I returned to Venice recently.
My first time in the fabled Italian city was in 1978 and it left me quite unmoved and unimpressed. That visit was at the end of a long winter, almost at the end of a long overland journey from Australia to London, and at the depths of an almost empty pocket. I remember pigeons in St Mark’s Square (which in my addled memory was much smaller then than it is now), a deserted and cold and wind-blown Lido without a single sighting of Björn Andrésen or Dirk Bogarde, choppy grey waters in the Grand Canal … and an absolute sense of awe at the skills of the glass artisans on the Murano islands.
My more recent visit was timed to coincide with the wonderful Venice Biennale – an art event I have long read about and long wanted to visit and to celebrate. I did not don my commedia dell’arte mask and did not dance in St Mark’s Square – but I did have a wonderful time exploring the sensational national pavilions at Arsenale and Giardini, and finding single installations scattered around the city that were so wondrously incongruous and eye-catching.
For my visit this time I decided to splurge a little – after all – I was not going to be attending any bal masqué and did not have to arrive in style in a gilded gondola. While still in Croatia, I booked a room at the splendid Hotel Principe –yet another converted noble house located on the Grand Canal.
The ferry from Rovinj was comfortable and fast and full of British and American tourists off to “do” Venice in one day before returning to the Istrian coast. We all arrived at the customs and immigration pier, where two harried officials checked the hordes from the European Union and the United States. There were two additional Immigration Officers to check everyone else – all five of us – who came from Australia, New Zealand and places other than the EU.
I was through the check point, onto a vaporetto and bustling up the canal to my hotel while the day trippers were still queuing in the sun waiting to get into the squabbling lines frothing at the mouth as two fraught officials tried to cope with the second European invasion.
The Hotel Principe (www.gardenahotels.it/hotel-principe) is a short stroll up the narrow Rio Terà Lista di Spagna from the Ferovia “B” vaporetto pier and is actually a hotel carved out of four or five magnificent old palazzos. The reception area and ground floor lead through to the hotel’s own gondola pier and a waterside restaurant and bar where patrons can dip their toes into the waters of the Grand Canal. (They can also smoke there, unfortunately, as it is an “outdoors space.)
My splendid room (Number 136) was easily reached by going up two or three floors, along endless corridors, up and down small sets of stairs along the way, around the corner and turn left or right a few times and there you are!
GPS kits were issued with room keys.
An afternoon of grand passion?
I am sure the hotel has rooms with balconies giving directly onto the Grand Canal, where lovers can droop over terrace railings and listen to gondoliers singing O Solo Mio – or Lil Jon’s Set the Roof if they are a bit more up to date – and where gentle evening breezes flutter through the massed tubs of flowers outside elegant French windows, and where the last golden rays of twilight are filtered through sheer gauze curtains softly dappling the rumpled sheets of the bed still suffering from an afternoon of grand passion.
My room had none of these.
It was quite a nice room – a bit small, a bit difficult to find without three Blackfoot Indian trackers and a Sherpa or two – but it had lovely windows and shutters that opened offering a fine view of the side alley and its exquisite display of wheelie garbage bins. If I stood on tiptoe, poked my head and shoulders and most of my body through and around the windows, I could indeed see the Grand Canal – or at least a tiny sliver of its water.
However – location location location – as my Realtor friend Pam would say, made it a wonderful base for my all-too brief time in the city, the Bangkok of the West (*) with vaporettos at my doorstep and – when it was time to move on – the Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia just a gentle stroll away.
For visitors arriving or departing from the station, porters abound – and taxis are non-existent. Large trolleys are piled with the Louis Vuitton knock-offs and Samsonites with rainbow ribbons, and burley men trundle the trolleys through the narrow streets and over the many small bridges to and from the hotels and guest houses and pensions that are hidden away everywhere.
The Grand Canal is indeed just that.
During the Biennale (www.labiennale.org/en), many of the palazzos are used as temporary galleries featuring exhibits of new or old paintings, lace work, tapestries, sculptures and just about everything else. Outside the pallazos the candy cane mooring poles (palina) for gondolas are art forms in themselves. For the true art lover – or social climbing social anthropologist, their colours historically told the relative tales of family domains. A very wealthy family may have shown the healthy state of their bags of ducats with poles that were red and orange striped with a gold finial … while those lower on the ladder with ankles already sinking into the canal mud may have had to settle for poles striped blue and white and with a black finial or even – horror! – plain blue and even unadorned wood for those whose buckets of ducats were half empty rather than half full.
Gone, too, are the days when gondolas used to be gold plated and crusted with precious or semiprecious stones. By Ducal decree, I believe, all gondolas are now a standard 10.85 metres long (don’t ask why not simply eleven metres) and all are glossily painted black – albeit with a few gilded details here and there, and manned (I did not see any female gondoliers – perhaps because they tend to sing arias such as Un Bel Di or O Mio Babbino Cara rather than the compulsory O Solo Mio) by punters in red- or black- or blue-striped shirts and boaters with matching fluttering ribbons. (**)
Hearts are set a’ fluttering, too, by some of the national pavilions showcasing their native talents at the Biennale.
My favourite exhibition without a doubt was the work by Hiroshima-born artist Takahiro Iwasaki in the Japanese pavilion with an exhibition titled Turned Upside Down it’s a Forest.
First glimpse inside the pavilion was gained by scaling steep steps to a tiny platform, and poking one’s head through a hole in the floor for a worm’s eye view of a post-holocaust miniature city diorama – the main exhibits of superbly crafted wood temples are later seen by entering through the front doors. Watching the gopher-like heads popping up through the floor is an added attraction.
The Press lauded the German exhibition which I found less than exciting – perhaps because the imprisoned people below the glass floor who had made such an impact on reviewers were all off on their lunch break or something, quaffing Weissbier and bratwursts while the mystified visitors tried to figure out what was – or was not – going on.
The Australian pavilion featured huge photographs by Tracey Moffatt – a very simple yet a very effective exhibition, while Canada, for some reason, seemed determined to cool its visitors down as hidden jets of water sprouted almost at random from innocent-looking lengths of wood lying around a waterised version of Vancouver’s steam clock or at the edge of a gusty water sprout. New Zealand featured a vast video wall – showing early colonists meeting the Maoris – while Latvia had a simple but effective light installation.
The other installations at Arsenale – including Malta, Poland, and hordes of individual artists – were presented in a vast warehouse complex. I am not sure but it had the feel of a superbly re-imagined space that may have been bond stores, go-downs or shipping or military storerooms.
Wherever you look …
Because art just popped its head up everywhere, I was cautiously impressed by a narrow street not far from the Arsenale vaporetto pier.
- Hmm – how nice it is that people can recognise the beauty of day-to-day objects (I thought)
- I wonder who the installation artist is?
- What a wonderful idea!
and then I realised (as I walked along other small streets) that the gaily coloured clothes stung on a myriad of lines across the alleyways were not part of an imaginative art installation – it was simple that Wednesday (or whatever day it was) was washing day …
I know the old joke –
- What do you call a streetwalker in Venice?
but Venice IS a place where visitors can walk endless kilometres of streets crossing over the 391 bridges linking the 118 islands that make up this enchanting city. True – I would not like to visit it in winter or even at the end of winter as I did originally – but on a sunny day in June treasures pop up just about every where:
- The huge silver hippopotamus by Taiwanese artist Shih Li-Jen
- The all-too-realistic resin sculptures of bathing beauties by Carole Feuerman
- James Lee Byar’s stunning twenty-metre Golden Tower standing proud and tall and utterly incongruous
- Lorenzo Quinn’s equally unexpected Support where two giant hands reach from the swirling canal waters either to prop up the palazzo or to tear it down and take it with them to some slimy dank cave beneath the waters
- Antique tapestries casually slung over palazzo balconies
- Bell pulls in the shape of mischievous pixie faces
and Chinese tourists in hungry hordes following their tour leader with a little flag on a stick, or cheerful rowdy clumps of French and German school kids on school tours
- You WILL enjoy yourselves and you WILL get some kulcha
and ever-hopeful gangs of Indian vendors selling selfie sticks beside ever-hopeful gangs of Africans selling genuine Prada and Gucci handbags, and small boys playing football very noisily in the shadow of the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo where I was having a not-so-relaxing lunch, and touts offering tours, and mobile ice cream vans … and a lost Australian tourist near the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo who refused to use a map as he just knew for a fact that XYZ Palazzo was really just around the next corner …
To do justice to the Biennale and Venice itself, a visitor should set aside a week or so. I had rather less time than that, and after many hours of walking and stopping and starting and walking some more, wanted to dangle my feet in the waters of the Grand Canal from the balcony of my hotel room … but had to make do with propping them up on the rubbish bins outside my window.
* Because of its many canals – and because of the many more canals that used to be here before they became roads or subway routes – Bangkok is jocularly called the “Venice of the East” by those whose spectacles are rather more rosily tinted than the average pair of mirror-fronted Ray Bans.
** In the interests of detailed research and to keep my readers quite up to date, Mr Wikipedia and The Guardian tell me that in 2010 Giorgia Boscolo became the first female gondolier since 1094, and that there is also one trans-gender gondolier – Alex Hai.
Journey: June 2017
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2017
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship