Sunday, February 22, 2015

La Serenissima: Venice Part 2

Today was going to be the next of the big two in Venice, namely the Doge's Palace.  However whilst yesterday was sunny albeit brisk, today was grey, drizzly and very cold indeed.  Definitely not a day for tramping around outside which was just as well as the Doge's Palace was all inside.

The interior courtyard

Interesting place Venice with interesting traditions.  The Doge for example was the elected leader and by the sound of it was not something you really aspired to.  People, always men of course, became Doge after a lifetime of successful business and service to Venice.  So Doges tended to be both old and short lived.  History tells us that there was one Doge in the 13th century who had the notion of turning it into a dynastic system, but he didn't last long as he was arrested, tried and executed.  That put something of a damper on future Doges thinking about dynasties.

The job itself was tough.  7 days a week cramped up in the Palace, which really actually isn't a palace at all.  It's something like the town hall.  Meeting rooms everywhere and only a couple of small private rooms for the Doge himself.  He rarely went home or saw his family after becoming Doge as he was kept so busy for remember Venice was the crossroads for commerce in that part of the Mediterranean.

Plenty of wondrous art in the many meeting rooms and waiting rooms

Being built in the old days, the place was dark and gloomy not helped at all by the fantastic collection of artwork (again lots of Tintoretto's) which itself was also dark and gloomy.  One particularly memorable room was of the chief justices throughout the centuries.  Every one of them had their own painting.  Imagine a huge room filled with paintings of grim faced, be-wigged men in red gowns.  Dozens of them.  Dozens.  Made me shudder, I can tell you.

See what I mean?

There were the lion's mouths too.  Very interesting.  In the middle of the mouth there was a flap through which you pushed your letters of denunciation.  This was a method of advising the authorities of someone's evil deeds but you couldn't simply make it up to get one over an adversary for example as you had to sign it and if the investigators found you'd made it up, it would be you that caught it in the neck.  Of course it was that old killjoy Bonaparte who took over the place in 1797 and ruled that this was complete nonsense so had all the lion's heads chopped off and the practice disbanded.  But you can still see where they were.

The post boxes front and back

Then there was the meeting room... it is enormous.  The guide said it was the biggest room in Europe for centuries and I can believe it.  At one end is a dais and the Doge's throne and that's it.  No chairs.  Loads and loads of paintings by ... you guessed it, Tintoretto again.  Huge paintings too but this time all very busy and crammed with action denoting Venice's commercial activities. Most impressive.

Let me guess... Tintoretto

The prisons were interesting though.  Like I mentioned before, the palace really isn't but a city hall and so has everything you could possibly need including cells in the dungeons.  Those are the really nasty ones as they are dank and disease ridden.  You wouldn't have much of a chance of coming out of that place if you'd been there a while.  So the Doge decided they needed to build another prison next door, but next door in Venice is actually not being next door but over a canal or river, they had to build a bridge over it through which the condemned passed... 2 corridors, one in and one out.  That is the famous Bridge of Sighs.  It looks way better from the outside than inside.

The Bridge of Sighs, inside and out

Good guide too.  We were part of a big group so were mic'd up so she could talk I think in 3 languages.  She told jokes too.  I'm always impressed by people who can speak lots of languages.  The lady guide said she was a university professor of history so liked doing this.  Good tour.

We found a brilliant place for lunch too.  A really tiny little trattoria by a canal with a couple of little rooms with tables crammed inside.  We even had some gondoliers for company and they really do have those stripy jumpers.  So we felt that we had found a popular place where locals go.

He had the black linguine with cuttlefish that comes out black.  I'll have to come back just for that!

We shared a mass of food, pasta, seafood, antipasti as well as the local liver with some local prosecco (of course) and red wine.  Lovely.

Razor clams, anchovies, prosciutto...
So having tramped around a bit and lunched well we felt the need for a bit more culture and as there was the Correr Museum on the piazza included in the price of entry with the Doge's Palace, we thought why not indeed.

The earliest ducat

The guidebook is pretty scatheing about the place saying that for a museum that is meant to be THE history of Venice, there really should be some rhyme or reason to how it is laid out.  Seeing as there is NO rhyme or reason to how Venice is laid out, I just thought that's a bit of a tough assessment.

The museum though has some amazing contents and again it all comes down to the antiquity of the place.  It started out in the late 5th century and that's when the contents of this museum start.  Actually not as they have some really decent Roman stuff of course which of course pre-dates the place.

Evidence of cricket during the Roman era

Marcus Aurelius

And some Byzantine art featuring a black St. Paul.  Don't see that very often.

But then it was cocktail hour and fortunately the original Harry's Bar was just around the corner and would no doubt offer up some warm conviviality.

Or at least that was what I hoped.  Boy was I disappointed.

It wasn't that the place was pretty spartan with plain wood floors, tables and chairs.  It wasn't that the Negroni's that we had cost an eye watering 24 Euros and really weren't that good.  I think it was because the service was really, really poor.  Talk about grumpy waiters.

I suppose from their point of view, the bar is one that tourists come to just for a single drink and a holiday snap so they know we won't be coming back so they don't give a hoot.  That's how it felt.

Anyway I was disappointed as I'd hoped to be a bit more impressed by a place that Ernest Hemingway used to frequent when he had some leave from the Isonzo Front in WW1 which isn't that far away from here.  He was a renowned drinker so the place must have had something back then.  It doesn't now.

And that was pretty much it for Venice.  Only time for 2 more fantastic meals and a couple more trips on the Vaporetto before our time was up.

Collecting trash in Venice. Not the most scenic of holiday snaps I'll grant but I found it fascinating. 

I will definitely be coming back!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Gondolas: Venice Part 1

When you think about Venice, you think canals, old buildings and gondolas.  And you'd be right too for Venice has all of those in abundance but no cars, few (if any) cinemas and not that many supermarkets (that I saw anyway).

Truth is that its a very small place indeed.  Indeed the Centro Historico -- that part of Venice that is not part of the mainland or other small islands that make up the entire commune -- has only 60,000 inhabitants in an area that I could walk across in a couple of hours -- always provided that I didn't get totally lost which is a real issue.  Wikipedia says the commune size is 170 square miles but the centro isn't much more than 10-15% of this total.  Given that in the old days, the centro held 200,000 people, it must have been really crowded (smelly and noxious too).  Its crowded now, for goodness sake.

The entirety of Venice from the air

The place is fascinating though.  In England we tend to think there's a 500+ year gap for the so-called Dark Ages between the Romans leaving and 1066 when decent records restarted, but not Venice.  They know what happened here and what happened here had a huge influence on Europe, far more than our own, situated as we are on the fringes of things.

Venice was first settled at the end of the Roman Empire when the remnants of the inhabitants of the North East part of Italy (called the Venetii) fled to the islands and marshes to avoid Attila the Hun whose troops didn't like the water.  To guard against bigger enemies over running them, Venice allied themselves with the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople (now called Byzantium), a move that gave them validity.

Given they couldn't venture on land (because the Lombards and later Charlemagne came after them in vain as it turned out), they became a maritime nation of traders.  Actually THE nation of maritime traders of the time.

AND they kept records.  Lots and lots of them.  So we have the history of western Europe from the 5th century available in Venice.  And art, and statues from antiquity, and wondrous precious items from centuries of commerce and conquest.

So given there are 30+ art galleries containing some of the world's greatest art treasures and more museums you can shake a stick at, we just picked a couple of highlights and put the rest down to another time.  For Venice really is another place you can keep coming back to if you're interested in antiquity.  A number of years ago, Viv and I talked about coming to Venice with our then teenage and not quite teenage sons.  We made lists of great things we'd love to see before young voices perked up:  "What is there for us?"  Actually, that was a great question so we put off the visit and went somewhere more child friendly.

Venice really does like the tourist books!

For Venice isn't a place for the young.  And you can see that with the inhabitants now too.  Virtually no young people as there's little work outside of tourism.  The young go to the mainland where property is cheaper, more spacious and there's work.

Our hotel was really nice (Hotel Canal Grande).  It was an old palazzo and faced onto the Grand Canal, which is the main water thoroughfare, opposite the train station and on the main waterbus routes.  So very convenient.

Our welcoming Negroni

The concierge (not a local, just like the other staff) organised a water taxi to go to Murano (home of the glass works) and as it was a totally clear, blue sky day, the entire thing was glorious.  It really is special to travel around like this and Venice is set up to be serviced in this manner.  There really isn't any other choice.  I don't know how many photos we took of people going about their business: emptying the trash, delivering food and drinks, moving stuff like beds.  We found it fascinating that that's how it is done in Venice, but obviously it's entirely normal for the Venetians.

Such a beautiful day for our excursion to Murano

In the old days, craftsmen who worked at Murano weren't allowed to leave the island on pain of death (it is a very small island too) so it was very much a father to son thing.  These days, like so many other craftsmen activities, there's precious few young people willing to apprentice themselves learning how to do everything by hand (as they've always been done).  But the work itself is breathtaking.  No pictures allowed in the fancy galleries though (sadly) to protect each craftsman's own designs so you'll have to visit to see for yourselves.  It is worth it... but expensive if you buy some things.

The workroom...

... the Apprentice in the foreground and the Maestro behind ...

Some random chandelier... the output

Leaving Murano, the water taxi took us the long way around the island passing the impressive Arsenale along the way (where 15,000 people once worked and it was said that they could build and fit out a new ship in 1 day if they were so inclined) to St. Mark's Square where the Doge's Palace stood out proud and recognisable.

The Doge's Palace

We spotted a sign advertising a (Venetian composer) Vivaldi concert in a nearby church for that evening and decided an evening of culture (and the Four Seasons) would be pretty good.  So having bought tickets we headed for the Basilica di San Marco nearby.

One thing we hadn't really considered was the fact that it would be cold in January but by the same token, there weren't any queues to speak of and the canals did not smell (like they do in warmer times).  There wasn't any queue to go into the Basilica at all... amazing really.  As was the interior.

Basilica San Marco

Viv and I compared notes about the most fantastic cathedrals, churches or other places of worship and tried to place San Marco in the pantheon.  Pretty impressive was our conclusion but not as fancy as the Abu Dhabi mosque, say, or the cathedral in Valetta... but then again it was built in the 9th century after two merchants stole the body (sarcophagus) of St. Mark from Alexandria and brought it home (St. Mark is Venice's patron saint) with additions every so often for the next 1,000 years.  So it is old.  Very, very old.

And yes there is scaffolding on part of the building.

The guide book describes some of the wonders to be seen in the Basilica, no more so than the artwork.  By the time we left, we felt we needed to see no more Titians or Tintorettos.  There were that many.  And they are pretty dark and gloomy too, in keeping with the times I expect.  But the Pala d'Oro was most impressive -- an altar screen made in Constantinople in 976 AD but much enriched by some of the impressive (if not rather tacky) booty from the 4th Crusade.

A small part of the Pala d'Oro with the chunky booty from the 4th Crusade

Then came lunch!  And what a joy that was!!

I'd forgotten that Prosecco is a nearby region and its produce, the sparkly wine, is deliciously available by the vat at virtually no cost even in the swanky restaurant on St. Mark's Square that we went to.  What a treat and what wonderful fresh pasta and prosciutto and local produce and coffee and...

Prosciutto, anchovies and the delicious bread

Linguine Vongole -- wow!

It's been a while since I've eaten in Italy so had almost forgotten how even in the throw away restaurants (the trattoria or the osteria or the enoteca...) the food can taste so good.  Definitely no need to go to swanky restaurants (OK, this time was because it was there and we were cold) or drink vintages off the wine list as the local stuff is just wonderful.

The break did enable us to restore tissues most satisfactorily to the point where I could easily have patted a small child on the head and given him/her sixpence, as PG Wodehouse once memorably described.  So we decided to walk back to the hotel as I had a street map.

Getting to the Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto) was easy.  We just followed the street signs and the mass of people and shops leading there from St. Mark's.  The shops were pretty much all tourist related selling Venetian trinkets, faux Murano glass (or so we'd been advised in Murano) and oddly enough selfie sticks -- things you attach to your phone enabling better selfies to be taken.  But there were a host of bars and eateries too that all looked most interesting.

Ponte di Rialto
The famous bridge itself was if I was to be honest rather shabby.  Maybe its the time of year or the fact that there were a number of empty shop fronts but this is a real tourist haven.  You can tell that even without looking at the street map... which I think may have been the case as some hour or so later we turned up in yet another Piazza, with canals in all directions and signposts not helpful at all, that we ultimately found on the map to be .... rather a long way away from our hotel.  However as we were near a waterbus stop (or Vaporetto) we decided to take it back to St. Mark's and find somewhere to eat and drink something small prior to the Vivaldi concert.

Vaporetto stop at dusk

So we did and it all worked out rather well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Euro Disney

If you've ever read the book 'Guns, Germs and Steel' by Jared Diamond you'd know how the west beat out the rest of the world about 500 years ago leading to half a millenium of total domination of everything.

Then came the Oil Crash in 1973/4, an event that in retrospect marked the end of the domination of the west and when compounded by the mega-financial disaster sparked by Lehman Brothers in 2008 confirmed the structural move of real control (you know 'financial control') from the west to the east.   The west no longer has any money to speak of.  Every western country is printing money just about as fast as they can.  OK, the US just finished doing it but the hangover from that will be with us for years. That's not real money.  It's based on past reputation and is largely unsecured.

Most global reserves are in the emerging markets or rather the 'developing world' as political correctness now terms it.  You can see it in every old place you go to.  Even in Europe and we went to two of the best: Canterbury and Venice.

Venice skyline

OK, January isn't the best of times to visit these places as the weather is cold, wet and pretty much nasty.  However it means nobody else goes there, so the lines at all the major attractions are short. That is a good thing.

But really, everywhere we went there were hordes of Asian faces clustered around guides holding umbrellas or signs of some other sort.  The traditional Asian tourist in fact.  You could see them checking everything out politely but really given that the Terracotta Warriors in Xian are 3,000 years old, are they really wondering about these old buildings ... or these new buildings?  

Looking past the superficiality of Europe, the old buildings, the mass of history, all those things that you and I think are just amazing testaments to our growth, there is the reality.  In Italy it is far more obvious.  There's so much old stuff and so many amazing artifacts that there's not enough money to house it all and preserve it all.  Given that average annual earnings are only around 14,000 euros, you can see that these once great nations are in reality paupers.

Lord knows how Greece will fund the necessary R&R on the Parthenon say given their current financial woes.  They're more likely to be leaving the Eurozone than staying.  What damage will that cause?

So, is that our fate?  Will we become the Euro Disney of the world?  The place where people who have money come to look at old buildings where old civilsations like the Romans, the Bourbons, the Hapsburgs and that old queen in England, Victoria, used to exist.  What a prospect!

The British Museum

But what buildings, what culture, what heritage and what history.  


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dirty Laundry

Having lived for the most part out of the UK for the last 30 years, each time I return to Canterbury and see the 1,000+ year old buildings only steps away from where we stay, I am amazed.  However when you go back in January when its just about zero and raining in that annoying way that it rains in England between November and March every year -- a sort of endless drizzle --and walk along the city walls from Canterbury East train station, I can tell you that you really don't care about how old the place is.  Its just cold and wet and you have just got a sniffle that you know will stay with you until spring.

Now that's why I left England.

Oh yes and the endless commute on the hideous trains in and out of London which is the magnet of the South East of England.  The entire country these days is that noxious term -- a dormitory town.  People sleep there and travel in and out of London to work.  That's all they do.

Thank goodness I escaped!!

So why on earth are people rushing into London?  It's THE magnet for the country and for that matter the whole of Europe.

Asylum seekers want to come in.  New EU member nation workers want to come in.  Older nation EU member nation people also want to come in.  Russian oligarchs are there as are those from the Middle East.  Someone told me in Abu Dhabi that it costs less than GBP20,000 to air freight your Maserati, Ferrari or Rolls into London for the summer.  Property is in such demand from Asian money that the papers have created a new term for the endless rows of darkened condos -- Lights Out London.  Everyone wants to be in London.  

As someone in the financial industry living in Bermuda, a so-called 'haven', I just have to laugh if it wasn't so serious (for us, that is).  Only today, Ed Milliband named Bermuda as a 'haven' that would be closed down under a new Labour government.  A BBC journalist proved he could launder a suitcase full of money in London within 30 minutes as opposed to not at all in Bermuda.  

People just don't want to hear that Bermuda is NOT a tax haven and that London is one of the biggest if not THE biggest tax haven in the world.  

The only competitor for this dubious award is the territory called the District of Columbia, that part of the US nearest to Washington.  

Yes, that one.