Ferrying past city of canals
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.