Venice: On the Trail of La Serenissima.

I barely sleep the night before our trip to Venice. It’s always like this when something big is going to happen. Anxiety gets the better of me. Will I be disappointed? Will the train be on time? Will I fall into a canal? These questions and more rush through the tunnels of my brain like the high speed train we’re going to take today.

But the train is on time (at 07.53), our prima seats are really comfortable, and Kat and I eat our croissants and train snacks and just sit and chat for the two hour journey, and of course, my anxieties dissipate one by one as excitement overtakes me.

My first view of Venice is from the train window. As the lagoon comes into view, we hit the Via della Liberta, the causeway that connects the mainland to the main island. My breath catches in my throat as we pass some of the smaller islands dotted throughout the water, as we pass boats, pleasure craft and fishing craft, and then… there! A line of buildings, immediately recognisable as Venetian. I’m almost overwhelmed by the desire to shout ‘There it is! Venice! Can you see her?’ But of course I don’t, although I’m fidgeting in my seat, eager to get off the train. And then the train arrives and we alight onto Venetian soil.

I’m not prepared for what I see when we exit the Santa Lucia stazione. It’s so amazing I almost can’t take it in. Because the station concourse is on the Grand Canal, directly opposite the Chiesa di San Simeon Piccolo, a most magnificent church, which shines white in the sunshine, topped by a verdigris cupola. Immediately my eyes fill with tears. I’m here, in this dream, this fairytale city, a place I’ve longed for ever since I learned of its existence. My tears are of relief, of joy that I’m here, and a response to a place I’ve never seen the like of before. Kat stands next to me, and I think she’s a bit teary-eyed too, although she’s been here before. I think she’s as much excited for me as she is for herself. And I’m so glad she didn’t tell me about this view before, that she’s allowed me to see it fresh, to see it unbiased by her recollection of it.

 

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We stand and stare for a while, and I eventually pull myself together. Originally we’d thought we’d get the water bus to the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), but the queues are long and it looks confusing so we decide to walk instead. And so I have my first experience of a Venetian bridge.

The Ponte degli Scalzi is a beautiful white stone bridge with elaborate balustrades, and spans the width of the Grand Canal. It’s also steep and stepped, and I watch as a couple of young girls try to haul massive suitcases upwards. It occurs to me then that Venice is even more different than I’d thought. The canals are the streets and all transportation is by boat, or on foot. Thinking about it kind of blows my mind a bit as I consider various scenarios, and this continues to preoccupy me as we move through the city.

Off the bridge and we’re off in search of the Piazza San Marco. Immediately we’re sucked into a warren of narrow alleys filled with old buildings. It’s exciting, like being thrust back in time. I imagine the swirling skirts of women hurrying to meet their lovers, shrouded by the night and intrigue. I imagine murders committed in the dark. I imagine… so much. Through and through and through the streets we go, following the signs to the Piazza, which are at least clear, although a couple of times we get lost in the labyrinth and have to retrace our steps. It’s wonderful, and I mean that in all ways. Wonderful and wonder-full. We constantly cross bridges over canals, where houses overhang the water, where gondolas sit at the bottom of steep slippery steps, the gondoliers looking like men out of romance novels, dressed in their uniforms of striped tops, black trousers and wide-brimmed hats as they wait for customers.

Occasionally the alleyways open up into streets lined with shops selling the masks that Venice is so famous for. I become obsessed at studying them, because many of them veer toward the grotesque. Skulls. Creepy baby doll faces with blank eyes and red lips. Feline faces. Long nosed plague masks. Devils and Day of the Dead. Steampunk masquerade masks. Feathers and filigree, full and half face. Too many styles to describe, all utterly fascinating. Kat finds them disturbing and I guess I can see why, but for me, as a writer of the weird and strange, they inspire stories in me.

Venice is making me want to write.

 

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The Piazza San Marco, when we arrive, swarms with tourists. Again, it’s to be expected, and although it’s crowded, it doesn’t really matter. This is the main public square in Venice and I’m here, here, here. The Piazza is overseen by St Mark’s Basilica, and I can’t do justice to a description. Suffice to say that like so many buildings I’ve seen in Italy (Rome included) it’s a triumph of architecture and design. Then there is the clock tower (Torre dell’Orologio), and its beautiful, recently restored clock face, which feature golden figures representing the astrological signs around its centre. And then there’s the Campanile, the free-standing bell tower of the basilica, which stands proudly alone. It’s so tall (323 feet in total, including belfry and pyramidal spire) it hurts to look up at it. Like so many other landmarks, this is also recently restored, and there’s a queue of people waiting to climb it, but that’s not for me, so I just stare, awestruck. I find, as I continue my journey through Venice, that I become a little obsessed with clock towers. They are everywhere.

The rest of the square is open, shops and restaurants lining its perimeter, but we leave the actual square and walk toward the water’s edge, still on the Grand Canal, gondolas bobbing in their moorings, but here it widens out into the enormous lagoon. We’re opposite a couple of islands, and it strikes me again that Venice is unique; its water based way of life is compelling and yet a little alien to me, who’s used to roads and traffic.

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Now we’re at the Rialto and its famous bridge. It’s choked with tourists and it’s not easy getting onto the bridge, but we haven’t walked through dozens of little streets, crossed so many bridges, not to stand on this one now. We take in two views – one over the lagoon – spectacular of course; and one toward the Bridge of Sighs (named in English by the poet Byron) or, more sinister, the Ponte dei Sospiri, its name reminding me of the Dario Argento film, Suspiria. The Ponte dei Sospiri is white with stone-barred windows, and passes over the Rio di Palazzo. It’s a link between the Doge’s Palace and the New Prison, and it is said that prisoners would pass between the two to their place of execution, and sigh at their last sight of the beautiful city. Anyway, that may or may not be myth, but it makes me sad to look at it, the idea of passing from paradise to hell, with no hope of escape. My writer’s mind writhes with imaginings.

It’s lunch time by now and we search for food. It’s a shame that in a city as special as Venice that good food is a little hard to find, because so many restaurants cater for the tourist trade, and we don’t bother too search too hard, just find a pizzeria that serves good enough pizza. I’ve heard it said that the Venetians keep the best restaurants secret – fair enough!

After lunch we wander some more, and cross to the other side of the city, via more bridges, through more squares with gothic looking houses that we play ‘would you stay there overnight?’ games (no, we wouldn’t, is the general consensus we come to!) so that soon we’re walking opposite the Piazza San Marco. We pass the Santa Maria della Salute, a magnificent Roman Catholic Church, known as the Salute because it was built to offer thanks for deliverance from the plague in 1630, and which stands on the narrow tip of the Punta della Dogana, which pushes out into the lagoon, and offers a breathtaking view of the water and the skyline with its basilicas and campaniles. By now time is passing quickly so we take our leave and begin to walk back, although a shower of rain stops us for a little while and we seek shelter under a lush tree growing behind a wall in what must be a private garden.

When it stops we go in search of gelato. We find a Grom, a small chain that we’ve visited in Rome before (and there’s a ranch in London too!), and order our flavours. Kat has strawberry meringue – yummy and tastes intensely of strawberries, but a little sweet for me, and pairs it with pistachio; and I choose a single flavour, raspberry, which is tart and again, tastes intensely of the fruit from which it’s made. It occurs to me that I’m purely and simply happy. I’ve been like this since we set foot on Italian soil, and it’s such an unusual emotion for me that I wish I could bottle it to take away with me, for when times get tough. Maybe I can find a Venetian apothecary who can extract its essence from my mind and body? But this is fanciful of course, and I must enjoy these moments when they come. Store them away in my own spiritual vessel, so open it when it’s needed.

I want to buy some Murano glass earrings so we look in shops now. Murano glass holds a real fascination for me. I love how it looks, the depth and swirl and intricacy of colour and design. I love the idea that there’s an island just for glassmaking, romantic in itself, as well as the idea of the craftwork and dedication to this one form of art. Eventually – I’m being fussy – I find a pair that have been made on the island (at least I decide to trust the label), and that are neither too cheap nor too expensive. They’re drop earrings, spheres, gold the colour of molten sunshine, flecked with ruby-red running throughout the gold, swirls of god blood. Anyway I don’t have anything like them, and although I ‘um’ and ‘ah’ – there are so many colours and patterns – these are the ones that keep calling to me. I’m satisfied, and I’ve been wearing them a lot since I’ve been back, and I imagine I can hear La Serenissima whispering to me when I do, and her voice is sweet, yet dark with mystery.

We arrive back at the station concourse and sit on the steps, looking at the Grand Canal, at the traffic of boats, at the people disgorging from the station towards their own experiences in this city of wonders. Of course I cry when we have to leave, but as Venice disappears from view, I hope and wish that some day I will return.

 

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