‘But close about the quays and churches, palaces and prisons. Sucking at their walls, and welling up into the secret places of the town: crept the water always.’ Dickens, Pictures of Italy
On our last night in Venice, Natalie and I left Piazza San Marco after seeing Sting perform. Water had filled the square and was puddling beneath the marble and gold of the cathedral. Chains of people splashed through the growing lake as they made their way home in the key of euphoria. Like jumping in winter puddles as a child, the splashes held the promise of new worlds. Venice’s fluctuating water levels seemed to have shifted the atmospheric balance of the city.
We took the ferry along the Grand Canal where the Venetian facades were softly illuminated in the starry dark of La Serenissma. The night waters were rising above the level of the city; crashing against squares where people sat at tables drinking, lapping at the feet of buildings, licking at doorways. At the steps of the Natural History Museum a giant crab crept sideways in the quietly menacing black of the water. I felt the wonder of Venice under threat.
The waters must have seeped into my imagination and soaked their liquid impression upon me. That night I had a waking dream in which the rippling springs of my mattress transformed into a Traghetto on the unsettled waves. The room was filled with a shimmering blanket of water and the rucksacks lying at the side of the beds became vaporettos navigating the narrow passage between the bunks. I quietly gasped. In awe of that rippling plash of water I pushed my belongings beneath the bed to make way for the vaporetto’s course. When I awoke I was watermarked; my fingertips puckered, my hair bedraggled. I was enrapt in La Serenissima’s buoyant magic.
When Dickens writes of Venice he describes the strange approach towards the city as a vision in a dream; ‘In the luxurious wonder of so rare a dream, I took but little heed of time, and had but little understanding of its flight. But there were days and nights in it; and when the sun was high, and when the rays of lamps were crooked in the running water, I was still afloat, I thought: plashing the slippery walls and houses with the cleavings of the tide, as my black boat, borne upon it, skimmed along the street.’
If you let the waters take you, you are lost. As you sink from the platforms time dissolves. Venetians travel by water but succumb to a slower pace of life; watch the city rolling on the waves like a model of a town.
Venice has a way of enchanting and imprisoning people. Although its residents continue to decrease in number as the influx of tourists moving in and out daily overwhelms the island: Venice slowly sinks herself. Suicide by drowning for the salvation of her own stone soul.
I had felt that falling in love with Venice would be a cliché, and I had endeavoured to avoid it. It was the quieter reaches of Eastern Europe; newly made capital cities such as Bratislava, Ljubljana and Zagreb, which had beckoned to me on my tour of Europe with Natalie. I had planned Venice as merely a stop along the way, a tourist trap beyond the reaches of my sensitivities.
Yet when I arrived for the first time on the sleeper train at 6am something of my resolution was instantly lost.
The sun was rising on the water world; soft yellow light playing on the expanse marked only by the pallo and the herons perched on top. After the fallen star of Zagreb, Venice was swollen with morning light. It seemed that our train was parting the waters as it made its way into Santa Lucia.
There is something of the miracle about Venice after all.
Every day around 60,000 tourists come into the city, doubling the population. So to arrive on the sleeper train before the tourists are awake is the ultimate luxury. It is harder to love later in the day, but impossible to fall out of love with.
I would see Venice painted in all lights. Venice at sunset, as I drank aperol spritzes at a roadside bar while the sun sank into the perfect colours for our ferry ride. Venice’s waters a greasy oil-paint-orange lashed with bright blue in the heat of the sun. Venice in the pitch black on a ferry ride, the currents fracturing light on squid-ink water. Venice in scatters of red and yellow rolling about me on the dark waves. All of these visions have one element in common.
One night Natalie and I sat on a small wooden table at a restaurant on the fondamenti del’Ormesini beside a tributary canal. We are so far removed from the tourists that we seem plunged into the quiet black of the waters as we eat Spaghetti Scogliera with white wine. Boats pass us; the city’s young people flashing yellow beacons of light and snatches of music and conversation, as they speed towards some secret life which can only be reached along unknown passages of water. I wish then that I could see this Venice. That throb of tourists in the central labyrinth seems only a frustrating masquerade.
Venice absorbs some people, whilst excluding others. Both times I visit I am forced to sleep outside the city’s reach on dry land, in a campsite on the motorway, and in Mestre where the town square meekly gestures towards its older sister. It is only months later, that Giudecca, home of prisoners, takes me into its rocking arms and lets me sleep on the water. The only way to see Venice is from the water, distant enough to gain a little perspective.
On my second trip to Venice the Venetian Mason family take me out on the laguna on Massimo and Sonia’s boat. We take the vaporetto through the tourist centre and out again, and then a long bus out of the glamour of the Lido towards Alberoni, to float moored in the harbour at Malamocco.
After I have been pasted with suncream in a pale panic by the two mothers, Paola and Sonia: we eat a picnic around a fold-up table in the stern of the boat. We pass round breads, cheeses, Mortadella ham, Parma ham, anchovies on toasted bread, tomatoes and olives followed by a sweet coffee from a flask. Then, satiated, we pull the anchor up and sail deep into the glittering blue Laguna.
I sit at the front of the boat with the sun and the winds and the sensation of sailing. My host brother and sister, Giulia and Giacomo, sit with me. It seems that there has never been more bliss than this. For the moment I can’t think beyond it all, there is nothing beyond the shimmering haze of the city centre in the distance and the lagoon in between.
Giulia tells me stories of her romances and Giacomo screams with excitement every time he sees a medusa (a jellyfish), drifting surreal in the parting waters. Medusa seems the most poetic word for those supernatural networks of luminous veins.
In the summer, trips out on the laguna in the boat are a regular feature. If the Masons don’t feel like the lagoon, they have a house by the beach in Porto Santa Margherita, and another in the mountains they can drive to. The houses are a shared inheritance between brothers and sisters, there is nothing particularly extravagant or unusual about these retreats for a Venetian family.
Massimo and Sonia are certainly the proud hosts of their sailing boat, but the Mason’s have other friends, other friendly boats.
The Italians holiday with a naturalness that is foreign to the English; they know what the pleasures of life are. They slip into warm waters on weekends and take long national holidays in August which can last a couple of weeks. Ferragosto is an excuse to close businesses and escape in the peak of summer days. I find myself wondering why my parents, who take unglamorous Bank holidays as opportunities for house repairs, don’t live like this sometimes.
We sail past the pallos dividing the currents, the mussel nets and abandoned islands like fortified ruins with the herons circling. Sonia explains the history of those crumbling fortifications and Venice’s attempts to preserve some while letting others drown. Flights of the imagination take off from the ruined green like the herons themselves.
There is a fabulous book published in the seventies: ‘Isole Abbandonate della Laguna Veneziana’, which I cannot get my hands on. A history of the thirteen abandoned islands of the Venice Lagoon written by brothers Giorgio and Maurizio Crovato. I am promised that their own black and white photographs documenting the dilapidation are the real treasure of the lost volume. But Sonia is a delicious source of knowledge in herself. If the Venetian authorities have abandoned islands it is partly for the financial costs and partly for the submersive weight of their history.
The island of Poveglia stranded on the way to the Lido has a long history as a place of exclusion and quarantine. In 1968 when Poveglia’s hospital for the mentally ill was closed the island was lost to complete abandonment. From its first reference in a chronicle in 421 AD Poveglia had been a place of exile; the Paduans escaped here after an invasion from the Barbarians and would eventually be driven on again to Giudecca. The island’s 14th century fortification, the Octagon, and the tower of its lighthouse built to replace the church, can still be seen above the trees today.
What ghosts remain the public will probably never know, but it is enough for a writer to dream from the safe, shining white of a sail boat.
A week later I miss another boat trip, but I am told stories of round, motherly Paola diving beneath the mussel nets to prize the mussels from the submerged roots of the pallos. She shows me her arms and hands covered with scratches: “Look what a feast you have missed.”
I stare more in admiration at her glutton’s heroism, feel a quiet respect for the hunter-gatherer mother returning proud and full.
We sail along the riva of the toy-box fisherman village; the narrow stretched houses splashing their bright browns, yellows and oranges into the sky-blue waters. The shutters are all closed up with the washing lines hanging like smiles across them.
The ‘fisherman village’ causes a fervent debate about translation. Everyone howls with derisive laughter at Massimo’s ‘fisherman village’. Which although it sounds odd now when passed around in the stern of the boat, I am sure is correct. I try to think of Polperro; fish & chips on the pier, flooded streams rolling downhill through the town: fisherman village.
This flat row of houses, a single line facing the waters, is the last of the habitations built solely for fishermen. Here they wade to their waists in the waters.
Eventually we put the anchor down again in the depths of the Laguna. I dive off the ladder at the end of the boat and feel the shock of the infinite water. Emerge gasping from the broken surface. The current is so strong that the boat appears to be continually drifting away from us as we cling to the orange ring of the float.
I have never swum beyond the reaches of the beach before. Never felt so lost to the bottomless end, or the powerful tug of real currents. I doggy-paddle with my chin above the water feeling almost helpless.
It is the water, as obvious as it may seem, there is enough water to drown the world in Venice. This swim in the laguna is like an initiation. I will never be free of Venice again.
‘…the movement and the darkness and the plash, the indistinguishable swerves and twists, all the things you see and all the things you do feel- each dim recognition and obscure arrest is a possible throb of your sense of being floated to your doom’, (Henry James)