City Above the Wa­ter

Provincial Living - - Décor - By Robyn John­ston

Venice is a city of won­ders, from the el­e­gant ar­chi­tec­ture to the canals and end­less wa­ter­ways. Its beauty and cul­ture have drawn visi­tors for cen­turies. But, for all of its charm, Venice has a dark and fas­ci­nat­ing past. Tales of in­va­sions, plague and war fill the history books. The Venice you see to­day grew from the Vene­tians’ need to form a de­fence against for­eign at­tacks.

This city-above-the-wa­ter owes its cre­ation to the clever minds of ar­chi­tects and builders. It is made up of 117 small is­lands at the cen­tre of a la­goon that are linked by canals and bridges. Sur­pris­ingly, the foun­da­tions of the build­ings are com­posed of mil­lions of wooden py­lons, driven deep into the sand and silt. Lack of ex­po­sure to oxy­gen pre­vents them from rot­ting.

The first time I vis­ited Venice, our tour bus was caught in a ma­jor traf­fic jam, which re­sulted in a three-hour de­lay. By the time we reached our ho­tel we had missed our planned gon­dola ride and ser­e­nade.

As I was trav­el­ling solo, three other women on the tour asked me to join them. Ea­ger to ex­plore the city, we caught a taxi as our ho­tel was out of town. (Note: When book­ing tours it’s worth pay­ing ex­tra to stay in the heart of any city. It can save time and ex­pense.) When we ar­rived in town it was dark and late, the streets de­serted. It was also mag­i­cal. We hur­ried past small boats and sleek black gon­do­las, their or­nate dec­o­ra­tions en­chant­ing be­neath the street­lights. To our de­light we dis­cov­ered a few shops were still open. Step­ping into a gift shop in Venice is like step­ping into a won­der­land filled with beau­ti­ful dec­o­ra­tive masks lav­ish with feath­ers and gold paint and vi­brant glass­work and jew­ellery, hand­made by ar­ti­sans. Af­ter we had made our pur­chases, we walked to the next shop to dis­cover even more trea­sures.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing we had our gon­dola ride among the flotilla of gon­do­las float­ing the wa­ter­ways, the gon­doliers and mu­si­cians ser­e­nad­ing and en­ter­tain­ing us. By the light of day Venice was equally

beau­ti­ful — from the way the wa­ter re­flected on the un­der­side of bridges, which curve over each wa­ter­way, to the lay­ers of moss and cor­ro­sion that mark the wa­ter lev­els on the build­ings.

At ev­ery turn, gon­doliers of all shapes and sizes, plied their trade, all dressed in tra­di­tional out­fits of straw boaters, striped polo T-shirts or white shirts and tight black pants. Less glam­orous dinghies floated by with fam­i­lies on board and the oc­ca­sional dog. Cream, apri­cot, mus­tard and rus­set-coloured build­ings tow­ered over­head, some with wrought-iron bal­conies, oth­ers draped with creep­ing vines or red gera­ni­ums.

When our gon­dola ride had fin­ished we were given one hour to ex­plore be­fore our bus left. I wan­dered by my­self along the many twists and turns of the labyrinth-like streets. For­tu­nately there were signs on the walls point­ing the way to sig­nif­i­cant ar­eas in­clud­ing our meet­ing place, Pi­azza San Marco or St Mark’s Square. That day I shopped on the run for fam­ily gifts. The hour was up too soon and I hur­ried back, vow­ing to re­turn to this beau­ti­ful city.

On my next visit six years later, I spent four days in the heart of Venice with my daugh­ter. Each day be­gan with break­fast at our ho­tel where I de­vel­oped a love of boiled eggs and blood or­ange juice. We be­friended the good-na­tured wait­ers who greeted us warmly at ev­ery meal.

Dur­ing the day we wan­dered the streets for hours and ate de­li­cious thin-crust piz­zas and gelati. Some­times we bought sup­plies from the lo­cal Billa su­per­mar­ket; fresh ham, cheese and crusty cia­batta rolls. We walked through mar­kets piled high with

“A won­der­land filled with beau­ti­ful dec­o­ra­tive masks lav­ish with feath­ers and gold paint and vi­brant glass­work and jew­ellery, hand­made by ar­ti­sans.”

fresh pro­duce and chillies clev­erly dis­played in the shape of trees or flow­ers.

One morn­ing we heard a siren herald­ing the ac­qua alta, or high tide. We hur­ried out­side and joined crowds of peo­ple clam­ber­ing onto hastily erected wooden plat­forms in Pi­azza San Marco. As the wa­ter grad­u­ally rose we saw table­cloths dan­gling in it and wait­ers in thigh-high gum­boots. All of this added to our ex­pe­ri­ence. Even the rain didn’t dampen our spir­its; in­stead, it re­flected off evening streets and soft­ened the lines of the build­ings.

We vis­ited tourist at­trac­tions and bou­tiques where I tried on cash­mere knitwear as soft as a cloud. A num­ber of times we saw new­ly­weds hav­ing dra­matic photos taken be­fore the amaz­ing ar­chi­tec­ture. We looked in bak­ery win­dows laden with bis­cuits, cakes and gar­ish marzi­pan good­ies dis­played for Hal­loween.

It seemed not much had changed since my last visit, apart from a va­ri­ety of new gift shops selling im­ported “Vene­tian” jew­ellery and glass­ware. These stood side by side with the tra­di­tional shops. In the back streets, I was de­lighted to chance upon ar­ti­sans at work in their stu­dios. To hear their sto­ries and watch them at work adds value to any pur­chase made.

And now, as I pack my suit­case to visit Venice for the third time, I look for­ward to re­vis­it­ing the old and dis­cov­er­ing more of its hid­den trea­sures.

“Cream, apri­cot, mus­tard and rus­set-coloured build­ings tow­ered

over­head.”

Im­ages : Robyn John­ston, Paul Cowan, Gabriella Malt­inti

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