Wednesday, August 09, 2006

High Campanile

Venice was the unwanted child on this trip; I only spent a day here due to the fact that a flight to Treviso was the cheapest way of getting to Trieste and Ljubljana. Not that I don't find the city charming, but in August, overrun as it by tourists it is not near as pleasant as it might otherwise be. I want to save it for another time, like not wanting to know the score before watching the edited highlights of a football game. It will probably be a windy November afternoon when I will be up to my ankles in floodwater from the swollen canals (St. Mark's Square is invaded by water a staggering 250 days per year). But in some way I would find that more enjoyable than standing in the interminable queues for St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace. The latter being the only thing I wanted to see, because of its marked influence on Ragnar Östberg's Stockholm City Hall, I was a bit dismayed. The queue for the Campanile was much shorter and so I took the lift up. Once up there the meridonal aspect of the city explodes in a mass of terracotta roofs and countless other campaniles that make you really feel that you have been conned into paying 6 euros just to get to the top of this one, until you realise then that the campanile, which has always had architectural cachet in English, means merely 'belltower' in Italian. More fool we.

On the ground I took a more unorthodox approach to exploring the city, by just getting lost. Except that you never really get lost in Venice. There is no point in using a map for anything more than the most basic of landmarks; the streetnames are only to be used as a last resort and in fact do not figure in postal addresses at all, each of the siesti or districts function in that way with the houses individually numbered in a fashion that is indiscernible to the untrained eye. But even so, you are never too far from emerging in a place that you will recognise (for all its labyrithine character the city is very small). And just as one is said to be never more than ten feet away from a rat in London, so you are never more than a street away from a tourist in Venice, no matter how isolated you think the street you are wandering on is. On some of the less glamorous squares in San Polo, where the price of everything suddenly plummets, could be seen people, mainly foreigners sketching. The squares look like a quietly morose di Chirico tableau, with the shadow cast by a crumbling building drawing the campo into its stern geometry. The town is messy, like much of the rest of Italy but it is never ugly. It wears the urban nuisances of fly-posting and grafitti well; they suit it even.

But the expense of Venice is the most frustrating, if hardly surprising thing. Though it is no more costly than most Western European capitals, the fact remains that it is a small provincial city, albeit a unique one. It is hard to filter out the rubbish from the genuine, particularly foodwise (OK, I could have bought a guidebook but I didn't really feel the need for one day, least of all spoiling my unwanted child like that) and the food in the main was mediocre. Passing by one trattoria I saw the blackboard advertising the day's fish special, in English: 'Today. Flounder, Venetian style.' Quite. Hit and miss I suppose, but the Venetians built their city on commerce and, even if the trade these days is less vaunted and less exotic than in the past, they are unlikely to change soon. And why, you can ask yourself, would they? It's not a bad pay-off for having your town overrun by strangers for most the year.