Travel blog 2012-02 Death in Venice

Travel Blog 2012-02 - Death in Venice - by P.K.Odendaal - 5 June 2012

It is all over now ... and we knew all along the end it was in sight, for quite some time. But, even so, when it came, it was unexpectedly and most unwelcome and almost heartbreaking.
Yes, we have left our cruise ship today after twelve magnificent days at sea and in many different ports, and bade her farewell, having made some new acquaintances along the way. But what is more serious is that the highlight of our trip, or so we thought, turned out to be such a disappointment. Everybody knows Venice is beautiful and breathtaking, and on this fourth visit of us, I intended to make the visit even more spectacular by visiting all the beautiful cathedrals and churches of the city - a favourite pastime of mine.


My article name of Death in Venice is of course, as we all know, an allusion to the film that was made here some four decades ago. We have all forgotten what the story was about, and only remember the name, which is the sign of a really good film. In this case, the protagonist dies from Cholera, as murder would have been a quite improbable plot in Venice, as it is almost impossible to get killed by a crook in those narrow winding maze of alleys.

While we were still on the ship, there was an omen of misfortune to come. We were on our way from Dubrovnik to Venice, and being near the place of Oracles at Delphi and Olympia, having also visited the latter during our visit earlier to Katakolon, I should have been more careful. The incident was a co-cruiser from California, who had never visited Venice, who asked me, after our visit to Dubrovnik, whether I would say Venice is more beautiful than Dubrovnik. The oracle I pronounced, myself being made wise in oracles by that master of oracle interpretation, Aristotle, I said, 'of course not', because the name Dubrovnik means the beautiful Venice, and that means Venice is not beautiful. Why I uttered this oracle I am not sure, but how right I was. Aristotle was an expert in interpreting oracles without believing in them.
During none of the previous visits have I been able to visit, view or photograph any cathedral or church of note in Venice, so it was with much excitement that I marked all these cathedrals and churches with exceptional architecture and art works associated with them, on my map.

The only problem was that I would have to physically visit each one of these by foot, as almost none of them are serviced by water taxis or vaporettas, the public water transportation system, and the task is easier said than done. I started off like any good navigator should, with a map of the city, obtained with compliments of the cruise director, in my one hand, and two heavy bags with my heavy camera, large bottle of water, iPad, Italy travel guide, wallet and many other essential things in the other - one bag in each hand. Little did I know that the heavy rain would add yet another piece of awkward equipment in the form of an umbrella, bought from a Bangladeshi in the street.
The first trouble occurred just as we left the ship and arrived at a sort of open space where there were cars, buses, ticket offices, parking areas and a few scattered directional signs. And as any good navigator, I only needed one point on the ground to coincide with one point on my map, and proceed from there in a very logical manner. Great was my surprise when I established that the place on the ground where I was at, did not coincide with any point on the map. It took me about twenty minutes to find out that the cruise ship made us disembark on a position which was cut off from the map.

So the next option is quite easy. Just follow our co-travellers as they walk towards some common tourist destination, the location and type we were unaware of, but which we would soon find out when we arrive there. After all, we all have the same type of tourist destination in mind. So we follow this large group of people, only to find out that the numbers are dwindling fast, due to some taking a water taxi, some taking a vaporetta, some taking a bus, some taking a train and most of them, like ourselves wandering aimlessly around in a condition known as being lost. When I find out that it is just my wife and I who were the last on this road to board another unscheduled cruise ship, I realised that we have to return to the point where we lost control and direction, if such we had at all since we left the ship. I stand still and look around me. There are quite a few people here and all have this far away look in their eyes - that of being lost. It is useless to ask anyone, because we are all tourists.
So the next step would rationally be to find an information office, but where? It took us another thirty minutes to understand that we have to take the People Mover (its real name) to gain access to the first street in the city. Yes, with the concept of a people mover we are quite familiar, but in which form, we were totally unaware of, until we got to a place where we could buy a ticket for a train.

On disembarking from the train, I saw an information office, and it did not take a genius to figure out that one can buy a map of sorts from such an office, and it is also not unreasonable to expect that such a map could actually show us the way to one or other tourist attraction. I was wrong only on the last count. So, now I have to start all over again and try and synchronise our point on the ground with our point on the map. Well, that also proved impossible, so we again follow a lot of people, looking like tourists, over a bridge which looked like it might take us nearer to the centre of town, which it also did not do. Back to square one, which was the square called Piazzale Roma where we started. The rain starts to pour down, and my wife wisely decides to go back to the ship, as she does not share my love for architecture and art to the extent of giving up her life for it. I decide to push on.
I still laugh at myself when I picture myself in one of those pedestrian streets of Venice. They are not streets as we know streets, but rather pedestrian walkways or alleys about one and a half metres wide between buildings which do not have overhangs or verandas. Much like a jail cell wall on either side, with shop windows now and then. But the logistics of pedestrians walking with umber alls in their hands I only started to appreciate in one of these streets. The founders of this town never figured out when they established it, how two people can pass each other with two one metres diameter open umbrellas in a one and a half metre walkway. That gets tricky at stages, specially when both people passing each other are the same height, and even more so when one stares at a shop front - that can really jam the traffic.

But that is not the real problem. You have to find out where you are, whilst you ford or hustle these streets. The way you do this is quite easy. You put the umbrella on your right shoulder to free up your right hand to hold one side of the map, but it will not stay there. So you have to bend your neck and head totally towards the right shoulder to clamp the umbrella between your shoulder and your cheek. Now you have to put at least one of the bags down on the ground between your legs in such a fashion as to grab it between your lower legs, so that nobody can take it from you without you noticing it. The next thing would be to take out the map, open it, and hold it with your right hand from which you have now released the umbrella. Now, everybody knows that one hand cannot hold a map, so you have to pick up your right foot so that your upper leg serves as a sort of coffee table for the map to lay on. This position has the disadvantage of making you laterally unstable, so you have to lean your right shoulder against a nearby wall. However, with your head protruding further right than your shoulder, the wall pushes your head back to a more central position while you watch in vain how your grip on the umbrella loosens. 
All this while you are quite conscious of the vulnerability of your purse in your right pocket, so you bend forward a little to enable your elbow to protect your left trousers pocket. Bending forward in this way is not very difficult as you have to do this in any case to read the map, but what you find, is that you cannot read the map at all as it has been smudged and damaged by the rain, due to your own negligence of keeping the umbrella properly protecting the map from the rain, and you find this a bit difficult due it become uncontrollable each time the wall on your right bends your head to the left and thereby easing your grip on the umbrella. After a time you loose total confidence in your map and your ability to read and orient it, because whilst you know where South is due to the position of the sun, you cannot ascertain it now as it is raining and the sun is invisible. Then you do the next rational thing, and that it to follow the crowds as they roam these walkways.

Even so, I was successful in locating four Cathedrals which were not even on my list. Locating them were no doubt the result of me having being lost. The first one I came across was Cllo D Comare. They were busy revamping it and I could not enter. The second one was Gli Scalzi. It was closed and would only open at 4pm, when we would all be busy wining and dining at one of the thousands of sidewalk cafes and restaurants. The third one was on my list - the Santa Maria Dei Frari. I reached it with some ingenious argumentation, deduction, navigation and sheer luck. Speak of handling all my hand luggage while looking at a map, you have no idea how complex this exercise becomes when you remove the camera from one of the bags, protect it from the rain with the map, and hold its cap in your mouth to take an upward shot towards the belfry tower, while you keep raindrops from falling on its lens. On entering this cathedral I was shocked into reality. Firstly, I had to pay more money than I cared to, to enter the building, and secondly, I was prohibited from taking any photos in it. Whilst pondering the economic setback due to this expense, I used the time of waiting in the ticket queue to scan the art and architecture of the place - too ghastly to contemplate - must have been pre homo sapiens stuff. I left the building with disgust and without buying a ticket and much delighted. If I had such a building, I would also prevent people from taking photos of it.
At the fourth Church I was met with the same obstacles as the previous one, and I quickly disappeared into the crowd when I was asked to pay and not take photos. I did not even care this time to look at their art and architecture.

The last attempt at this game of running the gauntlet between tourists and church curators was at the Church of St Rocco. I went in for free, but the sign which prohibited photography was quite clear and I heeded that until I saw some tourist taking photos inside with a flash. Now that is what I call audacity in top gear. A seasoned cathedral photographer like myself would never think of taking photos with a flash inside a cathedral. It is bound to invite a lot of trouble, as I realised when the curator shouted 'NO PHOTOS' from the front pulpit and disappeared in the Choir section. That gave me the opportunity to take quite a few unflashed photos before he re-appeared again. It was singularly strange to me that he used the English words on that other flash photographer. How did he know she was not Italian, and he was also one of the few Venetian Italians whom I heard uttering something remotely English.
Be that as it may. These happenings are enough to let any tourist lose his appetite for art and architecture, which is probably the goal of these caretakers of the world heritage. I was starting to lose mine, but I will not give up so easily. I must still make it to Santa Maria Della Salute. So I start again in all earnest to find my way there. Now, one general thing about taking the wrong street, is that you can always easily turn back if you find yourself lost, but turning back in this maze of interconnected, direction changing walkways, is that you can never find your way back. Try as you may, you always make the same type of mistakes which got you to the wrong place in the first instance, but not in exactly in the same sequence, so you end up where you never wanted to be and where you never were. It is like painting yourself into a corner. After a time there is no escape. It is also here at St Rocco that I realised that I was so lost that I might not be in Venice anymore, and might need the maps of neighbouring towns.  

The next rational thing to do is to establish where you are, but this of course is quite impossible. You might have known where you were some ten minutes ago, but the street blocks are so short and make a obligatory turns at every corner, no doubt due to the presence of another canal, so whilst you cannot consult your map whilst you traverse these very narrows walkways, you have to wait until you get to a fairly wide open space where you, and other tourists have enough room to do the one legged thing I described above.
When you get to a wider space you find all these tourists standing more or less like you do, consulting their maps in total confusion. All we have in common are the lost look on our faces, our confusion with our maps, and our despair, because we cannot ask anyone. If they are Venetian, they can help you establish where you are, but you cannot understand them as they cannot only speak Italian, and if they understand English they are tourists and do not know where they are.

I had the audacity to ask a manager at a coffee shop whether he has a wifi, which I can use whilst I regroup in his cafe trying to establish my position. He scolded me in Italian and parts thereof I could understand. It was that the Venetians are not interested in the wifi's of the Americans. It sounded like he did it in pure Italian, and it made me wonder what I was doing here. Venice receives about twenty seven million tourists per year, and this man, who must serve mainly English speaking clientele for the past fifty years, has not had the audacity to learn to speak that language in all that time. I refrained from asking him when he would start to do that, and accepted that fact that after he does, it will also take him more than a decade to make the connection between the need for English and wifi.
There are only three types of signs in Venice. The one type takes you to the St Mark square, the second to the Rialto bridge and the third to Piazzale Roma. If you have been to Venice three times before as I have, there is no way you wish to go to a crowded St Mark Square or an uninteresting the Rialto bridge, so the easiest way out of this, is to follow the backend of these signs leading you away from them. However, it is no guarantee that they will lead you away or anywhere indeed, as the roads away from Rome leads everywhere, and that is exactly where you will find yourself after some time. Knowing that a shortcut is the longest distance between two points, I try not to take them, but I end up on these byways inadvertently.

It was thus no surprise to me when I found myself once again back at Piazzale Roma, where I started  three hours ago, and that after some strenuous and fast walking. So I have this choice of starting out anew, or quitting, and quitting is so alien to my natural inclination. I thus had to find an honourable way out of this, and the best I could come up with, was this article. 
Venice will never see me again, because it has killed me slowly and softly, like Cholera. Each time I visited it, I lost a part of that Romance for which it is known. It was like death in the afternoon this last time I visited. Give me Dubrovnik in stead of it, anytime and every time.