Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Venice by Dawn

Come after the summer’s over, come on a weekday and come early in the morning – was the advice an Italian I knew gave me when I told him that I am going to Venice. That was our best chance of catching Venice, instead of watching millions of Japanese with camera-wearing eyes and Americans with trainer-weary feet.

Since the advice seemed reasonable, I and two of my friends found myself getting off an overnight train at Mestre at five-thirty in the morning during our week-long Italy trip on a November morning, going towards the most serene of cities. 15 minutes and another train later, we got out of Santa Lucia station in Venice, trying to figure out how to reach Grand Canal and St. Mark’s square fast. However, no one was around in that dark hour and we decided to walk out to the bus station. On the Grand Canal.

Now, findings canals in Venice is as expected for a traveler as snake charmers in India (thankfully, not as hard to find). Yet, it is difficult not to react when you look past an ordinary looking bus-stop and catch the first sliver of water shrouded in a light mist. We let out a few whoops instantly.

We had to wait a bit for our first vaporetto (the famous number 1, which goes round the Canal) and struck up a conversation with John, a Brit living in Milan, who was here for a day. He wanted to capture the morning light off the lagoon and take a few pictures of San Giorgio Maggiore before the tourists made the city look ‘appalling’.

Now, however, it was dark and city didn’t look anything at all. Which according to a lot of people who have come here, isn’t bad. The houses which are worn-down at the edges (all of them are) and the dark canals look dirty to them. The same people turn up their nose at old towns that are not treated with a coat of varnish every year. However, John and I had no problems with the melancholy. The noise of the approaching bus shook the mood out though.

Right then, child-like excitement of being in Venice and catching a waterbus gave way to wonder. Silvery mist which had hung around the canal turned to pale gold, as the light and the bus arrived at the same time. As the bus started winding past the lovely classical buildings piled one after the other, we took the best seats at the bow.

Thankfully, the bus moves slowly allowing the eyes to take in all. Just as you notice Ca’d’Oro, with pink walls, does the Rialto bridge decide to take over. The bridge made in 1500s by Antonio Da Ponte (whose last name means Bridge) has enough space below for boats to pass and enough shops on it for it to become the centre for souvenir hunters. Right now, however, all the shopping was happening on the fish and vegetable market on its bank. In the morning light, the fish looked lilac and gold.

As the light grew in the morning sky, the mist, which had shrouded the statuettes on the corners and the carvings above the doors, gave way. As we looked ahead at the Venice’s city hall, made in the 12th Century, the city was coming to life. And John became suddenly worried that the sun would have removed the fuzziness that Monet saw when he peered across the lagoon at San Giorgio on Castello island and started taking pictures of the multitude of palaces and buildings on the banks.

He need not have worried. Just as we passed Galleria del’Accademia on our left, did the Santa Maria della Salute appear. Resplendent in the salmon light, the massive church built in 1682 as a dedication to Virgin Mary, looked like a gatekeeper. Just besides the church, the Canal melts into St. Mark’s basin and as we passed the misty outpost, we were torn between the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s palace), the bell tower and the basilica on the right and an eerily similar San Giorgio (with its own domes and bell towers) on our left.

As we were going to St. Mark’s square anyway, we decided to side with John and looked out into the mist towards the beautiful island. Soon, our vaporetto gave a hoot signaling St. Mark’s.

It was almost seven when we sat down in the middle of the ‘most beautiful drawing room’ in the world – the St. Mark’s Square. Sharing the space with us were a few locals and lots of pigeons.

The coffee tables were just being laid and the four copper horses in St. Mark’s basilica looked out into empty space. Just above the horses, the culmination of styles marked by Byzantine domes presented a contrast to the Doge’s palace. The palace actually looks like a brick warehouse, supported by delicate stone arches. The bell tower, from which criminals and heretics used to hang for days in cages, completed the curios brew. The sun was just behind St. Mark’s and we decided to rest there, looking at the sky grow lighter.

We closed our eyes for a bit. Suddenly, we were surrounded by noise of pattering feet. We were in the middle of the invasion. American old men and Japanese groups had taken over, forming lines to enter the basilica and climb the tower. The seats would not be empty for some time. Sellers of gondolier’s hats were setting shop.

It was seven-thirty and for a couple of hours, Venice had lived up to its name of the most serene one. It won’t be the same again, whole day.

I wrote this for an Indian travel magazine in December, 2004. The trip still stays fresh.


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