Back in 1817, a French Romantic novelist Henri-Marie Byle who wrote under the pen name ‘Stendahl’ was visiting Florence. While visiting the Basilica of Saint Croce, he was so overwhelmed by its beauty that he had a turn.
He later wrote in his diary:
Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart. Life was drained from me, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. I walked with the fear of falling.
It wasn’t until 1979 that the condition was diagnosed and named ‘Stendhal’s syndrome’ by an Italian psychiatrist, Dr Graziella Magherini, who noticed similar psychosomatic conditions – racing heat beat, nausea and dizziness – among first-time visitors to the city. Had I not lived in Alaska for so many years and seen beauty in is rawest, most majestic form, I, too, might have suffered from Stendhal’s syndrome during my four days in Venice. It truly is a remarkable city.
From the air, it looks like a fish: the fat body containing the sestieres (the six districts that form Venice) of Cannaregio, Santa Croce, San Polo, San Marco and Dorsoduro with Castello making up the tail. It lives amongst the lagoon islands of Murano, Burano, San Giorgio Maggiore, Lido, Torcello, Guidecca, Sant’Erasmo and San Michelle. Cycling is forbidden and cars are few and far between, generally left parked in the Piazzale Roma, from where commuters travel onwards on foot or by boat. You can take the vaporetto (a waterbus) on both canals. To cross from one side to the other on the Grand Canal between bridges, you can take the traghetto (a gondola in which you stand up rather than recline regally). And there’s always the water taxi. You can, of course, hire your own gondola for a romantic trip through the rios. That experience I thought I’d save for later!
There are supposedly more than 500 bridges in the city and I’d say we crossed most of them. It’s a veritable labyrinth and next time I go, I’m going to do away with the map and just wander. If you get lost, you simply look up to find a yellow sign pointing the general direction of San Marco, or Rialto, or Piazzale Roma. Half the fun is finding your way home and it is so easy to walk around in circles for hours, ending up right back where you started. It’s all about the journey.
Looking down the calli, particularly in Cannaregio and Costello, you see clotheslines strung between the buildings on either side with bunting-like laundry flapping in the breeze. The smell of washing powder mixes headily with the salty smell of the sea. Shoes sit on windowsills and fur coats hang in windows to air. Every inch of space is used. Venice has no more room – what’s there is being renovated – but there is no room for expansion. In the ghetto, they coped with expanding numbers by building upwards, the first skyscrapers. The doors vary so much is size that you have to wonder who lives behind them.
The buildings, old and weary, stand proudly, defying the water to do its worst, the lower third battled scarred and watermarked. The city floods at least twice a year and you can see the evidence. Neat stacks of tables wait patiently for the time when they will be set end to end to create paths above water level when the floods come. Stories abound of Venetians coming out of the cinema to be faced with a ‘wade’ home, the more cavalier men piggybacking their dates. Everything we have on road, Venice has on water: fireboats, ambulance boats, police boats, medical boats, delivery boats, garbage boats. It really is something else.
We spent our days wandering the streets, popping in and of shops and churches, having the occasional ice cream and the odd coffee. As ‘spending a penny’ in Venice can cost as much as €1.50, having a coffee and using their loo seemed more economical. There are all sorts of hidden charges so your bill is rarely what you expect. It is cheaper by far to eat and drink standing up then to sit down, inside or outside. We just had to have lunch on our last day at a little trattoria in San Toma that had a big sign in the window saying ‘NO COVERT CHARGE’…. a typo or a Venetian with a sense of irony?
The mind boggles at the skill and craftsmanship that went into building those churches. Some of them are massive – you’d fit five Irish churches into the one at Frari. And there are so many of them. We got mass one evening and ended up staying for vespers because it would have been rude to leave. It was my first time at vespers and a shame that I didn’t understand a word of what was being said.
Sadly there are more tourists in Venice than there are residents. Government support for artisans and craftworkers translates into lots of working studios for painters, jewellers, and mask makers who seem to do it for the love of it rather than for money; customers almost seem to intrude. Like everything else, the genuine articles are endangered by cheap imports from China. Tourists are faced with a choice of spending €20 on a mask from a trader or €120 for a real, hand-made-in-Venice one. Given that it is an expensive city overall, many take the cheaper option (and no, you don’t even have to ask which one I went for….) Perhaps more could be done to highlight the fakes… knowing you’re buying a fake is one thing; thinking you’re buying the genuine article is another. On Murano, shops have signs in their windows saying they use only local glass. Those that don’t have these signs… well, you’re pretty safe in assuming that they’re importing the funny stuff! This ethical consumerism can be expensive!
After a couple of days walking the streets of the sestieres, we took to water and went island-hopping (and yes, it is possible to get lost on water as well). Up until a few years ago, San Michelle was where Venetians were buried; now it’s full so new bodies are taken to the mainland. Amongst the famous buried on this island are Stravinksy and his wife Vera. It was sad, in a way, to see his grave laden with flowers and hers quite bare. How difficult is it, I wonder, to be married to fame? Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky are also at home there. The graves seem to sprout flowers … the Venetians take care of their dead.
It’s impossible not to smile on Burano. Famous for its lace (and yes, I succumbed to two scarves) its colourful houses are so cheerful. Bright, bright pinks and blues and yellows and greens – residents must compete to find the gaudiest colours possible and then paint with pride.
The sounds in the city are quite typical: church bells and conversation. But in Venice, there is another one: the sound of what I thought to be rolling luggage. And then I realised it was rolling shopping bags. While you can find any amount of craft shops and churches, restaurants and bars, it’s hard to find a supermarket or a corner shop. You just follow the bag lady! And these wheelie shoppers are young and trendy, male and female – it’s not just the purview of English or Hungarian old ‘granny’ types… it’s almost fashionable!
And the locals certainly have style. Italian men dress so well. Even a trip to the fish market warrants careful thought and preparation. They are manicured and tailored without being effete. The gondoliers have a style of their own about them, too. One restaurant maître domo enticed us to sit a while with his dramatic rendition of ‘my mind is open, my heart is open, my restaurant is open…’ When Venetians pass each other on the street, the conversation starts as soon as they see each other, and continues well after they’ve passed each other by. Those Venetians you see apparently talking to themselves (with no visible mobile phone mics) are just talking to the person behind them walking in the opposite direction.
Of course, no trip to Venice would be complete without a visit to Harry’s Bar. It’s the reason I went and the reason I’ve been going for years but only now got there. The home of carpaccio and the bellini, Harry’s Bar was a home from home to Hemingway. It’s a quiet, unimposing bar/restaurant on the corner of Calle Valerroso. The prices are astronomical, and deliberately so. They’re designed to separate the genuine article from the fakes – those that want to sit for a while where Hemingway sat, enjoying the palpable legacy of greatness as opposed to those who read about it, know something of the man, and want to add it to the list of sights seen. While we were there, so many came in, sat down, opened the menu, read the prices and left. The waiters were so used to this, they didn’t blink an eye. Thankfully, I had a credit card and had come a long way and waited a long time to taste my first bellini… and I’ll be back.