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by Sam North

All photos © Sam North 2000

At two in the morning, despair and fatigue heavy on your mind, you uncertainly cross yet one more bridge, over yet one more canal and you wished you’d invested in a very long piece of string. Finding your way back to your hotel is quite a challenge in a city designed by Escher. Of course the previous night you had wished for water wings. There is something quite special about dining in a restaurant and suddenly noticing that there is two feet of water in the room and those suede boots you paid £200 (sterling) for are damp and soggy. The waiter shrugs, everyone else you suddenly notice is wearing wellies and so you bravely, politely don’t make a fuss. Venice in October is like this.

Another thought occurs, at two in the morning in a city of 80,000 people and 20 plumbers, you are walking down alley after alley, no one has attacked you, you are not even afraid. Venice must be one of the most remarkable cities in the world. Now if only the guidebook had mentioned Wellington boots.

Leaping in November - a Venice Tradition

To be in Venice in October one can assume you are out of season. You are not. The high prices continue and the cheapest hotel with an en-suite and very plain room came out at £85 per night. The Hotel Gallini, (Calle Della Verona - email: just 50 metres from the burned out hulk of the Opera House is simple, adequate, but pricey. They recommended one restaurant ‘Da Mario Alla Fava’ in an alley Calle Stagneri. (Just behind the Disney Store). A lot of people on expense accounts eat there, but since so do successful and beautiful Italian call girls, you can take it as a recommendation. If you have to see Piazza San Marco – the main underwater attraction, then around midnight is best, when there are few tourists and a simple orchestra is playing classical melodies in the Café Florian. It is possible for St Marks Square to seem quite magical at that time. At all other times it is a nightmare of lines of people, standing on ramps to keep above the floodwaters. In the day it is worse than Disneyworld and more depressing.

By the best thing to do in Venice is invest in stout wellies and walk. Venice is one of the most walkable cities in the world and do not restrict yourself to the places where they store ‘art’. Art is all very well but once you have seen on masterpiece, it all takes on a muchness. Tinteretto was a nice bloke, but he worked far too bloody hard. No, Venice is a place to walk, savor the buildings, the decay, the look of astonishment on the faces of the waitresses when you demand a café latte after midday. It is simply not done, but it is if you insist. One has to teach flexibility to these Venetians. It is also a place to completely avoid the tourist shops that sell tawdry glass objects of dubious taste. Find the real art and glass in galleries. The price difference isn’t that great, but the quality and taste is. Avert your eyes when passing places like the Disney Store. Why go to Venice to buy a plastic Mickey Mouse? Go figure. Why buy anything at all? Everything is cheaper elsewhere in Italy.

If you are hard pressed for cash, and you will be after just a day in Venice, for they are dedicated to separating you from your money, you can go to the Peggy Guggenheim museum for example and admire the building, love the courtyard glimpsed through the back gate and admire the posters of the art in the shop. There, you just saved 12,000 lire. (£4 quid to be exact). I’m sure Peggy will forgive you. Actually Peggy lived pretty well if you ask me. Her home extends from the Grand Canal to another smaller canal on the other side. She owned an entire city block in Venice. Nice if you can get it.

Now, the great thing is, you can walk anywhere you want, in any direction you want and you will find something to see, something of interest. Streets full of washing suspended right across it, walled gardens, secrets moments, and little cafes. Explore the Arsenale. This is a very special venue. In October of 2000 there was the astonishing exhibition entitled
Less Aesthetics – More Ethics’.

This is the 7th International Architecture Exhibition with 82 exhibitors, 37 participating nations. The Arsenale is situated in the Giardini di Castello and is a vast area. The Arsenale Corderie section was begun in 1303 and rebuilt in 1579 to 1585 for the construction of hawsers, cables and ropes. It is a remarkable 319 metres long. The Artiglierie is another long building dating from 1560. The Gaggiandre dock basin looks perfect for any war movie to be made there. Built in 1568-73 they have been attributed to the architect Jacopo Sansovino. The entire Arsenale area is being slowly renovated for use as an exhibition area.

The exhibition was astonishingly pretentious, filled with the environmental ideas of architects from Chi Ti-Nan to Sejima-Nishizawa, Richard Rogers to Guihleux & Rouillard. It is seen as a ‘quest for a framework for comparison and dialogue – it aims to show that cities have scenarios rife with contradictions’. The idea was to explore in the vast space the ideas of what buildings and spaces could be within cities, if architects could persuade us to live like that. It was possibly an excellent and vivid reason why architects should not be allowed to make planning decisions and why they make such awful dictators. Not one space was habitable by the kind of humans we’d like to be. But it was strong on imagery .

The most arresting image was the audio-visual show. A series of video screens, 280 metres long, certainly wider than it is possible to take in, the full length of the Arsenale. Each screen is fed by a separate synchronised DVD player. It worked and is breathtaking to see a wave break over a wall like that, or a massive series of city shots, people shots, explosions and ad hoc images played out as a work of living art. Entitled: Citta: it was based on ideas by M. Fuksas and D. Mandrelli with technical help from Raisat and Studio Azzurro. ‘The city as a site of desperation and excitement, affluence and homelessness. Each person dreams of a city, as they dream of life. We must make sure people keep growing up and continue to use their imagination.’ It is simply the best AV show I have ever seen and worth the price of admission alone, some 18,000 lira (£6.00).

It is difficult to be critical of Venice. The fact of its survival is remarkable. As an Italian city it has somewhat outlived its natural purpose. The energy that built its palaces and lavish homes has gone, replaced by a battle between decay and restoration against high tides, and massive human wear and tear. More than fifty percent of the population gains their living from tourism and it is a good living judging by the prices for everything. Every designer label has a boutique here and the cruise ships berth at the edge of town with great regularity. Its airport is filled with a constant supply of eager visitors who will go where everyone else goes, St Marks Square, The Doges Palace, Florian's, The Rialto Bridge, throw a brick through MacDonalds window and go home again. The pity is, if they would just walk the city, they would come to know the real city. Everywhere you look there are the rich colours of buildings exposed to the erosion of time. There are no ugly views in Venice. There are places to visit that are fascinating simply because they have lain so neglected. There are extraordinary doorways, crumbling motifs of grander times, and yes, each aspect of Venice has been picked over, photographed and painted, every coffee shop does have a tale. Getting lost is a rite of passage here (no pun intended). Being woken by the men who work the canal boats inescapable. And how come Hemingway gets into the guide book for having propped up another bar. When did he actually write all the stuff? Methinks his name is used in vain.

The Famous Knitted Modigliani

You will discover that Venice is a medieval city and so, when you shop for furniture, for example, all the furniture shops are in one area, so too for antiques, or silver, or everyday things. One is aware then that comparison shopping (the market forces our economists always witter on about) were alive and well a millennium ago. Venice has not really changed.

If you tell yourself that you’ll come back somewhere when there isn’t queue, it will be longer next time, but if you care more about cities than art, then just walk and the true artistry of a city that has survived a thousand years will be yours. And as the exhibition in the Arsenale shows, this is a city that might live in the past, but it is thinking about the future.

Venice Nights © Sam North 2000

Venice can be reach most cheaply by Go Airline from Standsted Airport.
It is recommended that you find and book a hotel before you arrive.

© Sam North Venice 2000.

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