Venice and Aquilea

Thursday 26th April 2007, Serenissima campsite, Venice
We have finally made it back to Venice. We are on the same campsite as last time, a really pleasant, friendly place on the Brenta canal with the bus stopping at the entrance which for a euro each takes us right the way to Venice, leaving Modestine to contemplate whatever it is Romahomes do when left alone for hours on foreign campsites. She seems happy enough beneath the shady trees and she doesn't lack for company.

Until today we have managed without using a single motorway! Today though, we felt we couldn't cope with the slow moving traffic on the national routes that drag us through the centre of every town where there are countless roadworks, so we took the motorway for the 120 kilometres to Venice. This was brilliant, skirting around Verona and Vicenza and taking us past Padua which this time we are not visiting, wonderful as it is, because we have already visited it a couple of times. (See last year's blog.) There were countless heavy lorries on the motorway but once we got the hang of how Italian motorways work we were soon passing them by. We were quite surprised at Modestine who was so pleased to be overtaking all those macho Italian vehicles she was almost touching 80 mph at times. We never knew she could go that fast!

Once we turned off we found ourselves in the familiar, flat, leafy countryside of the Po plain and followed the Brenta river towards Venice, stopping at the pleasant little town of Dolo for some shopping. We'd soon seen all it had to offer and continued to this campsite. It felt very strange as we turned in at the entrance. Is it really eleven months since were last here?

As Ian tried to register us, using his fast developing Italian, the young lady on reception burst out laughing and announced she remembered us from last year! How nice! We felt quite touched. Perhaps not many people who have obviously never studied the language try to speak it and that's why she remembered him. He is doing amazingly well though and always uses Italian rather than English. He even managed to explain about a broken door catch we needed replacing and to buy us some hay fever tablets. Considering we haven't even got a dictionary with us that's not bad. Mind you, written Italian is easy to work out and often we understand what is said but don't know how to answer.

Having settled onto the site we finally released Hinge and Bracket from their travel bags and after a few minutes blinking in the sunlight and stretching their cables, they were eager to frisk about, so we took them for a cycle ride along to the neighbouring village of Mira, beside the river. Here we found an internet shop, very expensive but with fast, good machines. We crossed the river and enjoyed a pleasant, flat bike ride past lovely, picturesque old villas set in their grounds, some smart and turned into hotels, but many sadly neglected or abandoned with broken shutters and crumbling plasterwork. In the past they would have been the rural retreats of the Venetian gentry.

Saturday 28th April 2007, Serenissima campsite, Venice
Yesterday morning, as we crossed the busy road outside the campsite to catch the bus into Venice, Jill caught her foot on the broken tarmac at the edge of the road and fell, twisting her ankle, ruining her knee and badly bruising her shoulder. At first Ian feared she'd been hit by one of the speeding cars on the dangerous bend. Things could have been so much worse, but having just paid 40 euros for a couple of "freedom of Venice" tickets, valid for 36 hours, there was no way we were going to waste them returning to the campsite to recover! So we spent much of the day sitting on the vaporetti and absorbing the amazing waterfront views, so exactly like a Canaletto painting. This meant we made full use of our tickets and gave the ankle time to recover. At the end of the day it was twice the size of the other one but by this morning had greatly improved.

Our tickets gave us unlimited use of all buses and water transport around the city and out to the islands of the lagoon. Our first island was Burano, a bright, picturesque place important for both fishing and lace making. The men folk weave nets which they use to catch fish while the women weave lace which they use to catch tourists. Beside the landing stage were stalls selling all kinds of lace goods and table linen, supposedly made on the island but some no doubt imported from China, as is much of the glassware that passes for Venetian. Away from the main tourist thoroughfares were small unadorned but brightly painted houses along canals with washing hanging in courtyards.

Arriving at Burano, Venice

Canal in Burano, Venice

Fishing boats in Burano, Venice

Courtyard in Burano, Venice

The main church of San Martino stands on the square named after the 18th century composer Galuppi who was born on the island. It has a spire that leans at an alarming angle, as indeed do many of the campaniles of Venice. The church is adorned inside with glass chandeliers and we had a brief impression of rich gilt decorations but a funeral was in progress and the church packed. Almost half the population of the island must have been inside so we did not look around. Outside large wreaths were propped at the church door. Later as we had paninis and orange juice outside a café in the main street the funeral procession passed by on foot. Even for funerals there is no motorised transport. The wreaths were carried aloft and the coffin pushed along the only flat route between the church and the landing stage. Here the mourners accompanied it as it was loaded onto a tiny boat to be taken to the cemetery island of San Michele. As the bell tolled to announce its approach many shops drew their blinds and the passers-by stood still and many crossed themselves as the coffin passed. For more about the island of San Michele see last year's blog

San Martino, Burano, Venice

Funeral procession in Burano, Venice

Next we made the short crossing to Torcello, once an island with 50,000 people and its own cathedral. It was then a rival to Venice, but the harbour silted up and the marshes in that part of the lagoon fell prey to malaria. A short walk from the landing stage along a canal beside fields, across which the tiled roofs of tumbledown farmhouses can be seen, led us to the grass-covered main square. This contains a former administrative building which now houses the island museum, a stone seat known as Attila's throne, the house of a winegrower beside his vineyard, the octagonal Romanesque church of Santa Fosca and the cathedral of Santa Maria dell'Assunta which contains some remarkable mosaics. Apart from that, the remains of a circular building which was probably a baptistry, and a couple of restaurants are all that survive of the once populous city. An air of emptiness and desolation hung over the place, even on this bright sunny day – a contrast to the bustle of Burano.

Approaching Torcello, Venice

Torcello, Venice

Santa Fosca by the Cathedral, Torcello, Venice

The Lido formed yet another contrast. Located on the sandbank which enclosed the lagoon on the seaward side, this island was a fashionable seaside resort in the early 20th century. It was there that Thomas Mann set his novella Death in Venice and the film was made at the Grand Hotel des Bains which still has a rather gloomy air in the shade of the many trees which line the quiet streets and promenades. The Lido is eleven kilometres long and only one wide, so we walked from the landing-stage across the island to gaze on the Adriatic and the sunbathers toasting themselves on the hot sand.

Lido, Venice

We took the vaporetto back to St Mark's Square and wandered wearily through the maze of passages back to the bus station. We were detained by an excellent free exhibition in one of the churches on the life of Antonio Vivaldi and a display of a collection of early string instruments, some dating back to the 16th century, not just violins, but earlier instruments, some elaborately decorated. The joyous music of "the red priest" echoed round the church and it was hard to drag ourselves away. We also lingered on several of the old footbridges watching as the gondoliers skilfully manoeuvred their cargos of mainly Japanese tourists through the tight back canals and out into the Grand Canal sometimes accompanied by a musician and a powerful singer to serenade them.

Ian had hoped to track down the workplace of Aldus Manutius, the scholar printer of Renaissance Venice, responsible for the introduction of italic type and the pocket edition as well as a series of scholarly publications of classic writers which were widely pirated. His trademark of the anchor and dolphin became a symbol of quality and was copied and adapted by more than one publisher. It was a disappointment therefore to find a plaque recording the location of his printing office on the wall of one of the few modern buildings in Venice, just off the Piazza Manin.

Plaque to Aldus Manutius, Venice

This morning we woke later. Sightseeing can be exhausting, but we are both suffering badly from hayfever and the tablets make us rather drowsy. We've made full use of the second day of our tickets however and were in Venice by 10am. We've commented before that all life is lived on the water. Even cranes for building works operate from boats. Yesterday we raced across to Burano alongside the post boat loaded with mail. Today we saw the police in their speed launch and on the Grand Canal everyone on our vaporetto burst into cheers and applause as a small boat with a bride and groom moved gently down the canal past beautiful 16th century palaces.

Again we've used the boats all day to ensure Jill's ankle has chance to recover. First we crossed to Murano, an island we visited on our last visit. It was as enjoyable and picturesque this time. Famed for its glass furnaces it has many showrooms of Venetian glass of varying quality. Unfortunately as well as beautiful table ware, chandeliers and vases, there are also a lot of cheap quality glass decorative ornaments that have almost certainly not been made on the island. In addition though, it is possible to buy locally produced glass earrings, cuff-links, necklaces and other jewellery at very reasonable prices. See last year's blog for a full description of Murano.

Lighthouse at Murano, Venice

Romanesque church on Murano, Venice

Grand Canal, Murano, Venice

The vaporetto deposited us back at St. Mark's square where there is currently extensive engineering work on the embankments. We learned that the square is actually flooded up to 250 times a year by high tides in the lagoon spilling over the embankment or forcing their way up through the underground drainage system!!
There are major plans underway to ensure the square is safe from flooding during tidal variations of up to 100 cm. There is more about the square in last year's blog.

Lion of St Mark by the Doge's Palace, Venice

Clock tower, St Mark's Square, Venice

There were still huge queues waiting to visit the Cathedral and the Doge's Palace so we caught the next vaporetto across to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, from where there is a wonderful perspective back to the mainland. There is very little on San Giorgio apart from a monastery which was closed, and a massive church designed by Palladio, his last major work. It was completed after his death. Here opinions differ. Ian feels it is a stunningly beautiful, well proportioned building that left him with a sense of awe. Jill felt that although its architectural merit was indisputable, it was on such a vast scale it was cold, colourless and impersonal. She infinitely prefers the beautiful Palladian houses we saw in Vicenza. Venice back in the 16th century already had more churches than perhaps any city in Europe. Jill felt that to build yet another church on such a gigantic scale, on a tiny island where it could not easily be visited and was probably for the exclusive use of the convent, was a quite inappropriate use of unbelievably large amounts of money. It is an oversimplification but her view is that, superb as Palladio's plans were, their realisation was morally wrong, seen through today's eyes. Even today there were not many people bothering to cross to the island to see Palladio's church for free, preferring to stand in the hot sunshine queuing to pay to see the Cathedral of San Marco.

Doge's Palace from San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

Convent of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

So in hot dispute we left the island for a walk along the waterfront at Giudecca, one of the residential islands with courtyards festooned in washing and children playing. There were few tourists here. By now we were beginning to flag. We crowded into another boat back around the main island towards the railway station. The lady beside us was English and told us she was over for her sister's 50th birthday. About 30 of them had flown out to Venice, hired a villa and were having a masked supper with an opera singer this evening! Apparently you can arrange and book such events over the internet! She's brought her evening dress from England but had been round Venice choosing her mask. She showed it to us with great pride, a black, bespangled half mask set in an oriole of dark feathers.

From the railway station (trains come along the causeway across the water from the mainland) we walked beside canals and over bridges to find the Jewish Ghetto. (The word ghetto was first used in Venice because the Jews settled in the area of the canon foundry - "ghetto" in Italian.) Being Saturday we saw several Jewish people in skullcaps, white robes and black jackets heading for the evening service at their synagogue. There were also memorials, reminders of the Italian Jews and others throughout Europe who had died during the holocaust.

Sabbath in the Ghetto, Venice

Monday 30th April 2007, Duino, near Trieste
After spending the whole day in Venice yesterday we were so tired by the time we returned to Modestine that it was all we could do to prepare supper before crawling into bed and sleeping solidly for nearly nine hours. Our 36 hour travel card expired yesterday so we took the bus into Venice and spent the day rediscovering the main island on foot. Already in late April the weather is too hot for comfort during the day and although the narrow passageways are dark, cool and shady, they invariably open into beautiful piazzas bathed in brilliant white sunlight that is completely dazzling. The city is always crowded but this is a long weekend because of the bank holiday and everywhere was crammed solid with tourists of every nationality. Families struggled through the alleyways keeping a tight hold on young children clutching melting gelati, dads lugged push chairs up and down the steps of the countless arched bridges across the canals, smart Italian couples sat at terrace bistros on the piazzas sipping chilled white wine, diners enjoyed pasta and salad overlooking the Grand Canal, the Japanese photographed each other in front of everything in sight, and young backpackers sat on the steps of the churches eating pizza. On the Rialto Bridge it was a complete bottleneck as people struggled in both directions, rather like ants, to find a way through the crowds. Despite the colour, the sunshine, the magic of the setting, it was all too crowded for enjoyment. As for St. Mark's Square, the Cathedral and the Doge's Palace, there was just no use even trying to see anything. So we wandered off in the back alleys in search of the lovely restaurant we discovered last year near the Accademia. Unfortunately we never discovered it and the lunch we eventually bought was indifferent and overpriced. Actually, a day in Venice is enough to turn one off Italian food for ever. Everywhere was selling pizza, pasta, lasagne or tagliatelli. It was quite impossible to find anything else. We were obliged to eat far too much pizza when we were in Trinidad to ever be able to look one in the face again and here in Italy it is just the same! Why is it that Italy can only offer this international cuisine? Haven't they got any traditional cooking of their own?

One benefit of leaving the main thoroughfare is that in no time the crowds had disappeared and we wandered along peaceful canal sides through residential areas where bright flowers hung from the windows and a canary sang in a cage near an open front door. A gondola might glide silently by or the canal suddenly open out into the lagoon offering an unexpected vista across the water towards an island or the white façade of a baroque church.

A canal away from the tourist mayhem, Venice

Of course we did also find ourselves visiting several buildings and exhibitions including the Scuola Grande de San Giovanni Evangelista which is not generally open to the public. The Scuole were the Venetian equivalent of guilds and were established to protect and support their members as well as carrying out charitable works and helping the needy. The building was lavish in its decoration with specially commissioned works by Tintoretto and Bellini with beautifully painted ceilings and wonderful inlaid marble floors. We also looked in at the entrance to the Community hospital which is housed in the former Scuola de San Marco. It must be one of the most elaborate hospitals in current use to be found anywhere.

Scuola Grande de San Giovanni Evangelista, Venice

Gateway to the Scuola Grande de San Giovanni Evangelista, Venice

Scuola Grande de San Marco, Venice

Back at the bus station our bus was waiting but was so full there was no way we could squash inside for the 30 minute ride back to the campsite. When we finally did get on a bus it was crowded beyond belief and we were trapped at the back in the hot sunlight, crowded up against noisy teenage Italian youths listening to their ipod in one ear and their mobile phone in the other while singing and shouting to friends further down the bus. One even showed his mate a book of his own designs for graffiti! They were not enchanting company. We had great difficulty fighting our way out of the packed bus when we reached the campsite.

This morning, Monday, we moved on from Venice. It was pleasant to visit the city but too expensive, crowded and commercialised. It is undeniably a beautiful city but after three days we were starting to suffer culture fatigue. Our campsite bill was 24 euros less than expected, whether it had anything to do with being return visitors we don't know but we were quite delighted. It has been a really excellent site and the staff helpful and friendly.

Circumnavigating Venice presented a problem. We decided to go north and cut across country by minor roads to pick up the national route beyond Venice. We just never learn! Road signing is next to useless in Italy, there are countless delays, and tailbacks stretch for miles. Over two hours later we were still only 30 kilometres from Venice! Eventually things improved and we drove along a raised road with views across the flat plain covered in vines, fruit trees and cereals, towards Trieste.

We turned off to visit Aquileia for which the brief entry in our 1970s guidebook promised some interesting sites. Of course that was before the days of UNESCO World Heritage listings, so the wonders that we found came as a complete surprise. In Roman times it was the capital of one of the provinces of Italy and was a major seaport. The little town today was smaller than the Roman city that underlay it, and indeed popped up above ground in many places. The main road passed across the middle of the forum, and the remains of the harbour, complete with stone mooring rings, lay alongside the small stream which was all that was left of the tidal estuary now that the shoreline had receded. Everywhere there were heaps of stones, with fragments of acanthus leaves, mouldings, an odd letter of an inscription. Outside the archaeological museum hundreds of stone funerary urns were heaped up into pyramids and on the edge of the town there was a little burial ground with the tombs enclosed by the original stone railings.

Roman dockyard showing mooring rings, Aquileia

Roman burial ground, Aquileia

But the real gem dated from the last period of the Roman era. Inside the 11th century basilica there had lain hidden beneath the floor the largest early Christian mosaic in Europe, dating from the fourth century. It was only brought to light in 1909 when the 11th century floor was removed. It had been laid down by Bishop Theodorus just after Constantine had declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire, and as all the subsequent rebuildings of the basilica were on the site of the original one, most of the mosaic pavement had miraculously survived. Now it is protected by glass walkways suspended above the floor, making it possible to view all the sections from above. The work has been ascribed to several craftsmen. There are different sections,
one with a marine theme, with pictures of fishing, Jonah being swallowed by the whale and surrounded by a wealth of different species of fishes including an octopus, a fish eating a cuttlefish and several jelly fish. Another depicted animals and birds while another specialised in portraits, probably of the original patrons. Around the edge were intricately woven patterns. The entire mosaic was brightly coloured and exquisitely produced. In one corner we discovered a mosaic of a cockerel and a tortoise. It represents the battle between Christians and pagans where the cock represents Christ, the "light of the world" and the tortoise, whose Greek name means "dweller of the darkness" is the symbol of evil. The brick built basilica itself is set on the edge of the town surrounded by cypress trees. It has a 15th century wooden vaulted roof, thus the space between the mosaic floor and the ceiling spans more than 1000 years of history! Beside the basilica stands an octagonal baptistry with stone seats around the interior of the font for total immersion and the 11th century campanile.

Fishing for soul, Aquileia

Animals and birds, Aquileia

Tortoise and cockerel, Aquileia

Portrait, perhaps of a patron, Aquileia

Images in knotwork frames, Aquileia

Basilica and campanile, Aquileia

We turned into this campsite, just a bus ride from Trieste, to find ourselves on a clifftop site with views out to the Adriatic. Below us, at the foot of the cliffs is a little fishing harbour. We are parked beneath pine trees and our nearest neighbours are a group of cheerful, noisy Italians. They are one of the noisiest nations we have encountered though they are generally very friendly, happy people.