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.
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