Many people complain about Venice – that it’s too crowded, too full of tourists, that it’s a rip-off, that it’s depressing, that it is, dare I say it, boring. These complaints seem to me rather tiresome and fill me with a deepening sense of despair about humanity. I should be more charitable, for Venice can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, yet the so-called Queen of the Adriatic does have some very attractive characteristics which I might be forgiven for thinking have universal appeal.
I first visited Venice in 1996 on a five-month trip across Europe and I fell in love with the place immediately. Well, almost immediately, for that first visit didn’t begin so well. I arrived after a hellish, fifteen-hour overnight bus ride from Avignon, in the days before they banned smoking on coaches. Apart from the lack of sleep, my girlfriend and I felt positively toxic and were not in the best of moods. We soon got lost on our way through the city and, in one of those typical courtyards from which two or three passages lead, the tensions flared into an ugly argument about which direction we ought to head in.
Fortunately we sorted things out and, once back at the grand canal and on a Vaporetto, began to indulge ourselves in what Venice had to offer. Perhaps inevitably, it is the sheer novelty of a city that is built on series of islands on a lagoon, with canals instead of streets through much of its urban centre which first arrests the visitor. The city’s architectural, artistic and engineering wonders, its unique panoramic and intimate views and its romantic opportunities for aimless wandering, flesh out the plus column.
On that first visit, we stayed in the youth hostel on the Isola della Guidecca, across the water from the core of the city. I would have preferred to stay in the centre, but this location had the important advantage of being cheaper. It also offered a painterly view across the lolling water to Venice in the salty haze and morning mist. I recall sitting on the embankment one morning, smoking a borrowed cigarette and, with a pencil, writing some rather florid descriptions in my notebook. Of all the places I’d visited so far on that first trip to Europe – in England, France and Spain, it was this sight across the water that most took my breath away. I had to remind myself that yes, I was here, in Venice, that it was real, and, again, yes, I was really here in Venice. Venice. THE Venice.
I’ve since visited the place on three other occasions, all at different times of year, and nothing has diminished my excitement about the city. With each successive visit, I’ve explored further the streets and canals, the islands around the lagoon, the museums, the churches the markets and cafés. I’ve been fortunate enough to be there during alta aqua – when the high tide floods the city and the locals are forced to get around in gumboots. I’ve been stoned in Venice, drunk in Venice, wet, cold, hot and tired and locked out of my hotel room in nothing but a towel for several hours, but I’ve never been bored or disappointed. Of course Venice has a lot of tourists – it’s Venice. Of course the place is more expensive – it’s much more logistically difficult to deliver supplies. None of these things have ever bothered me in the slightest, as they were all to be expected. Complaining about the crowds is like complaining about the weather in England – there’s nothing you can do about it, so let it go.
Venice can certainly seem claustrophobic – its narrow, confusing streets are difficult to navigate and if you don’t keep a tight grip on where you are going, it’s all too easy to get lost. Yet, provided one doesn’t care too much about getting anywhere in a hurry – probably a mistake in Venice – then being lost in the maze of streets, canals and bridges can be one of the city’s greatest sources of enjoyment. It’s not everywhere that you get to round a corner and find yourself faced with a cute arched bridge over a jade-green canal, down which stretch the tired and sagging, yet proudly defiant bricks of Renaissance apartments. Venice offers a mix of shimmering excitement and gob-smacking sights with a queer, disquieting, almost wrenching melancholy that speaks directly to the heart.
During my last visit it drizzled for two days and at night the streets were almost empty. I wandered for hours, having little idea of where I was, seeing everywhere a beautiful sadness and antiquity. The dim street lamps created pockets of light, etched by the thin, misty rain amidst bold shadows, strange shapes and architectural curiosities. The surreal sight of a boat gliding through what would otherwise be a street is even more captivating in the darkness of the Venetian night.
Venice has been photographed so often that it is difficult to do anything very original on that front. The Gondoliers and the Piazza di San Marco are the flagships of a whole host of clichés that have long been established in postcards, brochures and posters. Sure, any place offers more anonymous, less obvious subject matter, but to photograph the recognisable elements of Venice in an original way is probably beyond the capacity of most photographers. On my last trip to Venice in March 2007, I gave up trying to be original and focused on getting the cliché right. The photos included below are from that visit.