Today I’m talking about The Myth and Reality Of Travel, and focusing on Venice in particular, as well as giving you some tips and book recommendations if you are going to visit.
There is a problem inherent in travel, especially in a world of filtered Instagram photos, social media bubbles and glossy travel magazines.
There are some places in the world that are so famous it can be difficult to know whether they live up to the hype or not. There is the myth and then there is the reality, so how do you manage the two? How do you decide to go in the first place in case it doesn’t live up to the myth, and how do you deal with the reality if you have to face up to it?
In this episode, I’m talking about Venice, which is definitely one of those places. I’ve been to Venice three times under very different circumstances and today, I’ll share some of my thoughts on the myth versus the reality.
The myth of Venice
What does the word Venice evoke for you, regardless of whether you’ve been there or not?
Arched bridges over deep blue canals, slender glossy gondolas passing underneath with handsome gondoliers and couples kissing while the sun dapples the water. The sweeping curves of the grand canal, the inspiring architecture of St Mark’s Basilica and art — so much art.
Perhaps you think of Casanova, Shakespeare, Tintoretto or Veronese? Or the famous movie scenes of James Bond in Casino Royale, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or The Tourist? You will certainly have some image in your mind because Venice is a mythical city.“Venice, its temples and palaces did seem like fabrics of enchantment piled to heaven.” Percy Bysshe ShelleyClick To Tweet
There’s no doubt that Venice is special, made up of over 100 small islands separated by canals and linked by over 400 bridges. The lagoon and some of the city are marked as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has been inhabited since the 10th century BC but became more well-known in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance when the Republic of Venice was a powerful city state, possibly the first real international financial centre with trade all over the Mediterranean.
That money built its grand churches and palaces, enabled patronage of the arts and made the city a magnet for the writers and painters who romanticised it over time.“It is the city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone.” Erica JongClick To Tweet
But I’m a writer too. I know how to use language to embellish and obscure reality, to curate the aspects that capture the imagination. It’s human nature to make more of the places we visit even if they are disappointing. If we spend time and money visiting somewhere, we need evidence that it was worthwhile, that we had a fantastic time and that others should be jealous.
And in Venice, the myth is all about romance.
Venice — not quite the city of romance for me
I first visited Venice in 2004. I was going through a divorce and I entered La Serenissima, the city of love, with my Dad, my step-mum and my teenage sister. We walked the tourist-trodden paths from St Marks to L’Accademia, and drank overpriced prosecco. I wallowed in my grief and swore that I would go back someday with a man I loved. I wanted the myth in all its glory.
So, I returned to Venice in December 2009 with Jonathan (still my wonderful husband!). We’d been married just over a year and flew from Brisbane, Australia for Christmas with my family in the UK and then to Venice for New Year before heading south to Rome and then back down under.
We left the sun of Australia for cold and wet winter in Europe. It didn’t stop raining for days and inevitably, Venice flooded. It’s not a secret that Venice floods but it’s less well-known that the flooding occurs a lot in winter and at other times of the year as well depending on weather conditions.
Acqua alta, high water, was mid-calf height while we were there which meant we could wade through the streets in the gumboots provided by the hotel. Venetians have to pump water from their houses and shops every morning as water rots away the foundations slowly. The hotels are used to tourists arriving without weather protection so they will usually have your size, or if you’re going in winter, it might be best to bring your own.
The number of flooded days has been growing. In November 2018, Venice was almost completely flooded with up to 156cm of water, over 5 feet [The Telegraph].Tourists were evacuated with children carried through the floods. I’m 166cm tall so I would have only just have been above water in the deepest parts.
St Mark’s Basilica called for emergency funding to save its mosaic floor after “surging floodwaters did decades of damage in a day.” [The Telegraph]
There is a controversial engineering project underway designed to prevent flooding due to be completed in 2022, but there are many problems with its implementation.
Back to my romantic trip, we saw in the New Year standing in the floods of St Mark’s Square in the rain. We were on the edge of the square near the Doge’s Palace, almost part of the canal itself under the imposing pink and grey granite columns that have stood guard over St Mark’s Square since the twelfth century.
One column is topped by a winged lion gazing out to sea, the symbol of St Mark, the gospel writer. St Theodor, the first protector of Venice, perches on the other, with an ancient dragon-crocodile beneath his feet. Criminals used to be executed between the two pillars in ancient times and even now, Venetians will not walk between them in case bad luck follows behind. If the lagoon ever claims back its land for good, the last sight would be St Mark’s column, the lion roaring over the depths.
In my myth of romantic Venice, New Year’s Eve in St Mark’s Square was meant to be the height of romanticism. But it was freezing and I’m a morning person anyway, so I’m not good at late nights and I hate crowds, plus we both got sick from being so wet and cold in the floods. It smelled of damp and rot and decay and garbage overflow. It was most definitely not romantic.
But as much as the flooding made things difficult, in many ways it was the real Venice. Instead of the romance of a mythical place, it gave a sense of danger, that a place so dearly loved is also threatened as the city built on water is taken back by the lagoon.
I wrote about the experience in my thriller, Stone of Fire, when Morgan Sierra and Jake Timber hunt for one of the Pentecost stones in St Mark’s. As they investigate the Pentecost mural in the cupola, they imagine the eerie sensation of scuba diving in the ruined Basilica, marble pillars looming from murky green water and the glint of gold as underwater flashlights illuminate the colourful mosaics. The Pentecost mural itself is a huge circular mosaic depicting the twelve seated Apostles, each with a stream of fire emanating from the throne of the Holy Spirit in the centre. Four angels stand with wings outstretched, bright gold encircling them all.
So the experience of the flood gave me much more than perhaps the height of romance would have done.
From my journal of that visit: “Venice is past its time, a veneer of gold over rotting wood. The graffiti and stains on the stone buildings make it appear rundown, an aristocratic dowager with cracked face paint, waiting for one last ball, one last Bellini before the clock strikes midnight.”
Talking of Bellinis, I’ve never made it into Harry’s Bar at the Cipriani, made famous by Hemingway and mentioned in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (the second and subsequent editions). I have tried to get in a number of times but it is always too packed full of tourists. Better to have your Bellini elsewhere — prosecco with peach nectar or peach puree, invented by Giuseppe Cipriani.
Venice: “Somewhere between lies and truth lies the truth.”
Those words were written above the door of the Punta Della Dogana for the Damien Hirst exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, that we visited as part of the Venice Biennale in May 2017.
I love Hirst’s work, he is a myth-maker, a storyteller, and that’s what makes his art so valuable. The exhibition consisted of pieces from a wreck recovered from the deep ocean off the coast of Africa. There were even videos of divers bringing up the sculptures, the myth of discovery maintained across the whole exhibition, although it was only a story, albeit a powerful one.
The centrepiece was a ten-foot sculpture of a demon pulled from the deep at the Palazzo Grazzi. We walked in to see its huge clawed foot and then as you ascended the levels, you could see its torso and then its headless shoulders at the very roof of the palace. Other memorable sculptures included a gigantic blue tableau of Andromeda and the sea monster; Kali fighting a hydra; Cronos devouring his children; and a brilliant green head of Medusa in jade.
Damien Hirst chose to set his exhibition in Venice for a reason. Some of the pieces must have been designed for the two venues – the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta Della Dogana. But there’s also the fact that the city is a fantastic showcase for his artwork at a time when some of the richest collectors are in town.
The last night we were in Venice was also the opening night of the Biennale, when the city celebrates the art world. The uber-rich arrive in their super-yachts and the parties begin. There is serious money in Venice all year round, but it definitely spikes during the Biennale. All feeding the myth.
But Venice was glorious in those few days and yes, even romantic.
We did Venice the right way because we knew what to expect and how to deal with the reality. Of course, the weather in May is better than December, but it also makes the city super crowded. We didn’t want the crowds of the main island so we stayed on the Lido in an AirBnb — the island has a beach on the Adriatic side of the lagoon and we took a vaporetto, the water bus, to St Mark’s Square every day.
We didn’t have to do the main tourist sites because we’d visited them before, so we relaxed and wandered around the back streets in the sun. We drank prosecco in hidden palazzos and enjoyed the view of the sparkling water on the canal. We frequented local restaurants on the Lido, rather than the expensive tourist hotspots.
We booked the exhibition in advance so we didn’t have to queue. We walked everywhere, and had one magical sunny afternoon stroll up the southern canal side from Maria Salute and the Punta della Dogana all the way through the back streets to the train station, then we took a vaporetto back down the Grand Canal. Definitely the way to see it and a lot cheaper than a gondola.
If I had only been to Venice those first two times, I would never have glimpsed the mythological side. Perhaps that’s the truth of any place that has been built up in the collective imagination? You need time to see behind the standard stops on a tourist itinerary.
Circling back to romance, it’s the difference between the high of a brief affair and the mature relationship that evolves over time. I will absolutely return to Venice again because I know how to enjoy the experience and the myth has partly become reality.“In the glare of the day there is little poetry about Venice, but under the charitable moon her stained palaces are white again.” Mark TwainClick To Tweet
Here are some of my other recommendations for Venice.
St Mark’s Basilica
Yes, it is full of tourists and yes, you definitely have to visit if you love art, architecture, sculpture and religious history.
Each pillar supporting the church is a different kind of stone, sourced from around the world to demonstrate the glory of the Venetian Republic.
Look up at the stunning mosaics on the facade from the square. One of the panels shows St Mark’s body rescued from Egypt under siege in the ninth century. It was supposedly smuggled to Venice under a pile of pork so the Muslim rulers wouldn’t search the cargo. The story goes that St Mark had washed up in the marshes of the Venetian lagoon after a storm many years before, and an angel told him that his body would rest there eventually. Hundreds of years later, it came to pass. You can also stand on the balcony with the replica four horses, and look at the second-century originals inside.
The Secret Tour of Palazzo Ducale
When you enter St Mark’s Square by boat, the first thing you will see is The Gothic exterior facade of the Doge’s Palace with its rows of arches. It is truly beautiful and I love architecture, so I have many photos of it in varying weather conditions!
You’ll often find the bridge on the canal next to it, the Ponte della Paglia, packed with tourists because it looks toward the Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs. But it’s not a romantic spot, it’s actually the bridge to the prison named after the sighs of prisoners as they went to their fate.
The main tourist parts of the Palace are pretty standard European stately home fare, so I recommend you take the Secret Tour which is something special. Definitely, buy your tickets in advance — and that’s advice for any famous landmark in Europe at peak times.
The secret rooms are hidden in floors built behind and above the open public spaces. They are simple wood, whereas the main rooms are ornate gold monstrosities. The ceilings are low, half the size of the grand public rooms, designed to fit two levels of offices to each of the public facing levels with tiny windows camouflaged into the outside walls. There are prison cells and even a torture chamber behind the grand facade. The civil servants of the Venetian government toiled away here, the real power behind La Serenissima. You also get to go into the prison through the Bridge of Sighs.
The ghetto and Jewish Quarter
The Venetian ghetto was instituted in March 1516 and is the oldest Jewish ghetto in the world. The word ‘ghetto’ comes from the foundries, ‘geti’ in Venetian. The area is surrounded by canals and can be blocked off completely by guarding the bridges. In the 16th century, the Jews could only leave the Ghetto after sunrise and they had to wear a yellow tunic to identify themselves. They returned by nightfall and the gates were chained to keep them inside.
In the 18th century, Jews were given back their rights, but in 1938 under Fascist rule, they lost them again. Italy was an ally of Nazi Germany and Jews were rounded up for the camps. Only 8 Venetian Jews emerged from the death camps but there is still a Jewish community in Venice and a number of active synagogues.
There is a Jewish museum in the main square of the Ghetto as well as art galleries and cafes. Try GamGam restaurant in nearby Cannaregio, serving delicious Kosher food and also watch out for the canal boats selling vegetables to locals as this is a more residential area.
There are so many museums and palaces and churches and art galleries so you have to ration yourself, but you definitely have to visit L’Accademia at least once— again, book tickets in advance.
You can walk to it from St Mark’s Square and see Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, a lot of religious paintings by Tintoretto and Veronese and more. Personally, I prefer modern art so check out the Guggenheim Collection, which overlooks the Grand Canal and features Picasso, Kandinsky, Dali and others.
If you fly in, definitely take the vaporetto from the airport into the city instead of land transport. The waterbus stops at different islands and also St Mark’s Square. You’ll pass the island of Murano, famous for glassware, as well as the cemetery island of San Michele.
Take comfortable shoes to walk in as its really the only way to get around, or take the vaporetto where you can.
You don’t go to Venice for the food, especially if you’re travelling on a budget. Don’t eat polenta with squid ink. Seriously, I believe squid ink exists for defence purposes and should not be on any speciality board for any region!
Don’t hire a gondola. Do hold onto your wallet over the Rialto Bridge which is a massive tourist trap. Don’t go in high season without booking accommodation and art galleries in advance.
You can sit down in coffee shops, but you’ll get your caffeine a whole lot cheaper if you stand up at the little bars, and just pay one euro for an espresso.
Do have a Bellini — but it doesn’t have to be at Harry’s Bar.
Do eat as much gelato as you can manage.
Recommended Reading: Books featuring Venice
- Donna Leon crime books featuring Guido Brunetti, Commissario of Police in Venice. Series begins with Death at La Fenice.
- The Confessor by Daniel Silva. I love the Gabriel Allon espionage thriller series. Allon is an art restorer but also an Israeli spy.
- Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi – Geoff Dyer. Set between the decadence of the Biennale and the holy city of Varanasi, I found this book challenging but inspiring and I’ll tell my own tale of Varanasi in another episode – it also features in my thriller, Stone of Fire, as well as Destroyer of Worlds.
- The City of Falling Angels – John Berendt, by the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which made me go visit Savannah, Georgia, another story for another time 🙂
- Stone of Fire – J.F.Penn. A power kept secret for 2000 years. A race against time to find the Pentecost stones hidden with the relics of Apostles around the world.
I hope you have a wonderful trip if you go to Venice, and if you find the myth a little flat, then plan another visit because the magic is there, you just have to know where to find it.The magic is there, you just have to know where to find it.Click To Tweet