Venice- how to catch a dose of gondolier.


how to catch a dose of gondolier.

I can’t remember visiting another city where I was the main reason for its existence, but Venice would disappear up its own rising damp into a crumble of soggy bricks if tourists like me didn’t come and pay handsomely to view its delights. Sure there are tourist only places like Surfers Paradise which few would dare compare with Venice, except that they both share the prospect of one day being taken by the sea.

But Venice is an act unto itself, keeping mostly above water, thanks to the loot harvested from an annual throng whose 20 million number is just shy of the population of Australia.

Of course a crowd like that, while in some ways helping save the 1100 year old city, is also helping destroy it. If you don’t believe me look at this photograph.

I took it in the evening, just along the Grand Canal from the railway station. You’ll notice there is not a gondola to be seen. Apart from the steel hulled vaporettos (or water buses) and a few service boats, most of the craft are high speed water taxis, an expensive and luxurious form of transport, favored by the wealthy. One Venetian told us gondoliers are increasingly reluctant to take rides onto the Grand Canal because of the wash created by these things, which is also helping to undermine buildings

Still the tourists come, despite the prospect of high accommodation prices, often mediocre food and if you do take a gondola ride being jammed together like canned fish in one of the safer side canals. Where else can you go to a bar, down numerous Bellinis or a local Campari soda cocktail and then tottering on the edge, piss it out into a world heritage listed canal?

However it does have an unmistakeable charm, where the light in an hour or so can fluctuate from the God’s throne promise of Titian, the bright white purity of Canaletto, to the moody mystical storminess of JMW Turner.

We saw plenty of the latter, after a visit to the outer islands, we stopped in at Murano, hoping a little shop, that had a nice reasonably priced vase we has seen days earlier, would still be open. It wasn’t, but it was not long before the skies were.

The trip back to the main island was taken under blackening clouds, blinding rain and us huddling in the back seat of the vaporetto as it grimly plunged through water whipped up like a washing machine. It gradually eased as the boat made its way around the end of Santa Elena island towards its principal stop at San Marco. Inside the boat’s misted windows, the world recognised scenes took on entirely new shapes, yet because we have seen their image so many times, we still identified them.

Then we stepped onto the wharf, looked across the channel and saw the postcard to end all postcards. The whole world was bathed in the golden light Turner saw, from the front of the church of San Giorgio di Maggiori on the opposite shore, to the gondolas bobbing in the foreground.

While to a certain extent Venice can trade on its glorious decay, a new form of decay has spread across the city. Graffiti might be a Latin word, but the words all over Venice are far less historic or intriguing and all along the sides of the Rialto bridge, one of the city’s great landmarks, it appears little successful effort has been made to remove this blight of twisted narcissism.

There are signs around in languages other than Italian warning of dire consequences for graffitists, but the scrawl remains, a reminder of that other Venetian disease, according to Carlo who owned our hotel- policy paralysis.

This comment came out when I asked him about the progress of a project announced with worldwide fanfare in 2008 to rebuild the Doge’s ceremonial barge the Bucentaur, the last of which was destroyed when Napoleon took the city in 1797. The originals were modeled on ancient Roman galleys and they had been a symbol of the city’s former maritime power. Reconstruction was to have taken two years and cost 20 million Euros.

When I asked Carlo about its progress, he shrugged his shoulders and said he thought nothing had happened with the project and cited the example of the flood prevention works that had supposedly started in the 1980s. ”This is Venice, things take forever, if they happen at all.” 

There is however one maritime event that happens with startling regularity- the arrival of enormous cruise ships, these leviathans of the floating tourism trade look about as in place as would a high rise building being plonked in San Marco’s square.

They berth at the end of the city that is near the railway station, then they disgorge their cargo who seem to sweep through the city like an insect swarm along a predetermined path. Along the northern side of the Giudecca canal to the eastern end where they will stand gasping and snapping the beauty of the Doge’s Palace and the church of San Giorgio di Maggiori. They will walk around to the bridge at Accademia, cross the Grand Canal and look back at the postcard church of Santa Maria della Salute, turn right and march up to San Marco’s square.

They will then walk down the closest thing Venice has to a main street to the Rialto Bridge, which they will cross, before arriving back at their ship about 3.30, just in time for it to make a departure in the afternoon light along the Giudecca canal, for another glance at the palace and Saint Marks and that will be it, they will have added their numbers to the annual 20 million and they will have had a taste of Venice. 

I am not going to sneer at them, Venice is a costly place to visit if you stay. There is just the price of getting anything here and the difficulty of getting anything done. Normal means of stocking and servicing a city don’t apply, both supplies and tradesmen have to arrive by boat. And garbage goes out by boat too. There are a couple of supermarkets, but they are hard to find because they are not allowed to have signs. The only way we found one, was to notice a couple of supermarket trollies just inside the door. I couldn’t help thinking, if they got a graffitist to spray the word “supermarket” over the door, it would stay there for years. Mind you the sign ban doesn’t seem to apply to McDonald’s which are as numerous here as anywhere else on the planet.

There is lashings of culture of course. You could spend each day going from gallery to gallery and each night at a different concert. We spent one at a the church where Venice’s favorite composer Vivaldi had been music master and of course The Four Seasons was on the program, but played with a gusto unknown at home.

Then the next night we visited La Fenice, the great but diminutive opera house for a raunchy rendition of La Traviata, but because we had some of the cheapest seats with limited visibility, some of the raunch took place on a part of the stage we could not see. 

So what to make of Venice? While other great cities have given in to the seduction of highrise buildings and freeways, Venice has retained its quaint waterways. Therefore it could be said to be canal retentive. 

While the Venetian food wasn’t up to much, at least not in the establishments in our price range, the drink wasn’t bad. We sampled the soft sparkling delights of prosecco, now beginning to find favour at home, and also its fruity offshoot Bellini. We enjoyed some of the local Veneto white wines and the mixing possibilities of Campari and some of its competitors.

Which brings me to a quest during my visit to this city- how to make a Venetian blind. Start with three parts processo, two parts Campari…..

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5 thoughts on “Venice- how to catch a dose of gondolier.

  1. Superb photographs and words matching our experience and bringing it all back. A blight of twisted narcissism – what a great way to describe graffiti. The Rialto bridge wasn’t as damaged when we saw it. It’s hard to look at that vandalism. Thanks Geoff and thanks Jill. Terrific.

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