I know everyone is supposed to fall in love with Venice on sight, but guess what? Venice is just a massive European K-Mart with cobbles.
Not that the Titanium Princess would agree. The T.P. literally waltzed across the Rialto bridge as we made our way to Al Gazzettino, the hotel in which she'd stayed a couple of years earlier. She was all smiles, and seemed to have lost about thirty years, as we walked down the little alleyways that featured so prominently in Don't Look Now. It was a delight to watch her (as I struggled with two recalcitrant suitcases and a massive hangover), tripping lightly along, staring into shop windows and mentally arithmeticking the vast amounts of money she would shortly be spending on Venetian knick-knacks.
The hotel was on a little canal called the Dell Aquae San Marco, about halfway between the Rialto Bridge and the famous square of San Marco. An ideal spot, and one in which the T.P. had fallen in love with Italy, and all things Italian, a couple of years before. A very charming and urbane gentleman in a suit greeted us at the reception desk, and showed us to our room. He kept referring to the T.P. in the third person, as in "Madam will find that...", and "If Madam would like to..." He quite deliberately left me out of the picture, no doubt assuming I was some stupid Venetian lackey who was merely carrying the bags, and would trundle off once my job was done. (He did get quite a surprise the next morning when, in search of coffee, I bundled noisily down the stairs and gave him a forthright "G'day mate" as I galloped out of the hotel.)
Al Gazzettino is, in fact, a terrific little hotel. It was once the headquarters of an eponymous local newspaper, and its restaurant's walls are lined with old clippings and photographs of Venice from the late 19th century onwards. After the excruciating horrors of the Ikarus Palace, it was a godsend, if one likes to imagine that a non-existent deity would ever have the forethought to put a nice hotel in the middle of a waterlogged city. I liked it just fine, as there was a little stall down the alley-way where good coffee at less than a billion Euros a shot could be had, served by a genial young woman with a face like a Botticelli painting.
After my run-in with the law at the bottom of the gang-plank the previous morning, I was going to take every precaution I could against further interest from the Carabiniari, having been appraised of their prediliction to offer warnings against poor behaviour in the form of horses' heads at the foot of one's bed. I decided a 7.30 a.m. stroll around the precinct would be just the ticket. I hadn't gone far when I came across a gentleman in a black and white striped shirt and a funny little straw bota on his head, fiddling around in the front of a gondola on the canal. We had a short conversation in that curious argot where English morphs into Italian and back again, and you do this for several minutes, smile, laugh, and shake hands with many "See yous" and "Arrividercis", and continue on your way for a little while, whistling happily, until you realise that neither he nor you understood a single word of the conversation. Communication is one of those things I love about travel.
Before long, and after several little ponts over the canals, winding my way through narrow, mouldery alleyways, I came smack bang into the square of San Marco. Even I, a recent veteran of the architectural slendours of Ephesus and Athens, was gob-smacked. San Marco is such a beautifully-conceived space as to beggar description. But I'll try.
The painting at the top of the page is by the Italian artist Canaletto, and this view of the Piazza San Marco was finished in 1746. I've always admired this beautiful work, largely because it captures the superbly realised space of the square, which takes the unwitting traveller by surprise as he steps out below the portico of St Mark's Clocktower, a stupendous bit of archtiectural humour that immediately had me chuckling, to the consternation of a tightly-knit group of early-morning Japanese tourists, who evidently thought it was just about the most impressive bit of brickwork in Christendom. It's actually very nice, though, compared with the sheer lunacy of the Basilica itself. I stood, stunned, in the almost empty piazza, with only the sound of twittering from pigeons and Japanese to disturb me, as my eyes began following the cornucopia of excess in front of me. I'd never realised God had the taste of a drag-queen before, but this place was chintz from arsehole to breakfast.
This bizarre Byzantine confirmation that religion can really fuck with your mind (in this case, the minds of its conceivers) is supposed to house the remains of Saint Mark himself, whose body was allegedly stolen, by the Venetians, from Alexandria. I don't know what it is about this obsession Catholics have about the 'relics of the Saints' stuff, and frankly, I couldn't care less. If it's your thing to go digging up the powdery remains of some two-thousand year old dead bloke just because he wrote a pack of lies about another bloke who probably didn't exist anyway, go right ahead. But don't expect me to respect the fact that they used all this nonsense just to invent a religion which would give them access to little boys' bottoms, okay?
After reflecting on the gilded cage before me, and its place in the enslavement of millions of minds over the centuries, I decided to go and wake up the Titanium Princess, still languishing languidly in our four-poster back at the pub. She came to with a couple of grunts and a hearty "Fuck off," which I always regard as a particularly loving greeting, coming from her.
We breakfasted in the little dining-room on the ground floor, where the most marvellous selection of farinaceous delights went down with a good helping of strong coffee, all served by our urbane concierge, who turned out to be pretty much the entire staff of Al Gazzettino. Indeed, it transpired that his grandfather had been the editor of the newspaper when it eventually re-invented itself as a funky little hotel. I liked that.
A water taxi came around to the back of the hotel and picked us up for a little journey across to the island of Murano, famous for its glassware, of course, but less well-known for the fact that the bones of a dragon, slain by Saint Donatus (again with the fucking saints, but hey - we're in Italy, folks!), reside in the church bearing the dragon-slayer's name. I really wanted to see these relics! Alas, the church was closed when we got there, but the bloke who'd guided us told me that he'd seen the bones of the dragon. "I've also seen the bones of a cow," he confided, "and guess what?" he smiled broadly.
I tell you, Mythbusters has a lot to answer for. Everyone's a sceptic these days.
The glass industry at Murano is fascinating. The Venetian authorities sensibly moved the glass business out of the city and onto Murano in 1291, fearing that the entire town might be burnt down one day. The glassmakers' factories are principally furnaces, and the one we went to was occupied by four masters all working to produce a single chandelier. They were currently working on some gilded leaves, and as each piece of glass came out of the furnace, it was deftly beaten into shape by one of the artisans, then further moulded and modelled. Several operations, all involving reheating, dousing and beating took place, until the leaf was cut from its rod and hung to cool. Each of these pieces ended up being precisely identical, without the glassmakers' use of measuring devices of any kind. They had the eyes that would be ears on a Mozart. It was all most impressive and beyond my comprehension. And I was getting thirsty in the heat. We got back on the water taxi, and headed off down the Grand Canal, looking for lunch and a jar or two.
The afternoon was spent walking, and I was, as usual, doing all I could to avoid the shopping precincts, which is particularly hard in Venice, a city that resembles a mediaeval Walmart. Some may say I'm being impossibly churlish, but to me a frock shop is a frock shop.
We lighted upon a little bookshop that proclaimed itself as "The World's Greatest Bookshop", on a sign outside. And guess what? It was! As we walked inside, a gondola from the fifteenth century greeted us, piled high in books and other parephenalia. In fact, the entire shop was a junk-yard of paper, cardboard and glass. I roamed around in heaven, sifting through 17th century manuscripts on the quality of the water-supply to Venice in 1658. We bought several large prints of Venice from the eighteenth century, which now adorn the already overburdened walls of our home. This funky little bookstore, whose doors opened up onto a canal, was a place in which one could happpily reside for a few weeks. Alas, we had to go. It was opera time.