Sunday, November 16, 2003

In such a photogenic city it was inevitable that my camera would be in use early. What I didn’t expect was the batteries to go just four photos into the day. And I’d left my spares at home. Not to worry: I had passed a camera store just two minutes earlier. I turned around, retraced my steps and... it wasn’t there. Confused, I span around trying to get my berrings. Slowly it dawned on me that I’d had my first authentic Venitian experience: I was lost.

I was advised beforehand not to worry about museums, historic buildings and the like on this first visit and instead to simply soak the place up; to enjoy its charm. And that meant not worrying about getting lost – even when you need camera batteries – and instead letting the place sweep you through it.

I expected those charms to come from its obvious differences to any other city: no cars, canels where there should be roads and quirky little alleyways that terminate with water-created dead-ends. And they do. But equally as captivating were the buildings and shops themselves. Despite a myriad of styles and influences they all carried a certain gravity; in both senses of the word since they still stand improbably sat on a lagoon. Their hues are faded – a contrast to the vibrant colours of daily life in Italy: pizzas, fashion and blue blue skys – but their architecture is frequently grand. You don’t need a book to tell you that this place has history in spades; like, say, Paris or Vienna it possesses the air of distinguished authority found only in unmistakenly European cities.

But enough of the hyperbole you’ll find in a million guide books. I did, on at least two occasions, despare of the hopelessness of navigation; once when, after walking in a straight line for twenty minutes, I found myself back where I started and again when the novelty of a canal forming a dead-end wore off. And, whilst it’s easy to get off the well-trodden tourist trails it’s just as easy to stumble back onto them; at one point, quietly sitting on a quay taking some pictures – every corner and every bridge is a photo opportunity – a late middle-aged couple came past in a gondala. She was dressed as if she thought she was still 21 – although that was more likely her weight in stone – and he had heavy fake tan, greased-back hair and leather jacket; maybe he was modelling himself on Peter Stringfellow. He looked very pleased with himself that he was sitting on a gondala having an Italian even greasier than he singing cheesy opera whilst another played the accompanying accordian. Dickhead.

It was a gorgeous sunny day until about three when the clouds came over, just as I was approaching Piazza San Marco. Pigeons reigned in the cold and so I went into Basilica di San Marco and found a high-school graduation taking place. This was just one example of the day-to-day life that I didn’t expect to find too much of: I had been ready for – I can’t find the exact quote – what Time Out called something like the “tourist-fuelled adventure playground that is modern Venice”. But, as ever in Italy, cafes were crowded for late-morning coffes and the vegetable and antique markets did their usual Saturday trade; I even stumbled across a branch of the dreaded Billa. It may be unlike any other but it remains a real city.

I’ll be back – soon – and next time I’ll remember my spare batteries. It was, in the event, no problem as there were plenty of people at the tourist havens happy to do business. However now I’m home I find my memory card reader isn’t working so it’ll be a couple of days before a week of Venice photos starts. In the meantime, here’s another of Verona.

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