I once was given an assignment by the Editor of a glossy, wedding magazine. To write a travel article on the romantic city of Venice; so like Caesar, I Veni, Vidi, Vici Venice. I gave him what he wanted and he paid me handsomely. This isn’t the romantic twaddle that I sold him. This is the Venice that I really saw. . . . . . . . .
I arrived in Venice in the late afternoon. It was several years since I had last been there, but Venice changes very little and when it does the differences are barely perceptible. When you walk out of the station and see the Grand Canal in front of you the impact is still exhilarating. Still sublime, no matter how many times you have been there. And the smell is still the same – a tang of the sea mixed with undertones of fetid water, rank sewage and diesel fumes from the motor boats. The walk to my hotel, a small pensione was the usual Venetian obstacle course of tourists and dog dirt.
I left my bags in my room and walked to the Grand Canal and stood for a moment on the Academia Bridge. Venice has always been a chiaroscuro city, a place where light and dark change suddenly and unexpectedly. One moment it seems dilapidated and tawdry, the next the sunlight alters and you catch a glimpse of a beauty that makes your heart miss a beat. From the bridge the surface at one moment looks oily and brown and suddenly has the sheen of shot silk. The exposed banks of mud along the edges can have the appearance of the expensive unguent women apply to their wrinkles rather than the poisonous slime it really is.
I walked further along and peered through a wrought iron gate, I could see and hear water lapping against the walls of a beautiful but somewhat dilapidated building. Even in the gloomy light it was possible to make out the scum on the surface of the water, a thick layer of kitchen scraps and other rubbish which had been dumped there over the years and not been flushed away by the action of the tides. I was certain that I could also hear the patter of the feet of rats. I wandered to St. Marks Square for a drink before dinner. It’s what all tourists do, but somehow in Venice it’s the only place for an aperitif.
The city is so cramped, its open spaces so small and so few in number that the Piazza alone gives any relief from the suffocating claustrophobia. Only in St. Marks can you really see the sky, only there can you savour the exquisite atmosphere of the Venetian dusk, the shadows stretching out across the foot- worn stones, the water by the Piazzetta is as iridescent as a sheet of Mother-of-pearl. Here it was reasonably easy to write some romantic guff for the magazine for starry-eyed brides.
In fact when you get to the square you find it brimming over with foreigners, unscrupulous street sellers and overfed pigeons which splatter droppings on your head as you fight your way through the throng. In history the Venetians had a reputation for savage cruelty. The two men who made the fantastic zodiacal clock in the Piazza were officially blinded to prevent them from making another for somebody else. Traitors were buried alive head first and other terrible tortures in the state dungeons sent shivers throughout the civilised world.
This tradition still carries on to this day; in a modified form in St. Marks Square, not in the garrotte, or the rack of yore but infinitely more subtle and pitiless in the form of half a dozen cafe orchestras each competing with the others and the sounds reverberate around the surrounding building, assaulting your ears from every direction. . . . . . Can’t think of more romantic surroundings for a wedding. . . Honest!
I would just add that I had a conversation with a Venetian hotel owner who asked if it were possible for me to pay him in Sterling rather than Euros. He told me that since the Euro was formed in 1999 the Italian economy has been a disaster. Being fair he blamed a lot of problems on their political system but mostly the European Union Monster (his words). I asked him what the solution was and he answered in one sentence – Leave the Euro!