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)

Doge’s Palace & Cafe Florian, Venice, 17.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 12, 2006

Venice is awash (pun!) with what I call Venetian Tragics – pale middle-aged women in flat shoes and floating scarves, gazing soulfully at statuary on obscure buildings. They have no bags or guide books, and they stride about confidently as if they know the place intimately. They tend to look English and scholarly, as if they might be writing a thesis or a long and dull novel, or else they seem anxious, as if they might need their inadequate Italian to alert a negligent official to some falling stucco. They are always thin and mildly grubby, and they look vaguely hungry, as if they are eking out some miserable pittance to extend their stay for as long as they can. I expect they go home eventually, and bore people with breathless reveries about their pilgrimage to Venice…it is wisest to avoid getting into conversations with The Tragics…

In Venice, as elsewhere, our pre-paid tickets saved us from disappointment. The queue for the Doge’s Palace was long, but at least we were sure of getting in!

The Great Council room, at 55 metres long, is vast. It’s a good spot for a rest, because its size dissipates the irritating voices of the tour guides and that exasperating incessant burr of the ever-present Americans. (‘Why, honey, will you look at that! We don’t have anything like that at home in Texas/Minnesota/Illinois etc’) Everywhere in the palace there are fabulous paintings in massive gold stucco frames, but in the Great Council Hall the artworks are breathtaking. This hall is where all the nobles over the age of 25 met to elect the Doge, and there’s a huge mural of J C and the Saints in the heaven to which they presumably aspired. The whole room is decorated with scenes about the triumphs of Venice, including a painting of her successful battle with the Pope.
 After the Doge’s Palace, we had a restorative coffee at Cafe Florian, first opened in 1720 and patronised by Dickens, Byron and Proust. It was ruinously expensive, but I didn’t care…We were put in with ‘the foreigners’ but the waiter was sweet and friendly when spoken to in Italian. We sat in a little alcove with a Marco Polo ‘fresco’ behind us, and others that might have been Titians. The tables were battered old marble, the floors were parquet and the walls were rather like the first cafe we went to in Vienna with sumptuously aged wooden panels. There were giant ‘aged’ photocopies of illegible handwriting, an allusion to which famous writer I don’t know, maybe Henry James? (He wrote The Aspbern Papers here, one of his short stories, a much better one than The Turn of the Screw).
Our waiter arrived with our order on a great silver tray. There were little coffee cups with the Florian logo, topped with small brass individual coffee filters through which he poured the hot water with a great flourish. Our cakes (mine was chocolate and his was almond) were topped with slivers of chocolate also with the Florian logo, and it was all just gorgeous. It would be really nice to have high tea here, next time.


San Marco was much less crowded on a Monday, so we explored the piazza until it was time for a light lunch, at Osteria Enoteca San Marco. (Near where Paul Keating buys his suits.) It had a lovely atmosphere, plastered walls and brickwork, space to breathe, and delicious simple meals. I had gnocchi and Tim had Tagliatelli Con Sarde (sardines, pinenuts and raisins, like he cooks at home), the meal washed down with a Russob Ronco Calay Pinot Grigio 2004 from the local region. The waiters were kindly and patient and encouraging about my Italian – more than making up for that nasty place on Sunday.
After lunch, a shopping trip, to augment Tim’s wardrobe. (You’d think an experienced traveller like him would pack enough shirts, eh?) We found a very classy little gentleman’s outfitters near our hotel, which turned out to be surprisingly reasonable so he bought a new shirt, a belt and a couple of polo tops, and we had done our bit for the Venetian economy.
Then, down to the Rialto where there were more expensive shops but it was very crowded and the smokers irritated both of us intensely. The pathways are very narrow, so there is nowhere to escape the filthy stink of it,  so we headed back to the wide open spaces of Piazza San Marco and sat down to enjoy a jazz band at Cafe Quadri. Alas, before long the band took a break, leaving us to be assailed by two competing bands, one from Cafe Florian on the other side of the piazza, and one from an adjacent cafe.
I finally, finally got close enough to see the four horses at San Marco. The ones outside are only the copies but they do look very impressive. The originals used to be in Constantinople, where they stood above the emperor’s royal box to impress everyone when he was watching the chariot races. They went to Venice when the Doge claimed them as booty from the Fourth Crusade because he’d financed it, though he didn’t get round to putting them anywhere – it was a later Doge who had them installed above the cathedral as a symbol of Venetian power. There they stayed for 500 years or so till Napoleon swiped them and then was made to return them in 1815. They then went up and down a number of times for restoration, safe storage during wars and so on, until finally they were removed to the museum to protect them from pollution and the replicas installed in their place.

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