Love, Loaf and Hugo

If you asked a Parisian, what love is, he would thwack you with the golden loaf in his hand, and say, ‘Why, it is this, you numskull?!’ Here you would roll your eyes, and say, ‘Oh com’on, the baguette is such an overworked stereotype!’ Yet every time we stepped out on the streets of the city, there it was. A slender baton of crusty goodness staring back at us, tucked within the elbow of the old man in the long overcoat and beret, or sticking out of the tote of the young woman as she walked ahead of us. We even saw an old lady nibbling at the end of hers — probably best to have it fresh even before the day has waned. Lest the Parisian forgot this essential chunk of his daily diet, they have a Bread Observatory in Paris. It trots out the daily reminder, “Cou cou, tu as pris le pain?” (“Hello, did you pick up the bread?”). Now if that is not love, my darling, you tell me what love is. If you need further proof, just head to the nearest boulangerie. Finding yourself in a queue is an inevitability.

If we are talking about love, I would have to pipe in about the walrus with his fantastic pair of long, white tusks and grey, fluffy beard. My eyes fell upon this thing of rare, portly beauty in the window of a boutique, whereupon the batting of my eyelids made my husband acquiesce grudgingly. So that now this walrus sits pretty at home with my family of stuffed animals. This love however was eclipsed by far when we came across an elderly woman in the shadows of the Church of Saint-Sulpice. She was old but chic, in just the way an average Parisian is (must be the baguette). Even to walk their dogs, Parisians dress well. This lady was out with her 6-month old Cocker Spaniel pup, Lulu, who was the belle of the ball I thought, till I realised that Lulu was a tiny male with velvet soft curls. The love that shone in the woman’s eyes for her Lulu was palpable and touching enough that it remains in my mind as a radiant moment wrapped up in the soft sunshine of a December noon.

Be as it is may that we were in the 6th arrondissement when we met Lulu, I would actually like to whisk you into the 3rd and 4th arrondissements where lie the Marais quarter of Paris.

Charm and amour co-exist in Le Marais like an old married couple. What were marshes (hence Marais) in the early times, from land left over when a branch of the Seine dried up, is de rigueur today. But let me also describe to you how the day built up to lend itself to the laidback beauty of Le Marais.

We reached Le Marais after time spent dawdling at Shakespeare and Company, rifling through ancient books written by unknown authors, sniffing the scent of those old books (that’s how love smells), buying wedges of cheese from a Christmas market outside the Notre Dame, looking up dusty music covers and magazines that the line-up of Bouquinistes in their big fur hats and heavy coats sell along the Seine.

Twilight was gathering around us. Bang in the middle of a bridge — I believe it was the Pont Saint-Louis — a man sat playing his piano. The cadence of his music conjured up an ethereal quality to the evening when in the half light of it we stood by the bridge, a soft and cold breeze caressing us, lights glimmering across the Seine in the grand old buildings of Paris. It seemed fitting that we should walk into Le Marais right after, the afternotes of the performance playing in our heads as an amuse bouche of sorts.

Le Marais is timeless. Here there was no trace of Haussman’s wide boulevards and neoclassical facades. Here you still found a chunk of the old Paris, the narrow winding streets and medieval house fronts, interspersed by Jewish delis, tea salons, herb shops and hat shops, hole-in-the-wall curiosity shops, art galleries, hip bars and boutiques. There remains the impossible grandness of the city hall (Hôtel de Ville), and the opulence of the private townhouses, or hôtel particulier, which were built for aristocrats during the 17th century. Now, it would be entirely amiss of me not to take you to the oldest planned square of the city, Place des Vosges, that sits within the Marais quarter. Not only do I have memories of buying a beautiful blue cloche from an old man there in the autumn of 2016, but because it is also the location of one of my favourite museums. Maison de Victor Hugo — where I dragged Adi because a) it is free, and, b) it feeds the imagination to see how a writer of means lived in the 19th century.

Before I go, I wanted to draw your attention to that pair of aged nuns. They are hobbling across a cobbled courtyard and will gradually disappear into the shadows of the temple. Faith awaits them. And, did you notice the bride-to-be? She is trying on her wedding dress, looking a bit unsure. Then she catches your eye and casts a brilliant smile. All’s well there. As for the baker behind the till and his goodies displayed in the window, the less said the better. There lies defeat in the faces of endless slices of gateaux. It has been a fair amount of gawking and walking, so if your feet perchance feel worn, dear reader, take a cue from Hugo who had famously observed that to loaf is Parisian — and pause for that carafe of wine in one of those cafés where they serve enough popcorn to make it worth your while.

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These winding streets lead to baroque churches
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The 17th century Church of Saint Sulpice
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Rear portion of the church
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Place Saint-Sulpice and its church of the mismatched towers. You will probably know it better if I mentioned Da Vinci Code. It was shot here.

 

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A golden ball of fur charging towards her human 
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Meet Lulu
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Love
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Shakespeare and Company
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Cohen. Amour.
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Photobombed at the Notre Dame. It’s inescapable.
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Bouquinistes along the Seine
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My love and the Notre Dame
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Busy crossings
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The Seine
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 Île Saint-Louis

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 Le Marais

 

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St-Gervais-et-St-Protais

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Hôtel de Ville

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Mr. Basu’s at Le Grand Hotel, Paris

The city was shrouded in mist that afternoon we landed in Paris. The cold was not blistering, but you know what happens after a 10-hour flight. Bleary-eyed and shivery, you are properly keyed up for a deep sleep. That’s all. All those plans of showering and taking the city by storm? A big, fat zero.

The flight from JFK had taken us into Frankfurt for a three-hour layover. We discovered a private sleeping pod, but at the tail end of our wait. The irony of it: shattering. There you were desperate for some shut-eye and (huzzah!) you located a comfortable bed in the privacy of a cabin. Ding! went the announcement for boarding. Hardly any time to nod off on the flight from Frankfurt to Paris. So, all you could do was slip into this delicious dream, consumed by the desire for a bed. Soft sheets. Fluffy pillows. Plump duvet to burrow into. Then, oblivion.

A 20-minute cab ride brought me closer to my the object of my dreams.

The InterContinental Paris Le Grand was part of our other anniversary indulgence, in the heart of the 9th arrondissement. Just for two nights, but enough to make the most of a stay conjured by the hoarding of hotel points. When we reached the hotel, I had to crane my neck to take in the view of its old facade. It was the colour of cream, a part of it masked by scaffolding. Neat rows of French windows, slatted louvres, those charming wrought-iron balconies atypical of Paris, and carved stone for a touch of opulence. I was sold. Even the most hardened commie would be — except that he would conceal it beneath a careful veneer of contempt. As if to complete the picture, at the porch stood a vintage motorcycle with a sidecar. Manning it was a guy in khaki with sunnies even on that bleak day. He reminded me of an Indian actor who used to arrive punctually late at press conferences,  concealing a pair of bloodshot eyes and a predilection for cocaine behind large sunglasses.

Inside the hotel, we were checked in with supreme efficiency, and at that point of time all that mattered was the bed. The room turned out to be a cosy affair, in the manner of those little pieds-à-terre that they show in the old movies, yet sumptuous in reds and burgundies, a hint of bordello chic. Beneath heavy old drapes, were gossamer white drapes fluttering in the cold breeze as we peeked out of our teeny-weeny balcony to exult at the somewhat ethereal sight of the Eiffel Tower wreathed in mist. A bottle of Champagne had been deposited in our room at some point of time, but I had long passed out. Delicious was that slumber, and by the time I woke up  I realised we had slept a hefty four hours.

That evening when we dressed up and headed out of the hotel — before which we peeked at the Eiffel Tower again, this time to catch its hourly shimmering aura — it felt like we were in a dream. Not a bubbly-infused dream, but one sparked off by the very air of the city we were in. The kind of city that makes you gush. Such as I did when I uttered repeatedly to Adi, ‘We’re in Paris! We’re in Paris!’

It must have been the air. It was enchanted.

————–X—————

The Grand was a couple of minutes walk from the Palais Garnier, the iconic opera house of Paris, and so we were ambling past the opera, down the cobbled boulevards of Haussman, bedecked in fairy lights and flamboyant shop windows, mannequins in beautiful dresses and shoes, staring at splendid old squares topped off by gigantic columns, senses reeling at the beauty all around us.

No matter how many times you find yourself in Paris, you are dazed by the elegance of it.

Dinner was at a Moroccan restaurant where an old man in his neatly pressed suit served us Moroccan wine along with snacks of olives and carrots braised in turmeric and cumin. The wine was red and mellow, the carrots spicy. There was lamb tagine, a whole lot of kebabs and couscous, along with more red wine on the house, pressed upon us by the old man with the benevolent smile and wicked sense of humour.

Ah, it was a fine evening that, when we sauntered back to the hotel on the wings of red wine and romance. It was as if we could have only more and the hotel was a big part of this experience. The French empress of the day — that would be the year 1862 — while inaugurating it, had exclaimed that it made her think of home. ‘I feel like I am in Compiègne or Fontainebleau,’ she had remarked. That’s the thing about heritage hotels, they are a window into a world that you will never see, just imagine. To me, it was a window into the world of Josephine Baker, Sarah Bernhardt, Marlene Dietrich…, all of whom liked to be seen at the hotel. I could see why. Its old operatic ballroom was a vision in itself.

The Café de la Paix was yet another visual feast, with its large potted plants, as if to recreate a garden within a café, frescoed and gilded to the hilt. There had sat the likes of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant, and where people were known to be drawn from all around the globe…’Dark diplomats from Martinique, pale Rastas from Peru/An Englishman from Bloomsbury, a Yank from Kalamazoo;/A poet from Montmartre’s heights, a dapper little Jap’ … as Robert Service noted in his poem, ‘The Absinthe Drinkers’.

For has it not been ever said that all the world one day

Will pass in pilgrimage before the Cafe de la Paix?’

(It is a delightful poem, if you are keen to take a gander at it.)

A quick note on the title. A receptionist at the Grand Hotel addressed Adi as Mr. Basu — the room was booked in my name. I startled that man by folding my hands in a ‘namaste’ gesture. And I said, ‘Why that is the best thing I have heard in a long time!’ For a few seconds, he had consternation writ large upon his face. Had he said anything wrong? ‘No, absolutely not,’ I assured him. You see, Basu is my surname. It has cleaved to my person so long that I could not envision being without it. Not to make a defining statement of any sort, just because it is my identity. Naturally, once in a while, when Adi is alluded to as Mr. Basu, fizzy bubbles of joy rise up my chest. 

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Flughafen Frankfurt am Main
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Le Grand Hotel
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Inside our room
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A dash of Eiffel Tower 
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An excuse of a balcony is welcome too
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A cross-section of the 9th arrondissement from our balcon
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The ballroom
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Café de la Paix

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Dark-panelled old bars
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Palais Garnier
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Column at Place Vendôme 
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Place Vendôme 
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Streets of Paris
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Le Maroc
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The Moroccan way to unwind, in Paris

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You know who’s got one of the best quotes on Paris. Victor Hugo. “He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic.
Nothing is more sublime.”

 

A Spell Called Venice

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

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Scene from a Venetian train journey. The husband fixes the fog with a gimlet eye.
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The marshy, reclaimed land that is Venice. Where land is incidental to water. Fog hangs heavy upon the scene.
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Santa Maria della Salute, dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is considered to be the protector of the Republic of Venice. The dreaminess of the day took off from the moment we got out of the Santa Lucia train station and saw the turquoise dome of Santa Maria della Salute rear its head up through the blanket of white haze. The English name for the church is Saint Mary of Health, a reminder of the devastating 1630 outbreak of plague in the city. For deliverance, the Republic of Venice had this baroque church erected in the 17th century.
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Palladian classicism of Santa Maria della Salute. Beyond which you can see mostly nothing except for a street lamp and a few wooden poles sticking out of the canal.
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The church is home to canvases by the Italian masters, Tintoretto and Titian.
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Fog may come and fog may go but the gondola goes on forever.
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Life goes on, on the canals of Venice. E’en though you could cut through the fog with a knife and the cold itself could and did cut through your bones.
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Red boats and fog are good chums. They balance each other out, eh?
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Giardini Papadopoli in the Santa Croce sestiere – where the fog and a gravel path swirled around cypress and cedar trees,  elms and oleander, mulberries and laurel. The garden got its name from the Corfu-born owners of the land upon which it was built.
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The kind of scene that reminds me of the gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe.

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.

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Palazzo Ducale
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The erstwhile Palazzo Dandolo, home to the noble Dandolo family, is now a luxury hotel called Danieli in the Castello sestiere.
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Grand buildings stand proud, shoulder-to-shoulder along the canal.
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I loved looking at the balustrades on the balconies, the shutters painted in various shades and the lace-like wrought iron windows.
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Looks like it might have belonged to an important family of Venice.
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“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” Italo Calvino
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“I cannot write about Venice; I can only write about me, and the sleeping parts of myself that Venice has shocked into wakefulness.” Jessica Zafra
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“There is no better backdrop for rapture to fade into; whether right or wrong, no egoist can star for long in this porcelain setting by crystal water, for it steals the show.” Joseph Brodsky

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.

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The book-wielding winged creature might be my favourite kinda lion. He is actually holding the gospel of St Mark.
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If you look carefully, bathed golden in the rays of the setting sun, are two lions flanking the Christmas tree. Piazza San Marco.
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There he stands tall and proud above Piazza of San Marco.
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A live official state lion once was kept in a cage on Piazza San Marco, till he died in that cage.
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The winged lion atop one of the columns on Piazza San Marco. On his right, the column is topped by the Greek warrior saint, St. Theodore, who was patron saint of the city before he was supplanted in its books by St. Mark.

Sestieri Decoded

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.

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That footbridge is the Bridge of Sighs. It links up the Doge’s Palace with the Prigioni or the prisons. The Italians call the bridge Ponte de Sospiri. The Romantics associated it with the prisoners of the Venetian Republic who sighed as they had a final view of the city before they were incarcerated or executed. It was Byron who had observed: “I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs, a palace and prison on each hand.” Beneath the bridge, gondoliers often position their gondolas strategically so that their passengers may kiss and fulfil the legend that they shall have eternal love.
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Ponte degli Scalzi. The Bridge of the Barefoot Monks is one of the four bridges in Venice that runs athwart the Grand Canal. It links up the sestieri of Santa Croce and Cannaregio.
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In this bridge-some scene, you shall spot Ponte della Costituzione on the right hand side of the photograph. It is also called Ponte di Calatrava after its architect. I found it modern and jarring and quite slippery. Parts of its walkway is made of glass which tends to be slippery during wet weather.
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I wondered if fights took place on this bridge here. Those fights might have been known as fist fights but they were fought with whatever weapon was handy.
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They fought with either a long slender blade called stiletto or pistolese which happened to be a hefty dagger.
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The fights even took place using sharp sticks/canes referred to as canne d’India or spiked boat poles (now isn’t that handy for a city of gondolas) called spontoni.
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Dorsoduro bridges
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Seen in Dorsoduro sestiere

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When I seek another word for ‘music’, I never find any other word than ‘Venice’ – Nietzsche
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“It is the city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone.” Erica Jong
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The husband on one of the small bridges of Venice. How he would have dealt with a fist fight I wonder 😉
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The bridge linking Hotel Danieli with an adjoining palace. People who put up at the luxury hotel get their personal boats to take them on the canals all the days of their stay.
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A quick click in front of the iconic Rialto Bridge spanning the Grand Canal.
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The 16th cenutry Ponte de Rialto or Rialto Bridge is the oldest bridge across the Grand Canal. It is the dividing point of the sestieri of San Marco and San Polo. Robert Browning mentioned the bridge in his poem, A Toccata of Galuppi’s: “Ay, because the sea’s the street there; and ’tis arched by . . . what you call/ . . . Shylock’s bridge with houses on it”. He refers to Rialto Bridge as Shylock’s bridge. Before you start wondering what the strange title means, a toccata is a musical composition and Baldassare Galuppi was an 18th-century  Venetian composer. Browning was trained in music and through this poem makes his English narrator wonder about 18th century Venice from the bosom of his own land.

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.

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“I have created a church in the form of a rotunda, a work of new invention, not built in Venice, a work very worthy and desired by many. This church, having the mystery of its dedication, being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, made me think, with what little talent God has bestowed upon me of building the church in the … shape of a crown,” observed the architect, Baldassare Longhena.
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The protector of La Serenissima.
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Campaniles of Venice
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The Church of Santa Maria Assunta, or I Gesuiti, in the sestiere of Cannaregio near Fondamenta Nuove.
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Basilica San Marco. It makes your jaws drop. And makes you ignore the annoying flower sellers who try and tuck a rose into your arms.
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St. Mark arrives in Venice.
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Bronze winged lions and angels at the campanile and the basilica in the backdrop.
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A 15-century former monastic church, Chiesa di San Zaccaria on Campo San Zaccaria off the waterfront. To the convent adjoining the church, girls used to be carted off in the 15th century if they showed a penchant for sailors. So this was a wealthy church marked by canvases by the Italian masters of art such as Titian, Bellini and Tintoretto.

 

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The beautifully carved entrance to Campanile di San Marco.
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Bell tower of the Chiesa di San Vidal which was built as a church in 1084 but today is a concert hall in the sestiere of San Marco.
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Torre dell’Orologio. An early Renaissance clock tower on Piazza San Marco.
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Chiesa dei Carmini in Dorsoduro sestiere
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Santa Maria della Salute from the sestiere of San Marco

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?