do there as the romans do

For €2, the traghetto combined a more interesting way of crossing the Grand Canal than one of the bridges with a much cheaper source of gondola fun. We crossed in a green, hazy morning, poled fore and aft by men in stripey black-and-white jumpers. The euro coins were just stacked on the gunwales, showing great confidence the boat wouldn’t list too much and dump a day’s fares on the bottom of the canal. In a rare display of Venetian machismo, the locals stood rather than sitting in the tiny, heaving boat. The traghetto put us off at the fish market, piled high with sad looking fish and things with tentacles, and we wandered through an entirely different set of winding passages to the Gallerie dell’Accademia.

This gallery holds da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, although not actually on display (sadly), and a magnificent collection of largely religious art, although half the gallery was closed off (something they didn’t warn us about at the door; this was a recurring theme in Italy) and we killed some time with a set of mediocre nationalist statuary packed away in the basement. The early Renaissance saints and the terrifying baby-head-studded ceilings were high points, although not so high as the couple of genuine Hieronymous Bosches. A vaporetto took us all the way back to the railway station – Italian for railway is “ferrovia”, exactly cognate with “eisenbahn” or “chemin de fer”, just not with “railway”. Depressingly, the train down to Rome was already nicer, cheaper and more comfortable than pretty much anything on the rails in England.

In a touristy country, in a day and age where English is very much the tourist lingua franca, the train of course had English-language announcements alongside the rapid-fire Italian ones. They had a very clear, careful, neutrally accented voice, which would be excellent if they included the names of stations. Unfortunately, they just put in the Italian voice clips, leading to “The next stop is [avalanche of Italian syllables in a completely different voice]”, which was almost totally incomprehensible. A pair of rather fat Americans sat in the seat in front of us, one upbeat about the excellent landscape zipping past, the other generally moaning about Italy, but they got off at Florence.

Roma Termini station is about 70% boutique, 30% trains and 0% useful signage; it took about twenty minutes of increasingly sun-scorched irritation to find something which would sell us a bus ticket. Having done so, the bus journey was one of the worst I’ve had in a first world country, a packed, rolling sweat-dungeon with barely any seating or suspension which vibrated across the inexplicably cobbled streets like a tiny mobile hell. The suffering was slightly alleviated by two priests who got on next to us and gossiped for the entire trip. I couldn’t make out a word, but it was superbly entertaining.

Our airbnb was a little tucked-away flat in a 17th century block of flats, down a street which in most cities would actually be considered an alley; it had a lovely wooden ceiling, solid quarry tiles, and a bell in the courtyard that had probably chimed the same hours in the same way since the time of Good Queen Bess. Our host showed us the wifi code and indicated the location of some good restaurants, and we followed those directions across the orange-lit Tiber to Trastevere. There, after a good amble around the cobbled streets eyeing up restaurants, a man in plastic Roman armour finally snared us into a restaurant with a mascot which looked oddly like Ian McShane. It’s funny, I think the centurion was actually scaring a lot of punters away as an engineered touristy gimmick, though we couldn’t doubt that the guy genuinely and probably thought it was something people would like.

We went for the set menu: pickled mushrooms, salami in oil, spicy bruschetta and rubbery strips of salted pig skin. I feel every pig-based culinary culture has invented its own approach to pig skin: British scratchings, Ukrainian salo, the weird Romanian thing I had over there, whatever that Hungarian crackling spread is called. I also feel that, having grown up with one of these things, you will find all the others faintly disgusting. However, the pickled mushrooms were lovely. The vast second course (maccheroncelli and ragu; the proprieter gave me a bib) would have been worth the whole meal on its own, and the main (lamb chops and crispy roast potatoes in the local fashion) was absolutely divine.

It was a warm night, and we took a wandering journey home along the high bank of the low Tiber. Archaeology is absolutely everywhere, and every few hundred yards we would encounter a curiosity like a terrace of buildings plonked atop the crumbling remains of an ancient theatre, or a digsite showing the compound remains of a half-dozen ancient temples built on top of each other’s foundations, and we detoured away from the river a while to gaze down the moonlit vastness of the Circus Maximus, beneath a horizon contoured by the immense silhouettes of the Palatine Hill.


a palace and a prison on each hand

The Doge’s Palace is a place of almost unbearable grandeur. It’s not just where the Doge (a non-hereditary, very carefully elected* ruler) hung his amusingly unique sort-of-like-a-flaccid-Phrygian-cap hat, but is also a functional government complex, where high courts sat and Councils of Forty, Ten, Greatness etc met. The members of these courts and councils were all scions of staggeringly wealthy merchant families, who were denied many other forms of showing off (to forestall dangerous bling arms races, Venice’s oligarchs collectively kept a tight lid on most public displays of wealth – it’s why gondolas are glossy black, and why there are essentially no public statues before 1797, when the Republic fell.)** So the Palace and its decoration represented not only the political institutions of the Republic (of which they were quite justifiably proud, maintaining something like a millennium of stability at the centre of a multi-continent hurricane of money and invasions) but also, personally, the best opportunity for most of the richest people in southern Europe to show that they were men of wealth and taste.

Thus, its staircases feel like ascending into a heaven made of gold-leafed stucco, and the rooms they lead to range from exquisitely realised high-relief classical pantheons to acres of Old Masters plastered across every flat surface. The finest painters and sculptors of Europe were brought here to decorate the walls and ceilings with various Doges and allegorical figures doing thematically appropriate things: trashing Turks, dispensing justice, chilling with saints, accepting the benedictions of classical figures. The largest walls are reserved for apocalyptic naval battles or twenty-five-metre-wide murals of God and all His angels, the ceilings covered in yet more magnificent paintings separated by rivers of gold leaf. The effect is overwhelming. The flat roofs seem oddly boring until you realise how much harder they were to build than vaulted cathedral ceilings; similarly, the building’s flat square facade, pre-modernism, would be obvious to everyone as incredibly accomplished as well as space-efficient. Oddly, the armoury is the one part not filled with bling; the weapons there that aren’t trophies of war are mostly functional, serious things for the palace guard, swords and crossbows and what may be an original Puckle gun. The Bridge of Sighs takes you from palace to prison, a glum, intimidating place of graffitied stone and very well made interlocking iron bars.*** Back in the palace, one room contained an absolutely marvellous temporary exhibition of Indian jewellery. Jade thumb rings and tulwar hilts shimmered with rubies and emeralds under two-storey paintings of the Battle of Lepanto.

Most clock faces show twelve hours, and trust the time-checker to work out from context whether it is midday or midnight. Several around Venice, apparently not trusting their audience, have twenty-four, either numbered I-XXIV or with two I-XII sequences continuing from each other. One clock inside the Doge’s palace, however, only shows six hours. Along the walls of the first floor loggia, specially carved lion-faced postboxes swallow anonymous denunciations; in the courtyard below them is a statue of the unloved St Theodore, who was the patron saint of Venice until the city, wishing to distance itself from Byzantium, stole the bones of St Mark from Alexandria and took him as their patron. Poor displaced Theodore appears here and there but is easily mistaken for the more popular Saint George (they share the “stabbing a dragon” gimmick), and everywhere in the city the symbol of  St Mark, a winged lion, holds its book open with expressions ranging from “READ THIS, SINNER” to “hurr hurr funny book”. Here and there you can find plaques thanking the British “Venice in Peril” fund for stopping some part or other of the city from falling into the waves.

St Mark’s Square was full of predatory seagulls, making close passes overhead; I shouted a warning to Fran, but she misheard it as being about pedestals, and ten seconds later her panini was inside a mob of opportunistic birds; this is the second time this has happened this year. We had reserved a timeslot for St Mark’s Basilica, which given the huge queues turned out to be a brilliant idea; waiting for that slot, we took a lift up the Campanile for views of the city’s sunlit roofs. Down in the canals below, gondoliers offered parties of pensioners and Chinese tourists a production-line trip (€80 for an hour, probably quite a bit more for the optional extra musicians.)

Here’s a video I took of one of the best ones.

The basilica itself is a different style of magnificent. Its lower levels are a gorgeous selection of patterned marbles in white, green, grey and purple; the serious decoration, the stucco and mosaics, only starts a couple of metres up. Inside, it feels more Orthodox than Catholic, with gilt mosaics and long-faced saints smeared across the inside of a clutch of great domes.  It feels larger inside than out, and it’s a strikingly patched-together, almost ramshackle place – the ragged, uneven floors, the repairs and compromises made to the architecture over a thousand years, the plaintive cries of “no photo!” from staff ignored by tourists and tour guides alike, the little extra barriers inside trying to charge you a few euros more to go up on the balcony or look at Those Famous Horses**** and the general gloomy lack of light all give the place an ancient, entropy-laden, wonderfully Byzantine atmosphere.

We strolled down the wide, stall-strewn waterfront, where little pumps recirculate water over overpriced chunks of coconut and crowds of tourists go to and from the day ferries, to the Arsenal, the real source of Venice’s power. The naval museum (its doors flanked by the immense anchors of the Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts Tegetthoff and Viribus Unitus) was closed, but in the Arsenal sheds to the north they keep an amazing collection of boats: gilt barges, tiny fishing skiffs, a large WW2 torpedo boat and a complete boiler and engine assembly from a huge yacht. The ticket to the Doge’s Palace also gave access to the museums ringing St Mark’s; it said “museums” as if they were plural, but all seem to be part of the same complex, a multi-level sprawl whose contents ambled amiably from leathery old globes and classical statuary to bits of Napoleonic and Habsburg swag; among one suite of grander rooms, a great deal of noise is made about “Sissi” as if anyone this century should know or care who she was.***** Most entertaining of all were the uniquely Venetian things, like a complete set of every coin ever minted in the Republic, a pair of flood shoes somewhere between platforms and ship rudders, and a model depicting an apparent traditional Venetian pastime: making a human pyramid on top of two barges.


*An amusing exception being the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a mercenary general who left an enormous endowment to Venice on condition that a statue be erected to him in St Mark’s Square. The Venetian government thought about it very hard and said they’d take the money, but the statue would go up opposite the school of St Mark, a vastly less grand location.

** I quote: “New regulations for the elections of the doge introduced in 1268 remained in force until the end of the republic in 1797. Their object was to minimize as far as possible the influence of individual great families, and this was effected by a complex electoral machinery. Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the doge. None could be elected but by at least twenty-five votes out of forty-one, nine votes out of eleven or twelve, or seven votes out of nine electors.”

*** Looking out on the shimmering green waters, imagining that this is the last time you ever will, you can see how the bridge got its name. Although it’s not clear if that’s actually true or just a very old urban legend.

**** The four horses on the balcony of St Mark’s are replicas anyway. The originals: are shrouded in myth, may have been from Rome, were definitely in Constantinople for centuries, were nicked by the Venetians when Crusaders sacked the city in 1204, were nicked again in 1797 by Napoleon but returned to Venice after Waterloo, and now hide indoors from air pollution. Their story is fantastic but the horses themselves are quite boring, and the reverence and significance which these obviously incomplete parts of a looted chariot statue were and are given is an essay in itself about Europe’s relationship with the classical world. Though to be fair they’re also covered in gold and quite shiny.

***** “Sissi”- Elisabeth of Bavaria – was the wife of Franz Josef I, who through his immense longevity and witlessness presided over the destruction of the otherwise extraordinarily long-lived and resilient Habsburg empire. Sissi herself was a vain, pointless, miserable consort known only for being pretty and dying violently. She is still, bizarrely, the object of intense devotion both here and in Vienna. Anyone who, like me, is wondering when the Diana meme will finally die will find it distressing that Sissi’s cult appears to be going strong after 120 years.

welcome to doge city

 (Click the images for decent resolution!)

Down through the overcast, peering through windows threaded with windblown condensation, we first made out the landscape of the Po valley: yellow fields and red roofs, straight railways and wandering rivers. Venice airport proper is on the coast of the great Venetian lagoon, but we had saved money by flying to Treviso, an hour inland by bus. However, unlike seemingly every other Ryanair customer in Europe, we had actually kept our seats.

From above, Venice is shaped roughly like a fish, with the Grand Canal winding through it and accentuating the cut of the pectoral fin where the Basilica di Santa Maria sits. The tail is the Arsenale district, with the Doge’s palace and San Marco nestling in the fish’s belly. Above, the cemetery island San Michele floats by like a discarded square of polystyrene. I can’t work out where the Giudecca fits in this metaphor; possibly it’s a friendly eel.  At the fish’s mouth, the cruise ships moor, and above their docks the causeway to the mainland brings in people by road, rail and rubber-tyred tram.

It was a grey, hazy day, and we crossed the causeway in a spray-filled breeze, with docks and infrastructure crowding the skyline to the right, and the green waters of the lagoon stretching away to the left. Ahead the city was a broad, low sprawl of roofs, the towers rising above it an intriguing mix of styles, neither Italianate nor Byzantine but a mixture of both. Our airbnb was in the Cannaregio area, near the old ghetto which gave the world that term (somewhere near the fish’s forehead? Alright, I’ll stop.) It’s a quiet district, where the few remaining Venetians who actually live in the city tend to roost; our host was one of them, and he led us – through the crowds, across little arched bridges, along canals full of little boats, past glorious mansions with cracked old stucco faces- to our fabulously opulent lodgings (marble terrazzo floor, walnut furniture, gilt-framed mirrors – and this was, genuinely, at the cheap end).

What is left to say about Venice? Marble palaces slowly crumbling into grey-green canals, gleaming black gondolas poled by men in stripy shirts or moored between even stripier barbershop-poles, tiny alleys you almost have to walk sideways through, glittering carnival masks and twisted glass wonders behind shop windows. Any decent art gallery will have at least one Canaletto knockoff showing the glorious city on the water, and very little has changed since they were painted. It’s everything one expects: rarely more, but never any less. This ridiculous, impossible, architecturally unlikely fantasia was a massive player in the Mediterranean for no less than a thousand years, took on the Byzantines and the Ottomans in stand-up war, enabled Crusades and established its mystique as a tourist destination while the concept of tourism was still being invented. Eaten by the French, then the Habsburgs, and finally the Italian state fabricated in the 19th century, it’s less unique now, perhaps, than ever before, but is still an absolutely singular place.

We wandered out at dusk, exploring the back streets with no particular aim; Fran bought a dress more suited to the Venetian chill at the “everything €9”fashion shops (there are, bizarrely, dozens of similar places infesting this otherwise incredibly expensive city). Dinner started with a local specialty, pasta in cuttlefish ink: despite looking like a plated crude oil disaster and leaving you with a pronounced “goth lipstick” effect, it’s actually very tasty. We chatted to a retired Dutch couple who came back regularly for the biennial art exhibition – they’d been back in Venice five times and ate at this place every time (a recommendation!). To round off our first evening, we walked through the dark alleys of the central district to the Rialto. There’s no menace to Venice (excuse the rhyme); even the darkest alley holds nothing worse than a mild urine scent or an unusually insistent hawker trying to flog you a selfie stick. It is, however, an unbelievably easy place to get lost in; there are no visible landmarks and a great many routes are blind turns off squares where the casual ambler can’t tell if there’s a way forward until they walk there. Even with all the helpful signs saying PER S. MARCO, the only practical ways to navigate are a GPS smartphone or a lifetime of practice.

Still, we came to the Rialto district – a large (somewhat overrated) bridge, banks thronged with attractive (somewhat overpriced) restaurants – and after a rejuvenating coffee took a vaporetto back up the Grand Canal. The long, low ferryboats – vaporetto means “little steamer”, though they’re diesel now – are the only practical public transport in a city with no roads and no railways, and although expensive and crowded at all hours of the day are a very enjoyable way to travel. When the Grand Canal rolls past, the ticket price is justified by the view as much as by the convenience, as all the buildings turn their most elaborate faces onto the water. The dark arches of the fish markets, the striped poles where the gondolas moor, the immense white Casino with its private red-carpeted pier, the giant white hands of some mad art exhibit rising from the water to caress the facade of a mansion, all glide by twice: once clear-cut and starkly floodlit, once shimmering and broken by the ripples of the ferry’s wake.

Venice & Rome 2017
Canals by Night – Doge’s Palace, Basilica di San Marco – Traghetto and Trastevere – Roman Remains – Pantheon, Vatican Museums – St Peter’s, Castel Sant’Angelo