do. Much of this involved pointing and staring, and Venice offers plenty opportunity for that. We had also earmarked a visit to the Biennale.


The Venice Biennale was established in 1895 as a major exhibition of contemporary art. It is based in a park, the Giardini, established by Napoleon on drained land east of the Arsenale. The exhibition centre is augmented by thirty national pavilions operated by that country’s foreign ministry to showcase their art and culture. An exhibition focussing on architecture is held on alternate, even years. In 2006, the exhibition explored the theme of Cities, Architecture and Society. For myself and O this was right up our alley. We are both lost in our search for the ultimate city.


Our brains were as full of cities as they were likely to be. One particular visual endures. Topping a rise in the motorway, the entire panorama of a teeming city and its towers shifts across the skyline. Whether Caraacas or Bogota I can’t be sure. I felt dizzy contemplating it. O was utterly absorbed. He would, a few years later visit that city himself. 

We stopped for lunch along the quayside in sunshine. Riva degli Schiavoni is a hectic waterfront promenade lined with market stalls. The Grand Canal merges with the lagoon, transitioning towards the open sea. There’s an overwhelming sense of movement, the centuries colliding to make a tableau of the city’s maritime history. On that day, the sky a duck egg blue and suspended in a chill miasma, everything was timeless and possible.

Canaletto Salute Venice

Across the waters, a masterpiece of baroque extravagance, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute was built in thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague of 1630. Further on, Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore floats on its own island.The neo-Classical complex of church and monastery was completed at the end of the sixteenth century, with the soaring campanile added in the late eighteenth.

The view has inspired numerous artists, amongst them Giovanni Antonio Canal. The name is too appropriate to be true: Canaletto, the artist who does exactly what it says on the tin. Born in Venice in 1697, his father, also a painter, was indeed a Signor Canal. His son’s monicker denotes junior. In his early paintings he worked to a finish outdoors while his contemporaries retreated to the studio. Hence, he anticipates Impressionism, and the tendency of modern art to capture the moment in all its blurred intensity. This evolution fits with our technological advance. Camera, cinema and video are caught in the moment. Even modern writing mimics the automatic pulse. We see things differently now than before, but this has developed over time. In Canaletto’s day, the Camera Obscure was available for artists to copy the scene before them. Canaletto is reckoned to have used it. Scholars of his work disagree. His uncanny accuracy can be put down to the simple fact that he was just damned good!

Picture 009

There are other islands too, and it was time to visit them. Whistling past the graveyard of San Michele, we take the Vaporetto from Fundamente Nove to Murano and Burano. Murano is a small clump of islands with its own canal system, a miniature of Venice itself. Renowned for its glassblowers, we took a factory tour and wondered at the ridiculous, seemingly casual skill of the glassblower within such an extreme environment. We still have our gorgeous glass horse, hot off the pipes. Outside, Murano is blissfully calm, a long way from the hubbub of Venice across the lagoon. Burano has Its own unique, crazy atmosphere. Life goes placidly on beneath fantastic leaning towers. We dallied and dined in the picturesque main square, eating Lasagne which was  memorably good. The houses are painted individually in bright colours, forming a patchwork canvas to seduce the artist within us all.


Over a few days, myself and M became fond of Veronica’s coffee maker. The Moka Pot is an Italian style icon, new to us at the time, it was developed by Alonso Bialetti in 1933. A study in Futurismo elan, with facetted aluminium and bakelite handles, it made brewing coffee at home accessible to ordinary folk. During a moment when my concentration wandered, the bakelite began to melt picturesquely over the ring. Two remedies suggested themselves: to disguise ourselves with Venetian masks and escape, or to purchase a new one. The neighbourhood seemed full of souvenir shops, but but we quickly found a shop selling coffee makers, identical to the one I had just melted, if a tiny bit bigger.

There were shops with masks and full regalia too. So that option remained. I almost took it. Browsing in a particularly exquisite shop, I found myself draped in full regalia, though I hadn’t asked to be. Apparently they do that if you stay motionless too long; a dream come true for a lifelong poseur. Davin was pleased to follow suit, and made for a more dashing model.


Such paraphernalia is handed down from the once notorious Venice Carnival. The Carnival is a thousand year old tradition. A pre-Lenten celebration, (the word Carnival derives from the Lenten fast, literally meaning ‘goodbye to meat’) it gave citizens licence to transgress the strictures of society for ten days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Elaborate disguises were worn so that men, and women, could behave outrageously while preserving anonymity. This spirit of subversion allowed the playing of practical jokes and endless possibilities for intrigue. 


The Carnival came to represent the excesses of decadent Venetian society. From 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turks, Venice continued to rule the Mediterranean waves but by the eighteenth century the city’s renown was less to do with mercantile power than gambling, partying and vice. Taken by Napoleon in 1795, Venice was annexed to Austria whose autocratic rule saw the Carnival outlawed. If meant to curb Venetian expression, it backfired. The more sober population were to the fore in the Risorgimento, the push for a united independent Italy, achieved in 1870. A century later, in 1979, the Carnival was revived and has become a hugely important event on the cultural calendar.


My own personal pilgrimage was made on a grey, drizzly morning, taking the Vaporetto to Ponte dell’Accademia. Nearby the Galleria Dell’Accademia has a great collection of Art: Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Titian. But one morning of wonders at a time. I kept to the Dorsodura side to visit the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art, lodged in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, the Unfinished Palace

Peggy Guggenheim moved to Europe in the 1930s. In Paris she befriended Samuel Beckett who urged her to support Modern Art, as it was a living thing. She set out to buy a painting a day from such artists as Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Duchamp and others, outstanding works of surrealism, cubism, futurism and some abstract stuff. She fled France after the Nazi occupation, escaping with her future husband Max Ernst.

Ernst Bride

Ernst is a particular favourite of mine. The Guggenheim has two of his masterpieces: the Robing of the Bride and the Antipope. Both are perplexing, employing the automatic technique of pressing paint onto the canvas, decalcomania, to evolve a scenario that’s apparently realistic but incongruously fantastical. Magritte’s Empire of Light also features. These are paintings I could stand in front of for days.


Coming up for air, I pose by the waterside for a while, with blended injections of lagoon air and aromatic infusions from exotic places, Morocco or Virginia perhaps. Behind me on the patio the disconcerting statue by Marino, Angel of the Citadel, brings a whole new meaning to the term saddle pommel. Before me, a haunting tableau in the making emerges from the canal mists. I thought it was the smoke or the music going round in my head, but I took a photograph and it doesn’t lie.


Here they come, and the fire on their wings doesn’t burn,

here they come and they know everything we must learn.

Here they come, and the stars in their eyes seem to glow,

here they come and the fear in our hearts starts to go.

Here They Come by Ten Years After.

Venice Remembered – 2


Our second trip to Venice was the summer after myself and M tied the knot, and the trip to Italy was something of an official honeymoon. We had married in the bleak midwinter, escaping to the picturesque thatched roof frostbite of Adare, County Limerick. Like stepping into a Christmas card. Less starred was a trip to the ever-flooding city of Cork, where, and not for the first time, we drove through city streets with water up to the runner boards of our Renault. Perhaps that’s where we got the idea for our return to Venice.


Our itinerary was something of an infinity loop. From Rome, we leapt across the Pyrenees to Pescara, scurried up the coast for Venice, then on to Florence and on down to Naples, Sorrento and Pompei. After that, we took a few days on the island of Ischia and then back to Rome and the flight home. Trains and boats and planes; but mostly trains. 

The train into Venice was an overnighter and packed to the gills. We were not alone in the notion that taking a kip on an overnight train would save on hotel bills. Mind you, everyone was doing it, tourist and local alike. It was hard to sleep in a corridor, with each stop introducing a new batch of salesmen to parade the corridor roaring: birra! gelati! Sounded good to me, but my companion is asleep, and I must elbow my way to the exit window for a smoke. 

Well I’ve been waiting I was sure

we’d meet between the trains we’re waiting for

I think it’s time to board another.

Please understand I never had a secret chart 

to get me to the heart of this or any other matter. 

Arriving across the isthmus from Mestre by train, we sought accommodation from the Tourist Police at the Station Santa Lucia. Amazing now how we winged it on both honeymoons. After Adare we had launched into that pointless meander across the sodden south before cutting our losses and heading home. Italy in summer held more romantic promise. If we were stuck at least it was Italy; Al Fresco and all that. 


The Tourist Police were helpful, targeting accommodation and setting us the task of getting there in time. This involved a cross city dash reminiscent of those TV travel competitions. We had thirty minutes to get to the pensione, and we decided, wisely, that the Vaporetto was best. It brought us clockwise from the station, through working waterways. On first crossing the lagoon, what struck me most was seeing a working city. The non pretty parts of Venice are amongst its most exciting. We crossed wash with garbage collection boats, rough heavy goods barges, a speeding police boat. There were rich looking launches too, a taxi with a couple of most elegant poseurs astern. I’ll be there, someday, I wish. An English woman sitting beside me on the Vaporetto, turned to her companion and opined: It’s so Dirty! But that is the beauty of it. Every mosquito and screaming gull, every fat man with cigarette, every building site and bargee. This ain’t no theme park.

Our stop was the Fondamente Nuove. This ‘new quayside’ is in fact four centuries old, along the northern edge of the city with views of the lagoon. Out there are such exotic smaller islands as Murano and Burano, but most noticeable, just offshore is the cemetery of San Michele, the floating city of the dead. 

 It was a short, if complex, walk to the pensione. We were within time and the host gave us a tour of what was a beautiful premises, distinguished by its large courtyard with trees tapering to the sky. The room was olde worlde, plain and clean, with an ingenious device for quelling mosquitos. To awake in Venice is to own it. A whole day to embrace her and fall to bed with her again. And another morning to start over once more. Days to be spent in random exploration, browsing at markets, grazing at stalls, lingering at sidewalk cafes. 


We returned again to wine and dine at St. Marks while pestered by string quartets in the shadow of the Campanile. The Campanile, or bell tower, is almost a hundred metres tall and was built as a lighthouse in 1173. The current structure dates from 1500, and from its giddy heights Galileo demonstrated his telescope to the Doge in 1609. The tower dramatically collapsed in 1902, but was rebuilt ten years after.

Evenings were quiet after the bustle of the day and spent in the darkening labyrinth of streets which seemed to have neither name nor destination. As happens, certain hostelries became haunts. We learned from the guy serving us, an English lad working at his mother’s trattoria, that accommodation was prohibitive so most visiting was confined to daytrips, cruises and the like.


Since M is a Liberties girl, and I’m not far off, we were drawn naturally towards the Rialto. There is an area in Dublin called Rialto. It once boasted two canals, or two branches of the Grand Canal. With regular barge traffic to Guinness’s brewery and other businesses there may have been cause for poetic license in its naming. You might have trouble renewing it. When, after a century of inactivity, someone fell in and drowned, on the principal of ‘if it saves one life’ the whole section  including the Basin was filled in making a spectacularly unsuccessful linear park. These days it provides a thruway for the Luas light rail. Incidentally, the same city fathers also had plans to convert the surviving Grand and Royal canals into a ring road. Just think what such an enlightened mentality could do for Venice!

Rialto means the high bank (of river). Venice’s Rialto Bridge was the first to span the Grand Canal. The present structure was built in 1590 and designed by the appropriately named Antonio De Ponte. Until the building of the Accademia Bridge in 1854 it was Venice’s only pedestrian crossing point. It is a signature landmark. The steep single arch span supports a central thoroughfare with shops on each side. The symmetrical colonnades are joined by an imposing portico on the apex of the bridge. Views of the swirling life of the Grand Canal can be had from the ballustraded walkways to each side. The Rialto Markets are long established on the San Polo side. The Erberia is the fruit and vegetable market while the Pescheria is the fish market. Downriver, the Riva del Vin is the best place to get a quayside table and raise a glass to the wonders of La Serenissima.


In Venice you discover that Gondolas are not simply window decorations in West Dublin. This is the romantic way to tour Venice. For Venetians the Gondola is a form of wedding limo, but tourists book the watery equivalent of the Killarney trap. It is the idea of the thing, I suppose. This is a world of water. A more straightforward Gondola trip, unmediated by an Italian roaring O Sole Mio, is to take a Traghetto, gondola ferries that cross the Grand Canal at seven points. It’s communal and much more fun, practicable and traditional. The protocol is for men to stand while the woman sits. 

The Rialto traghetto crossing provides one of the most evocative moments. Here we were at the focus of a madding city, adrift in its mayhem, but briefly at one with it. Crossing the Grand Canal against the backdrop of Rialto Bridge we knew we had arrived on Earth. All the sense of history, of freedom and surprise, of surviving against the odds, the sheer beauty of it.

Let’s meet tomorrow if you choose upon the shore beneath the bridge

that they are building on some endless river.

Then he leaves the platform for the sleeping car that’s warm

you realise he’s only advertising one more shelter.

And you say okay the bridge or someplace later


The Stranger Song by Leonard Cohen

Venice Remembered – 1


I can’t believe that I’ve never written about Venice. It is the most fascinating place I have ever visited. Writing about it is another matter; an intimidating prospect, I suppose. There it is, extraordinary to experience and behold, but how to capture it in type. Photos can get you part of the way, along with some dreaming about the effects of light on water. I don’t have many photos of Venice, precious few from my ancient visits in the last century. But I’ve plenty of dreams. 

This morning in our living room, upon the electric frame appears that photo I took on a misty morning, looking up the Grand Canal from the landing of the Guggenheim Museum. I was all alone, and there was something in that feeling of isolation that sympathised with the mist rising from the water. It wrapped around me; chilling, but exciting too. In that snapshot I felt I stood flush with the centuries, one card of a stack, and I could forever slip back and forth in time. Venice is like that.

I have been to Venice three times. The first time was in the early eighties, on a daytrip from Yugoslavia, arriving by sea at dawn. M was crashed out in the lounge, as was most everyone else. I stood on the prow, feeling suitably dramatic. Dribs and drabs of Japanese tourists were appearing on deck and soon the place would be ablaze with cameras. I had been enjoying the silent onset of dawn, the fading of the city lights and stars. I had hardly thought to unsheath the camera, it would have intruded on the perfect moment. There is no more perfect moment than approaching Venice by sea, at dawn. I managed to haul M on deck before the fireworks started. I think I got one shot away. One must. It’s long lost now. But the memory lives with me still.

In truth, the Yugoslav trip had been a bad idea. We were booked into a holiday camp in Porec. There’s a limited number of ways to do a holiday camp. The British or the German. This was German. Butlizt! We escaped over the perimeter fence one morning, and zig zagged along the Istrian coast. We hid out in Rovinj for a while and that was good. Our attic window looked across a red slate sea to a dreaming tower. Rovinj is a scenic town, but with much the same feeling of surveillance and imminent capture. We discovered there was a boat trip to Venice, leaving at zero hour and travelling overnight.


The boat docked at the Riva degli Schiavoni, the bustling promenade downstream from St Mark’s Square. We took the guided city tour which proved useful as an introduction and included a visit to the Doge’s Palace. We then had an afternoon and early evening to ourselves. We visited a Salvador Dali exhibition, and sauntered about in the wonderful maelstrom of St Mark’s Square and the mazy streets leading off, swooned at the teetering towers and absorbed the endless painting in life that is the Grand Canal. I remember us sharing pizza with some Italian youths on a fountain by St Mark’s. We had large frothy beers al fresco with the Campanile as our sundial, reassuringly expensive, and laughed at the outrage of a tourist being gulled for a round of drinks and maybe learning the lesson: location, location, location! 

A day is too short in any city. It is enough for a sketch. In the case of Venice, time is never enough. We’ve since followed Francesco and his breathless histories, followed Donald Sutherland’s embodiment of Du Maurier’s doomed hero in Nicholas Roeg’s film, Don’t Look Now, pored over books and lingered on photographs, paintings and travellers tales. Inevitably, we vowed to return at the appropriate time to seed more dreams and memories.

Many feel this attraction, to such an extent that the object of this mad love suffers from all the attention. It is a problem with the ease of modern travel. What was once the preserve of the rich is now democratised. This is a good thing, but there are downsides too. Here and elsewhere, there has been something of a backlash against mass tourism. Rapprochement is required, most importantly for visitors to respect the people, the culture and the places they visit. Most do, I think, and many sins come from local sources. There is no silver bullet solution. Just the other day at the onset of the pandemic, a reporter on tv followed a swooning camera across a deserted Venice. And Venice had never looked so beautiful, he gushed. It has certainly never been so empty. Yet, it is partly that crowded sense of Venice which is part of the attraction.


Venice is an unlikely location for an ancient city. Built on a group of low lying islands in a lagoon, it should, in the natural course of things, have been washed away long ago. The city was founded in the early fifth century when residents of the mainland sought to protect themselves from the invading Goths. Refuge in a swamp may be unpromising, but invasion was even more hazardous.

The first Doge was elected in 726 and by the end of the century Charlemagne was established as Holy Roman Emperor and the Barbarian disruptions were quelled. The Venetians established trade links with the Byzantine Empire and with that came notions of glory. Venice conquered Byzantium in 1204, becoming the centre of a new trade empire, a bridge between east and west. You can see it in the buildings, in its sheer, bloody audacity.

So, Venice has been welcoming travellers for centuries, and sending them forth as well. Marco Polo has acquired global mythic status as the original great traveller and man of trade. He was born in 1254 and insinuated himself at the court of Kublai Khan while still a teenager. Returning to Venice, his yarns established his reputation and further enhanced the Venetian story. Mind you he was locally known as Marco of the Million Lies, so perhaps a smidgin of salt is required.


And see if you can fit in some of the building …

In 1309 work began on the current Doge’s Palace. The three solid facades of pink marble are held aloft by two floors of exquisitely wrought arcades. St Mark’s Basilica sits into the open facade. Now the Cathedral of Venice, it was originally the Doge’s private chapel. The first church was built in the ninth century but it has been oft remodelled since. An elaborate, eastern tinged  masterpiece, its ornate Gothic facade and five enormous domes make for the most iconic sight in Venice.

We climbed to the parapet, a feat repeated last time we visited. Posing on the roof of an architectural treasure is always sublime. The Torre dell’Orologio can be viewed up close from the parapet of the Basilica. It is a seafarer’s clock, its face blue and displaying the phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac. Topping all, two bronze Moors strike the bell on the hour.

There is no point ticking off the must sees here. It is a place to be experienced quietly by your senses, it will inspire and pervade your soul. There is a perfect buzz to be attained simply in hanging around Saint Mark’s Square. Cafe Florian where you can disport in the bumprints of such literary greats as Proust, Dickens and Byron. If you want to shadow the importance of being Ernest Hemingway, Harry’s Bar is nearby, at the end of an alley leading down to the Grand Canal.

As the sun sets again and the waters rise, perhaps we’ll drown at the end of our day of freedom. What better time to go, in that first flush of seeing Venice. The end wasn’t quite that dramatic, and we picked our way to higher ground on the duckboards laid across the shallow pond of San Marco Square, tossing in a coin to assure our return.


Everything is wonderful

being here is heavenly

every single day, she says

everything is free

So if I say save me, save me

be the light in my eyes

and if I say ten Hail Marys

leave a light on in heaven for me

Mary’s Prayer by Danny Wilson