Visiting La Serenissima*
By Michaela Gabriel
Venice in January: the “most illustrious” belongs to the natives and only a few tourists. An account of some sunny winter days, complete with poems inspired by the beauty on the sea.
* “serenissima” means “the noblest”, “the most illustrious”
My boyfriend Sepp and I leave Vienna on the night train, which gets us into Venice the next morning at about 8 am. We sleep fairly well on the train, and while having a very early breakfast, we get to see a beautiful sunrise near San Donà. The sun is a bright red ball above the frost-covered land, the small sleepy villages, the barren trees that fly by outside the train window. What a sight! On the train aisle we can hear Italian voices, talking rapidly, people on their way to work squeezing onto the train.
winter sunrise, san donà
the land wears
the bitter jewels of frost,
a diadem of barren trees,
the sun its only
Once we are at Venice’s Santa Lucia station, we take a deep breath, smile at the prospect of some days in the beautiful city, buy a ticket for public transport and catch a vaporetto, a boat, to Lido, the quite famous island where we have booked a hotel.
Lido used to be THE place in Venice, where all the rich and famous people were hanging out early in the 20th century. It boasts wonderful beaches all along the side of the island which faces the open sea and not the lagoon. Lido is nowhere over 1 km wide, but about 12 km long, so you can imagine the pine-fringed beaches!
I assume it must be terribly busy in summer, but at this time of year, it is quiet and basically belongs to Venetians. Many of the hotels and B&Bs are closed until spring, as well as most restaurants and cafés.
We spend 40 minutes on board that boat, and from it we already catch a glimpse of Venice’s beauty. I have been to Venice before, but not in several years, and then only for half a day. I was there a few times as a child but cannot remember much, except holding on to my mother’s hand trying not to get lost in the crowd.
Venice, as many of you will know, consists of several islands, and the main passages are canals, not normal streets. There are narrow and crooked lanes all over the city of course, some even too narrow to be used with children’s pushchairs! You can still see women having a chat from window to window three floors above the ground – sometimes the houses are leaning towards one another, so it is even possible to shake hands up there!
Venice is often flooded – not a big surprise when you consider how much water there is everywhere. We are lucky, and everything remains dry for the duration of our stay. The weather is amazing, it feels more like early spring than mid-winter! It is sunny and the sky mostly so blue it is almost kitschy! Nights are cold though, it gets chilly when the sun has set, but it is still not below freezing, except the first night.
Off-season – Piazza San Marco, Basilica
After settling into our neat little room, we go back to the city, the main part of Venice. We take a vaporetto to San Marco, near Venice’s famous St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) with the Basilica and the Palazzo Ducale (the Doges’ Palace), and the well-known Campanile, the tower. I know how packed this place can be in summer, but that day it is quiet and almost empty. The pigeons (whom I very much dislike!) – another famous feature of Venice! – outnumber the people by far!
old men are shuffling
across piazza san marco;
Pockmarked, bruised, and full of history: Venice as seen from the Campanile
We stroll around, take some pictures, then go up the Campanile (by elevator). What a view from up there! The sea, the square, the domes of St. Mark’s, the labyrinth of houses and lanes, canals and bridges, antennae, chimneys and ladders on the reddish roofs … very inspiring!
the domes sit heavy
on your shoulders,
every inch inscribed
you bear it with dignity,
always a lady.
you rock gently,
flap your wings,
gaze down from pedestals
so many men built you.
in the twilight stillness of winter,
i hear you sigh,
modest lover, coy temptress.
you show so much,
but never completely lift your veil.
We also walk around the area, just anywhere, getting entangled in the web of lanes, have something to eat, explore some more, admire the Murano glass figures, vases, frames, etc in the many shop windows, pick some postcards; it’s so easy to relax! We also have to go by boat again – and this one takes us along the Canal Grande, the famous and broadest of Venice’s many waterways which is faced by a great number of palaces, hotels, museums, in short: beautiful houses – regardless of their present condition, carefully painted and renovated, or decaying.
houses on the waterfront
patched up, bruised
guarded by posts
like red and white pencils
anchored to the bottom of the sea
in their damp backyards
dreams have been swept up
in time’s forgotten corners
We catch glimpses of gondolas, those elegant and typically Venetian boats, but rides in those gondolas are very expensive, and so we miss out on that. However, Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” from “Hoffman’s Tales” remains on my mind for the rest of our stay in Venice!
Evening comes fast in winter, and it gets very chilly that first night! We grab something we can eat back at the hotel and board a vaporetto. For some reason, the boat is packed with ladies in furs (apparently furs are a must in Venice, I’ve never seen so many before!), men in coats and fur hats, tourists in winter jackets, scarves pulled up to their ears. We cannot get a seat inside, so we have to spend about 30 minutes sitting outside. The mist has long rolled in from the sea, it all looks incredibly spooky, mysterious, but so pretty! As long as you can actually see something, that is!
night boat to lido
all the warmth i’ve known today
has left me;
it’s as distant as
the lights of san marco.
we dive into the mist
that hides nothing,
only night and water,
a procession of phantom gondolas.
he says i look like a frozen angel
shivering a venetian andante;
he’s scared to kiss me
and stir my wings to life.
Colori – reflection in a Burano canal
I am still surprised the boat makes it back to Lido alright. It is impossible to see anything, the fog’s just so dense! I am quite convinced I am going to freeze out there in the wind and cold, but we both survive, and a hot chocolate at the only open bar/café near our hotel brings us fully back to life …
After a good night’s sleep, we board a boat to the island of Burano. We have to go via the main island and change boats there, so we can enjoy the views that trip offers: churches with green or white domes, towers, palaces, bridges as well as deserted ruins, empty backstreets and blind or broken windows.
Burano, a small island, is famous for its lace. Of course this was of more importance in times gone by, but there are still women who are taught the art of making lace, and you can bet that Burano lace is incredibly expensive!
Prowling: cat on Calle delle Botte, Burano
We fall in love with that little place! It is so very colourful and cute – and this is much better enjoyed off-season, because you can actually walk where you please and see what’s there! All the houses are painted blue, red, yellow, orange, purple, you name it, and they seem to huddle closely together, sometimes their roofs look like caps pulled over freezing ears … the lanes are narrow, quiet; washing hangs on clotheslines strung from window to window, cats linger in deserted backstreets, the boats rock quietly on the small canal … some natives are on their way back home from a shop or a visit, and the square next to the leaning tower is empty – even in front of the open trattoria.
Sepp and I stroll down to the seashore, and there we stay for a long time. It is so amazingly warm! The sky’s blue, the sea even bluer, the gulls are diving for some food, a few other people are enjoying the sunshine, what an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity! We write a few postcards and listen to classical music mingled with the cries of seagulls, and try to get a tan …
Back on the main island, we make our way to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a renowned museum of modern art with paintings and sculptures by Arp, Kandinsky, Chagall, Magritte, Picasso, Moore, etc.
“Overturned Blue Shoe with Two Heels under a Black Vault” by Jean Arp
it looks more like
a bare blue tree
with three branches
under a giant
One attraction is the naked rider on his bronze horse, L’Angelo della Città (The Angel of the City), outside the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (where the museum is located): he boasts an erect penis which can actually be taken off, perhaps in case some important church officials are going past the museum on the Canal Grande.
I am quite impressed by Pegeen Vail’s paintings. Vail was Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter who died in 1967; for some reason her art particularly touches me, inspires me.
pegeen vail paintings
the same blonde dancer,
the same dark-haired girl,
always a red or yellow stool,
something brightly striped,
flowers according to season.