Torcello

“Don’t look now,’ said John to his wife, ‘but there are two old girls two tables away, looking at me all the time. I don’t like it. There’s something very strange about their eyes.’

The wife, Laura, turned and saw what she saw and laughed as she commented that they were two men actually.

He said: ‘…You mustn’t laugh. Perhaps they’re dangerous. Murderers or something going around Europe, changing their clothes in each place. You know, sisters here in Torcello this morning; brothers tomorrow, or tonight, back in Venice.’

We walked past a trattoria where Daphne du Maurier’s John and Laura might have sat as they demurred about the identity of the two women in the supernatural thriller ‘Don’t Look Now’ . 

Cross the commercialism of Murano, get past the chirpiness of Burano , and you find yourself on this tiny, once-abandoned island (about six miles off Venice) where tranquility has taken up residence. Most people would skip Torcello of the shy personality. You have to look beneath the reserve and maybe, just maybe, you will fall for Torcello?

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The vaporetto from Burano dropped us at a small pier where a Madonna with a child is carved into a niche on the walls. A stone tablet above confirms that you are indeed in Torcello. Past a curiously stagnant and winding river, framed by droopy willows and scraggly trees, you walk into the island. Red and green colours pop up along the promenade that leads into the heart of it. A small bridge straddles it with no protection on its sides. If you wobble on it, you would be in the river surely. Though I would not risk those waters. They lie strangely still and the weeds in them look like the life has been sucked out of them.

Plus the bridge was built by the devil himself in one night to win a bet. Then you have tales of unlucky lovers, the heartbroken heroine of the tale consorting with a witch (who you know is hand in glove with the devil) to bring back her dead lover to life, and then, the devil being the devil claiming the souls of children as his gift. The witch, however, died midway. Did the devil get his fix of dead children’s souls? Who knows. I climbed gingerly up that bridge and stood looking either way, staring at the lonely campanile sticking out above the pastel coloured house fronts, and wondered about Torcello’s ‘haunted’ reputation.

A handful of people live on it – the maximum number is possibly 20. A deep irony given that it was the first island to be inhabited in the lagoon, by the Romans of Altino who were fleeing marauding Huns. It preceded Venice. At the height of its glory when 20,000 people are said to have lived on it, Torcello acquired a utopian renown through the words of a 6th century writer. This man, Cassiodorous, wrote: “There is no distinction between rich and poor. the same food for all ; the houses are all alike and so envy – that vice which rules the world – is absent here.” Possibly laying the roots of for the democratic Venetian Republic that came up by and by. Torcello was eventually abandoned because malaria struck along with other problems. Now there are just two churches, a museum and a handful of eateries.

At an unpretentious trattoria called Locondo Cipriani, Ernest Hemingway spent four months in the 1940s as he wrote his book Across the River and Into the Tree. It is easy even now to slip into that world of Hemingway. Little would have changed since on this desolate island of reeds and bracken, where time tends to float by as if in a dream.

Get Your Pert Behind to Torcello:
Hire a private water taxi (if you are willing to fork out the big notes) or better still just board a regular ACTV waterbus from Venice. If you are working your way through the various islands, Torcello is a short boat ride from Burano. Vaporetto line 9 makes half hour runs between the two.

Where to Stay:

If you want to brood and contemplate upon the vagaries of life on the island of Torcello, do it like Hemingway and stay at Loconda Cipriani (www.locandacipriani.com). A double room is priced at €110 per night.

What to do:

You do not have much to do on the island – which is the delicious beauty of it.

Torcello’s Byzantine-Gothic cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta. Climb the 11th century campanile for views across the marshy island.

Museum of Torcello. Look out for the Throne of Attila. Who knows if he sat on it or not, but the bishops of Torcello surely did.

Church of Santa Fosca which is said to home the remains of a 15-year-old martyr beneath its altar.

Glass for Princes in Murano

A mile north off Venice is the cluster of islands called Murano. We crossed in a vaporetto (water taxi) from Venice to Murano on a day that was joyously sunny. The kinds that come wrapped up in a bow only once during a few miserably cold and foggy winter days spent in Venice. When we got off the boat at Murano, the first sight that greeted me was that of a bearded local dragging a sizeable carton on wheels . He looked like a fisherman, the lines of the years marked out on his weather-beaten face.

A rustic, atmospheric introduction but what lay after was anything but unassuming. Workshops, boutiques and factories cropped up in a row, flanking the grand canal. Stepping inside them, my senses were dazzled by the rich colours of delicately designed glassware — and, may I add sheepishly, the prices.

There we were at the heart of it all – Murano thrives on the art crafted by the glass blowers of the island. They have been at it for centuries. Somewhere towards the end of the 13th century, the Doge ordered the glassmakers to move their factories to Murano. Now there is a bit of dilemma about why he did so. But it sways between two schools of thought – one that the Venetian authorities did not relish the thought of their wooden buildings exploding with the danger of fire at large, and secondly this that they did not want the craftsmen to divulge their secrets to outsiders.

The glassmakers achieved exalted status soon. They could carry swords, evade prosecution by the Venetian state, and by the late 1300s, their daughters could even be wedded into blue-blooded families. The only glitch was that the glassmakers could not leave the Republic. If a glassmaker had plans of setting up shop on lands beyond his own, it would mean two things for the fellow – he would either lose his hands (sounded to me like Shah Jahan’s edict for the workers behind the Taj Mahal had travelled far – the Mughal emperor was supposed to have had their hands lopped off so that they could not replicate the glory of his tribute to his empress), or, he would be killed by the secret police.

We had to watch one of the glassmakers at work. It is quite a touristy thing to do, yes I know, but sometimes I feel that you have got to be a tourist to the hilt. We marched into one of the factories and paid up about 8 euros each to watch a third-generation glassblower go about his job with incredible ease. Within the time that we spent gaping at him twirling a long pole, the tip of it encased in a glowing cone of fiery melted glass, he had moulded a handful of pretty pieces of coloured glass including one of a horse rearing up.

Veneto-Byzantine summer palazzos and cathedrals apart, I was taken in by the iridiscent blue sculpture at Campo Santo Stefano. It was a veritable starburst in glass. I gaped more – by which time Adi was fairly tired of sulking and being ignored while I kept staring at glass. To not have your sulk acknowledged is worse than your partner shopping on the sly. My husband shall confirm both. He does the first, I do the second. At that point of time he had made the transition to Mr. Grumps. He had not been fed gelato on time.

Off we went on a gelato hunt which concluded the visit to the island on a fairly satisfied note. Not to mention the few colourful pieces of suspended, ceiling lamps that we bought before boarding the boat to Burano.

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Baked and bearded Murano locals
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Grand Canal
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Boutiques that line the canal
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Glass blowing – at the very heart of Murano is this art.
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Inside a glassmaker’s workshop
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The focal point of this shot being the horse. 
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Emerald hues of the Grand Canal and cathedral walls looming alongside.
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Blue glass sculpture at Campo Santo Stefano, the 19th century clock-tower.

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Post mint chocolate chip gelato, all is usually well.
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Murano’s lighthouse made of Istrian stone.

How to Get There: Look out for Vaporetto 41 and 42 from Piazza San Marco in Venice. You can also stop at the cemetery island of San Michele, that lies between Venice and Murano.

Where to Buy Glass: Go with your instinct. We stopped at a shop that was quiet but the owner refused to haggle (which was a bummer) but the relief was that we did not come out with products made in China.

Where to Eat:

La Perla Ai Bisatei. An Italian eatery where I stopped for cappuccino and a spinach puff pastry that delighted my tastebuds with its flakiness. The food is supposed to be good here and the prices reasonable.

Osteria al Duomo (www.osteriaalduomo.com) is a family-run affair and known for the freshness of the locally-sourced food it serves up.

Higgledy-Piggledy Bibury

From the pages of Victorian England came the declaration that Bibury is the most beautiful village in England. It was the observation of artist and craftsman William Morris who lived in a manor nearby and loved his saunters through the village. Walk into Bibury and you know why.

Most probably you will be walking along the River Coln with hordes of Asian tourists, especially the Japanese, because they have tenuous links with Bibury. Some say that a Japanese artist was inspired by the village during the ’70s and others maintain that Emperor Hirohito, the leader of their country during WWII who had led them into the Sino-Japanese War, had fallen in love with the idyllic environs of Bibury. Maybe he had, because in the year 1921 as crown prince he had left Japan in a battleship for Britain on a state visit (thus also creating ripples as the first person from the imperial family  to step off Japanese soil). I can well imagine that a man who had as turbulent a life as he had – dealing with military coups and trying not to get assassinated require significant work and then getting around charges of being tried as a war criminal even more so – would have looked upon this time of travel through Britain surreal. His legacy is strong. There is such a steady influx of Japanese tourists that the village store owners have picked up tidbits of the language. It certainly makes you smile. The power of travel, eh?

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We reached this picture-perfect village in the Cotswolds one summer with my husband’s sister and her kids. It was out of the books. Stone bridges and ivy-slathered country manor inns gave way to a sedate scene of drowsy willow trees by the banks of the Coln. The lush meadows along the tributary of the Thames were dotted with Holstein cows who looked suspiciously like they had been airdropped to charm the traveller with their black and white patched indolence while right opposite stood a straggle of limestone cottages trussed up in a row. The picturesque Arlington Row houses date back to the mid-1300s when they served as a monastic wool store but in the 17th century were converted to house weavers.

There is a tale of a Grey Lady too. Nothing like a bit of ’em wandering ladies to spice up your English travels. She, it is said, was a young girl who had married a miller older to her and then unfortunately fallen in love with his son. On a horridly cold night, the miller left his wife outside to die. Which she did and now is said to wander the paths around the river. If you see her, you know what to do. Take her home with you?

How to Get There:

Bibury is a stone’s throw away from Cirencester. The best way to get there is by car. If you are driving, take the B4425. Buses start from Market Place in Cirencester for Bibury. By train, you will be working a fair bit by reaching Kemble, the same station for Cirencester, and then taking a cab worth 20-25 odd quid for Bibury because Kemble is about 14 miles away from it. Drive drive baby…but arrive at off-peak hours because parking can be a bit of a bummer. The easiest parking spot is on the river bridge barring which there is extra parking along the river on the B4425.

Where to Stay: 

Bibury is a convenient day trip from Cirencester. But if you want to stay in the village, there are options such as The Catherine Wheel (www.catherinewheel-bibury.co.uk), a 15th-century stone building. Standard double rooms are priced at roughly £90 per night.

Bed & breakfast double rooms at Cotteswold House (www.cotteswoldhouse.org.uk) are pegged at £90 per night.

Where to Eat:

Make Bibury your clotted-cream-and-jam-with-scone stop because it is an English holiday after all and also because the village has some twee tea rooms –William Morris Tea Room (www.thewilliammorris.com) and Catherine Wheel (www.catherinewheel-bibury.co.uk) – that will not leave your eyes bulging with the bill.

What to do:

After you have seen the Arlington Mill, the Bibury Trout Farm, Arlington Row, you can opt for an 18-mile Bibury-Aldsworth-Bibury fairly easy walking trail. The views during the walk are of the wolds, the lower Coln and the Leach valley.

Or, you can go on a shorter 4-mile circular walking route that lasts about two hours. It takes you past the row of cottages and the church into the Bibury Court Estate and onwards ho into pastures where the sheep roam and wait for a little natter with you.

 

 

On the Sand Dunes of Sam

Chiselled by the winds stand the sand dunes of Sam. They are an overwhelming sight. All those sandy yellow waves and nothing thereafter for miles. It is a sight that can make you feel like a speck in an ocean of sand. Once in a while, a row of camels can be spotted, swaying their lazy behinds and walking off into the horizon with human loads on their humps.

I have sat on a camel twice now. Two occasions when I somehow clung on to the camel as it decided to make rude noises and threaten to throw me off its back. I would not blame it on hindsight. We humans are rather annoying in our attempt to get onto the back of every four-legged creature we can get our hands on.

I have made my peace with it. No more camel rides for this human is in the offing any time soon, unless I am thrown into the deserts of Arabia with no option but to get on to the back of one or perish. We all have keen survival instincts at the end of the day.

Now, the deserts always remind me of my wee days when my father drove my mother and me through the deserts of Salalah. When once I laid my eyes upon the strange sight of an upturned camel. I have never stopped wondering since if that is how camels pass on to nothingness or onto the next realm, if there is one that is. If you do know the answer to this, I would be grateful for the assuaging of this strange and stupid query that has always been a part of my growing up years.

On another note, have you ever seen the branding of a camel? It is not a pretty affair. Those poor mammals have no option but be branded. They are held down by the heavily moustachioed Rajasthani men, their feet often bare, their bright turbans always snagging the eye with vivacious colours that contrast sharply with the white of their kurta-and-dhoti attire, and how can one miss those significantly sized gold earrings dangling off their ear lobes – they were certainly bigger than mine. The poker glows red hot, held upon a rough fire pit made on the sand, and then when it looks decidedly hot enough, bam it is stamped onto the body of the protesting camel.

To say that it is merely disturbing is not doing your feelings justice. I remember the intense vehemence that swept over me and with it the violent urge to inflict that very branding exercise upon those men who were busy with their regular activity. But you realise then that you are but just an onlooker with no power. So you turn your eyes away with immense sadness in your heart and the thought running in your head that it is just the way it is. After all, not everything in life is the way it should be, is it?

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Yet there is something mystical about the desert. The golden beauty of your surroundings, the spectacular sunset and the massive white disc of the moon that rises after. It reminds you of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s words in The Little Prince: “One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”