Venice. Venice. Venice. That impossible city, that shouldn’t exist. A mystery wrapped up in an enigma and surmounted by an ostentatiously beautiful bow. Walking through Venice you feel like you are in a dream, a movie perhaps. My first view of Piazza San Marco – the big square with the Palaze Ducale and the Basilica and those columns with the winged lion on top (you know the place, you’ve seen it in movies) – was early in the morning, before any of the museums had opened, before the hoards of tourists had arrived. It was breathtaking. The huge expanse of the square, with the beautiful colonnades loggia on every side, the Basilica, with its golden insetted vaults and statues of Gothic splendour on the façade, the lagoon off to one side with Guidecca Island in the distance. Seriously takes your breath away. But its not just the big monuments that blew me away. Everywhere you look, Venice screams its history at you. And for the most part its not kitschy and touristy. The people there live and breathe their history, everyday they walk through the same streets and boat down the same canals that have existed for hundreds of years. There is nothing crazy and new, the shops are built into the buildings and even the shiny modern ones don’t upset the flow of the streets too much. Now, don’t g thinking that Venice is all fancy Gothic and Classical style buildings or anything, but there are no traffic lights, or cars or modern paving. The streets are cobbled, with little apartment insulate type buildings on every side with cute little window boxes. There aren’t even any electricity cables! The only hint of modernity, apart from the people themselves, are the motor boats on the canals and the masses of satellite receptors on the roofs of the houses.
Because Venice is one huge historic centre, around every corner you can chance upon a beautiful façade, or even a little fresco on a random wall. There are churches everywhere, and every single one is beautiful and the walls are covered with frescoes. These are frescoes that you could gladly study for a week in an Art History course alone, and they are truly beautiful pieces of art. I will give the Christians this; their churches really inspire the soul and uplift the spirit. I found it was the less ornate churches that were the most peaceful. The gold inlay of Basilica San Marco was amazing and breathtaking, but you feel shabby and small, and it’s just too ostentatious to uplift you in any way. Even though these lovely frescoes were of the Madonna, and Jesus and little angels, the colours and the vivacity of them is marvellous. The allegorical figures were everywhere, and I felt a little better being uplifted by those, same with the classical figures.
But this blog is starting to get a little all over the place. I should probably start at the beginning, and go from there, to make sure I don’t miss anything out. I’ll try not to wax lyrical about it too much, but no promises.
So, when I arrived in Venice, the first thing I see when I walk out of the station is the Grand Canal. And I laughed, it was so unbelievable. You don’t expect to walk out into a move just off the train, but that’s what it looked like. The beautiful stone bridge over the wide canal full of motor boats and gondolae with people everywhere. But I didn’t get to linger or anything, I gathered all my shit and headed to the heart of Cannaregio where my hostel was. According to my guidebook, this is the ‘ghetto’. It was a little fuzzy on the details, but I believe this was where all the Jews used to live early on in Venetian history, kind of like a Jewish quarter, not like a Nazi ghetto or a black ghetto or anything. Kinda funny how that works out I guess. I was pretty awestruck walking down the street, there were shops selling masks and Murano glass everywhere, and stalls with fruit and touristy kitch and so many people. A lot of them had suitcases, which made me feel a bit stupid for taking a pack, but watching them struggle over the steps of the bridges made me feel a little better about my choice.
I checked in blah blah blah boring. It was a nice hostel, although I had a couple of silent as the grave Asian girls to bunk with. All attempts at conversation were rebuffed. I gotta say though, those girls had the largest pile of toiletries I have every seen! I thought I was being a little extreme, taking such large containers of shampoo and stuff but they took it to another level. Countless little bottles of random things they would take and pat on their faces. I literally mean pat in this case, kinda like aftershave. My last morning in Venice, this girl got up at 6.30am, was out of the shower at 7, and when I left the room at 8am, she was still patting and preening at her face doing who knows what. It was absurd.
That evening I went out for a little explore. I was totally exhausted so only made it back to the train station, walking along that same road I’d taken earlier. The mask shops were the most striking. I had expected to see masks on the tourist stalls and maybe some fancier stores here and there, but these things are everywhere. It’s a recognised art form, and many people in Venice seem to practise it. After you go into a lot of mask shops, you realise that many of them are getting their masks from the same supplier, at least the smaller versions. Each shop was fairly unique in the more expensive ones it stocked, but a lot of them were all very much the same. Some of the masks had whole watercolours of Venice painted onto them, there are feathers and exotic shapes and lace and musical notations. They don’t let you take pictures inside the stores, but their window displays are even more stunning. I wanted to buy so many of them, but not only were they very expensive, but the most beautiful ones were extremely fragile in their decoration. I did on my wanderings on my last morning in Venice, come across a genuine mask creator. He showed me the moulds he used and how he made those from actual sculpture. He had some good priced display masks that were ceramic and much sturdier. That same morning I also found a comicbook/mask shop, where the mask maker had made masks and busts from movies! There was Sweeney Todd and the Hulk, it was quite amazing.
Stay tuned for the next installment!