Does life begin at forty?
11.01.2011 - 20.01.2011 6 °C
I feel as though I already know Venice, despite never having been there. Like the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids, the city has been featured in so many magazines, documentaries, films, paintings, and books that it is more familiar to me than certain places that I have actually visited. I can picture St Mark's Square and the Rialto bridge without difficulty. I can imagine gondolas moving serenely down the Grand Canal, straight out of a Canaletto canvas. I can just about convince myself that Venetians go about their daily business in carnival masks. Though I have no idea of the actual geography of the city nor how its atmosphere changes over a 24 hour period, I'm certain that I already know the pieces that comprise this puzzle. My trip to Venice, in the middle of a cold January, will allow me to put those pieces together.
The city sits in the Venetian Lagoon, connected to the mainland by a causeway. The day I arrive, a thick mist permeates the lagoon and the causeway appears to stretch away into nothingness. Mist and cloud will be almost constant companions during my stay, making photography challenging but lending an air of mystery to Venice's canals and alleys. Buildings coalesce out of the grey, ghosts of the city's illustrious past.
I take a crowded vaporetto from the bus station to St Mark's, thrilled at the glimpses of churches and palazzi that loom out of the murky air as we head down the Grand Canal. The notion of a city built on water is hard to visualise but that is Venice's situation, supported by millions of wooden piles reaching down through the lagoon and marshy sediment to rest on clay. Venice is best seen from the canals, with many of its most striking frontages simply inaccessible by land. It's an absolute must to spend at least one day viewing the city from the water.
Venice is divided into six sestieri with buildings numbered uniquely within each one. This address system is not helpful to newcomers, and the city is the first place I've ever visited where I regularly see people using their iPhones to navigate. It's easy to get lost, with frequent dead-end alleyways giving the option of either jumping in a canal or retracing one's steps, but it's difficult to get really lost - you're rarely far from one of the yellow-arrowed signs to St Mark's or the Rialto bridge or the station. Failing that, there are enough churches and museums to correlate with your map, and if the worst comes to the worst you know that the lagoon provides a natural barrier to just how far you can stray. It's a great city for aimless pottering, and perhaps more of Venice's real heart can be found in the further reaches of Dorsoduro or Castello than in the tourist-clogged arteries around St Mark's.
However it's not so amenable for anyone in a wheelchair, as most of the bridges are equipped only with stairs - a fact that the many tradesmen must curse daily as they drag their handcarts up and down the steps.
The room I have taken is on a quiet side-street mere minutes from St Mark's Square, and I make a morning pilgrimage to the basilica on each day of my stay. There's a thrill to seeing its Byzantine weirdness with my own eyes, even though the weather ensures it's never under the just-so lighting conditions that I've seen in photos and on TV. The styling is immeasurably warmer than the austerity of my own city's great cathedral, York Minster, from the uneven floor evoking the sea to the golden mosaics gleaming in the gloomy recesses of the ceiling (though the lights are switched on for a period around midday). It's a pleasure to walk through the square in the early morning, footsteps echoing, before the tour groups descend.
There are umpteen museums and galleries given over specifically to the preservation and enjoyment of art and architecture, but the entire city is a showcase in its own right. I prefer my culture in small doses taken frequently, a preference that I can indulge by simply picking a different sestiere in which to ramble, but I also tick the boxes by visiting some of Venice's grandest landmarks.
The Doge's Palace leaves me cold, but only literally. Apart from the first couple of rooms, it's absolutely perishing inside and I'm not inclined to linger. The opulence, though, is staggering, the sheer size and scale epitomised by Tintoretto's "Paradise", supposedly the largest oil painting in the world. Like in many of the places I am to visit, the lighting is sufficiently subdued as to make it hard to discern any detail. It may well be that the sunny days of summer are needed to provide enough natural light.
I'm intrigued by the palace's bocche de leone, letterboxes in the shape of a lion's mouth through which, centuries ago, it was possible to post anonymous denunciations of crimes or misdeeds. The map room contains two globes of epic dimensions, one showing the earth and one the sky. A stroll through the armoury makes me consider that being shot is perhaps preferable to any of the slicings, choppings, and bludgeonings that were part and parcel of mediaeval combat.
The ticket to the palace also includes entry to the Correr Museum. I'm particularly taken by a woodcut from ~1500AD showing an "aerial" view of Venice, whose amazing detail is courtesy of a group of surveyors who drew perspectives of the city from designated high points. Their coordinator, Jacopo de' Barbari, then combined the best of them. I'm also amused by a pair of women's sandals with soles half a metre deep, designed to keep the wearer's feet out of the mud.
My densest art fix takes place in the Accademia Galleries. I was expecting a vast collection requiring multiple days to take in, like the Louvre, but it's considerably more compact - a mere 29 rooms. The first room has a ceiling of cherub faces, giving me flashbacks to Debre Berhan Selassie in Gonder, Ethiopia - a similar idea but totally different execution. In amongst the paintings of Titian, Veronese, Carpaccio, and other Old Masters, I am drawn to the drama of Tintoretto's works - in particular, St Mark zooming into the frame of "The Miracle of the Slave" like some superhero. It's a bizarre anomaly that Canaletto, the painter who I think of first when I think of Venice, is represented so poorly in the city. Many of his paintings actually found their way to England, commissioned and bought by noblemen undertaking a Grand Tour.
The Great Upper Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco deserves a mention for its art, despite being cold and dimly lit (if you buy postcards of any of the paintings, you'll see just how poor the lighting is for the naked eye). Its walls and ceiling are covered by enormous canvases depicting Biblical scenes, most from the paintbrush of Tintoretto. The effect borders on overwhelming.
My mistiest day coincides unerringly with the Sunday when I have planned to cross the Giudecca Canal to visit the church of San Giorgio Maggiore (St George the Great), perched on its own island. I wait at the San Marco vaporetto stop, watching the moored gondolas slap and buck with each tidal surge. With the lack of visibility, and occasional toot from another vessel out there, somewhere, the journey across feels like it is in the middle of the ocean. On San Giorgio Maggiore island, duckboards are laid out between the vaporetto stop and the church entrance, a sign that the acqua alta (high water) has recently made its presence felt, but they aren't needed right now. I admire the floor in the chancel, which has been tiled in such a way as to give the illusion of climbing steps (I am to see this elsewhere in Venice). Unfortunately the Sunday-only Gregorian chant is accompanied by an organ, which takes away something of the purity of voice alone.
Lured on by the feast of churches and stately homes listed in my guidebook, I cover a great deal of ground in my ten days. Though by the end I would not pretend to remember the precise order and location of everything I have seen, there are numerous impressions that crowd together in my memory - the OTT ornateness of Teatro La Fenice (Phoenix Theatre), St Catherine of Siena's shrivelled foot in the Basilica de Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Basilica of Sts John and Paul), the welcome sight of free toilets in Ca'Rezzonico, the trompe l'oeil ceiling in the Chiesa Sant'Alvise (Church of St Louis), the unexpected rash of shops on the Rialto bridge, the eerie tomb of Doge Pesaro in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the different chimney styles in Campo della Maddalena, the foot marks on the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) where fights between rival gangs were conducted, the Jewish area for which the word "ghetto" was first coined, the price of a new gondola (€25,000), the Ponte delle Tette (Bridge of Tits) where the Venetian state encouraged prostitutes to stand topless in order to combat an apparent rise in homosexuality, the discovery that Chiesa Santa Maria Formosa (Church of the Shapely St Mary) was named due to the Virgin appearing in a vision as a voluptuous woman, and many more.
I have one piece of sightseeing that's prompted more by the written word than any of the visual arts. While travelling through Africa in 2009, I read "Miss Garnet's Angel" by Salley Vickers, simply because it looked the most interesting item in an otherwise unpromising hostel library. The book is set in Venice and concerns the spiritual awakening of a recently-retired English spinster, Miss Garnet. The narrative is interwoven with a re-telling of the Book of Tobit from the Apocrypha, whose main characters are Tobias and the archangel Raphael. Miss Garnet's stay in Venice contains a number of connections to the Book of Tobit, with the most direct being her liking for the (real-life) Church of St Raphael, which sits off the tourist track in the heart of Dorsoduro. The comments book at the church contains many entries along the lines of: "So glad I read Miss Garnet's Angel and found this beautiful church." There are no references to Miss Garnet in any other language, so I can only assume the novel was either never translated or never found favour in non-English-speaking parts of the world.
I re-read the book whilst in Venice, noting that Miss Garnet was also a graduate of Girton, as well as first visiting Venice in January. That's where the similarities end, though, as I'm rather younger than her, male, and considerably less repressed. However I find the theme of discarding the habits of a lifetime to be an appealing one, in particular the inevitable pain and disappointment that accompany lessons learned the hard way. There's an aching regret in the book that I can empathise with from my own experiences. If I was searching for a destination in which to start over again, to begin my life anew, Venice would be on the shortlist. With its history of creativity, even while transforming from a mercantile powerhouse to one of the world's most touristed sites, I'm sure it could not fail to provide an inspiring environment.
Renewal. Birth. Birthday. Age. Getting older. Pondering what life is supposed to be about. These are subjects that have been uppermost in my mind recently, because I turned forty just days ago. In fact this whole trip is a fortieth birthday present to myself, a small extravagance for someone more used to low-key celebrations. I find myself something of an anomaly among my peer group, most of whom are married with children and in the rat race. I left the rat race several years ago and I don't really see a family in my future, so I have a question mark about what the (presumed) second half of my life will bring. But, frankly, many of those thoughts are now enveloped by the joy I feel at simply being in Venice, the excitement of seeing new things. Is there any need to worry about the future if, right now, I'm perfectly happy? I conclude that I can start worrying about my age when I no longer have that kind of joy in my life.
Of course, Venice is not without its annoyances too. Encounters with dog excrement are all too frequent. (Another animal disappointment for me is that cats are a common theme on items in the tourist shops but I see only a handful of live ones during my stay.) There is an irrational urge experienced by too many tourists in St Mark's Square to scatter food on the ground, thus causing all pigeons and seagulls within 200 metres to converge on them in an aggressive low-flying flock. It's somewhat jarring to find the full range of global fast-food chains - all packed with customers - in a city where you can pick up bread, cheese and prosciutto, not to mention a bottle of prosecco, at any number of delis. There is little in the way of public seating, which can be a drag if you've been on your feet for a while. There is an almost total lack of any special illumination at night-time - with so many gorgeous buildings, that just seems like a missed opportunity (I'm guessing there must be some local ordinance preventing this).
The low season has the great advantage that tourist numbers are at a minimum, though that still means thousands of visitors per day and I hear non-Italian voices throughout the city - Chinese, Japanese, American, Australian, and all kinds of European tongues. But I'm more surprised by the selection of nationalities working in the tourist industry. The restaurants I visit are staffed by Chinese, Indians, and Bangladeshis, a state of affairs that I've not seen anywhere else in Italy. In my global travels, I've been so used to English being the European language that non-Europeans know that it's weird to me to find non-Europeans whose only European language is Italian. That said, most people - of whatever nationality - still insist on responding to my laboured Italian with English.
The flip side to the low season is the inclement weather. In addition, the maintenance cycle is at its peak, with every building in St Mark's Square at least partially obscured by scaffolding.
Ten days is too short a period for any tourist ennui to set in, and I never tire of the novelty of the numerous shops selling carnival masks, Murano glassware, and marbled paper items. I've seen plenty of tat on my travels around the world, and it's a surprise to be spoiled for choice for mementos that I actually like. Luggage restrictions ensure that my purchases are all small and will fit into the gaps in my 25 litre rucksack, the one exception being a cute lithograph of a cat gazing at the city skyline, that I buy with birthday money from my sister.
As the end of my stay draws near, I find that I've barely dented the full range of sights and experiences that Venice can provide. I've already started harbouring thoughts of a return visit, perhaps in the shoulder season when the trade-off between weather and tourist crush is at a sweet spot, and it's comforting to know that I'm not close to running out of "official" sightseeing activities, not to mention the infinite unplanned incidents that can arise from ditching the map and simply roaming.
I leave Venice with a sense of satisfaction. This misty city has shown me that there is nothing to fear about the onset of my forties, that I will have no need to fret about the future as long as there are still places that can bring me happiness. And while that might not be the most that I want from life, it's certainly a pretty good minimum to fall back on.
Dull but possibly useful info
i. The bus service from Treviso airport to Piazzale Roma costs €10 for a return, and is valid for 10 days. It takes about 40 mins. There are about 10 departures per day in each direction.
ii. I stayed at Locanda Antica Venezia, close to St Mark's Square, paying €59 per night for an ensuite room including basic breakfast (which I only had once, as the window of 8:30-9:30AM was much too late for my schedule). There's free wifi, though you may have to be in the reception area to use it. The room was compact (a bit too warm for me, so I had the windows open all the time), and had a fridge (actually a minibar, but there was enough space to squeeze in cheese/prosciutto). Of the two reception staff I had dealings with, one was exceptionally helpful (and spoke great English), the other was friendly but completely clueless (and spoke little English and had difficulty with my poor but serviceable Italian). I would definitely stay here again - I think it's very good value for such a central location.
iii. The Chorus pass costs €10, lasts for a year, and gives you entry to Museo di Santo Stefano and the churches of Santa Maria del Giglio, Santa Maria Formosa, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, San Giovanni Elemosinario, San Polo, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, San Giacomo dall'Orio, San Stae, Sant'Alvise, Madonna dell'Orto, San Pietro di Castello, Santissimo Redentore, Santa Maria del Rosario (Gesuati), San Sebastiano, San Giobbe, and San Vidal. This is good value if you're a church fiend, as individual tickets cost €3 each, i.e. visit just four of the places with the pass and you've already made your money back and more.
iv. Entry to the Accademia Galleries is €6.50.
v. Entry to the Musei di Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square Museums), i.e. Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace - opens at 8:30AM), Museo Correr (Correr Museum), Museo Archeologico (Archaeological Museum), and Sale Monumentali Bibliotheca Marciana, is €12. There is another ticket valid in high season that also includes one other museum of your choice (I can't remember the options, though one is definitely Ca'Rezzonico).
vi. Entry to Ca'Rezzonico is €7.
vii. Entry to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is €7.
viii. Entry to Teatro La Fenice (Phoenix Theatre) is €8 and includes an audioguide (for which you need to leave ID as a deposit). It's open 9:30AM-6PM.
ix. Entry to Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Basilica of Sts John and Paul) is €2.50.
x. St Mark's Basilica opens at 9:45AM. Come around midday if you want to see the ceiling lit up.
xi. Note that photography is banned outright in most churches, and the few that are less strict still ban flash. I resorted to buying postcards of anything that I was forbidden from photographing.
xii. Ditto for the art galleries, though the only one I visited that allowed any photos at all was the Accademia Galleries, which did ban flash. You're not allowed to take photos in the Doge's Palace, though photography seemed to be tolerated in the interior courtyard.
xiii. Individual vaporetto tickets are rather expensive, so it's best to try to squeeze your vaporetto usage into one or more 12 or 24 hour periods, for which there are better value tickets.
xiv. Many (all?) of the vaporetti go in both directions, so make sure you're getting on one that's going your way!
xv. There are Billa supermarkets on Strada Nova and the Zattere, and possibly elsewhere too. However if you're simply looking for some basics to make sandwiches then there are plenty of delis to choose from.
xvi. There are pretty much no free public loos anywhere, though the toilets at Ca'Rezzonico are accessible without entering the site.
xvii. You can find all my Venice photos here on Flickr.