Sunday, September 21, 2003

Postcard from Venice
(regular blogging from Doug)

When I was last in Italy I was five, and with a single masterstroke, I blew my parents food budget for three days.

Foolish, foolish parents, after the waiter had explained the specials - in English - they allowed me to order my own meal. I ordered the rainbow trout, the most expensive thing on the menu. They gulped, but expected I'd peter out part way through one side and that they'd get the rest. Nuh uh.

I steamed through one side of a huge trout and asked the waiter to turn it over for me.

As a commemoration, I treated myself to a decent dinner of grilled sea-bass, salad and house white this evening - as the Venetians are supposed to know their fish. It was a little restaurant between Campo Santa Margherita and the Accademia, and I stopped there because it had a crazy bric-a-brac filled courtyard and was playing jazz tunes I recognised. The fish was fine.

My time in Venice has been, by and large, poorly organised. This is in part due to the fact (which will surprise not one regular reader) that I have come down with a minor cold travelling. I have also found slugging round in an unseasonal mini-heat wave rather tiring. (A pox on everyone who said Venice was colder than Rome this time of year. I left my shorts and other sueful clothes at the hotel I'm returning to in Rome.)

Anyway, travel highlights, so far:

When strict planning falls down and goes "clunk"

Never back your interpretation of luggage rules against an airline. I checked the 25 kg wheelie-bag with my Cambridge winter wardrobe and expected to carry on my backpack at Sydney. Sure, it was a little large, but it strapped down enough to fit in the luggage-size tester if you took the day pack off. And the day pack didn't count, right?

Turns out it does if you're also carrying on a duty-free bag with a camera in it.

They checked the backpack for me, so at least I got round the weight restrictions (thus far - two flights to go).

However, I then had to collect the bag at Heathrow and make my connection to Rome. I did not realise on surrendering my bag that baggage claim was AFTER passport control. On panicking, and then assuming my best polite, befuddled young man deameanour I prevailed on a nice woman in a BA jacket to prevail on a nice woman from passport control to basically wave me through an empty EU-citizens only line so I could grab my bag, sprint for the train to Terminal 1 and dash up to check-in for Rome.

I was stressed, I was awash in an unsightly slick of my own sweat.

I was, in the end, over an hour early.

That's when the first nosebleed kicked in.

It pleasantly chose to return in the airport train-station at Rome (25 degrees, 80% humidity I tells ya, struggling with a big pack and wheelie bag). I was saved from utter humiliation by the donation of tissues by some Australian tourists, mind you I already had one hand that looked like it'd been in a knife-fight.

Still, I got weirder looks wrestling my luggage down Viat Ottavio, past Saint Paul's Basillica, to my hotel.

The desk manager at my swank hotel showed considerable sang-froid in allowing me into the place.

Rome highlights

My first afternoon in Rome I was a jet-lagged wreck. So I hit the nearest B-list attraction to my hotel, the Castel San' Angelo, once the Vatican fortress in times of trouble.

You expect fellow Canberrans to turn up in weird places, you do not expect to see a guy from high-school you've no desire to catch up with in the cafe near the top of the Castel San' Angelo enjoying what looked like a rather tense moment with his girlfriend. I slid anonymously by.

The Castel summed up my general impression of Rome. Rome seems to have the same attitude to its history as Australia did to natural resources in the 1950s - there's so damn much of it, no-one can see the point in environmental safeguards or proper maintenance.

Labelling veers from bilinigual, to erratic, to year 10 assignment paste-up jobs. Things are randomly screened off with orange webbing, or held together with extensive, ugly scaffolding.

That said, I loved the rooms restored by Pope Paulus III and the view from the top.

Day two was the absolute high point, where in a too-long line at the Colloseum a petite American woman turned to me and said: "Do you speak English? Okay, something is wrong here. I think we're in the wrong line. Hold my place while I find out."

She returned to tug me out of the line and save me half an hour of my life in getting to a line-free ticket booth. She was an architect from Georgia, three months into a long holiday. We teamed up for the day and blitzkreiged the Colloseum, Roman forum, Palatine hill, nearby piazzas and took a self-guided walking tour via the Pantheon to the Spanish steps area, where we stopped for dinner and too much Chianti. Great day.

The Vatican and San Pietro's basillica the next day were mind-boggling, but more of that later. My room at Hotel Columbus, for an internet fire-sale special, was a dream: small, but quiet, comfortable and terribly atmospheric. Cluttered with just the right amount of old dark-wood furniture and a new (if teeny) ensuite in white tiles with a shower head virtually over the hand basin. A five minute stroll from the Vatican, perfect.

Venice impressions

Venice is like everything I loved about Melbourne, but multiplied and folded in on itself endlessly - alley-ways upon allies in a thick gorgeous tangle of history, canals, palaces, decay, gondolas, beautiful Italian women and loud American and German tourists.

I some respects, much like "Castrovalva" the Escher-inspired Dr Who episode about a town of courtyards and fountains where (not unlike Canberra) you can travel in a straight path and come back to where you started.

I simply adore Venice, but have not planned my time here well. Not sure that matters, enjoying the atmosphere as much as the attractions. Have managed the Piazza San Marco, the San Marco museums, the Doge's palace and the Accademia of fine arts. Should have gone to the the Peggy Guggenheim last night - in September they have late opening to 10 pm Saturday, but having gone out to dinner again my last night in Rome with "Ms Georgia" and being out way past my bed time, I decided extra sleep was the better part of valour.

Where the decay in Rome seems the result of near-criminal neglect, the decay in Venice seems part of its personality. In Rome the clutter of history elbowing the jowls of the modern seems overwhelming, in Venice - despite obvious historical layers and tourist-trap intrusions - it all seems made of one piece.

My convent-owned accomodation here is not bad, but not as good as Rome. No nuns - just very friendly tri-lingual desk staff - it's a fairly functional guest wing, and I'm in the less recently refurbished bit. The garden is mostly closed for structural repairs. Rooms are spartan, but functional. A little problem with mosquitoes off the river at night - but nothing drastic bad. My outer wall and wooden shutters appear original, which is lovely.

Tomorrow I have a good deal of ground to cover. Next time I'll try to blog more briefly and after less wine.

No comments: