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.

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