As our holiday draws to an end, and we contemplate our return – to autumn, to cleansing of the liver, to new challenges, and to a totally pissed-off Max the Cat, who started getting antsy when we brought out the suitcases, and has probably by now moved down the road to the kind neighbours who feed him while we’re away, and really understand his sterling qualities, unlike us. (I’ve just spotted a boat on the Riva called ‘Conte Max’ – he’d like that.)
Among FAQs from our friends when we talk about holiday destinations are: (1) ‘Why are you going to Venice again???’; (2) ‘Surely you’ve seen it all now?’; (3) ‘Surely it’s swamped with tourists?’; (4) ‘Surely it’s terribly expensive?’; (5) ‘Surely the food’s terrible?’ Let’s leave no. 1 to one side for a minute, and consider the other questions.
No, we haven’t seen it all yet: there’s always something new, or something we haven’t discovered before, or something we thought we were familiar with but are in fact not. As many learned persons have demonstrated, a lifetime is not long enough to know Venice properly (same with London, as Dr Johnson famously remarked). This was demonstrated in two ways recently: St George’s Anglican church in Campo San Vio was open for morning service, so we slipped inside – we’d never been before. During a rousing rendering of ‘How great thou art’, I was able to observe memorials to Sir Austen Henry Layard, who gave the building (formerly a warehouse of the Venezia-Murano Glass and Mosaic Company) to the diocese of Gibraltar to use as a church; Horatio Forbes Brown (1854–1926), churchwarden, who continued the work of Rawdon Brown (no relation) and George Cavenish-Bentinck on the Venetian state papers relevant to England; Sir Henry Wotton (1568–1639), the diplomat who coined the phrase that ‘An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’, and who spent almost all of the 20 years from 1604 in Venice); and Joseph Smith (1673–1770), banker, art dealer and British consul, whose books and paintings, including his Canalettos, are now in the Royal Collection.
On the other hand, we also went to the Frari, where we must have been 10 or 12 times over the years: I know, for example, that if you enter through the great west door, Canova’s weird pyramid tomb and the deeply politically incorrect tomb of Doge Giovanni Pesaro (1589–1659) are on your left, the anachronistic, gigantic and tasteless nineteenth-century monument to Titian is on the right, and the tomb of Monteverdi is in the last chapel to the left of the chancel, which is of course adorned by Titian’s masterpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin.
But there are also all the things I had forgotten, or had simply failed to notice before: faded frescoes, more modest memorial stones, the Giovanni Bellini triptych in the sacristry…
And I’d forgotten about the Bartolomeo Vivarini triptych in Sta Maria Formosa, as well,
and Paolo Priuli, by Palma Vecchio,
in the Querini Stampalia (where the pygmy waterlilies were flowering in Carlo Scarpi’s tiny but exquisite garden).
And we haven’t had time this year to go to see the Carpaccios in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, alas.
So, no, we haven’t even remotely seen it all yet and probably never will, but we have a lot of fun trying! And yes, it’s full of tourists, and yes it’s expensive: we really noticed the contrast this year when visiting Ferrara and Mantua, where foreigners were few and far between, and food costs were absurdly low by Venetian standards. And of course, it would be nice if at least some of the tourists took courteous notice of the requests to walk on the right and not stop on bridges (and/or in front of every shop with glitzy Chinese-made souvenirs), and if the French teenagers in particular weren’t so bloomin’ noisy: are they no longer brought up to be sage? But I’m a tourist too, so how can I possibly complain?
As to food, we have had some fantastic meals in Venice, and hardly any duds (though my standard is not exacting: I think anything that I didn’t have to cook myself is delicious, unless it really, really, isn’t). There’s almost invariably a trade-off between location, price and food quality. If you want to sit on the Grand Canal, or Zattere, or the Riva dei Schiavoni, and watch the people or the boats or the glitter of the water, you will probably get indifferent and expensive tourist-oriented food (caprese, pizza, tiramisu…). And sadly, some of our own favourite restaurants have followed the bland/global route over the years. But we’ve had two cracking meals in the last couple of days in places we’d never been to before, but will certainly visit again.
So, back to question 1: we come here because we love it. Simple as that. It’s incredibly beautiful, there are no cars, we seem always to be very lucky with the weather when we visit, we rent an apartment in a quiet part of town with a large balcony overlooking greenery (quite rare!).
And we’ve even got to the happy stage where we don’t get lost every time we set foot out of doors – just sometimes. But you can never be completely lost because you can’t leave the island without becoming aware of it, so just keep on walking, and marvelling!