If I had ever been told that my first visit to Venice would be in the company of a strange man, I would have laughed aloud. After all isn’t Venice, quaint, watery Venice, a city where lovers go? Its winding canals and buffed gondolas perfect for those who want to lose themselves in each other; and the hidden alcoves in its narrow, winding alleyways tailor-made for lovers who want to steal furtive kisses while on the go — not that one needs to be furtive about displaying love in Europe anyway.
But I did go to Venice. And in the company of someone I didn’t know existed till I landed in Verona, about 120 km from Venice, a few days before. And it was good.
My companion, an Indian pastry chef from Delhi, and I, were in Italy for Vinitaly, an exhibition of 4,200 producers of wine. Venice wasn’t part of our itinerary but we snuck off after minor encouragement and after hearing that the city was just a 90-minute train ride away.
Venice is everything that you expect it to be and everything that you don’t. It has a very real beauty. It’s not picture postcard, not jaw-dropping beautiful. It has a comfortable, calm, worn beauty about it, much like a beautiful woman who has aged very well.
But when, on exiting the St Lucia train station, I spotted a huge Calvin Klein model smiling down distantly at me from across the Grand Canal I was disappointed. Hoardings in Venice? Sacrilege!
But there was no time to dwell on that. It was 9 am and we had nine hours to soak in Venice before catching the train back to Verona. We headed towards Piazza San Marco, Venice’s only official square, from where we planned to take a ferry to the island of Murano, famous for its glasswork, before returning to explore the city.
It was early on a Sunday morning. And Venice was eerily empty. The chef was very concerned. “Where are the locals?” he wondered. They were probably still in bed, I told him. After all, who wakes up at 9 am on a Sunday?
I, for one, didn’t miss the crowds. I’ve had it with Mumbai’s teeming masses. It was nice to walk without someone heading straight into you for once.
We were lucky it was early spring, because summer brings with it swarms of tourists and the rotting smell that Venice is as known for now as its bright carnival masks.
After spending an hour-and-a-half in Murano where we saw some incredible Venetian glasswork and caught a live demonstration of how glass is made (it seems pretty simple so I couldn’t understand why they charge a bomb for the end product… put in furnace, pull out, shape, put in furnace, shape some more… and it’s done!), we returned to explore Venice.
The best thing about Venice is that it is a pedestrians only city. There are no annoying cars tooting you into shock at every corner. No annoying bikers sneaking up on you and no annoying roads to cross. You see a bridge, and you cross. It’s as simple as that. And there are so many of them. You can take your pick.
The grand Basilica of St Mark and the Doge’s palace at Piazza San Marco are two of the most imposing structures in Venice. At its peak, Venice was a rich, powerful and influential city-state. You get an idea of this especially at the Piazza San Marco when you marvel at the magnificent Byzantine style façade of the basilica, constructed after the body of St Mark the evangelist was smuggled to Venice from Constantinople.
Venice is not only a maze of narrow canals, it is a maze of alleys that lead in all directions; excellent to get lost in. And at every bend, at every turn, I was Alice in Wonderland, stopping to gasp and exclaim at each new view, a gorgeous, decaying building, a church, a beautiful window, a pretty bridge, a busy canal or pretty flowers in window boxes, much to the chef’s amusement.
If it wasn’t this, the enticing shop displays held me back — what breads, what sandwiches, spilling over obscenely with plenty, what colourful desserts, what chocolates, what sweets, what shoes, clothes and trinkets! Alas, almost everything but the food was way above the budget of poor me.
But Venice is decaying.Yes it is pretty, with charming red, pink and yellow houses, its captivating windows tempting you to peek inside. It is mysterious, with interesting doors in quiet alleys hiding the secrets of generations. But it is also decaying. You don’t need to look too hard to spot the signs: moss, naked, crumbling brick walls and run-down buildings. A slogan on a T-shirt near the station on our way back said it all: Come see Venice before it sinks.