I once dreamed of a city so beautiful that I woke up almost crying for it not being real. Its streets were made of transparent ocean, and the surrounding sunlit villas sprung up from white stone pavements which crumbled at their edges into grains of sand. This weekend I had the fortune of witnessing a reality which could dare recall such fantasy, looking out along the north canals of Venice, as my gaze stretched beyond its liquid roads to the encircling green sea that lay waiting at its end. I was left overwhelmed solely for being able to stare at it.
Now yes, you’ve probably just realised it; I’m about to write about Venice (If the title didn’t give that away), and so a quick formality should intervene. I disclaim I am aware of the difficulty of having anything new to add in describing this already meticulously documented city. Even as early as 1904, Henry James commenced his Venice essay conceding that “there is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject.” Though he did then of course continue to waffle on about it for 40 odd more pages, and if he permitted himself so much to the printed word, I feel I may at least grant myself a blog post on the matter to go forth and disappear into the digital ether.
For the feelings summoned within the Venice pervert are unique to each one of us, and so in my own journey of sentiment I hope I can at least shed something new or worthy of interest. It is a place of voyeurs, a peep-show in a city that for over a century has been considered not much more than an open-air museum. Wherever you stumble upon the last faint traces of its own life, you can bank on a pair of tourists staring from some corner of a canal, or cranny of a church, whispering stupefied exclamations; “a real Venetian!” And if you as a visitor do not believe in this phenomenon’s ubiquity, and claim to have in one such case saw no such person, well then my friend it is only that in that instance it was you that were the peeper! It is futile pretending to not have passed the time there curiously staring with the rest of us, trying to piece together what the Venetian life is like, how they got here, where they will go, or what they make for dinner when the camera disappears. Yes, for in this incomprehensible water-system, we all become David Attenboroughs, except his deft whispers have been replaced by excited cries as we watch a washing line pulleyed across the canal, while the whole TV crew has been rendered redundant by the selfie-stick.
There is of course I realise nothing charming in this grotesque description I have just left you with, yet it is within this detail nonetheless where lies much which pleases the Venice amateur. It is a testament to the city’s magnificence that it provokes curiosity in all, and a place in which its people have historically watched the world enter and leave its ports, and where one can continue to do so today. It is perhaps the only place we have that can survive this year-round apocalypse of shorts and sandal-laden zombies, and still offer something to the visitor who’s brain has not yet been eaten.
Venice is magic. It is magic in that purely child-like fashion, where it makes you believe something more than what you can see exists, even if what that is exactly remains completely intangible. You are scared to analyse it fully, and aware of the illusion’s fragility, you allow only the feeling to permeate and provide a backdrop to discovery. There is a thrill to turning every corner, a sense of infinite purpose that accompanies every searching observation, as if at the next dead end, the doors and waterways will gift you something you’ve never had or could contemplate.
We can even try to add science to our emotion, and give a neurological foundation to this most of abstract of sensations. Conditioned over our lives to see doors lead to lawns, and buildings spawn from ground, the sight of slanted stone housing having roots in stinking ocean tickles your senses to confounding effects. A lifetime’s habituation to customary landscape renders each street’s watery edge almost hallucinatory, and our brain exults as its cravings for novelty are satisfied. The resulting sensation is compounded by the chiming bells of the everpresent campanile, ringing as if they were Pavlov’s own, providing the gentle beat to which we march onwards, as we salivate in anticipation of further stupor.
That ocean stink is also perversely gratifying in itself. For the seafood lover, it lets you know you’re close to home, and to the biologist, its potency a reminder that here lies the Universe’s greatest stew. Four billion years it took to cook the organisms required to construct this millennial city, which springs up from the cauldron as improbably as life itself. The scent then mixes with a pervading aroma of urine, a smell surely almost as ancient as the sea, and like a history museum that releases experience enhancing fragrances, the empty and dark, narrow midnight alleys become all the more complete in transporting you through time. The feeling of anxiety here is then palpable, the lightless and claustraphobic passages strip you of security, and why the renaissance gentleman did not venture out without his rapier is evident as you find yourself wishing to be in reach of your own.
But what about that seafood lover, what is his reward in in navigating this endless maze? Tuna sandwiches. Yes, sandiwches filled with tuna. These triangular treats are the suprising victor in my culinary tour of the city. It is not perhaps for their taste, but more their audacity; that a region’s traditional dish may be nothing more than the average content of a picnic or packed lunch, and not only titled (I tramezzini), but proudly displayed to the world as their heritage. Yet sitting among one of Venice’s quieter canals (where incredibly, most of its best bars are), with feet dangling jauntily over the bobbing water and prosecco in the other hand, I am quite certain there is no better way to savour the flavour of the city.
It is in moments like these where la serenissima carries her title so sweetly. The lack of motorised vehicle and mechanic hubbub, granted to these cafes by roads of water in place of concrete, leave a vacancy in sound only to be filled by the clinking of wine glasses and la conversazione. It invites you to clink with it, to talk among friends, and revel in being so fulfilled by its sensory pleasure.
However this all does not constitute a place where one would want to live, and this strangely grants our final gift. It is indeed rare to visit somewhere you love and not spend your time hatching seeds of schemes on how you may come to nest there and make it your own, and Venice is just the city to defy such plotting. It doesn’t ask you to stay, but holds you presently in the moment, requesting only that you enjoy her while the fleeting evening remains.
The night then fades to day like a gondolier’s paddle retraces its stroke, and the last morning bids you to make your farewells. The train line remains one of only two overland connections to the mainland, and it’s arrival there can be quite brutal. The greeting party of kilometres of industry reminds you of the true nature of the modern world you never really left, and that, among other things, your prawn and baccalà was more likely shipped from China than caught by little Giuseppe on his barca. The illusion might be quickly broken, but the dream sits languidly in the mind as you drift away, awaiting the next time some bell may chime, and visions of Venice’s pinks and greens flowing into mind, can do no less than call you back.