Venice with Webbed Feet

Venice, Grand Canal
View from the Rialto down the Grand Canal
Venice, Grand Canal, Italy
The Grand Canal
View from the Campanile, St Marks Cathedral, Venice, Italy
`St Mark’s Cathedral from the Campanile
The Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy
The Doge’s Palace

Venice is made of 118 islands (apparently, not that I had the skills or inclement to check) all composed like a jigsaw puzzle someone had placed, in order, on a table, but forgot to push together. When you are there, however, it feels like an organic structure – like aquatic shoots that have pushed themselves up through the water. In the centre of these reeds, one prodigious bamboo reaches high above the others; it’s the tallest building on the island and is dubbed the bell-tower or The Campanile. 

The city is often described as a maze by befuddled tourists. They stand with paper maps unfolded between two outstretched arms and their sunglasses pushed to the top of their heads. They’d sigh confounded. And I guess I’d have to agree. Occasionally, despite my flâneuse instincts,  I’d be forced to relent and check the GPS on my phone; only to find myself, puzzlingly enough, on the opposite side of the island to where I’d thought. I imagine the contrast this befuddlement creates, next to the local’s superior knowledge, gives the Venetians a sublime sense of power.

Whilst in the centre you have to elbow your way through the selfie snappers in order to reach anywhere. I pity the Venetians who must spend a large majority of their time spent in exhaustion as they face down the ‘barbarous multitudes.’ But a tip, the art galleries and museums are quite quiet. I don’t know what that says about the average tourist.  

It’s early June and the mercury reads 28C with 50% humidity; later in the day, it creeps up to 32. My day is spent eating gelato after gelato, stalking out supermarkets and corner shops with ice-cold bottles of water hidden in the midst. I’d pick places on the map that I want to check out; two hours later I’d arrive, only for it to take me three minutes to make the return journey.

 I bemoan the crowds, but it really doesn’t take long to walk somewhere nearly altogether deserted, like a little cafe or a water fountain in a community square from which you can watch as well dressed children eagerly dip bottles and hands into the font.  Others can be found kicking footballs against the walls of mighty buildings. At times the city seemed at peace, and when it did it felt most like a home rather than a playground.

I saw a family amble by. The woman, in front, held a paper bag of groceries in her arms. A small dog and few tottering toddlers followed in tow. Is she nanny? Or mum? It’s hard to tell when they look so rich. Suddenly, I was drawn back into my childhood memories. I remembered an aristocratic friend of mine who had had a plethora of nannies. They were all called ‘the nanny’ and she would always tell spiteful stories about them after they left. I met one or two, and they always seemed rather mean – or at the very least they didn’t feed me enough when I visited. I remember hearing about one nanny who was very fat and after she left they found mountains of food under her bed. Looking back, that whole scenario tells a different story. But this woman, in front of me now, was all designer sunglasses and Italian chic. Surely,  this was mum. Someone being paid to care might worry a little more about the three-year-old nudging their shiny red shoes, closer and closer, to the edge of the canal. Unless it doesn’t really matter – after all there is that rumour- that all Venetian’s have webbed feet. I watched her pass over a bridge and out of sight. 

In front of me now, a pink trousered youth stood on his head in the grand archway of some impressive looking building. It was a confident pose – legs bend and elbows out. It wasn’t until I clocked the ambo-boats, that I realised he was posed upon the steps of the city hospital. Was he leaving or checking in? The whole of Venice is a bit like that really.

The city of Venice is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. I don’t know if this imparts serious restrictions on the repairs people can make to their buildings, but everywhere the facades of houses were falling and crumbling. Venice has been likened to a museum (carefully preserved) or Disneyland (carefully orchestrated) – I’d say it’s nestled somewhere in the middle. Neither too perfect nor to hallowed. 

The light, however, is from a dream – or the recollection of a dream. It is haunting even in its glaring strength. It flashes and screams and sulks and dapples – it shimmers on crumbling masonry, mottles casino walls, and caresses the faces of those watching the water by moonlight. It paints memories of mermaids and pirates over the faces of those watching in awe. It speaks of opulence and depravity as it glints off the wine glasses held in the bedewed hands of heiresses. It is the light that makes painters weep.

Like all memories, Venice does not stay stationary in my mind, but changes and grows, mutates and fades, beautifies or indeed decays. Those qualities that were once slight are now gargantuan and overwhelming when I remember back. I have dreams of tiny sidewalks clinging to the edges of buildings. I dream of towering stone and I dream of feeling slight in the presence of centuries of elation and heartbreak.

My travel book of the week is The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. With a Napoleon era setting, this novella is about love and belonging – told with magic. This was the book that brought Venice alive for me, and spurred on my decision to visit. And books are the most romantic way of being inspired. To seek the geographies of the imagination, sprouted from words upon a page, speaks to the wild visionary parts of our brains. It pours kerosene on Disneyland and disrobes facts from museums. It is life and love and adventure – but most importantly it leaves the visuals of a place for our own cerebral cortexes to curate and interpret. 

Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
The Hospital, Italy
Inside the Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy
Venice, Italy
The Campanile, Venice, Italy
St Mark's Cathedral, Venice, Italy

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