The Floating World: Venice By Water


The Venice of the mind is an apparition of remarkable complexity. Darkly foreboding laneways forever shaded from the sun, canals silently traversed by sinuous gondoliers. It’s all that such illusions imply, long reflected in literature and film. The pomaded ascetic Aschenbach beguiled by Tadzio’s lustrous youth in Death In Venice, the murky compulsions of grief magnified by the harsh winter in Don’t Look Now.

The reality, as in many things, is far different. At the height of the summer season, Venice holds little mystery, just a still oppressive heat, the breathless crush of tourists and a city trying its best to function under the countless pressures that have tested its resolve for hundreds of years.

All of Venice is a museum, made more remarkable in that it’s a living city that has grown across 117 islands dotted on a lagoon on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. It was home to Casanova and Marco Polo (one was an explorer of bold and adventuresome ways, the other went to China) and beguiled Lord Byron, Ezra Pound and countless others.

Venice is impossible to forget and even harder to ignore. It’s a wondrous place, a curiosity that, for the romantic, builds into an obsession and defies any attempt to remove it. Visit once and you’ll be forever drawn back. You can’t ever hope to understand it; simply let its eccentricities lead you where it may.

Invariably, that will be to the canals of Venice and it’s where most tourists get their introduction to the city’s unique way of life. The vaporetti or water buses are the preferred mode of transport, as traditional a way of life as the yellow cabs of New York, the red double-decker buses of London or the jeepneys of Manila.

Through most of the day and night, they work the water, travelling where most visitors need to go. A single fare is around €6 but the best value is in multi-use passes that allow unlimited trips from 12 hours (€16) through to seven days (€50).

The Grand Canal, that extends four kilometres from outside the Santa Lucia railway station in the north-west to near St Mark’s Square, passes stoically elegant palazzos and stolid fondaco or merchants’ warehouse-residences. Along the way, there will be every evocation of Venetian architecture, from Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance through to Baroque and Neoclassical.

Mid-way along the Grand Canal is the Rialto Bridge, built in the early 1590s and designed by Antonio da Ponte; his nephew, Antonio Contino, who worked with da Ponte on construction of the Rialto, designed the famed Bridge of Sighs.

On the shore fronting St Mark’s Square, it’s possible to watch one of the more disturbing sights of Venice when enormous cruise ships work their way up the Giudecca Canal to their moorings at San Basilio Pier or the Marittima Basin. Venice is one of the busiest cruise destinations in the region, with upwards of 500 departures annually. These massive beasts dwarf the human scale of Venice, scattering vaporetti, private water taxis and gondolas and presenting an image of a disaster just waiting to happen.

The area around the Piazza San Marco or St Mark’s Square is tourist trap central but it’s something to which every visitor should acquiesce. While a gondola ride may seem cheesy, it’s a required experience; in value-for-money terms, however, it rates with the Caffe Florian, where a coffee will set you back the price of a small Japanese car. But it’s worthwhile just for the photo opportunities and the knowledge that you’ve experienced the Venice of legend.

The other must-dos include a bellini cocktail at the Hotel Cipriani on Giudecca, the lozenge-shaped island across from the Piazza, and a relaxed wander through the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, where heiress Peggy Guggenheim amassed such a startlingly extensive collection of early 20th century art.

Add to that, a day or three getting lost within the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, where tiny churches and historic palaces co-exist with Venetians going about their everyday life, and the city will have exerted a magical, adamantine charm. And you’ll be communing with the ghosts of Casanova, Titian, Truman Capote, Hemingway and thousands of others who have fallen in love with Venice.

Words and photos © David Latta

Advertisements

The Great Game In Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar


If you didn’t know better, the shopkeepers of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar would present forlorn figures. Foreign tourists troop past them, their gaze focused steadfastly on the far distance, flicking neither left nor right, as if to engage in any way would see them kidnapped and robbed at gunpoint. Or worse, sold a carpet.

“Hello,” the shopkeepers cry out plaintively. “Hello. I am here.”

The tourists seem dressed to a stolid uniformity. Freshly pressed khakis, checked shirts and gleaming white runners. Bum bags and badly-concealed money belts bulge from their already bulging silhouettes. In the midst of the Grand Bazaar, one of the city’s most fascinating attractions, which has drawn visitors to its expansive confines for more than 600 years, they seem intent on getting from one end to the other in the quickest possible time. Without buying a carpet.

A shopkeeper catches me watching him. He smiles and gives a non-committal shrug, his eyes twinkling with a guarded humour. It’s all a game, he seems to say, one that has been going on forever and doubtless will continue for much longer.

On busy days, when there are as many locals as tourists, the press can be close to overwhelming. The only living beings not disturbed are the cats who display an admirable calm. They’ve been the true locals of the bazaar for centuries, countless generations, and there’s nothing they haven’t seen or survived. They sit peacefully in the midst of the walkways, letting the tumult flow around them with Zen-like calm, feline pebbles in fast-flowing steams of humanity.

Anything you could possibly desire can be found in these wide dusty passages. Gold jewellery, leather coats, fake designer handbags. Beautiful decorative objects such as richly-inlaid backgammon boards and the distinctly colourful ceramics that hail from Kutahya in Turkey’s west. Clothing, fabrics, souvenirs, antiques real and otherwise, silverware and copperware, it’s all available.

Aisle upon aisle, row upon row, in covered laneways and serpentine open streets. The market developed in Byzantine times; some parts were roofed over, grew, sprawled, got bigger and then expanded further.

A precise figure is unknown but guidebooks estimate there are around 4,000 shops. A good pair of walking shoes are a necessity but more so is enough curiosity to take the time to stop and chat occasionally to the shopkeepers. You may have no intention of buying anything but it’s a social custom that pays unexpected dividends.

And when you do find something you like, there are protocols in play that it helps to know about beforehand. If you’re in a shop and you’re offered a drink, whether it be Coke, Turkish coffee or mint tea, that means the transaction is set to move to the next level. If you agree, you’re committing to the negotiating process. It’s just a matter of finding the right price.

This isn’t an Asian street market. You can’t haggle in quite the same way. Don’t over-act, throw your hands up in the air, or raise your voice. That’s not how it’s done. If you don’t like the price and it’s not going down to where you want it, be polite, thank the shopkeeper for his/her hospitality and make for the door. If you get at least three stores down the alley and you haven’t been made a better offer, it can’t be done.

Quality in the Grand Bazaar tends to be high. Expect to pay for it. You’re not in Wal-Mart. If you make a deal you’re happy with, you’ll end up with something truly special.

When it all gets too overwhelming, there are numerous restaurants and cafes throughout the market in which to relax and watch the passing parade. As I was leaving one café, I was stopped and, as is invariably the case, asked where I was from. Sydney, Australia, I replied.

The young man was beautifully dressed despite the high summer heat and impeccably polite. “Please,” he said, “I’d like you to meet someone.” The first rule of the careful tourist is never go anywhere with a stranger but the Turkish coffee bolstered a gung-ho reaction and I was up for anything except a carpet.

I baulked when he steered me towards a carpet shop but he was insistent in a way that piqued my interest. Behind the counter was a young Turkish girl. She laughed as we were introduced. She’d grown up on Sydney’s northern beaches. Her father owned this section of the markets and she spent six months of the year in Istanbul running her own carpet business.

I’d discovered something I wasn’t expecting and that made my visit all the more worthwhile. Next time I may well consider a carpet.

Words and photos © David Latta