At the moment, there is nothing apart from a bunch of photographs that connects me to the city of Venice. And yet I often find myself thinking about the city and talking in great zest about my time in Venice with all and sundry. When I was accused of being a sentimentalist, I began to wonder what is it about Venice that drives me to untiring conversations about it. Some of it, I realised, clearly stems from how the Venetians encourage — applauded even — joy and leisure. Unlike other parts of the Western world, where the emphasis is on fast cars, bright lights and bulging stock portfolios, Venice throbs to a very different beat. For instance, no motor-vehicles are permitted on the roads, which encourages a discovery of the city at a more leisurely pace.
I hired a gondola — the perfect mode of transportation by water, operating since the 11th century — to embark upon my exploration of this beguiling city. The gondolier tells me that it was here, during a visit to one of Venice’s top art galleries, the Galleria dell’ Accademia, that he met his innocent young bride. It was over the Grand Canal — with all the palaces built over five centuries lining the banks as silent witnesses — that he proposed marriage to her. They wed in the Basilica di San Marco, amid the architectural salad of spires, domes, mosaics and marble. But it was under the infamous Bridge of Sighs that connects the palace to an additional wing of the city’s dungeons that he threw away the wedding ring in disgust at her infidelity, many years later.
So caught up is he in his own story that he neglects to mention that the Bridge of Sighs acquired its name from the prisoners being led across it for their trials.
Maze of canals and bridges
What stands out in this city is that everyday life appears more heightened and dramatic here than anywhere else. But what else can you expect from a place built on 117 islands, with 150-odd canals and 400 bridges dotting its landscape. Even a traffic jam on the Grand Canal with delivery barges, gondolas and water buses trying to get past each other, can inspire a similar feeling of awe as one might experience seated in front of Tintoretto’s Paradiso, one of the world’s largest oil paintings, found in the Palazzo Ducale.
And while I know I should be raving about St Mark’s Basilica, with its architectural and decorative styles from East and West, that blend together effortlessly to create one of Europe’s greatest buildings, what grabbed my attention most were in fact the tourists thronging St Mark’s square. Couples constitute a sizeable portion of the travelling population that visit this city of love and to the innocent bystander it appears that one chief reason for their visit is to be photographed in various loving poses against the rococo Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance palaces. One particular couple dressed in wedding finery, pursued by a zestful photographer, ignores the host of pigeons, balloon vendors, buskers, policemen, Indians trying very hard to sell them roses and camera-crazy tourists that throng the square around them, to get the “shot” of “the kiss” just right.
But time spent here is not all ancient palaces and roses, romantic waterways and historical churches. It’s also contemporary art galleries. In the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim’s former home, or in the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim you’ll find an assortment of works that include art by Pollock, Dali and Picasso, including notably, “The Poet.”
Food, glorious food
But when the sun falls, the sights seen and the shopping for Murano glass, Burano lace and Carnevale masks done and over with in the main shopping area between San Marco and the Rialto, my feet take me in the direction of Campo Santa Margherita.
The fact that almost everyone who comes here for sarde di saor (fried sardines marinated in vinegar and onions) and fragolini (strawberry-flavoured wine) are travellers passing through just like you, serves to cement acquaintance. Your passion for Venice is the one thing everyone here has in common.
What I love about Venice
You do away with small talk, feel less inhibited and full of reckless abandon as you share what you love most about the city.
For my friend today, it’s the Lido, a thin strip of land that guards Venice from the Adriatic Sea, upon whose strip of beach he encounters travellers ready to lap up the world like never before.
Other travellers share that the time they choose to visit this haunting city usually coincides with some of the following landmark events, including the Venice Film Festival held on the Lido each summer, the Venice Biennale, an exhibition of the international visual arts, or the Carnavale when masked ribaldry finds home on the streets on the 10 days before Ash Wednesday.
Now, there is enough relaxed conversation at the Campo Santa Margherita and spontaneous dancing in the piazza has begun.
A lady with a tiny dog dressed in a miniature fur coat is hooting merrily along, a musician who has fallen in-love with the well-dressed dog has burst into song — an ode of love no less, and a policeman is watching the revellers with a grin. Two travellers sneak away from the crowd for a romantic walk down the back streets.
So no matter how many times Great Aunt Fonseca tells me, “Venice is but a shadow of its former self my dear, the facades have faded, its foundations are rotting ... tut tut,” I still find myself called back to this remarkable city, only to echo the words of a French ambassador who said famously of the Grand Canal, “It still has the most beautiful street in the world.”
When she isn’t lecturing at St Xavier’s, Sonia can be found brandishing pen and camera on her travels around the world