Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Venice, 16.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 11, 2006

 We were up early and at the Milan station in plenty of time, only to find out at the last minute that they had told us (and everyone else) to go to the wrong platform so we had to lug the suitcases up and down the stairs all over again. On board, we discovered that our seats were not together, but rather one behind the other, which didn’t matter for most of the way as there was nothing special in the way of a view. But when we came into Venice, and saw the lagoon, we wanted to share it with each other so Tim turned around and kneeled up on his seat and we got excited about it together.

Our first impressions were just wonderful. Off the train and through the station and there’s a huge piazza down to the vaporettos and water taxis. The fog had lifted by then so I left Tim blinking into the sunlight and listening to someone playing music while I found my way to the ticket office and found some 3-day Travelcards. A short wait for the vaporetto and we were off along the Grand Canal, marvelling at the buildings and museums whose names we recognised, and then our stop was suddenly before us and we had arrived.

A short walk across a couple of bridges (more stairs) and then we found our little hotel, Residenza San Maurizio. Our room was traditional Venetian style (we were told) and quite spacious and comfortable. Its little windows open out onto a tiny courtyard and it’s very pretty. We stashed our bags upstairs (no lift, alas) and set off for lunch.

We found a nearby restaurant adjacent to the famous Harry’s Bar (though we, not being very good at popular culture, didn’t know it was famous) and it serves the rich and famous. Hemingway used to go there. Perhaps not being famous was why we found it hard to catch the waiter’s eye, but when we did he was very nice and friendly, and fairly prompt.

The pasta was lovely: mine was prawns and zucchini flowers, and Tim’s was the black pasta made from squid, but oh dear! the stink of cigarette smoke got on my nerves and gave Tim hay fever. Still, the sun was shining, and it was blissfully quiet after the hustle and bustle of Milan.

After that we went for a walk, but it didn’t take long for me to get completely sick of the shops and the shoppers, all trailing around gawping at the same ornate masks, the same over-elaborate clothes and the same flamboyant jewellery everywhere we went. There was only one little place selling hand-made papers and papier-mâché dioramas that was of any interest at all…and it was shut.

Arriving in St Mark’s square (San Marco Piazza), however, was amazing. To be in the pictures painted by Canaletto felt surreal, and I would have liked to look closer but the crowds were so oppressive and there were disgusting pigeons everywhere. Goodness knows what it’s like in summer during the peak season! So we walked past Cafe Florian and round to the ‘front’ of the Ducal Palace (the canal side) and then struggled along the promenade until somehow (how does he do it??) Tim found our way back to where we belonged.

En route back to the hotel for some peace and quiet with a book, we discovered La Fenice, Venice’s opera house. I had just finished reading about it in John Berendt’s book, City of Falling Angels, and if I hadn’t known that it had burnt down in 1996 and been rebuilt, I’d have thought it was a very old building.  According to Berendt, there were endless shenanigans after the fire: officials charged with negligence ensured that some electricians were convicted for arson so that they couldn’t be sued. The fire brigade, apparently, couldn’t use water from the local canal because it had been drained for a long overdue repaint, and no alternative water supply had been arranged. The rebuilding contract was awarded to a company that had been able to undercut the others because an extra room hadn’t been included in the design, and the others all sued because it wasn’t fair…and then the contract was awarded to another company which went bust – and so on. All very Venetian, apparently, and inextricably linked to Venetian aristocrats enjoying endless family feuds, and American expats who vie for access to Venetian society by fundraising for building and artwork restorations.

For us, however, Sunday in Venice seemed to consist of endless tourists, and workers who hold them to ransom – like at the truly awful place when we ventured out for dinner. The Restaurant Al Calice in the same street as Osteria San Marco (Frezzeria) has the most disgusting, inedible food and the worst and rudest waiter I have ever encountered. I pity anyone who thinks that this place is representative of Italian cuisine…
The crowds had dissipated by the time we escaped the restaurant, and so we risked a stroll nearby our hotel. We found street artists and opera singers in the piazza, and a fantastic exhibition of early musical instruments in a church.

In bed at night, the silence is surreal. There are no cars or trucks, no motorbikes and not even a dog barking. There are hardly any trees or shrubs, so there’s no wildlife to make any noise either, at least when the pigeons are asleep!

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