I approach Venice in darkness. A long, low boat. Blackness in the open water. It takes forty minutes to find the first canal and inch into a deserted town. A few dark shadows scurry like rats against buildings along the water’s edge. I wonder where everyone is. After the bright lights of Split can this place really be asleep at 1 am?
But we are only at the start and as we venture into the Grand Canal the lights flicker and grow in number. More people emerge, now casting shadows, and I could be in any century. The clothing indiscernible; ageless.
In daylight I feel like I am back on the Danube in flood. A strange watery place with alleyways that lead nowhere, buildings that lean in to block the light and stretch wire arms out to each other; a maze upon a maze. The gardens of these houses grow kelp and molluscs and damp that rises and threatens.
The tourists throng at the spectacle. Jam-packed like antipasti sardines in Piazza San Marco along with rose sellers and fake handbags and a thousand shutter clicks.
Everywhere is selling glass. I imagine souvenirs of smithereens.
The tourists elbow and bustle before blocking my path with bewildered pirouettes. Their socks are pulled high, they wear comfortable shoes. They are talking about the bad pasta they ate – ‘but this is Italy, who would have thought?’ they say. Here they are mostly American.
There are no cars or bikes. Instead I board boats that chug and lumber and smack against the dock eliciting tuts from passengers now unsteady on their feet. Around me there are plastic bottles everywhere. The curse of modernity. They bob and gather in eddies to tarnish perfect views.
Venice feels always in sway. I am losing track of solid ground.
Behind walls I find art. Biennale plays with my brain. Like some exhausting, brilliant, fantastical dream. Illustrations with bamboo pen; spice piles; picking a path through stone installations and listening to the melancholy boat song.
I emerge dazed in the sunshine. I’ve only covered half. But there is no more time.
Cicchette follows. Salt cod and smoked swordfish and pumpkin flowers deep fried in joy. Wine flows red and white and red again. Then a stumble back to San Marco to be pestered by a rose seller who insists ‘you take you take’. In the centre a mash-up of Sound of Music and Vivaldi courtesy of the three bands that play to mostly empty seats.
Night time in Venice: tired tourists eating gelato and pizza. Leather shoes in dimly lit shops. Dogs in diamanté harnesses. Rhythmic lap of poisoned water against ancient stones. The smell of salt and sulphur.
And I can’t work out how it got here. Through swamp and mud and lagoon. In ages of darkness and trade. I’m part of a movie surely. This place cannot exist.
Venezia, strangest of towns.