ELSEWHERE 2010: Venice. Disneyland on water

A cup of coffee (cappuccino): €1.80 ($A2.70) at the deli in the Campo dei Carmini; €4.00 ($A6.00) at the coffee shop near the station

What do tourists like? They like narrow streets and old buildings and water and an occasional spectacle and easily accessible food and pedestrianisation and big churches and a very high quotient of the picturesque. So. Venice. Tourist heaven or what? The Disneyland of tourism. Except bigger. We’d come to the Show with the whole fortnight crammed into one day along with the Grand Final tucked into a small corner.

Sitting at a coffee shop near the station opposite the beginning of the show bags we watched as wave after wave of people came down the steps of Santa Lucia station, the end of the spike of conventional transport from the mainland which is stuck in the Venetian plum. Wave after wave is not correct. There was no break, just flow without ebb, just masses with wheelie bags and maps because Venice must be one of the few places in the world where there is no shame in looking at a map. Everyone does. This happens not for a day, not for a week, but 365 days a year, in Leap Years 366. The crowds tumble in. The island is not sinking because of artesian wells on the mainland draining the water table or global warming or rising seas or the underscoring of the buildings built on wooden piers cut from the denuded mountains of Slovenia and northern Croatia[1], it’s the impact and mass of millions of pedestrians!

Like Disneyland the streets are very clean; and like Disneyland, better than Disneyland, it is beautifully designed to cater for the primary level of Maslow’s hierarchy[2] — food and shelter. Any combination, any permutation, any price range, any time, any place.

That’s in the first 500 metres after you get off the train, and it just develops from there. There is no discrimination. It is for the old and for the young. I cannot tell you how many crocs of school kids we saw there, how many hundreds, and despite Venice being the ultimate adventure playground for an eight year-old boy, I couldn’t tell you what they were doing there except having excellent ice creams bought for them by their teachers. I just don’t know. I always saw them in transit. V.The teacher's jobThe halt, the lame and the blind are welcome. One of the things that caught my eye in this post-arrival swirl was a lady in a wheelchair with two large suitcases and several smaller bags piled on top of her, I’m sure with her consent, being pushed along by a man pulling another enormous bag. All colours and creeds — I did spot a group of 30 or so burqa clad persons — although the black representatives seemed to be mainly on sunglasses and handbags and probably getting back to the mainland after the custom fell off.

The hotel was where it should have been, down a tiny lane, well-placed, comfortable, funky even. But my list of things to do in Venice was looking lame — short, dull, obvious — badly prepared in other words. We established ourselves in the throng, the human conveyor belt in motion heading towards the Rialto. Hmm the Rialto …, news from … rings a bell. Which of Shakespeare’s plays was set in Venice? Myrna wondered. (Yes she did. But I need to be careful here. I have not kept a clean sheet.) We deviated a little later and came to a piazza that looked like a crèche, had 30 or 40 kids playing, the older ones with water bombs. But there were quite a few of Romany’s[3] age peers. We sat and watched them for half an hour or so absorbed by the delights of chickabiddies growing up and felt a bit nostalgic for North Coburg. It was the day before her second birthday.

That first night in a new place, … it’s never satisfactory. Tired from the travel, don’t know where to eat or what to do, so looking around in slightly dizzied wonder we had some perfunctory spag bol in a too expensive restaurant with a cold wind flicking at us off the canal.

One of the selling points of our hotel (which lost €120,000 worth of business during the ash cloud scare) was that it had a garden. I should think every customer it ever had would ask for a garden room when all the other rooms were bigger and better. But such is the marketing power of the garden. This rather straightforward garden was where we were sitting, gathering strength. The day was bright and delicious. I was writing about St Petersburg which already seemed so antithetical, a lifetime away. Today, I resolved, we were going to go against the tide, challenge the masses and bugger the consequences. We were going to go anti-clockwise, yes you heard it here first, anti-clockwise, in order to attack the Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim gallery. Got our heads round the corner of our lane, watched to make sure no one was looking, ran over the Ferrovia bridge the wrong way and trundled down the fundament of San Simeon the smaller. Suddenly, perhaps obviously, as we strolled we found ourselves in a different city, one where people seemed to live.

venice_mapFor the very few people in the world who don’t know, Venice consists primarily of two islands (six really) in a large coastal lagoon, the Laguna Veneto, which has three entrances to the Golfo di Venezia, the very north of the Adriatic sea.[4] The chief islands are shaped a bit like a yin and yang symbol. They could also be a fist which would suit Venice’s history much better, especially from a Croatian point of view. Its two parts are divided by the Grand Canal and, as everyone in the world does know, the whole shebang is striated irregularly by canals. It might be 2.5 kilometres long and one and a half wide and has about 58,000 permanent inhabitants — schools, a huge hospital, and many thousands of artisans skilled in matters of managing rising damp, damp moving in any direction really. These chaps ply their trade from boats set up exactly as tradesmen’s vans would be, and seem to have access all areas. Beyond that I counted 85 churches on my map, very few of which are working of course; but what would it have been like when they were? What an enterprise, what a workforce, what a grip on the public mind!

The city is divided into six sestieri, areas, suburbs, districts, each with their own style and history. We were wandering our way from Cannaregio, the old Jewish quarter, through to Dorsoduro (‘hard ridge’; see ‘dorsal fin’, ‘durable road’; allora, simple as that) in which rather excitingly there is a substantial street which is not a canal, and it was a happily rewarding maze. As Myrna said: constantly picturesque, constantly rewarding.

We stumbled into the Campo dei Carmini, a lovely quiet square close to the university, tripped over some tickets to a night of operatic performances, and fell headlong into a deli that looked like a deli and had almost Melbourne-class coffee and the violently up market (in quality not price) party pies and mini pizzas and the other attenuated offerings you eat in Venice. Next door was a Leb takeaway. You can’t say ‘Leb’ can you? No. I didn’t think so. Near Eastern, Levantine — an establishment which sold food sourced in its conception from the Levant which could be removed from the store in purpose-designed packaging.

Thus reinforced we muscled our way into the Accademia prepared for ART, and that was more or less what we got. You know you can have enough of pre-Renaissance religious art unless there’s something really … well, you know, lots of gold (Catherine the Great’s favourite colour), or big, or a skeleton clambering in an unexpected location, or someone eating jewellery. That type of thing. I think that’s what the collectors go on. It’s not adequate to just have another St Sebastian dripping with arrows, a task which appears to have drawn the Old Master like [add your own simile, you may begin with ‘flies’ if you wish]. More than enough already.

The Tiepolo that appears in the Canberra National Gallery with the ‘trousers’ or ‘upskirt’ perspective, yes that one right up there in the corner near the roof, the putti are looking down at us, along with the ladies, gentlemen and angels, way up there, yep that’s it; well, there are lots of those. Tiepolo_thTiepolo found a market and made a bit of a production line out of them. They are remarkable studies in perspective and when you’re decorating simply everything, they do fill difficult spaces. You can just about hang them on the ceiling, certainly they can go in any top corner as long as the walls are high enough. The Accademia also contains some very fine Bellinis. He has a way with flesh and naturalistic facial expression that is a cut or two above the pack (not however in the same league as Caravaggio). But in a desultory field my blue ribbon went to the Tiepolos.

thPeggy Guggenheim must have had money leaking from every pore. [later note: she didn’t. She had plenty but wasn’t one of those Guggenheims; a much more interesting person] How or why she came to Venice to establish herself I have no idea, but she did it in as much style as anyone could have. She set herself up in a new palace on the Grand Canal, prime real estate more or less directly opposite San Marco Square. While we were there, there was something very considerably more modest in the palace line and several canals back going for €15.8 million, but I’m not sure her ‘house’ could be priced at present. (And it’s a gallery now anyway.)

th-1It is modern, less than a 100 years old, in two somehow simultaneously expansive and compact sections divided by a courtyard that I would give most of my right leg for — maybe 40 by 15 metres, flagstones in a herringbone pattern within a two metre high hedge ‘flashed’ with elegant brick walls, two large trees and enormous overhangs of wisteria coming from the glazed balcony. The wing nearer the canal is the primary gallery although there is also a sculpture garden. That wing has a concrete roof which doubles as a terrace where you can sunbake with dogs. There are photos to prove this. All the palaces have entries from the water[6], but hers has a magnificent statue around three metres high, an abstracted figure on a horse with arms flung wide in welcome, and a glorious monster erection, removable for when the Pope comes to visit. It’s a cracker. Great paintings in the gallery and not too many of them. And, blow me down! About half of the originals of the plates from Mainstreams in Modern Art, a book I learnt more or less by heart in Year 12, are here. There must have been some sort of publishing deal going on. It was wonderful to see so many old friends, so resplendent in the flesh.

th-2Max Ernst was one of Peggy’s husbands. Perhaps establishing the flavour of the relationship, when once asked how many husbands she had had, she replied: Mine or other people’s? And there are 10 or so Ernsts hanging. The better ones appear to be the product of nightmares, full of tortured alien figures backlit by some green and yellow emergency. The worse ones, most, were shockers without verve or whatever inspiriting it is that turns pigment and binder into art.

There might have been challenges, as we say, in Ernst’s life situation, if not in fact actual ‘problems’. Peggy and Max’s circle of intimates included at least Brancusi, Chagall, Kandinsky, Braque, Hans Arp, Calder, Mondrian and Miro. There is a photo of Giorgio de Chirico making soup in their kitchen, an avuncular figure far removed from the ominous quality of his pictures. A better collection of Italian Futurists was on display here than the Galerie Nationale d’Art Moderne in Rome could manage — this is Italy’s distinctive contribution to 20th century art — and here is Max and his work. How does he feel? Is he up to it? Will Peggy decide that his work is worth hanging? In this company? And does she pay him for his paintings? Eeeeeeeeeeee … and what private miracles might he have to perform in their domestic life to keep his self respect in the face of all this competition? Better men than Max Ernst would bend and break in the face of such issues. They were married, but not for very long[7]. [Later note: he managed by being a complete shit to her. I guess that’s one way of doing it.]

V.The frog and the guardA couple of hundred metres further along at the point of the yang, the end of the southern island, a policeman in sunglasses and heavy duty gear (guns, two (2)) stood next to a statue. This presumably is to guard the marble frog dangling from the hand of a naked marble stripling. To stop the tourists from, I think the wildly appropriate term may be, souveniring it. Later in the evening we noted it had been secured in a clear plastic box locked to the pavement. Without knowing, I’ll say bullet proof.

We decided it was time to get with the vaporettos, water buses. They’re everywhere. The traffic on the water is as dense as it would be on the street. There’s water cops and ambulances and trucks and cranes and taxis. But what there wasn’t where we were was a ticket office. (This could be considered as yet another part of the discussion of the incompetence, the cultural innocence, the determined uselessness, of the tourist. There’s plenty more of this.) In a fabulous phrase from old Australia, we got our guts up and while there was no ticket office there were some provision. You will remember that this is THE well-oiled machine. They’re used to idiots. And the public transport system is very highly developed, not least for the workers who go home to the mainland or the cheaper islands every night.

We stood in the appropriate corner with the dunce’s hats on, the deckhand came and took €13 off us and, now respectable, off we choofed straight across the Grand Canal to San Marco. What, 600 metres maybe? Great. But I thought if we just sat tight we could go to wherever there was to go and then the vaporetto would automatically come back taking us to the stop nearest home while we were thanked for our custom. I travel optimistically, full of hope and confidence in the fidelity of the world to my needs and wishes.

And it did indeed take us further. Great. San Zaccaria, Arsenale, Giardini, the Biennale Park, Sant’ Elena, lovely to see it all, and then phhwoot we’re off in the open water. We’re on a glorified ferry; how far can it go?

A pink scrim had been pulled down over the longer distances, and with the grey of the water and the lavender and sun-gilding of the Venetian buildings as they receded it was gorgeous. Mellow. Great. We arrived at the Lido — think, we wouldn’t have gone there otherwise — the strip of sand that divides the lagoon from the sea, and that has given its name to an idea of the beach in British (English really) culture[8]. We were encouraged to get off, if not with any great force. Just a firm wave of the arm.

I saw a sign that indicated ‘Express to Venice’ and got in that morass, because you don’t queue for a vaporetto, you surge towards it as though your life depends on it. You fight the other men and some of the women while your wife runs into the cabin and saves you a seat. It’s culture. It’s tradition. The vaporetto didn’t start pointed in the right direction but there was no reason for that to be discouraging. Boats can turn. I’ve seen them.

This one, however, wasn’t one of the ones that turn. It became evident that we were not on the express to Venice and also that there weren’t many people with backpacks, maps and zip-off drip-dry travel pants on board. We were commuting, to an uncertain destination. But, I reiterate, an exquisite evening, the throb of the motor, the hish of a light wind through the hair, a chance to look round the entirety of the Laguna — who could ask for more? Great. The only slightly nagging doubt was the increasing and substantial distance between us and anything that looked remotely like a port. I was reasonably happy with journey, but Myrna was becoming increasingly interested in destination. Some hours later — nah just mucking around, it wasn’t a tick over 40 minutes, maybe 50 — we arrived at Punta Sabbioni, a flank of one of the entrances to the Adriatic. If I’d looked left with my specs on I may have seen the Croatian uplands. The workers got off, and after being assured by a charming deckhand in his very best English that the boat went back to Venice, we stayed on. €13 for all that. A steal.

That night, the concert: two violins, a harp, a cello, a dancer, two singers and an audience of 15 do opera’s greatest hits in the ineffably beautiful hall of the School of Carmen. I was worried that the singers might be wearing masks which covered their mouths but only the musicians were handicapped in this way. The tenor was an inspired amateur with a harsh upper register and plenty of power, a combination which can be highly problematic. The soprano might have been a retired professional and she’d lost her bottom notes but she could really sing. The size of the crowd made attempts to sing along rather overt, but as the French would say, une soirée très geniale.

The rest of the time in Venice was dominated by further maritime experience of an intentional nature. We went to Burano to look at the painted houses. V.BuranoI wondered to myself how the municipal ordinances go in Burano. ‘Right mate. Too much like the last one. We‘re up to Dulux 820 Pheasant Breath for the trim and 614A Malevolent Orange for the body of the house. You can do the upper storey in Transparent Egg or trade with the Marcianos for Used Lettuce. If you don’t like it, you can take the whole thing to VCAT.’ I can’t see how it would work otherwise. There’d be conformists.

And I must say the Lagoon was not looking any less picturesque.

IMG_1313.JPGIMG_1311.JPGWe got a good look at the mud Venice is built on, and it’s just mud. There is a clay base you can’t see and that’s what these very old petrified piles that provide the foundations for the houses of Venice are resting on. The most thoughtful solution to the sinking problem appears to be to pump water into the mud and make the whole thing float higher. That’s not intuitive.

We got home from Burano in time to walk round the Arsenale and the Hospital to San Marco square, and what a show stopper it is. The campanile is threatening to fall over again as it did in 1902 and attempts are being made currently to straighten it[9]. In addition the narthex and façade of San Marco’s was half-dressed in scaffolding and nylon net safe-T wrap. But what majesty, what power in that square and the loggia surrounding it. Had a glass of champagne costing an unfeasibly large sum of money, and on the strength of it went to eavesdrop on a guy in a Murano glass shop buying a chandelier for €37,000. He was direct about it — why wouldn’t you be — I don’t think he’d spent long thinking about it, wanted a look at the colours available and to know how quickly and how well he could get it home. He wore clothes suitable to the task. A very very white dress shirt open at the neck and hanging out, nicely pressed very black trousers with cowboy boots. His wife was a sea of shades of very expensive grey in floaty new wool. Americans.

This was another occasion when we were impressed by the ability of Americans to create space around themselves. It’s a gift that allows a great deal of cushioning from embarrassment. For several hours on the bus from Villach to Venice the top deck was entertained by the life story of a 19 year-old piano teacher from Maryland whose mother could speak four languages and whose dad was the greatest teacher she had ever known and who adored Paris and couldn’t understand why the object of her attention, Claudio a 20 year-old assistant manager from Padua who didn’t drink, hadn’t been there. Among very many other things, she revealed that in New Zealand they don’t have heating. The issue was that every utterance was followed by this cascading, well it wasn’t a bray, it wasn’t a snigger, but a sort of laughing neigh that said, can you believe it? and was very very loud. After some extensive practice, Myrna managed to master it. That’s another way to make space. The chandelier man did it by having, one presumes, 370 €100 notes in his pocket.

That night we found the place where a selection of the kids on the excursions ate and it was another well-oiled machine, a cafeteria which would have fed, was feeding, several hundred young souls aged 7-18 I’d guess, and a few ringers like us. The food for the masses just appeared, manna/heaven, loaves/fishes. The vast queue heaved forward and each was given in a flash, on a tray, prima pasta, secondo main course, dolce dessert, e una bevanda a drink, just like that. It was a bit noisy but it beat the pants off the restaurant on the canal.

We ambled back to the hotel to a mini catastrophe, very mini really, but it’s the sort of thing that has a very bad effect on me. The mini catastrophe was an email which I could so so easily not have read — if we’d been almost anywhere else I wouldn’t have — announcing the cancellation of our accommodation in Rome, 36 hours before we were due to arrive. We were offered something else but it was rubbish. Romans, said the boys at the Hotel Abbazia shaking their heads. Romans. This left a very unpleasant taste in my mouth.

Before the advent of the internet it would have been a disaster. We would have been completely at their mercy. I spent a night thinking of forms of revenge eventually deciding not to negotiate or do any business with them. Rome Sweet Home. Don’t. (Serves me right for doing business with an enterprise with a name like that.) So several hours the next morning were spent finding alternate accommodation and cleaning up the mess that RSH had left. My deposit still has not been returned.

We thought we might go for yet another boat trip to calm me down. We had conquered the vaporetto system by this time, knew when to run, when to shove, when to fold and when to hold ‘em, and Murano (this is not an alphabetical series of 21 islands with ‘urano’ in their name; that’s all) where Venetian glass is made and sold in great quantities. The trip had the requisite calming effect.

Later we commuted from the Fondamente Nova down the Canale di Cannaregio back to our hotel. It’s a different part of town, more land, fewer canals, newer buildings, post war certainly, looking like government housing and already shabby without the chic of the older buildings. Round Tre Archi I saw a trattoria that Mamma must certainly have been running.

IMG_0360We negotiated our way back later in the evening and I was right. It was so ‘Mamma’s’ it was providing for a closed party, and you can’t get much more Mamma’s than that. In purely functional terms it would even challenge the Mamma at Visovac. But it was a promising area so we wandered south to find a gentleman addressing his mobile phone with considerable force. ‘I will break your fucking back over my fucking knee you fucking toe rag. I will make you so fucking sore you will weep fucking blood.’ Just a short sample although he did cut things off as we came by and took his place back in the bar, eyeing us suspiciously as he did so. He may have been developing script for the next Ray Winstone movie, but the depth of feeling combined with the waft of marijuana floating round a corner suggested a commercial transaction in the field of drugs imperfectly concluded.

As it turned out the real Mamma’s was just another 20 metres or so down the canal so we ducked in. She did us proud with some cannelloni made to her own special recipe by three hand-picked warriors flown in from Cannellon and a pizza fresh-picked off the pizza trees in the back of the shop with an egg à pointe smack bang in the middle. Delicious. We went home to pack.

To the Editor


For reasons of cost, convenience and comfort, there may be advantages in renting an apartment for longer visits to big cities. Here’s one for example that would suit many people’s purposes very well:

http://www.romesweethome.com/apartments-rental/rome/trastevere/trastevere-wonderful-terrace.asp Looks great doesn’t it? All you have to do is book it — as we did, last November, several months before our due arrival — and pay the substantial deposit, and look forward to using it.

But then you might get an e-mail 36 hours before that moment saying that this particular apartment is not available and offering you something else; say, something without a terrace, with a microwave instead of a kitchen and some sort of sleeping platform up a vertical ladder instead of a bedroom. Here, you can look for yourself: http://www.romesweethome.com/apartments-rental/rome/trastevere/Panieri-Loft-Apartment.asp

It’s a few kilometres from where you wanted to stay, but hey, rube. This is Rome.

On further inspection this notification email is clearly a form letter, and I regret to say that this is something that has happened to us before even though the company (in Paris) had the good sense to offer us something that we might have wanted. The rental company has 200 properties. Some are popular; some aren’t. The owners of even rubbish properties want as much occupancy as possible. Let’s mix them up a bit to make sure we keep the owners happy and our list long. So, fair enough. After all the client is offered something else. It’s not illegal; it’s a game.

It is not illegal but it is fraudulent. It is not what you wanted, or in this case where you wanted it, and it was not what was agreed. It relies on the comparatively fragile position of the traveller and, if it is an apartment, quite probably their family, and the by products are disappointment and anxiety. From the customer’s point of view, it’s a scam. People in this business don’t have to be accountable for their behaviour the way those in hotels do.

When this happened I was initially inclined to renegotiate, but then I thought this is just feeding the beast. The only thing to do is to try to put them out of business. Rome Sweet Home, and the like: avoid like the plague.

Yours etc.



[1] An ecological disaster fascinating like our very own Queenstown.

[2] I should have offered this previously: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs

[3] Adored grandchild.

[4] With Croatia almost immediately adjacent. Slovenia has its 15 k.s of coastline intervening.

[6] Of course. Where else would you be coming from? From a technical point of view it’s interesting to see how this has been handled, a lot of variety. I’d like to know what works best.

[7] Four years, 1942-46. Maybe the war sustained them and/or limited wider horizons. It may also explain Max’s art.

[8] Boz Scaggs’ Lido is a person.

[9] From a non-expert point of view I would say that Burano has a church tower more urgently in need of such attention.

One thought on “ELSEWHERE 2010: Venice. Disneyland on water

  1. Pingback: ELSEWHERE 2010 Slovenia: Our Party | mcraeblog

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