Fer­ry­ing past city of canals

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat - Ian Robert Smith

MY Slove­nian friend Samo can’t be­lieve it. He stomps across the deck be­fore stop­ping dead cen­tre in the cir­cle where he­li­copters land. The deck be­longs to the Mi­noan Su­per­fast ferry Europa Palace, which is cruis­ing down Venice’s Gi­udecca canal, bound for the Adri­atic and on­ward to Greece. Samo’s ob­jec­tion is to the recorded fe­male voice on the loud­speak­ers recit­ing Vene­tian his­tory. I can’t see the prob­lem, view­ing it as an­other ex­am­ple of ever-widen­ing Euro­pean de­tente. The Venetians may have led the cru­sade that trashed Con­stantino­ple, oc­cu­pied Crete for more than 400 years and, at var­i­ous times, lorded it over the choic­est parts of the Pelo­pon­nese and many Aegean is­lands, but the Greek-owned Mi­noan Su­per­fast, ob­vi­ously, is happy to let by­gones be by­gones.

Mean­while the ferry deck pro­vides an eco­nom­i­cal, if fleet­ing, means of view­ing Venice. While the la­goon bris­tles with ves­sels, we gaze at ter­ra­cotta rooftops moul­der­ing be­neath cen­turies-old lichen, bell­tow­ers, domes and, some­what anachro­nis­ti­cally, cranes that pre­sum­ably prop up the ed­i­fice.

Venice can hardly be faulted for lean­ing. The city has its ori­gins in the flight from the hordes that be­gan har­ry­ing the Ital­ian penin­sula in the 4th cen­tury AD. The spec­ta­cle of At­tila the Hun, among oth­ers, tram­pling vine­yards, torch­ing houses and slaugh­ter­ing pets (to say noth­ing of car­ry­ing off wives) caused a stam­pede for the safety of the la­goon. This most beau­ti­ful of cities be­gan life as a col­lec­tion of wat­tle-and-daub huts erected on a foun­da­tion of tim­ber piles driven into marshy sludge. To­day palaces and churches ride on the same foun­da­tions.

Our fel­low trav­ellers on this ed­u­cated ship are largely Ger­man, in­clud­ing a horde of stu­dents who have marched, howl­ing, on to the ves­sel. ‘‘ Bavar­ian hol­i­days,’’ Samo gnashes his teeth. ‘‘ The ferry is doomed.’’ Yet here on deck there is no sign of the stu­dents and our fel­low rub­ber­necks are per­fectly civilised bankers from Augs­burg and brew­ers from Mu­nich. One young man and his wife in­quire po­litely if I would take their pho­to­graph, which I do, al­beit clum­sily. The fel­low thanks me even as he and his girl, peer­ing at the screen, shake their heads. Then they po­litely ask some­one else.

There’s a col­lec­tive gasp as the Pi­azza San Marco draws level, with the twin an­tique col­umns— one bear­ing the fa­mous lion, the other St Theodore and his dragon— and the pink and white fa­cade of the Doge’s Palace. Cam­eras click but Samo is shak­ing his Nikon. ‘‘ The bat­ter­ies,’’ he groans.

Tourists drift over the Bridge of Sighs as waves toss and shiny black gon­do­las, Shelley’s ‘‘ fu­ne­real barks’’, bob at their bar­ber­shop poles. The col­umns, which hail from the Le­vant, were erected by an en­gi­neer in re­turn for a con­ces­sion to in­stall pub­lic gam­ing ta­bles be­tween them. More omi­nously, that lit­tle patch of ground where tourists pose for pho­to­graphs was for cen­turies the site of pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions. Napoleon, who never en­tered Venice, fa­mously called San Marco the ‘‘ finest draw­ing room in the world’’. As the self-ap­pointed ‘‘ At­tila to the Vene­tian State’’, he traded the city to the Aus­tri­ans, thereby bring­ing its 1000-year his­tory to a close.

The crowd van­ishes in­doors as the square re­cedes and the ferry heads to­wards the Lido, where in­vad­ing armies foundered and, much later, in Death­inVenice, Dirk Bog­a­rde sat on the beach, ad­mir­ing boys. Wind gusts off the Adri­atic and rain stings my face.

Samo, who went for cof­fee, re­turns look­ing green. ‘‘ Don’t go down there,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s hor­ri­ble.’’ Ap­par­ently there’s Bavar­ian wheat beer on tap in the bar (noth­ing wrong with that, I think), where the stu­dents have taken over. Worse, Samo has had to pay too much for a cup of dish­wa­ter mas­querad­ing as cof­fee. ‘‘ Wel­come to the EU,’’ I laugh.

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