A thick fog lay over Venice. We were bemused. Was our time in the city of the ancient Veneti people going to be all about climactic doom n’ gloom? But may I confess this that I was a bit thrilled. I am enchanted by fog. I find my imagination stoked by the very suggestion of mysteriousness and romance that it exudes. As the London lover and English biographer Peter Ackryod captures the phenomenon, “Once more it is a primeval landscape, the landscape of origin, one which arouses a native inspiration.”
Also, if you love the Gothic, dark romance of Anne Radcliffe novels, you would get my fascination with fog. Venice, to my romance-ridden faculties, was a magician bent on pulling off all kinds of tricks under the veil of the white haze. Churches made of marble and limestone arose out of it, alleys petered off into the blank wall of fog, ornate bridges showed up round the bends of alleys and unfazed gondoliers plowed into the gathering gloom. Masks flamboyantly broke through the whiteness and added an instant touch of glamour and a heritage that goes back over a thousand years in time.
We walked all around the city, through its network of alleys, getting to know it by losing our way. There is no better way into the heart of Venice. Though you cannot presume to know a city inside out within a few days, at least you can make an attempt to peel its layers.
Foggy Starts Ain’t Filled With Gloom
The Serene Republic
We were in Venice at a time when tourists hardly besiege the city as they are wont to do in summer. Winter was a reprieve from the hordes for us as well as I believe it would be for the locals. That intimate look at the city, without having to negotiate crowds in its narrow alleys and upon its small bridges, possibly made us fall in love with Venice thoroughly.Venice got into our skin.
The former capital of an important maritime and financial powerhouse called the Republic of Venice or La Serenissima (The Serene Republic) holds on to traces of its trading heritage and immense wealth. Spices are sold everywhere, grand palazzos catch the eye, tall, brooding campaniles tower over the city and old mansions straddle the canals in all their fading beauty like aged dames who might have wrinkles on their faces, for who can escape the ravages of time, but still manage to give you a sense of their timeless grace.
Now, Venice is ripe for flooding during winters. I was a bit alarmed (yes, I am a complete water wuss) but I have to say I did not have to wade around in knee-deep water or worry that I have to revive my forgotten skill of swimming in freezing climes. You see, Venice is a collection of over a hundred islands in the Venetian lagoon.
The story goes that in the 5th century, a Celtic group of people who were known as the Veneti, fled from the mainland to Venice when they were attacked by the Huns. In time, Venice was protected and controlled by the Byzantine Empire which was essentially the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. When the empire had its day in Venice, in came a long line of doges. The doge was the head of state and ruled the Republic from the 8th century to the 18th. The best and obvious of their legacies is Palazzo Ducale or the Doge’s Palace with its massive rectangle of Gothic architecture, 14th century sculptures adorning its corners and stone-lace like loggia adding to its resplendence.
Stolen Saints and Lions with Wings
A famous theft took place in the year 828 in Alexandria. Venetian merchants nicked a whole corpse there.
Did you roll your eyes in disbelief? Give them some leeway. They were a product of their times when stealing bones of saints was the thing to do.
These merchants are said to have dug up the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist and put them into a barrel containing pickled pig which ensured that the Muslim inspectors would not touch it. Those clever ‘uns then built an elaborate church to put up St. Mark or what remained of him. That is the story behind the symbol of the city which is the winged lion and that of Basilica San Marco where the remains of the saint are supposed to be.
These Venetian merchants were trendsetters. After that there was no barring other Italian states from nicking saints. Bari and Amalfi followed suit.
One of the words which will pop up frequently when you start to fumble your way around Venice is ‘sestiere’. It is the Italian equivalent for what we know as a district. Towns which are divided into six districts have ‘sestieri’, plural for ‘sestiere’. The sestieri of Venice are Castello, Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo and Santa Croce. Let me show you a slice of each below.
Up and Down, Up and Down We Go O’er the Bridges of Venice
Four hundred-odd bridges span the length and breadth of Venice. They are unusual, not only because they come in all shapes and sizes but because they have such innovative names. Most are unnamed because well there are just so many of them. But there are stories behind them that set off the imagination. The Ponte delle Tette is a small bridge in Venice which translated means Bridge of the Tits. In the 15th and 16th centuries, prostitutes are said to have stood topless upon the bridge, all as part of a clever ploy of the Republic to stem homosexuality. Then you have a bridge dedicated to fisticuffs. Ponte dei Pugni which celebrates a popular Venetian tradition of fist fights atop small bridges.
Tall, Tall, Tall Campaniles and Churches
They have a church pass in Venice for a reason. Every corner we turned there was a campanile or a spire at the end of the alley. There are more than a hundred churches on Venice and I never got tired of the effect that the grandiose design of each had on us. The grandest of them all was the Basilica San Marco. We attended the 6.45 pm Sunday evening mass at the basilica because that is when it is lit up inside and the mosaic designs come to life with alacrity. The bummer is that they do not allow photographs inside – a blooming shame because the finger itches when you see the sparkling mosaics, some of which are wrought in 24-karat gold. It was a long service in the course of which I noticed two people snoozing. One was next to me – my husband. The other person was a big, old Italian man in a green felt hat and a green greatcoat who nodded off frequently in everyone’s plain sight.
I shall take my leave here because I do really suspect you might have dozed off.
There’s a follow-up post about more things Venetian. You know, of gondolas, gelatos and cicchetti. Because the city that enchants at every turn and corner cannot be left alone just yet, can it?
The great affair in my life is to travel. I count myself immensely fortunate that my partner shares this passion. We are a team that likes to spend time planning and plotting out places to go. Destination check, flights check, accommodation check, cheesy grins check. Off we go.
View all posts by Arundhati Basu