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Ghost stories

Spooky century-old tales come alive in the dark labyrinths of the water city of Venice

travel Updated: Sep 03, 2012 10:59 IST

When you plan a trip to Venice, you dream of sailing down the Grand Canal in a gondola, getting clicked on St. Mark's Square with a pigeon on your head or envisage a limo ride to Murano Island for exquisite glassware. But my 13-year-old daughter Ranjika went to the water city intent on taking a ghost walking tour.

The 90-minute stroll started at Rialto Bridge and took us across spooky piazzas, haunted palaces and shadowed stretches that echo with voices from the past. And while we'd heard of the Bridge of Sighs, overlooking the dungeons of Doge's Palace, that owed its name to the laments of prisoners looking out one last time as they head to a life of captivity, we hadn't heard a story dating back to 1598.

Stopping at Campiello del Remer, our guide recalled how the stillness had been broken one evening by the cries of a terrified woman.

A man brandishing a sword was chasing her. Doge Marino recognised her as his niece Elena, and confronted her husband Loredan who insisted she'd cheated on him. Elena denied the accusation, Loredan looked pacified and Doge put his sword away. Seconds later, his niece's head was on the ground, chopped off by her husband. When Loredan begged his forgiveness, the Doge packed him off to Rome with his wife's beheaded body. There the Pope refused to meet him and Loredam returned and threw himself into the Grand Canal. "Locals insist he emerges from the water holding his wife's decapitated head," smiled Eliza.

Another evening in the 15th century, Cesco Pizzigani, once a talented stonecutter and now a homeless beggar, was sitting outside the Scuola Grande. He saw a man racing down the square with a bleeding heart in his hand. The rich merchant often visited his mother. Angry that she'd bedded a Jew, he stabbed her and tore her heart out. It popped out of his hand as he tripped and asked, "My son, did you hurt yourself?" Repentant, the son threw himself into the lagoon and still moans for the warmth of his mother's heart during freezing winter nights.

There were more stories on offer about cursed palaces like Ca' Dario whose owners suffered gory deaths and the tall nobleman who rings the bell and returns to a garden, where he met his end after making a pact with a scientist who wanted to study his dead bones.

But as the sun went down, it was the story of a floating casket that made me sigh. On November 29, 1904, across from Burano island, a vaporetto rammed into a gondola and five passengers drowned. Their bodies were fished out and buried, all but one. "A little girl remains at the bottom and on foggy nights, a casket lit by candle floats past offering boatmen light to avert a similar accident," Eliza signs off!

Nose of good luck

Close to the home of Renaissance artist Jacopo Robusti, better known as Il Tintoretto, are the statues of the three Moors, Rioba, Sandi and Afani and their servant. Anchored to the Palazzo Del Cammello, the spot is distinguished by a camel inscription. The trio came from Morea and were notorious for their swindling ways till Sior Antonio Rioba was turned to stone by Saint Magdalen. It is believed that if you touch the statue's chest, you can hear his heart beating and if you touch his nose, now carved in iron after the original broke off, it will bring you good luck.

Marco Polo's singing wife

Venetian trader Marco Polo married the daughter of Chinese emperor Kublai Khan and brought Hao Dong to Venice. He was imprisoned for marrying a non-Christian. Hao Dong shut herself up in their home. When her sister-in-law told her Marco was dead, she killed herself. Eliza smiles, "Boatmen swear they can still hear her singing. Ironically, Marco Polo's home is now an opera theatre (Teatro Malibran)."

First Published: Jul 02, 2012 15:44 IST