Thursday, 14 August 2014

Venice - the land of mystery and intruige

I have been to Venice twice before, although I don't have many memories apart from the rain. The last time I went, with my parents, it was mid September and the rain was torrential from the moment we entered the train station until we left. I remember business men in pinstriped suits and wellies, St Mark's square being entirely flooded and crowds of people waiting to get into the Academia, because it was the only dry place in easy reach.

I was, therefore, rather nervous about what the weather would be like this time. A wet Venice is not the best place to be, and the weather on this trip has been really mixed. Everywhere I've been, someone has said 'oh, it's not normally like this'. And I keep hearing stories of heatwaves in England!

Anyway, having got dad to help me visualise my route from the boat stop to the hotel (no taxi to rely on to take me direct to the door here), I felt reasonably confident of getting where I needed to go without getting lost and finding myself at a dead end. Upon arrival at the station, I was greeted with ....... sunshine, hooray! Perhaps I don't curse Venetian weather after all. I found my way to the hotel with no problem at all (very basic, with weird panel instead of door to the bathroom and rocks for pillows, but a stone's throw from St Mark's, so who cares) and then decided to launch myself into the city and see where I ended up.

By a convoluted meandering means, I ended up at the Academia and wandered about for a couple of hours, being completely floored by a Veronese canvas that covered an entire wall and then finished off the day first with an expensive Aperol spritz at one of the pizzaetta caf├ęs and then with a meal in Noemi, a restaurant dad had recommended, where a group of Italians were having a very jolly party (and the head of this party later turned out to be the restaurant's cleaner, so it's no wonder one of the waiters stashed a glass of Prosecco near them, and kept gong to join in the fun when he felt no one else needed him).

The following day, I had no plans other than meeting a good friend who was joining me, but couldn't get a flight out until a day after my arrival for various reasons. So, again I wandered with a vague direction in mind. This time, I ended up passing the Arsenale (and finding many dead ends when I tried to discover a way in ..... not possible, it's a military zone. Keep out! Unless you're a Venetian spy of course), and then wandered right up to the space occupied by the Biennale, which was in the middle of the Architecture part of its exhibitions. It was all very odd, and I didn't get a lot of it, but the exhibition space is surrounded by a park, which is just as surprising as finding central park in New York - it's not something you think of when you think of Venice, this wide open space, without any bridges to cross. (Side note - can one take too many pictures of bridges? I think I may have tested this question whilst I was there.)

It was too hot to be bothered to walk back the way I'd come, so I hopped on a boat and then wandered down a side passage to find a place to eat - and I found a very nice restaurant, where I killed an hour eating something I'm still not entirely sure I ordered (but it doesn't matter, because it was very good anyway!).

I then meandered back and decided to go to the Museo Correr, which is in the corner of St Mark's. And suddenly DRAMA! Slipping my museum pass back into the pocket of my handbag, I suddenly realised I didn't have my phone. Immediate panic. Where could I have left it - the restaurant! But would it be there? And would I be able to get back into the museum, as they'd already scanned my ticket and it could only be used once! One of the ticket ladies noticed my panic, and I explained, and asked if I went away, could I come back in. Yes, she said. Now breathe, breathe and run! She didn't quite push me out the door, but it was close. And then things became like a silent movie - there I was, running through St Mark's, scattering pigeons and tourists in my wake, over two bridges, and back down the side street - at the corner of which was a young boy playing the accordion, and rather aptly playing a tune that sounded dramatic and threatening. 'Run, run, you're never going to get it back. How are you going to contact people' it seemed to be saying. I dashed into the restaurant, explained myself to a bored waiter who gestured to me to go right ahead and look, found my table and ...... there it was, on the bench where I had been sitting. Untouched for the last 20 minutes. PHEW and wow.

So back I went to the museum, smiled broadly at the ticket lady, who looked very happy for me and let me back into the museum, and found myself doing a solo waltz at the side of the ballroom (where, unfortunately, I had some rather amused witnesses).

Elizabeth eventually arrived, after a convoluted bus and boat ride from the airport, and we went out for dinner before collapsing in the hotel, both of us exhausted for different reasons.

The following day, we immersed ourselves in the mysterious world of Venice's past, with a tour round the secret parts of the Doge's palace. Just like the castle in Ferrara, the palace has prisons in its lower levels, which would have flooded at high tides and been generally dank and miserable. We followed our guide along dark passageways and up steep flights of stairs, until we were under the roof of the palace, where the very secret offices of the Council of ten were - very sombre rooms, with no decoration, because they weren't supposed to receive visitors here, just inquire into every level of Venetian society and deal with all the information the spies sent their way. Right at the very very top of the building we were shown the two cells Casanova stayed in for just over a year (for reasons no one, not even him, were ever able to fathom). The first cell he almost managed to escape from by digging a hole, until he was discovered by the guard (and it's just as well really, because he would have dropped into the main office of the constable, and he'd probably have been executed). The second cell he escaped from by means of a priest in the next cell, who made a hole in both their cells and then they tried to escape by jumping off the roof. They didn't jumps, realising the canal below was far too shallow, so they shaved their beards and managed to get out of the palace by means of the main door - Casanova had chosen 31st October as his escape date, knowing everyone bar a few guards would be out in the city celebrating. As they were allowed to keep their own clothes (being noble prisoners, rather than ruffians), they made themselves presentable and then wound their way through the palace, passing many rooms where - had they been occupied - the two would have been caught, and out through the main gate, just casually telling the guards they'd not left earlier. Simple really.

After the tour we made our way through the main parts of the palace, which were grand and lavishly decorated, the better to impress those who sought an audience. We went over the bridge of sighs too (where I my hand out of the small windows and to those taking pictures of the famous bridge) and down into the new prison, built when the numbers of prisoners grew too large for the confines of the smaller dungeons. The Doge's palace is a threatening and imposing place - far more so than any other seat of power in Italy. You don't find much of God's forgiveness here.

From the palace we wandered about, shopping every so often to admire glass or gloves or handbags or lace or ......... Venice is a treasure trove when it comes to shopping. Note we didn't buy anything at that particular point. Instead we had ice cream for lunch and wandered in and out of churches, some with some beautiful paintings and very much marbled up to the hilt. It does make me wonder about the future of Venice. When it finally sinks (and some buildings are very much on the tilt already), what are they going to do with all the art? Will they distribute it to other Italian cities, or will some 'enterprising' soul decide to create a replica Venice in the middle of some American desert, where it couldn't possibly sink. Who knows. I just hope I'm not around when it does start to happen.

Anyway .... onwards. The next day we visited Murano and Burano, famous for their glass and lace, respectively. The boat ride is a fairly lengthy one, weaving around other islands, stopping off at the hospital and the cemetery (where we saw a priest in a speedboat) and then on to glass and lace world. Both islands are mini versions of Venice, but I prefer Burano for its relaxed feel and the vibrant colours of its houses. It's known as the island where the rainbow fell, because each house is brightly painted, and you are presented with a riot of colour as you step off the boat. The museum of lace is pretty fascinating when you think of all the intricate work that was (and still is) done by hand. It was here that my spending spree began. I really wanted to buy a tablecloth for myself, until I remembered I don't own a table and couldn't predict the size of the one I eventually hope to own, so I contented myself with buying things for people who do own furniture. Back in Venice we had an early dinner as we were going to a concert of Vivaldi's Four Seasons - which was alright, but even to my untrained ear it didn't sound quite right, and to Elizabeth's very trained ear, it definitely didn't sound right! But it was a fun experience.

The next day was a busy one as we had various points we wanted to cover. We started off by going to the Scuole Grande of San Rocco. This was one of Elizabeth's favourite places and is famous for its gigantic canvases by Tintoretto, including a very dramatic annunciation. No peaceful entry of the Angel Gabriel with Mary patiently waiting for him to be found here. No - the Angel bursts through the door completely shocking Mary, who looks like she's about to scream in fear. She's not that attractive either and her house is a mess. It's fair to say the place quickly became a favourite of mine too and every other annunciation we saw that day paled in comparison. From there we went to the Academia (my second visit, but I found a few things I'd overlooked the first time) and then moved on to the Peggy Guggenheim museum. Here there was more drama as Elizabeth discovered she'd left her handbag at the Academia. She left me in the garden as she rushed back to look for it. Thankfully she returned, with handbag, not too much time later - she had apparently almost caused a security incident and her tale of proving the bag was hers was high comedy. That's enough drama for one trip I think.

We moved on to the church on the island of Guiadecca, which was built to give thanks for the lifting of the plague in the late 1570s. The weather (which so far had been brilliant) was looking decidedly iffy, and there were storm clouds gathering. It started to rain, and then was throwing it down (although not as badly as on my previous visit) and we decided to get the boat to the Rialto, banking on it having cleared up once we got there. And it did, although it was still a bit drizzly, which forced us into a shop to avoid the last of it. And here my spending began in earnest ..... I saw a vase I loved, but the shipping cost was almost twice the price of the vase itself. So, no, leave it in the shop and on to the next. Where I found some gorgeous amber-brown-gold glasses, and having decided to buy them, went back and bought the vase so the other shop could ship it with the glasses. The package has already reached home apparently!

Things unravelled from there really, and now I have shawls, gloves, some wonderful jewellery and all manner of other things that I might keep or give as presents - depending on how I'm feeling. I almost bought an amazing multi-coloured handbag but decided against it ......

Our final full day was more restful than previous days. We really only had the church of St Mark's to see, and that didn't open until 2, so we just meandered the streets, buying things that took our fancy and eating ice cream until it was time to queue up to get in. The roof opens earlier than the church, so we found ourselves sitting on it, admiring the view out over the square for a bit before going into the church proper. It is an amazing riot of gold mosaics and a fantastic floor, which is sadly mostly covered to protect it from the myriad feet that tramp over it daily (but why carpet covering and not raised plastic or glass, I wonder?). Elizabeth went to the Museo Correr whilst I climbed the campanile (well, I say climbed - they have a lift, which takes away from the fun a little) and looked out over the lagoon. I came down pretty quickly, and it's as well I did, because the bells started ringing out the half hour, and that would have been deafening to stand under!

We had our final dinner in a lovely restaurant, again recommended by dad, and I came to the sudden realisation that it was my last night in Italy. It was slightly shocking to think that time had gone so quickly.

To the airport I went the following morning (Elizabeth had a later flight), where I battled with the badly organised lines and then hopped from Venice to Lyon then on to Bordeaux where I stayed for the night in a slightly dodge hotel (couldn't find the light switch for the corridor, so at one point I was feeling room numbers with my fingers, until I admitted defeat and went back downstairs for help). I had booked a table at a highly recommended restaurant called La Tupina, and the little I ate was wonderful, but unfortunately a migraine meant I couldn't finish my delicious pork, so I ended up in bed very early!

The following morning I caught a train to Poitiers and was met by Norma - a very dear friend - and have been relaxing at her home ever since - well, except for this afternoon, where we were both being taught to dance the waltz by a couple of her neighbours, which caused much laughter. I am to relax here until Sunday. 



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