Tuesday, January 17, 2006
In love with an older woman
I realised the piece needed a bit of pruning. Here's the result with a few pictures thrown in (courtesy the sherpa)
“Don’t forget to sing that song from Great Gambler” instructed my father, and proceeded to show us how in a rather off-key way before ringing off. With these words of wisdom ringing in our ears my husband and I set off to the Serene Republic.
“Venice! Now?” was perhaps the most oft asked question when we told people of our impending plans. Traditionally January-March is a time when most people in England head out for a spot of winter sun. Fuerta Ventura, St. Barts and The Maldives is where it’s at. Venice with its cloak of mist and icy temperatures isn’t exactly welcoming. But we were firm – Venice it was. While going off-season may have meant no carnival or listening to live jazz bands in the city’s many piazzas, it did mean that the only beings we would jostle for space with were the well-fed pigeons of St.Mark’s Square.
From Marco Polo Airport, Venice is an unhurried one hour water bus ride away. For the well-heeled who don’t want their monogrammed Louis Vuittons rubbing shoulders with the Delseys of the world, the water taxis are always there. They take just 20 minutes and pipe in the Dynasty theme tune for free. However the water bus does provide a wonderful build up to Venice as you chug by the islands of Murano, San Michele and Lido.
Our hotel - the Cavaletto e Doge Orseolo wasn’t as grand as its name. But a minute from St. Mark’s Square - a beguiling mix of history, art, high style and avian droppings - made it an ideal base for exploring the city. A 5 minute walk along narrow alleys where Cartier rubs shoulders with traditional tabbachios lead us to the Rialto Bridge. Some of the best views of the Grand Canal can be had here – that is if you can squeeze past the cordon of ubiquitous Japanese tourists. They line the bridge taking pictures as though Venice was going to sink any moment. After a quick snoop through the Rialto Markets we decided to take the plunge and do what everyone does in Venice. Take a gondola ride.
Following our guide books advice we went to an official gondola stand. But even here nothing is fixed and you can – no you must haggle. When we walked away from an exorbitant demand of €100 for a 30 minute ride, we were followed with calls of “Scusi, scusi senor senora”. (For those of you have shopped at Fashion Street in Bombay, it’s reminiscent of the hawker’s beseeching ‘Behenji’). If you have any notions that gondola rides are cheesy – remove them now. A slow meander along the lesser known and smaller canals of Venice will take you past the homes of some of history’s most notorious and illustrious names – Cassanova, Napolean, Mozart. The waterways are silent but for the rhythmic swoosh of the oars and the gondoliers cry of ‘Stai’ and ‘Oyve’.
While gondolas are a charming way to see Venice they’re not exactly the most practical. Or economic. So we walked and walked. And walked. With maps, without them, sometimes just following people who looked like they knew where they were going. We often found ourselves in quiet, residential neighbourhoods where ageing buildings with their terracotta and lemon meringue yellow paint peeling stood sombrely. Almost every window framed by frayed lace curtains and decorated with lush window boxes. The epitome of shabby chic. Here we escaped the touts and tourist shops and pretended we were strolling home from mass at Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari.
Our tired feet got a well deserved break at the Café Quadri back at St. Mark’s Square. A former hang-out of the Austrian Army the outdoor café provides unobstructed views of the basilica, the Campinale and the fat pigeons that wield more power than the erstwhile doges. Pretty soon we lost track of time and realised we’d been there longer than the four horses that imperiously look out from the front arches of the basilica.
Almost as famous as Venice herself are the lagoon islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. We jumped on a boat and did a half day island hop exploring them. While Murano’s glass industry and Torcello’s ancient church are wonderful, my favourite was Burano. This fishing village catches your eye from afar with its rainbow coloured homes and lines of fluttering clothes left out to dry. Keen to buy the intricate lace Burano is famous for, I almost fainted when I saw a delicate table runner priced at €350. Maybe some other time.
Back in Venice, I practised some of my best critic lines before checking out the city’s wonderful art collection. The Titians and Bellinis got ‘Wonderful patina’ and when it came to Klimt, Rothko and Dali at Ca’Pesaro and the Guggenheim it was ‘Wonderful use of light and space’. For those in search of some al fresco art a walk along the Grand Canal will do where oils, watercolours and pencil sketches vie for attention. And your wallets.
If investment art isn’t your scene don’t worry – money can be put to good use here. From the iconic interlocking G’s of Gucci to the understated elegance of Bottega Venetta. Murano glass blown in to life size trees with multi-coloured parrots perched on the branches. And if none of these make you reach for your wallet how about an apron printed with a close-up of David’s well coiffed pubis?
I hope that’s not put you off your food – it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm one bit. Our gastronomic tour of Venice included Capuccinos at St.Marks, risotto at a small trattoria in the Rialto and crispy, thin pizzas in San Polo. But the highlight of this junket was dinner at Harry’s Bar. From Truman Capote to Ernest Hemingway this unassuming establishment has hosted the rich, not-so-famous and everyone in between. The bellini cocktail was created here and visitors from around the world drop in for a drink or two and a fabulous meal. But all this does come at a price. So while our food went down a treat, the bill was a much harder to digest.
Our last day in Venice was spent wandering about Campo di Ghetto Nuovo. The deserted squares we walked through looked like they hadn’t changed in decades. I wouldn’t have been surprised if an army regiment came marching out. That’s the wonderful thing about Venice – everything seems to be from another time. The houses, the gondolas, the calm, unhurried air that permeates the city. The modern tide that has swept the rest of the world has left Venice literally untouched.
The Lonely Planet calls Venice an old courtesan. While I first thought that rather unflattering, I now realise the title is anything but. Venice has aged gracefully and wears her wrinkles and grey hair with a quiet dignity. Unlike other cities that get brighter and glitzier as they get older, Venice has not rushed in for a face lift and some botox. This old courtesan will seduce you and let you take your time exploring every inch of her. And the pleasure my friends, is like no other.