"Schlaraffenland", the German Arcadia.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Venice In Four Hours Or Less

This is from the "archives" - written ten years ago about something that happened twenty-five years ago...

There is something about the magical power of a Eurail pass that causes it to burn in your pocket, like a gleaming quarter handed to a four year old. You want to use the thing and you want to use it often. The side effect is that all this moving around leaves very little time in each destination, but in fact this need not be a problem at all, as my friend Mark and I demonstrated one summer. We had already dispatched with Paris and Nice in a matter of a few hours each and were now rolling towards Venice.

         The approach by train into Venice is only remarkable in its profound dullness and in that it gives no hint whatsoever of what is to come. However, the minute you step out of the front doors of the train station, you know where you are. Rather than the usual frenzied Italian scene of buses and mopeds and honking and fumes there is a great sweeping set of broad stone steps leading down to the Grand Canal where the vaporetti (water buses) lie bobbing.

         The good fortune of Venice is that its Golden Age of wealth and lavish spending on architecture was mercifully followed by a rapid descent into obscurity, which ensured its preservation, like a fly trapped in amber. These days Venice is of course anything but obscure. Many people are frightened off by this popularity, fearing a nasty theme park atmosphere - a kind of Disney-On-The-Canals populated by cynical locals and sweaty throngs of braying tourists. This nightmare certainly exists in spots, but we found that it could be easily evaded as well.

The instinct upon arrival is to trot right on down those grand steps and make for the nearest vaporetto for a cruise down the Grand Canal to the Piazza San Marco. Infinitely more agreeable, however, is the land-route, which begins at a little bridge a few steps off to the left. There are signs marking the way, but they are small – evidently too small for most people. One minute: those braying sweaty throngs. The next minute: a deserted lane wending between stylishly decayed 15th century villas.

             It took us almost two hours to reach the Piazza San Marco in this fashion and I easily count them among my best two hours of travel anywhere. The route took us alongside slender canals, over tiny arched stone bridges and across a profusion of little plazas and squares. Some of these squares were fronted by grand buildings and churches that were clearly of significance, but others featured only graffiti and scraps of litter spinning in slow vortexes created by isolated eddies of wind. I found the graffiti and litter oddly comforting; an affirmation I suppose that Venice was a real place, not just a carefully primped outdoor museum.

         The signs marking the way were well placed: they were unobtrusive and always put just at the point where you began to wonder whether perhaps you had taken a wrong turn and gone astray. This allowed for a pleasant sensation of mild adventure as we slowly threaded the labyrinth. The stillness of the place was remarkable. There were few Venetians about and fewer still tourists. Those tourists we did meet were invariably middle aged Germans earnestly examining some architectural detail while referring to their encyclopedic guidebooks.

          The midway point of the walk is the famed Rialto Bridge. After the Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal, this bridge is probably Venice’s best-known feature. Built in 1588 it was the first permanent crossing of the Grand Canal, linking the two halves of Venice. It has a very distinctive appearance with shops running up both sides, backed by tall arches. The bridge is steep enough to require stairs to reach the middle where the shops give way to a pleasing, albeit perpetually jam-packed, vantage point over the canal. Pretty from a distance, up close it is festooned with purveyors of knick-knacks and enough obese tourists to give you pause to wonder whether 16th century structural engineering calculations could in any way anticipate the girth and heft of the average 20th century sightseer. We elbowed our way across and a few minutes later - poof - as in a fairy tale wish: all was peace and emptiness again.

          We ambled along contentedly again until the gradual increase in the number of shops signalled that we were approaching the epicentre, the Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square. First though, a word about these shops. Evidently there are only three types of businesses in Venice, with each type being roughly equal in prevalence.

Fully one third of the shops devoted themselves to glassware. When I say glassware I do not mean beer mugs and chemistry beakers and other such useful objects, but bizarre coloured baubles and trinkets and exceptionally impractical looking vases. There were scores of such shops, often one right after the other, resulting in an effect that was both dazzling and monotonous at the same time. To be fair, Venice does have a long tradition of glassblowing, so aficionados of demented looking pink and green glass animals from all around the world know precisely where to come, but the backpacker is not well served. Thin hand-blown glassware is about as sensible a souvenir to have rattling about in one’s pack as live quail or unexploded ordinance.

The next third were similarly useless: Carnival mask boutiques. Much as with the glassware emporia, there were scads of these, selling nothing but papier-mâché Carnival masks. It’s a shame really that what was once an appealing tradition has been reduced to a basement rec room decorating standby on the level of the bamboo fan painted with the hot pink tropical sunset.

A brochure describing the Venetian Carnival during the Middle Ages professed rather breathlessly:
Masked courtesans would participate in the most wanton games of lust, and confident of their anonymity would shed all conventional inhibitions. Noblemen, who would normally take painstaking care not to divulge a hint of their sexual preferences, could perform in mask acts that at the time were considered immoral and illegal.”

Cool. Moreover, “Carnival” in those days lasted from December 26 until Shrove Tuesday – over three months! Masking was also encouraged for a period during the fall and again in early summer. Those wanton Venetians. After the so-called Serene Republic (doesn’t seem so serene anymore, does it?) fell on hard times the party was over, both figuratively and literally. Ultimately Carnival was even banned because of an unseemly number of fatal mishaps. I could not find detailed descriptions of these “mishaps”, but it’s easy enough to imagine what transpires when alcohol, masks, wantonness and canals are thrown together. Carnival was revived in the 1970s by the government as an annual one-week fleecing of tourists during February. It is now Venice’s biggest yearly draw and provides an interesting counterpoint to Rio’s now more famous festivities. The Brazilians have stayed true to the medieval Carnival ideals of lust, excess and craziness, whereas, at least according to the ubiquitous postcards of dark cloaked figures with eerie white masks stalking alongside mist-shrouded canals, Venice’s Carnival now looks disappointingly austere and intellectual.

In any case, neither of us were the target demographic for the mask vendors. The final group of Venetian shops did, however, hit the mark. Stationers. Stationers by the dozen. And not, I might add, your standard Office Depot or Staples either. These were dimly lit little warrens, furnished in the darkest, richest wood and crammed full with luxurious cream-coloured velum, bricks of deep red sealing wax, black and gold pens that cost as much as a major appliance and an eye-popping assortment of antique brass and wooden gadgets – everything the discriminating European aristocrat could want for the sprawling oaken desk in his castle tower office. We pawed through these goods, relishing the smells of ink and leather and old wood, but there was nothing either of us could afford. Well ok, I probably could have managed a few envelopes, but when you’ve lusted after an antique desktop globe with a handsome carved wooden stand for $2250, it’s absolutely not possible to be satisfied with anything less.

Evidently anyone in search of a crescent wrench, toilet paper or a sack of potatoes in Venice was out of luck.

We were in the midst of this engaging session of window-shopping when, with startling abruptness, one of the little lanes spat us out onto the Piazza San Marco. There she was, an expanse of cobbles encrusted with pigeon shit, lined on three sides by some rather anonymous looking Renaissance buildings and on the fourth by the unarguably magnificent St. Mark’s basilica. No doubt some of these “anonymous” buildings were actually of tremendous importance, but blessed by our ignorance we ignored them and made straight for the obvious target, the basilica.

Mark was wearing shorts, but had had the foresight to bring a pair of long pants along, so before the guards could pick him up and caber-toss him out onto the square, he nipped around the corner and pulled his long pants up over his already bulky shorts. This gave him the appearance of a man with explosives strapped to his posterior, but that failed to interest the guards and we were admitted without so much as a bored glance.

Now this was an impressive church. St. Marks was the first cathedral we had seen with a strong Byzantine influence. Immediately upon entering we found ourselves in a kind of foyer under a series of domes that were completely covered with gold tile mosaics. This had the effect of creating a roomful of upturned faces and rigorously craned necks. We joined the hundred or so tourists already wedged into this space and gaped awestruck at what was above us. The mosaics had that Eastern Orthodox look about them that one associates with Russian icons, although Venice always has been Roman Catholic. We presumed that the story being illustrated above was that of the virtuous life and abundant miraculous deeds of St. Mark, but it was difficult to be absolutely certain on that point as there was quite a bit going on up there and all the figures wore similarly beatific expressions.

The mosaics in the foyer were apparently just an aperitif - in the aircraft hanger sized main chapel there were acres of gold mosaics in the high domes, on the columns, in the niches, everywhere… The altar-screen was something else too - it was entirely encrusted in jewels and enamel icons. Apparently St. Mark himself, or at least some representative sampling of his body parts, was here somewhere too. His original resting place was Alexandria, Egypt, but two enterprising Venetian merchants dug him up and smuggled him here as, much in the fashion of modern boomtowns that lure sports franchises from more stagnant cities, they felt that their up-and-coming town deserved an A-list saint. We meandered about for a short while like stunned cattle and then, suddenly overcome by a powerful craving to buy souvenirs, made for a stand we had seen in the foyer. This was a restrained and tasteful affair – no Pope-On-A-Rope or “To Hell With Satan” t-shirts here, only books, postcards and a few small curios.

Disappointed, we wandered back out onto the piazza. Mark still looked like he was trying to shoplift a tablecloth, so he took off his long pants and then we set about the serious business of getting the requisite pictures of each of us feeding the pigeons in the middle of the square with St. Mark’s Basilica forming the scenic backdrop. We didn’t actually have any food for the pigeons, but not being possessed of an especially keen intellect they allowed themselves to be faked out repeatedly until we got a few nice shots.

Although the basilica is clearly the star of the piazza, one’s eye is also drawn to the bell tower associated with Doge’s Palace, one of the otherwise undistinguished buildings marking the perimeter of the square. This tower is quite tall and its pointy roof dominates the Venetian skyline. It stands just kitty-corner from the basilica and is traditionally something a visitor would climb in order to gain a view of the city from above. We looked at it for a moment and reflected on how ridiculous the word “Doge” sounded, like a six-year-old boy saying “dog” when he’s in a silly mood. In fact it’s just “duke” in the local dialect, but considerably more fun to say.
Mark looked at me, “Doge.”
“Doge,” I shot back.
“Double Doge!”
Well, you get the picture. And with that our time was up. The tower was going to be too expensive to climb anyway, so we trotted down to the dock and located a vaporetto headed in the direction of the train station.

The profusion of boat traffic on the Grand Canal created a disagreeable chop, so the boat rocked perilously as we tried to jump aboard. The engine sounded like a concerto of one hundred chainsaws with guest accompaniment by a quartet of wood-chippers. I had actually been looking forward to this ride along the Grand Canal as a scenic cruise of sorts to cap our visit to Venice, but the sickening motion, the noise, the nasty fumes and the fact that we were packed in like Tokyo subway commuters diminished the pleasure somewhat. I spent the trip wedged in such a way that my view was dominated by a man’s right ear. It was an outstandingly hairy ear and as such was mildly interesting, but I am confident that I did not need to go all the way to Venice to see that. Otherwise though, the trip had been entirely worthwhile. Four hours in Venice and, to quote Sir Edmund Hillary, “we knocked that bastard off”. Next stop Vienna; it’s bigger, so maybe six hours?

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