My mind’s eye envisioned Venice as a decaying water fortress portrayed in mysterious horror- like films and books. Thomas Mann’s book Death in Venice provided me my most morbid images of this city in northeastern Italy.
I emerged from the train station and found myself veiled in a swirling lemon-coloured fog as the weak rays of a September dawn tried to break through the heavy sea mist. People swirled like ghosts and a floating Vaporetto (motorised barge) was waiting below, as if to ferry travellers to the gates of the underworld. There are no cars in Venice proper. Without a hotel booking in hand, I was spirited away to the youth hostel on the Isle of Giudecca on Line 12.
That’s where the dark side of Venice gave way to the brighter side of reality. The hostel window near my bed looked east, straight out on to the Giudecca Canal and to the famous skyline of the city of Venice. That evening a huge ocean liner five stories high steamed past. It was the grand balcony view of all views across the canal, taking in the Eastern panorama of St Mark’s basilica and the Doge Palace, all for the princely sum of 18 Euro a night!
Venice is old and creaks at the joints
That is part of its charm. It is akin to an old, arthritic man, worn away from wading in the salt water for too long. The joints of the city may be old and the skin peeling, but it is still full of historical charm combined with modern vitality. A visit to the Doge Palace is a must, especially for the opportunity to come face to face with the huge, luminous Titian paintings in heavy gilt frames. A walking tour brings the visitor to St Mark’s large, ornate doors and the chance to take in tall framed long shots of vistas across the lagoon from multi-storied bridges and walkways over narrow canals. The bridge of Sighs is the most famous among these.
I love alleyways and the dark green mysterious water, and Venice has both in abundance. You can get lost within the main township, which adds to the mystery of Venetian life, scurrying around long narrow lanes hard against early Renaissance architecture, leading into walled squares containing Gothic churches and enclosed courtyards. Venice is a busy labyrinth open to tourists in many places, yet private and guarded behind groaning doors on huge iron hinges.
A vaporetto glides across the main lagoon several kilometres to the long isle of Lido, where several tourist hotels and backpacker haunts cluster on the main northern boulevard. From The Lido looking north one can take in the expansive mirage-like apparition that is Venice, as if floating on the lagoon, drawn straight out of a surrealistic Dali painting.
A ferry trip to the outer archipelago takes one to the outer islands of Murano and Burano. This September day was blessed with bright sunshine and calm, listless water, with the statuesque ochre buildings from the isle of dead reflected in the millpond of the Venice lagoon. This was a reality far from the gloomy Gothic city imagery of my film-fed construction of the city.
Murano Isle is the Island of Glass. It is filled with neat white houses, canals and petite arched bridges. The curio shops sell glassware in exquisite forms, with swirls and patterns — a true carnival of glass. If one books ahead a special tour of the glass-blowing artistry can be seen at several sites. By contrast Burano, the “lace” island is encrusted with richly painted pastel-hued homes and dotted with colourful fishing boats. The shops here sell locally made lace. I bought a round table cloth for about 30 Euro. More to my taste was a glass of local Pinot Grigio, a local white wine (2 Euro a glass) to go with a meal of sardines, olives and tomato pesto on crusty bread to hit the spot for about 6 Euro. Food is more expensive in downtown Venice, except for the ubiquitous large squares of pizza. Surprisingly, on the outer islands, simple meals of risotto with fish and vegetables were budget-priced.
The vaporettos are vital for travel around the dozens of islands that surround Venice, and these are not expensive. The gondolas look romantic, swaying rhythmically on their striped barber-pole moorings outside St Mark’s square, but few are used on the larger waterways in daytime when the sea breeze is blowing. At night it is another story altogether, when the well- heeled romantics travel the inner waterways to restaurants or to take in the softly lit atmosphere of Venice at night, with a multitude of artistically floodlit facades of 16th-century town houses and villas, paint peeling from the harsh sea salt and often centuries of neglect.
Venice offers the visitor many great vistas across the open water. The city is a work of art in itself, and the inter-play of sky, sea and a shoreline of immense brick walls rising steeply, and stone buildings create a unique urban environment. The atmosphere that one encounters in Venice cannot be found anywhere else on the planet.