It has been said that whether or not someone is a romantic at heart, Venice promises to take one’s breath away. A place which must be experienced with all of one’s senses wide open! With its breath-taking ancient architecture, winding canals, and endless mysterious passageways, Venice is a city to wander off the beaten paths to engage in history and beauty.
Marco my new friend shot two consecutive questions with a flat advise as I tried to set up my equipment for a few photographs. “You look like a traveller not a tourist – why Venice? It’s not a destination for an astronaut!” I couldn’t help smiling a nod for both. Marco Baldovini amongst other fancy attributes is a temperamental Barcarolle singer, is supremely fit owns a Villa in Mestre (mainland), a vineyard in Tuscany (where his wife employs Indians in the farm) but he stays and works in Venice. A wine connoisseur and a traditional licensed oarsman of the single oared, off balanced, twisted hulled, flat bottomed, black boat -The Gondola. Marco makes between 500 -1500 Euros a day as a Gondolier and is not happy with the fate of the slowly sinking city he rows around.
The city of canals
What is there to say about Venice that has not been said already? One of the most beautifully extravagant places on this sinking city of canals. Perhaps the city teeters on the edge of cliche with its lacework of canals, its domes and gilded spires, its kiosks with straw gondolier hats and refrigerator magnets in the shape of the Piazza San Marco… Venice is beautiful – improbably so, a centaur-ish hybrid, neither land nor water but somewhere in between as it lifts from the green of the Adriatic. The city is drenched in so much exquisite it hurts beauty. An archipelago of 118 islands linked by about 200 canals and 400 bridges that branch away from the serpentine Grand Canal. They give the city its old-worldly air of romance, beloved of writers and tourists. The tracery of arches in the Doge’s Palace, the pinpoint of lights from boats in the lagoon at night, the grime of centuries eats at its stones, but the decay is luscious.
The canals dictate the pace of the city. Everyone exhales with the tide. Impeccably dressed men and women strut down the cobble stoned pathways. In the early morning light, in the desolate night, the city shows a fraction of the real self and you are charmed beyond glee. And in no time you set sail slouched back comfortably on burgundy pillows while being serenaded barcarolles floating amidst century old churches and alleyways. You meet every cliche and are of every dream you had of the place and feel it has been as seductive for centuries. To be a tourist in Venice is to join a procession reaching back to the 14th century when pilgrims stopped en route to the holy land. To capitalise on its geography as the departure point for voyages to the East. Though that wallet squeeze is a bit irritating but you inevitably force yourself to stomach that discomfort, particularly when catching sight of the Venice silhouette for the first time from the mainland shore of the lagoon. But tourism continues to keep Venice afloat and with its usual fair share of world class churches, squares and museums. Though St Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace et al are obviously worth a mention, for me the essence of Venice lies in the labyrinth of medieval alleyways and canals and life around them.
The Venetian taste
Having wandered around the yellow orange walled streets and around the Rialto, I decided to settle in one of the open-air restaurants tucked into a corner of a tilted square. As I sat on the wobbly little iron chair I noticed the other four tables are all having the same thing with their wine. A large plate of different kinds of salami and cheese. I was greeted by the man who ran the place so I pointed to the offering on one of those plates to be served. As he obliged before me the luscious looking mini carpet of meat and cheese the man explained that all of that was locally sourced, organic and unique. As I start to nibble a thought that has goes through billions of tourist heads made its way into mine – Aah Italy!
It didn’t last long though before a young accordion player settled right against the wall and started playing an English tune. In the cheese and wine I imagined I could taste the Venetian earth itself. It’s colours, contrapuntal textures and punctuating lines of green watered canals and dark stony architecture. Everywhere, seen and unseen, there was the presence of the sea and the rest of the land seemed stitched joining land and sky when further away. All through the afternoon the young musician kept up his soft soothing rendition, ending perfectly with a succession of Pink Floyd numbers just before the Bangladeshi rose selling hawkers started flooding the streets signalling the oncoming sunset.
Venice starts to envelop you the moment you cross into its hinterland. A passing line of deep blue between industrial buildings on the outskirts, a pair of seagulls wheeling, the smell of vast water somewhere over there. The whole unreality of it hit me when I took the first water bus, one of the world famous vaporettos, from the edge of town to the centre. As I passed sight after typical sight, canal, bridge, gondola, rickety jetty coming out of old palazzo, I realise how difficult it is to really see Shylock’s city. The 300 ducats pound of flesh cutters are everywhere and surprisingly majority of them speak Bengali. They have taken the centuries old city by storm. Every street hawker, every souvenir shop owner a few restaurants and most small businesses have been taken over by this clan of modern Shylocks. And every one of them has an interesting story to tell about their journey from Bangladesh.
Nightlife: A seductive glory
While Venice’s splendid decay is undeniably charming by day, you must experience Venice after dark. The city is quiet at night, as tour groups stay in the cheaper hotels of Mestre on the mainland, and the masses of day trippers return to their beach resorts and cruise ships. The city unravels in all its seductive glory. The local way to spend an evening is to simply enjoy a slow and late dinner in a romantic canal side or piazza setting. Cafe Florian, on St. Mark’s Square, is the most famous Venetian cafe and one of the first places in Europe to serve coffee. It has been the place for a discreet rendezvous in Venice since 1720. Today, it’s most famous for its outdoor seating and orchestra but do walk inside through the richly decorated 18th-century rooms where Casanova, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, and Woody Allen have all paid too much for a drink. Just being in St. Mark’s Square after dark is a thrill, as cafe orchestras entertain. Every night, enthusiastic musicians play the same songs, creating the same irresistible magic. Hang out for free behind the tables or spring for a seat and enjoy a fun and gorgeously set concert. Dancing on the square is free and encouraged. Take your pick of traditional Vivaldi concerts in churches throughout town. Home grown Vivaldi is as trendy here as Strauss in Vienna and Mozart in Salzburg. In fact, you’ll find frilly young Vivaldis all over town hawking concert tickets. You’ll see posters in hotels all over town. There’s music most nights at Scuola San Teodoro (east side of Rialto Bridge) and San Vitale Church (north end of Accademia Bridge), among others. Consider the venue carefully. The general rule of thumb, musicians in wigs and tights offer better spectacle and musicians in black and white suits are better performers. In addition to the concerts, Venice has a busy schedule of events, festivals, and entertainment, including, of course, Carnevale, the yearly masquerade party. And to end it in style you can go for a relaxing glide under the moon, on a gondola. Although they cost lots more after dark, this is a traditional must for romantics. You can divide the cost and the romance among up to six people per boat, but you’ll need to save two seats for the musicians if you choose to be serenaded. Note that only two seats, the ones in back, are side by side. Follow the moon as it sails past otherwise unseen buildings. Silhouettes gaze down from bridges while window glitter spills onto the black water. You’re anonymous in the city of masks, as the rhythmic thrust of your gondolier’s oar turns old crows into songbirds.
Stellenbosch, South Africa