A Free Man in Venice

In October 2002, following an interval of ten years, during which I'd read so many books, and made this site, I returned to Venice, solo, for a whole week, with a new digital camera, an iPod full of favourite tunes, and some very high expectations that I was trying to squash, just in case. The year so far had been the worst of my life - I was now an orphan, and I needed this holiday. 
(Places in red type are recommended photo spots.)

Wednesday 9.10.2002
Catch Gatwick Express at Victoria Station around 7 o'clock. Yawn. To airport in plenty of time. Very long and very grumpy check-in queue, because of War on Terrorism, George Bush's oil interests, etc. Quaff some coffee and doughnut  – fussy man in queue complaining about his unclean tray! Wander around shops, resisting some slight temptation. (This time spent wandering and spending is known in the trade as 'dwell time' evidently.) Flight an hour late leaving. My veggie meal request had registered - cheese and tomato croissant - I get mine first  along with some envious looks from fellow passengers. Not much cloud - good clear view. An English patchwork of hedgerow-divided fields, the English Channel,  then European organic-shaped fields and dark splashes of forest. Then the Alps – sugar-frosted chocolate ripples - and then we’re there. I'm almost out of the airport when a man flashes an ID card at me. He's so last-minute I think he's offering me a cab and walk quickly on after shaking my head, but he's a customs officer! 'What do you have in the cases?' 'Just drugs and explosives officer.' 'OK, have a nice stay.' The nice new Marco Polo Airport is a big improvement on the old huts, but it's a bus ride away from the lagoon. I buy an Alilaguna boat ticket (ticket office just to the left past the newsagent) and wait for the complimentary bus. One turns up, eventually, and the short but lovely journey around a roundabout and through a car-park swiftly deposits us by the boat stop in minutes flat. The long low-in-the-water boat arrives and we wait to get aboard while the boat blokes have a few important conversations.  Boat stops at  Murano and the Lido and then we head towards…S.Marco! Venice! After 10 years away spent looking at paintings and photos, and reading and remembering, it all seems surprisingly 3D! I don't need to walk through the Piazza but I just have to. I'm back! Short walk to the Hotel Ala – my room is small (booking a single room traditionally gets the lone traveller a broom cupboard) but the bed's comfy enough and there's all you’d want – TV, minibar, shower, soap, shampoo, bed, safe, and a window opening onto a canal, with regular gondolas passing by, often with cheesy singers and/or accordionists. Use the toilet, and when I come out the TV is on and there's a screen of text welcoming me by name. Spooky.

Can't wait to get out and get wandering. Unpack quickly  and walk – to the Accademia bridge to check out one of the classic views, towards the Salute church - it's still there! Walk to Campo S. Barnaba and on through Campo S. Margherita. Struck by the number of natives, immaculately dressed, collecting their kids from school with annoying small dogs. Reading articles and books bemoaning the falling population of Venice, and stressing the city becoming a culture theme park, has affected my idea of the place, it seems. This surprise that Venice is still full of Venetians will stay with me throughout the week. (Another phenomenon that reading had led me to expect was a Venice full of beggars. This too was not born out - I saw maybe four the whole week.) Also note the amount of disruptive work going on. So many buildings disappointingly covered in scaffolding, and so many canals being dredged. Oh well, I suppose it needs doing. And there is the sound, and appearance, of work going on, not like the long-standing silent scaffolding of the past. Pick a tourist-trap restaurant with outdoor seating, and those big mushroom-shaped gas heaters, near S. Zaccaria, for a surprisingly nice and fresh vegetable pizza. The fact that all the waitresses seem to be Chinese make me feel less self-conscious of my bad Italian, for some bizarre reason. Wander around a bit, have another ice cream, back to the hotel. Try to sleep with window open but can't sleep for some irregular clonking noises (of boats against moorings?) and so shut it. Woken around 1 o'clock by a woman talking on the phone in next room, and when she finishes she discusses the call with her husband! I hadn't set my alarm, but am woken by the sound of drilling from the palazzo opposite at nine – fine! Why is your first night in any hotel always the worst?


Thursday 10.10.2002

Breakfast on croissants and banana yoghurt. No cornflake flow from the hopper thing, despite my giving it a few thumps. Rainy morning. To the Correr Museum - never been before. (One ticket gets you into all the major attractions around the Piazza, a more expensive one gets you into museums further afield - it'll save you time at the desk, and money, if you decide which one  you want beforehand.)  The paintings in the Correr are not exactly the best in Venice - mostly International Gothic/Early Renaissance - but it's nice to get up close to them whilst the guards gossip in another room. Other stuff, relating to the history of Venice, makes a visit worthwhile. Shame the famous map, which I'd been looking forward to, and other good stuff, had been lent to an exhibition in Bonn, though.  Wander in steady mizzle. Get a mozzarella/tom/olive panini thing and a spinach and ricotta pasty & a bottle of pear juice and eat walking back to my hotel. Still it rains, and rains. Listen to the Cocteau Twins on my iPod, read Links' Venice for Pleasure. Back out early evening. To Arca pizzeria in Calle S.Pantalon (where there was a strange-to-find, but rather good, crêpery back in 1992), but it’s only just 7 o'clock so it's not open yet. Wander. Get a little lost – ‘what’s the Grand Canal doing there!’ Retrace and refind Arca. Pizza with fresh cherry toms and parmesan shavings and nice crisp side salad with some strong dark Moretti beer. Panna cotta with berries and an espresso after. Back to hotel in even heavier rain. Read from After the Quake, a new book of Haruki Murakami stories. Dream about a man sitting next to me in a campo in Venice and opening a large two-cat cat basket and letting out...two large cats.

Friday 11.10.2002
The mystery of the no-flow cornflake-hopper thing is solved by a fellow guest and genius - you have to poke a spoon handle up it! Have cornflakes, banana yoghurt and croissants. Grey day but no rain, until I go out. To the Accademia gallery in steady rain. I stay for hours, deciding to do it full justice as the weather is so wet. The small double room with stuff by Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna  and Giorgione's The Tempest is a highlight as always; as are the St Ursula cycle, the Carpaccios and the Canaletto/Longhi room. But why, given the Venetian Renaissance reputation for bringing colour to the geometry of the geniuses from Florence, are the paintings so dull and muted? Do they need cleaning? Have they faded through lack of care? Unless your knowledge of Venetian art is really sparse I'd avoid the audio guide as it's pretty thin on detail and perception. At one stage the woman on the tape even coughs in your ear, and no one's bothered to edit it out! The laminated cards in the rooms are better, but are sometimes not available in English. 

To the Frari church after lunch. Now this is more like it for Venetian colour   –  a glowing Titian altarpiece, and another by Giovanni Bellini. I sit and gaze at the latter for a long time, during which believing in God doesn't seem quite as daft as usual. But the feeling passes, leaving admiration for my man Giovanni intact. Back to hotel lateish (after 5 o'clock) for much-needed relief, a rest and a read, and then out again. Pass on by tonight's restaurant chosen from my guide book as it has tablecloths and curtains. Up to Strada Nuova and decide to try McDonald's. I know, I'm not proud of my weakness but  I fancied fries. Had read about how the opening of three McDonalds in Venice had led to loud protest from locals, and claims that this was the final surrender to tourism. Funny, then, that everyone in here seems to be Italian. The place is not busy either, and the service is pretty slow. I have filetta di pesce meal, which tastes like it always tastes. It still seems odd to be able to buy beer in a fast food joint, though. Back to my hotel and send some e-mails on their pay-PC. The keyboard's not right, though, like having the ' in the wrong place (lower case, under the ?, after the 0).

Saturday 12.10.2002
Write this journal up whilst having breakfast, as usual and ponder one of the  advantages of being lone male in Venice - gondoliers and the African imitation-designer-bag sellers do not think you’re a likely customer, so they don't bug you. Drizzly this morning – decide to do some churches. San Zaccaria first – another lovely Giovanni Bellini Madonna to gaze at for a very long time (that's it on the right). There's also some nice crumble, ceiling frescos and a flooded crypt if you visit the chapels entered on the right, which you pay to enter, but which are worth it. There's a Tintoretto out there too. On to Santa Maria Formosa – a nice calm square cross-shaped space, but nothing special art-wise. Here I buy a Chorus pass card which gets you into 15 of Venice's churches for 8 euros. instead of paying the 2 euros entry fee for each one. To Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a church much read about, and much anticipated, and very much not a disappointment - a marble marvel. (Photo opportunities radiate out in all directions from here, especially the collection of calli and bridges you come to if you take the Calle Castelli to the South East of the Miracoli church). Wander, and meet my first cat, lurking in a doorway. Stop and scratch it under the chin. Where have all the Venetian cats gone? Each campo used to have about half a dozen, but I've been here four days before meeting one. A mystery. 

2005 Update - a mystery solved. Author and Venetian resident Michelle Lovric writes "There is an association called DINGO which has over the last ten years collected up most of the street cats and taken them away for sterilization and rehousing. For some time they were housed on the island of San Clemente, the old Napoleonic female lunatic asylum. I went to visit them there - it was amazingly well organised, with huge cages and an operating theatre for the cats. But then the island was sold (it is now a five star hotel) and the cats were deported to the Lido, where they now have a sanctuary. Some Venetian friends have told me that the cats were accused of causing diseases to Venice's few precious babies and small children."

Head to Rialto after lunch, and after visiting the church next to the hotel (Santa Maria del Giglio - baroque-a-go-go, but a bit boring.) The church which is the purpose of my walk (San Giovanni Cristostomo) is covered in scaffolding on the outside, and full of scaffolding inside. It has a late Giovanni Bellini in there somewhere, which for once isn't a Madonna! Oh well, maybe next time. The Rough Guide recommends investigating the almost-hidden Calle de Scaleter opposite the church, so I give it a go. And end up in a sweet secluded campiello with the Grand Canal on one side, and a stone staircase with a carved lion looking like he's about to throw up.  Walk to Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice's other big church. It seems dark and a little unsparkling after the artistic joys of the Frari, but boy is it big! Back to hotel and decide to go to Arca again, but it's full. Around to the Zattere and Da Gianni, and a seat outside looking over towards Giudecca with its lights sparkling across the canal . Nice pizza verdura, but weather getting colder and wetter so I almost regret sitting outside. But I'm a hardy Brit, so I just keep my jacket on!

Sunday 13.10.2002

Open window before breakfast to...no rain! Over the Accademia bridge - classic view even better for some sunshine and blue sky above - to the Salute church. Can't walk in front of the Dogana to the tip because of paving work, so cut down to the Zattere and walk past Da Gianni, where I'd eaten a pizza in the dark with rain last night, but it's all bright and dry this morning. Along to S. Nicolo dei Mendicoli, the church featured in the film of Don’t Look Now. But it's covered in scaffolding and closed, of course! Wander up through some modern flats to the prison, through the Fondamenta del Malcanton (see pic to the left) then North East to visit the unspecial Baroque church of S. Stae. Walk to the the fish market. On both my previous trips the Ca’ D’Oro had been covered in scaffolding, so I'd been looking forward to seeing it at last, but it catches me by surprise - it's just so Venetian. And gorgeous. Try to imagine it covered in gold leaf, but can't. Take lots of photos. Walk as far as Frari looking for lunch. Visit church of S.Polo – impressive series of stations of the cross by Tiepolo's son. Over the Rialto bridge for a stroll to my hotel but it’s nearer than I thought and I'm back in no time. Doze. That evening I find a good and friendly pizzeria over past Campo S.Maria Formosa, but I can't remember what it was called. You would've liked it though. I have a pizza with onions. Have a long drift back to hotel with the Cocteau Twins on my iPod and an ice cream. Very much like heaven.


Monday 14.10.2002
No banana yoghurts, so I try fresh pineapple with natural yoghurt – a new favourite thing! Head up past the Rialto to visit three churches. Scaffolding on the outside of Gesuiti causes spirits to fall, but it is open, and has an amazing interior of green and white marble made to look like the  flock wallpaper in an old fashioned Indian restaurant, and it's all carved into swags and everything.  Head over along the Fondamenta de la Misericordia to the Madonna dell’Orto,  Tintoretto’s parish church, with his tomb and some fine big paintings by him, and arguably the best Gothic church facade in Venice. The Rough Guide mentions that Tintoretto had a daughter called Marietta. An artist herself, she was married off young, her talents remained un-nurtured, and she died four years before her father. Sad. On to S.Alvise with its amazing painted ceiling. Through the ghetto to the railway station for relief, and some lunch. Decide to head over to the Scuola di San Rocco to complete my Tintoretto blow-out day. Ice cream number 1 before going in. Overwhelmingly impressive, and with a very good and comprehensive audio guide. Cheesy music piped into one of the rooms seems totally out of place, but when I leave I find the musicians outside - zither, violin and cello - playing tacky ‘standards’. Back via S.Barnaba to buy the new Yann Tierson Live CD, and via Campo S. Trovaso and discover one of my old favourite canal stretches. Ice cream no. 2. Back to hotel for rest. Window shop loop over top of S. Marco to the restaurant near S.Zaccaria again. Eat ice cream no. 3 and wander up the Riva to the Arsenale and back.

Tuesday 15.10.2002
Get a vaporetto day ticket (€9.30) – up to Piazale Roma and back, spotting and photographing palazzos - really the only way to appreciate the sights on the Grand Canal. Investigate the Tourist Office shop in the Casino da Caffè by the Giardinetti Reali. Some interesting books, and a good selection of novels about Venice, with some tempting  items in French and German that I'd never seen in English. I buy some handsome cards and bookmarks featuring Venetian windows.  Stroll up to Giardini looking for a toilet, but it's closed - head back and find sparkling new ones tucked away in Calle Morosina. Eat lunch walking and take a vaporetto over to Guidecca – chat to an American couple. The church of Redentore is a bit unspecial. View over to San Marco blocked  by a bloody great battleship as I walk along the Fondamenta della Croce. Wander about a bit inland, as it were, without finding too much to photograph, except the entrance to the Garden of Eden. No, not THE Garden of Eden - the entrance to a garden once owned by an English bloke called Eden. Looks nice in there though. (I've since found out more about this place - click here if you're interested.) Take a vaporetto back to Zattere and an ice cream, and a walk back to my hotel for a rest. Walk to San Marco later and the lovely pink dusty light bathing the Basilica suggests another up-and-back Grand Canal trip. Up in the dusk and back in sparkling darkness. Late by the time I'm back at S. Marco, so eat pizza at the Chat qui rit self-service. Sit under an aquarium with a fish in it so big it can't turn around and swim the other way. Symbolic or what? An ice cream and a wander taking some more night photos. Struck by an accordionist playing classical favourites, very well, in front of the Palazzo Ducale.

Wednesday 16.10.2002
Last breakfast – no pineapple! Warm weather, wander up to the Ca’ d’Oro. It has some very ordinary paintings but I love the tiles, the courtyard and some fine views from the balconies. Buy an expensive  (but cheaper than in London) facsimile Canaletto sketchbook, and a poster of his architectural fantasy from the Accademia . Find a fine new spot on a canal by S. Felice - very photogenic. Eat lunch in the church's side doorway, facing the canal, and share with some pigeons. Ice cream and a warm wander back to hotel. Life’s good ain't it? Pick up my case and catch the Alilaguna (€10.00) to the airport. Check-in is v.swift, no queue, but my flight's delayed – 2 hours window shopping and sitting around the almost-finished terminal - more 'dwell time' in my life. (And I just know that it'll still be almost finished on my next visit.) Have 3 seats to myself on the plane, and decide that I like night-flying for when the lights go out and you’re in your own little glowing corner with your little light on, reading. J. meets me at airport - the train into London from Gatwick is very like a rubbish tip. Get some chips on my way home, stroke my cat and open my mail. Sigh.

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