Going, going, gondola

As a paradise for art lovers, there is so much more to Venice than cappuccino and canals. Avoiding the summer crowds, Sarah Knox discovered the city’s charm during the relative calm of a spring break.

Arriving at night is unnerving; Venice shrouded in darkness - how do you find the right waterbus? After hauling our luggage round Piazzale Roma we located inky water. a floating bus shelter and established that the No 2 vaporerm would ferry us to San Zaccaria. it’s difficult not to be bowled over by what is the norm for the Venetians who sit inside the waterbus. while visitors remain on deck breathing in the salt air. bracing the chilled sea breeze. desperate to focus on the distant floodlit churches along

the Canalc della Guidecca.

Despite the hour. fur-coated Venetians paraded the quay of Riva degli Schiavonni superior to the lost tourists in their paths. We turn off into the labyrinth of tall narrow alleyways so loaded with sinister filmic associations. The door to our digs appeared fortified against flooding and we climbed a tenement stair reminiscent of home. High season in Venice is from Easter until October and accommodation at any time can be prohibitively pricey, so the offer of B & B with an English lady who had lived in Venice for 30 years was a huge bonus. Her rooms were cluttered with a quirky mix ofcultures; Venetian chandeliers and blinds lit prints of Wobum Abbey and the Hunt; rosary beads and putti hovered over Madonnas and yet book shelves were packed with novels by Muriel Spark. Melvyn Bragg and the like. Breakfasts with Jean were to become an illuminating ‘guide‘ to Venice.

Bags dumped, it felt surreal stealing a midnight stroll in San Marco’s Piazetta. In the morning rush hour we gorged on


the bustle of a car-less city. The spring sunshine dyes the canals that Canalettoesque greeny-turquoise and the buildings are enchantineg decrepit (according to Jean. their facades become eroded by the sea air only months after repainting). The buildings are irregular in form and soft in colour; Venetian red (a terracotta rust), golds. and ochres and mirrored in the waterways. Water laps noisily against quaysides and ranks of gondala nod up and down. seagulls perched on their striped mooring posts. Gondaliers gossip and pose in their boaters, confident of business.

With only four days to ‘do' Venice we began with the god's eye view of the island from Saint Mark's Campanile. On entering the portals ofthe Basilica below. eyes avert to Old Testament mosaics. and pick out Noah releasing the dove from the ark. Climbing steep stairs to the choir gallery you peer into a cavernous interior, crowned by dome upon dome 4000 square metres of golden mosaic. Most amazing are the four golden horses looted from the Hippodrome in 1204 which are now treasure-housed inside. leaving their dull replicas to prance from the terrace.

Venice is an art lover‘s paradise. and what‘s particularly special is that much ofthe an can be viewed in its original setting. The Scuola di San Rocco is like

Simply ambling through Venice is enthralling; ogle at designer leather, lace, or lingerie, the Camevale costumier shops, the pasticcerie, or the operatic serenade ot gondoliers.

a shrine to Tintoretto he won the much sought-after competition to decorate the school by rigging up his work in situ and revealing it to the judges from behind a veil; they were overwhelmed and gave him the commission. Titian 's Assumption is a dynamic altarpiece in the Frari church, its design mimicking the windows of the chancel in which it stands. Even more breath-taking is Bellini's Madonna and Child in its original frame. in the intimate Sacristy for which it was created in 1488.

Most human of all the galleries is The Peggy Guggenheim Collection which is exhibited in what was her private home. an unfinished Palazzo on the Grand Canal. Guggenheim collected avant-garde work from l938—79 and the selection is all the more interesting because of its subjectivity. Most eccentric are the graves of her numerous Pekinese dogs hidden in a leafy comer of the sculpture garden.

At sunset we took a waterbus from one end of the Grand Canal to the other and with Rough Guide in hand spotted

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where Byron. Ruskin and Whistler had stayed and the stories behind each Palazzo. Simply ambling through Venice is enthralling; ogle at designer leather. lace. or lingerie. the Camevale costumier shops, the pasticcerie, or the operatic serenade of gondoliers. not to mention the vanitas Venetians. Rest tired feet in the tiny cafes which serve delectable hot cioccolata capped with ruinous panna (thick cream).

We may have been unlucky but Venetian food was a let-down. At all costs. avoid their specialities the pasta Gnochi tastes of dumplings. and the liver dish Fegato alla Veneziana defies description. Geared to the wallets of the average visitor, restaurants have a tourist menu; the a la cane more interesting but expensive.

Visiting the marooned island of San Giorgio Maggiore and joining what can

80 The List 4—l7 June 1993