Some couples celebrate their golden wedding anniversary by holding a feast for friends and family to show how successfully they’ve made it through the steeplechase of marriage. But that wasn’t for us.
Instead, Plum, my wife, decided that we would join others of the Third Age and that she would educate me by way of the obstacle race that is Venice – climbing up and over little bridges everywhere, hopping on and off boats, and long distance walking every day. There was much to see. But it would take a lifetime to see it all.
This was her third visit, my first. For some reason I’d always avoided Venice. Perhaps it was simply a result of watching Donald Sutherland being stabbed to death by that dwarf in the red anorak in Don’t Look Now (a film I truly loathed), or maybe it was all those masks and cloaks at Carnival time.
Whatever it was, I was wrong. From the moment we left the airport bus and stepped on to the vaporetto (riverboat) at Piazzale Roma at the start of the Grand Canal, my neck began to stretch and to swivel in happy astonishment as I gazed around in wonder.
Nothing had prepared me for the two and half mile, forty five minute journey along the length of the Grand Canal past the hundreds of cheek by jowl Byzantine, gothic, baroque and Renaissance palaces and mansions which line both banks. I wasn’t the only one in shock, either. Around me, fellow first-timers all wore identical smiles of amazement. Lifetimes seeing photographs of the place hadn’t prepared any of us for the real thing.
But then Venice is amazing. Nowhere else on earth did the inhabitants of a place decide to turn a lagoon, and some of the one hundred and twenty four islands within it, into a port.
If you were starting now, an archipelago of islets and sandbanks would be the last place you’d build a city. But they were starting fifteen hundred years ago with tiny shallow bottomed ships, and in this corner between Italy and the Balkans, West met East and fortunes awaited the merchants who traded there.
Ah, yes, the merchants. As a schoolboy I was puzzled about the setting of Shakepeare’s play about the two posh spivs who, with the help of a cute lawyer, shaft poor Shylock something rotten. Why did Shakespeare select Venice if he’d never been there? Why not Bristol? That would have made a good title – The Merchant of Bristol.
But by the time Plum and I had dragged our suitcases along a sixty yard slit in the wall from the vaporetti pier to our hotel, I understood. By 1598 when Shakespeare was writing his story, the staggering, ostentatious wealth of Venice, with its dazzling domes and marble palaces, would have been the talk of Europe. There was even a convenient Jewish ghetto (a Venetian word, by the way) from where the character of Shylock could be summoned. It’s still there - the oldest existing Jewish ghetto in the world.
For centuries the city was stuffed with rich merchants when wealth and beauty went together. Indeed, looking at Venice, scarcely a brick in a public place would appear to have ever been laid for purely functional purposes.
Rather the aim throughout Venetian history seems to have been been to build, embellish and then re-embellish and because of the merchants’ egos and attempts to buy their way to heaven through the building of churches, there was always money and artistry to do it. By trying to bribe God, the Renaissance rich bequeathed us a jewelled city.
The view from the window of our hotel room, for instance, was of the façade of Santa Maria del Giglio just ten yards across the street. It’s beautiful, and in most European cities a 17th century church like this would be the most famous local place of worship. But in Venice, despite there being a Rubens’ Madonna and Child and John The Baptist at one altar, it isn’t even famous, just one of a hundred and thirty nine churches scattered around town.
It’s the same with Titian’s largely unnoticed Annunciation, with its huge Angel Gabriel and a barefoot teenage Mary looking like Cinderella, on a side altar in a church a few streets away in the Piazza San Salvador. Unless you know it’s there, you’ll miss it amidst all the other artistic treasures that are around almost every corner.
The greatest concentration of treasures is famously in the Basilica di San Marco, which, with its five huge domes and shimmering gold mosaic walls, looks as though it might have been magically transported from Constantinople before that city became Muslim Istanbul.
A cynic might suggest that there’s an awful lot of bling on bling here, and art experts tell us that the entire basilica is an Old Curiosity Shop of Byzantine and Middle Eastern art and statues pillaged at the time of the Crusades. Well, it seems the looters chose well when they made off with the plunder and Venice, and now we, are the beneficiaries.
Considering so many people crowd through the basilica, and there is always a long queue, it felt surprising, once inside, that the visitors were so orderly, their tone so respectfully muted. But then churches, even when they are little more than museums, can still, in this secular age, do that to people.
Public squares, however, seem to demand the opposite. Outside in the vast Piazza San Marco, for instance, it’s usually party time, with children playing, the occasional couple snogging and almost everyone smiling.
Napoleon may, or may not have described it as the ‘drawing room of Europe’, but whoever did would now have to broaden the description as every day thousands of tourists from all parts of the world consider it the focus of their visit.
And everywhere, between the America college students and young, well dressed Japanese couples, endlessly positioning their selfie sticks so that they can photograph themselves in front of the basilica, roam legions of quiet Brits of a certain age, wives studying their travel guides as they walk, husbands following obediently with their cameras. Why do so many British women take up studying art history in their retirement? I don’t know. But they do.
It’s only a short walk from San Marco past the pink Doge’s Palace to the lagoon. With more time, I’d like to have crossed the Bridge of Sighs from inside the palace to the prison next door from where Casanova is said to have escaped in 1755, but we had a date with a boat to take us on a tour of some of the other islands.
That’s something else I didn’t fully realise about Venice. Out there in the lagoon, which covers over 200 square miles, and is protected from the Adriatic by sea walls on the Lido, are lots of other little islands.
Torcello, which took about forty five minutes to reach, gives a good idea of what Venice must once have been like. Not more than a couple of feet above sea level at best, its great days were between the seventh century, when a cathedral was built - the oldest remaining building in the lagoon, and the twelfth century, when a sparse but beautiful Byzantine church went up next door.
Quite why the people wanted a second church, I don’t know, but once thousands of people worshipped in them, and there were mansions for the rich around the island. But then this part of the lagoon became silted up, there were plagues of disease carrying mosquitos, and, as the population moved away, nearly all Torcello’s grand houses were pulled down to provide stone for building Venice.
Now, although the cathedral there boasts a shimmering twelfth century gold mosaic of the Last Judgement, there are fewer than a dozen inhabitants left on the island – although Torcello is still reckoned to be a good place for writers (eg Ernest Hemingway) to get away from the world.
Not quite so badly depopulated, but where the people have different ways of life from their traditional pursuits is a cluster of interconnecting islands called Murano. Once a pioneer glass blowing place, where it is believed the first spectacles may have been produced, although there are still glass furnaces and skilled experts at work in them, tourism is what probably brings in most of the euros to the gift shops that line the canals.
For a place so ancient, so much money has been spent on restoration that it almost resembles a Hollywood set, with even the twelfth century Basilica dei Santi Mari e Donato looking pretty recent. They say that Casanova used to come to Murano for orgies. From the super clean look of the place I’m not sure he’d know where to find one here now.
Further away across the lagoon, but just as dependent on tourism is Burano. Once lace-making by hand was the speciality of the women here, but now, although the little shops specialise in it, the shawls and napkins are all imported. More interesting are the dazzling different colours of the little houses. Owning a paint shop here must the trade to be in now.
Before we came to Venice it seemed to me that this living museum must struggle daily in its battle with the lagoon. Obviously it still does, with dredgers quietly working the canals all the time. But the lagoon is what makes Venice.
Centuries ago its two tides a day made it the cleanest city in Europe as it washed away the daily leavings of the population . If you’re wondering, as I was, septic tanks in the major hotels help take care of much of that problem. For the rest…the tides in the canals still have a job to do.
So, best not to fall in the water.