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Sunday, 10 May 2015

A Birthday Trip (Cities, Islands and Music) – Part Two: Venice


There is no question that Venice is, must be, the world’s most romantic city, the strongest magnet for tourists the world over, the destination everyone aims for. Every time I visited – sunshine, rain, fog or sleet – I have always seen it teeming with tourists. The reason is obvious: its uniqueness is absolute.

The pictures only show part of the story, and you are left drooling for more. My previous visits have included Lido, Murano, Chioggia, Torcello, Burano – all interesting and even quaint smaller islands, but it is the city itself I can never tire of. It is an old dowager reliving her past splendour, flaunting her faded jewels even to market, inhaling the stale air of its canals as if it were a very costly scent, recounting past episodes of honour and cruelty, immense dangers, eternal loves, appalling injustices. It is like a stage upon which everyone is a lead character, a prima donna never letting anyone else upstage her, a Desdemona dying on stage every night, and each time getting up to receive a standing ovation from her adoring fans.

Venice looks like a film set, but is authentic, and laughs off its ludicrous Vegas-like imitations. You see, hear, touch, breathe, savour it, and are left wanting more. This is what happens to me, at any rate.
But, truth be said, it is not a welcoming city, in fact it seems to discourage its worshippers, pushing them off with unwelcoming traffic, lack of signs, astronomical prices. To get into its heart you must overcome frustration, but you know it is worth it.
The accommodation is the most expensive we have ever come across, including some far more luxurious hotels and resorts around the world; even youth hostels here are dearer than mid-class hotels in other cities. However, we are no longer backpackers, so hostels aren’t what we aim for. Our bed and breakfast is housed in one of the most beautiful palazzos along the Grand Canal, metres away from the Rialto Bridge. Our room is very large and Rialto is visible from one of the three windows. Shame that it is covered with panels to conceal men at work. Tough, but hey, from the other two windows there is an invaluable view of the Grand Canal.

 Everything is in traditional Venetian style – high beamed ceiling, lots of brocades, a Murano chandelier, gilded mirrors, authentic period furniture… A complimentary bottle of excellent Prosecco makes us forget the small, badly lit shower room and the lack of complimentary slippers. Expectations were high, they haven’t somehow been met, but we are not going to complain, because this is too beautiful a holiday to spoil it with grudges.

The streets and alleys are thronging, it is hard to move along, but we manage to reach Piazza San Marco, the heart of Venice. Everybody was, is, or will be here. It is more famous than Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, prettier than Place de l'Etoile, grander than San Pietro's Square. It is the heart of tourism worldwide, the aim of romantic honeymooners, the hub of the historical Marriage of the Sea and the Venetian Carnival, all rolled into one. Clicking cameras and selfies are everywhere; St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace are just precious backdrops against which a multi-coloured world is walking, standing, sitting at café tables and on steps. Is it possible to feel claustrophobic in such a wide open space?

We take sanctuary in a small and desperately busy café. People, mostly tourists, keep coming and going, drinking coffee and aperitifs. The staffs are surely overworked, but they try to smile and be kind.
I enjoy my Spritz sitting at a small table looking out at the crowds packed on the tiny bridge just outside the door. Glad to be inside.

We walk along the Grand Canal, the world’s prettiest water avenue. Gondolas, water taxis, steamboats, paddle canoes: they keep going up and down the stream non-stop. They float past the patrician palazzos, the luxurious hotels, under the bridges, and they carry the dreams of the millions floating along with them.

Evening is falling, and we go to a concert in one of the Venetian ancient brotherhoods. Scuola Grande di San Teodoro is a wonderful palazzo close to the Rialto bridge and inside is a splendid concert hall designed by Baroque architect Baldassarre Longhena with paintings by Palma Giovane and Bassano.

The programme of the concert includes famous arias and overtures from Baroque and classic operas and is performed by instrumentalists and singers dressed in 18th c. costumes and wigs. A little anachronistic are the spectacles, beards and moustaches worn by seven of the nine performers.
The show is obviously aimed at tourists, but very enjoyable it is, too.

Après concert, it is time for dinner and we walk to the Castello district, NE of the city, looking for our restaurant, Luna Sentada (Sitting Moon). After getting lost several times among dead-end alleys and little canals, at last we find it. Relief!

It is a doll-size restaurant, dimly lit and cosy, with tiny tables and rows of wine bottles from the most unlikely places, presenting truly unusual fusion specialities as well as traditional Venetian standards. We have some of the latter, sarde in saor (sweet and sour sardines) and ink fish bigoli. Both delicious with exotic accents, e.g. the spicy salad that comes with the sardines.
As a dessert, the young manager suggests that we try their tiramisu. Completely different, but fabulous. To go with the food, we have a rather cloudy, but fine Prosecco of the house.

Back in our bed and breakfast, it is time to slip between the sheets of our grand Venetian bed. Tomorrow we’ll be in Busseto, the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi.

© DaniBlue
10th May 2015

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