by Alastair Sawday from The Telegraph, July 16, 2017
Lord Byron swam the length of the Grand Canal in Venice. He also swam across the lagoon to the Lido. He found a physical freedom from the handicap of his club foot in his swimming, and inspired poets’ swimming events all over Europe.
When I gaze at the Grand Canal now, I imagine him weaving his way bravely among the boats. I have never seen anyone swimming in the canal. It would be unwise.
My parents took me to Venice in my late teens, to stay in the Hotel Accademia and to wander, enchanted, wherever I wished. The hotel has a terrace from which one can hear and glimpse the Grand Canal, surely the most ravishing feast of architecture on the planet – a “gallimaufry” of it, according to Jan Morris. I was too young to take it all in. I still am.
Venice is mired in its own beauty. Dazzled, more than 20 million of us pour in every year. So do more than 650 cruise ships, many bigger than the Titanic. Are we loving Venice to death?
Vanessa, one of our Venetian owners who also runs a restaurant serving slow food, was in despair as she talked of Venice’s problems. Only about 50,000 Venetians now live in the old town, as foreign buyers have snapped up the palazzi and most of the best houses. It is hard to find a shop that sells groceries.
It is an unreal city, a shadow of its old self, condemned to primp and preen for the crowds of detached visitors – who will go away and on to Florence and Rome, or Athens, with their photos of the floodwater lapping at the feet of the Caffè Florian in St Mark’s Square.
“La Serenissima”, as Venice has modestly called herself, was a nation of islands and of immense power, poised twixt East and West, Muslim and Christian, Rome and Constantinople. She was the mistress of the Mediterranean, haughty, detached, glittering and unfathomable. She lost her power in the 16th century but staggered on for three more centuries, applying make-up and partying as voluptuously as any power in Europe. She is still impossibly glamorous.
From the airport you may arrive by boat, swept along on a wave of dawning incredulity. From the railway station you step straight into the hubbub a few yards from the water and are swept into the vortex of beauty. You will find yourself drawn ineluctably to St Mark’s Square, where you will blink and stretch your eyes in disbelief. For Napoleon, this great roofless room was the “drawing room of Europe”; I prefer to think of it as a ballroom.
If there is music playing in the Caffè Florian you may well sweep the nearest woman into your arms and dance her across the square, as I did. The magic of Venice works like that. Well, that was my excuse, and the rather startled Dutch tourist forgave my exuberance, I think. After my first visit with my parents, I came to Venice as a student, working in my holidays as a tour manager and guide for groups of about 40 American tourists. I tried to appear casual, but my face must have given away my delight at every turn.
My enthusiasm carried me through a difficult moment when, alone at 1am on a pontoon with half a dozen stocky gondoliers, I tried to negotiate the price. The six gondolas we had hired for a merry evening of song and canal-gliding were about to cost me vastly more than we had agreed. My Italian was three days old, my experience not much older. The gondoliers had lost their jauntiness and were now serious, arms folded across their muscled chests, eyes narrowed. “Scusi, ma è troppo!” [“Excuse me, but it’s too much”] I boldly declared.
A cascade of Italian words and expletives overwhelmed me, but I stood my ground and tried again. Still, there is only so much one can do with “Scusi, ma è troppo.” I shuddered to a halt and, feeling my disadvantage growing and my knees wobbling, retreated while I had some dignity left. I resolved on that pontoon to learn Italian. I have learned recently that gondoliers annually can earn up to £120,000; had I known at the time I would have tried harder.
My language skills served me well many years later when, in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI made a historic visit to Venice. While he was there I hired a water-taxi and was overcharged by such an astronomical amount that I protested. After feigning anger, the driver looked crestfallen: “Ma il Papa viene a Venezia soltanto ogni duecento anni!” – But the Pope only comes to Venice every 200 years! How could I be so unreasonable as to deprive him of such a celestial opportunity to rob me?
In Venice with my elderly Americans during a university vacation, I hired an open boat, filled it with a case of wine and the bravest of them and set off to explore the canals armed with only a tourist map for navigation.
This expedition would be unthinkable now, and was fairly unthinkable then, but I was in swashbuckling mode. We picked our way through the tiniest of canals and past astonished onlookers. Gondoliers said incomprehensible things to me, or things it seemed wiser not to comprehend.
After an hour of Venice’s nooks and crannies, we set course for the Lido, hearts full and case of wine emptying. The crossing was a choppy journey across the lagoon that had once been filled with the billowing sails of warships and traders, and the sound of creaking rowlocks and drumbeats from the galleys as they pulled into the wind and away to distant lands. When we finally came alongside a jetty we were more merry than competent, and one or two of my charges had to be hauled ashore by strong and kindly Italians. They proudly bore the bruises on their arms for many days: “That handsome young Italian held me very hard.”
Our expedition came to an awkward and expensive end when our craft erupted from a tiny backwater to cross the Grand Canal at the only point where a policeman was stationed. From his cabin at the end of the bridge the policeman leaned over and stretched his cheeks to blow his whistle. But I was under way, surging forward into the canal and uncertain what the whistle blast was telling me to do.
Two vaporetti were heading for me, one from the left and one from the right, and changed course in a vain attempt to avoid collision, their passengers crowding to the bows to see what was happening.
They bumped each other lightly, and my little boat emerged from the melee unharmed. Luckily my charges were filled with wine and saw it all as entertainment. The policeman was not amused, however, and I was fined an eye-watering sum on the spot. I was too embarrassed to protest. Since that year, foreigners have not been allowed to rent self-drive boats.
Venice is full of surprises once you get beneath its skin. Our Venice inspector, Janine, found a palazzo called Ca’ Gloriosa, whose big top-floor apartment belonged to an elderly Italian gentleman married to an English lady. The apartment was an irritant to the old man, who preferred his palazzo in Rome, but his wife insisted on renovating it. She found silk wall decorations, countless treasures from his parents’ colonial days in Asia, the family silver, crystal glasses and a valuable Hayez painting.
In another palazzo, Ca’ Nova, Janine noticed some etchings by Canova and thought the palazzo’s name must refer to the artist. But they were unconnected. “So I was surprised to find myself face-to-face with two huge Canova statues of Hector and Ajax in the private quarters of the palazzo!”
Venice can still throw a good party. In the Nineties I joined friends for the Vogalonga, an annual event that brings Venetians and visitors together, originally in protest at the number of motorboats on the city’s waterways. It is a noncompetitive race from St Mark’s into the lagoon, around the island of Burano and then back into Venice from the north, down a long canal into the Grand Canal and then to the finish: nearly 19 miles, so a real effort.
The boats are all powered by human beings, which means a welcome day free of motorboats. There are more than 1,500 boats, and about 6,000 participants in a jaunty chaos of gondolas, rowing boats, canoes, dragon boats and crews in every colour and livery. As they milled about awaiting the starting gun, I wondered where the organisation was, but it all happened in a very Italian way.
There were no visible officials, just people and boats: extra-long gondolas, “shells” with 16 oars-people from three generations, women’s boats, old ladies’ boats, canoes and kayaks galore.
Spectators cheer for any reason, and I watched a winning gondola lose its place as its crew all stood up, grinning, holding their oars aloft to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. It was the happiest possible day.
This is an edited extract from Travelling Light – Journeys Among Special People and Places, by Alastair Sawday. To order a copy at the discounted price of £16.99 (RRP £20), call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.