Lifting the Dark Side of Venice
My mind’s eye saw Venice as a decaying aqua-fortress portrayed in mysterious horror- like films and books. Peter Greenway’s macabre film, Belly of an Architect and Thomas Mann’s book Death in Venice provided my most morbid images of this city in northeastern Italy. I emerged from the train station and was en-veiled in 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. Without a hotel booking I was spirited to the youth hostel on the Isle of Giudecca on Line 12.
That’s where the dark side of Venice gave way to the bright side. The hostel window near my bed looked east, straight out on 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 AU$20 a night.
Venice is old and creaks at the joints, but this is part of its charm. It is akin to an old, arthritic man worn away from wading in salt water too long. The joints of the city may be old and the skin peeling but it is still full of historical charm and modern vitality. A visit to the Doge Palace is a must, especially coming face to face with huge luminous Titian paintings in heavy gilt frames. A walking tour brings the visitor to St Mark’s huge 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.
I love alleyways and dark green mysterious water, and Venice has both in abundance. You can get lost within the main township but that 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 vision of Venice, as if floating on the lagoon as part of a Salvador Dali surrealist painting.
A ferry trip to the outer archipelago takes in the outer islands of Murano and Burano. This day in September was blessed with bright sunshine and calm listless water, with the statuesque ochre buildings from the isle of dead, reflected calmly in the millpond of the Venice lagoon. This was a reality far from the gloomy Gothic city imagery of my film-based memories.
Murano isle is the “Glass” island with neat white houses, canals and petite arched bridges. The curio shops sell glassware of 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-toned homes and dotted with colourful fishing boats. The shops here sell locally made lace. I bought a round table cloth for about AU $30. More to my taste was a glass of local Pinot Grigio, a local white wine (AU$2 a glass) with a meal of sardines, olives and tomato pesto on crusty bread to hit the spot for about AU$6. Food is 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 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 peeling facades of 16th-century town houses and villas.
Venice offers the visitor many great vistas across open water. The city is a work of art in itself, and the inter-play of sky, sea and a shoreline of immense sheer-walled brick and stone buildings create a unique urban environment and an atmosphere that one encounters nowhere else on the planet or possibly, for that matter, in any world .