I couldn’t believe it when Monsieur confessed he’d never been to Venice. I just about fell out of my (imaginary) gondola, before formulating an emergency itinerary and agreeing travel dates to introduce him to this dreamy city without delay. He needed little persuading. The only problem was that we’d be visiting Venice in winter, so there’d be a lot of fog and bone-chilling damp to deal with. Thankfully, that didn’t deter either one of us.
My love affair with Venice began as a teenager, although my first visit did little to win me over. It was a few days before Christmas and Venice was hiding in that mysterious mist that floats off the lagoon. I wasn’t well, was unimpressed by the glass-pushers of Murano, freezing trips on vaporetti and the desperate waiters hauling us off the embankments to eat bad food in their empty and overpriced establishments. I did, however, love the warming gold mosaic of St Mark’s basilica, and the glass cabinets of wellington boots in our hotel lobby. If only the piazzetta had flooded while we were there! The teenage me thought it would have been huge fun to slosh around in the hotel’s wet weather gear. How times change.
Many years later, I returned to Venice, this time as a museum intern. In those summer months it was hot, I was ravaged by mosquitoes and the canals had a certain whiffiness about them, but still I fell in love with la Serenissima and I’ve never quite recovered.
So it was that on a dark November’s morning, when Monsieur and I uncharacteristically rose BEFORE the sun, we took off for Venice. Or so we thought. This was to be one of those trips where nothing goes to plan.
Firstly, at Heathrow, a massive snake of people and their luggage were waiting to check in. We barely moved in the few minutes we stood in line, so we did the Italian thing and took our bags to the front of the queue, persuading a reluctant check-in clerk to process us so we wouldn’t miss our flight. She didn’t really want to help us, huffing heavily as she tried to turn us away, but the departures board clearly showed that we only had 15 minutes left to complete check in and that wasn’t going to happen if we returned to the queue.
Perhaps because Huffy Clerk hadn’t wanted to deal with queue-jumpers or perhaps because she just wasn’t an early morning person, she seated us separately on the flight. She also checked our bags through to our stopover destination of Rome instead of all the way through to Venice, something we only noticed once we read our boarding passes at the gate, so when we arrived in Rome we had to collect and check in our bags once more. This time, the departures hall was practically empty, so we walked straight up to the check-in counter, only to be informed that there was a nationwide transportation strike that day and our onward flight had been delayed until 6.30 that evening. Our plan to enjoy a leisurely lunch in Venice was history now. We’d have to deposit our bags at left-luggage and find a Plan B.
For some reason, the trains weren’t affected by the strike so Monsieur and I decided to venture into Rome for some afternoon sightseeing. Even this journey, which should have been straightforward, was to prove a challenge. The timetables were constructed of practically indecipherable rows of numbers and the instructions on the ticket machines had been worn away by the many hands before ours. Somehow, we managed, so tickets in hand we boarded the train on the designated platform, heading for Trastevere station near the Vatican.
We weren’t the only people on our train, but the departure time came and went and still we sat there. Knowing that Italian trains are pretty punctual, I started to fret. Ten minutes later, we thought we should go and find out what was going on, but we couldn’t open the doors. We were firmly locked into a train going nowhere. We banged on the doors, trying to raise the attention of the station staff. No response. “I’m going to try the emergency door handle.” Monsieur said, cranking the door open inch by inch until we could squeeze out. We skulked along the platform to check the board again, only to see that our train to Trastevere had departed. There must have been another train ahead of the one we’d boarded. Silly us.
There was another train about to leave for Termini, so we ran to catch it, somewhat concerned that our tickets were for a different station; fines for incorrect tickets in Italy can be steep. Soon we were slumped in a moving carriage, gazing out the windows at the changing scenery, happy to be going somewhere instead of stuck in an airport for the afternoon.
For some minutes the view was uninspiring: boring apartment blocks, dusty roads, giant weeds flourishing in abundance beside the tracks… But how I loved the Italian trees we were passing. They seem to grow the longest trunks before sprouting green in a floret at the top. They look old. Even the inverted cone of a cypress imbues one with a sense of the ancient Mediterranean. Here and there at the backs of crumbling little buildings were vegetable patches with rows of mammoth red cabbages and green leaves sprouting out of the earth indicating something buried beneath. Potatoes, perhaps, for hearty homemade gnocchi? My mind quickly filled with thoughts of Italian food.
At long last, we made it to Termini and made our way to the lively Via Cavour, passing a pizzeria where the tantalising scent of fresh dough, basil and garlic wafted in our direction. All around us, the buildings and their dirt, peeling paint and crumbling corners surprised Monsieur, just as they always surprise me; somehow, these old cities inspire thoughts of perfection, not decay.
We passed the white edifice of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four Roman cathedrals, before spying a man in a gladiator’s costume walking along the other side of the street. Then Monsieur pointed out a place called Bar Venezia “We can always go there if we don’t make it to Venice,” he quipped. How to explain that to our friends? “We thought we were going to Venice but ended up stranded in Rome, eating tiramisu in a bar called Venice which was just as exciting but without the gondolas.” At the rate we were going it was certainly an option.
At the end of the Via Cavour we saw the first signs of the ruins of the Roman Forum. It’s incredible to walk through a functioning city, surrounded by cars and electric signs and traffic lights and other moden amenities, only to be confronted by a building that has stood on that exact spot for many hundreds of years. It’s quite wonderful how the Romans have preserved their past by incorporating it into the present and even more interesting from the point of view of a New Zealander; in my young homeland, the landmarks that have stood in situ for more than a couple of hundred years are invariably natural.
Monsieur had never been to Rome before, so he naturally wanted to see the Colosseum. I knew we were nearby, but wasn’t sure which direction to take. Then I spotted a group of policemen standing yacking in the middle of the traffic, and was just about to go and ask them the way when I turned my head to find it staring me right in the face. “Thank heavens, ” I muttered, ” can you imagine how stupid it would have looked for me to ask directions when the Colosseum is standing right behind me?” I was relieved to have saved myself from merciless Italian teasing.
We walked towards the world’s most famous gladiator ring, pausing to photograph a street performer dressed entirely in gold with a turban and gold-painted skin, before attempting to cross the Roman traffic. Luckily, we were still in practice from a recent visit to Naples, so we walked boldly into the road, trusting the speeding Fiats and mopeds to swerve around us. It worked. We made it to the other side.
The Colosseum was surrounded by hordes of tourists waiting to enter the site, kitsch souvenir stalls weighed down with reproductions of Michelangelo’s David (somewhat out of place as he’s Florentine), ponies and carts ready to trot willing visitors around town and several men dressed as gladiators, commanding €5.00 for the privilege of posing for a photo with you. I was slightly underwhelmed by the state of their costumes, which were faded and tatty-looking, but may have considered having my photo taken with one of these Romans if they’d looked more convincing or resembled Russell Crowe. One ‘gladiator’ stood in his helmet and robe, puffing away on a cigarette, somewhat ruining the effect, and my interest turned back to the arched structure which had been the venue for the sport of persecuting Christians by throwing them to starving lions. It’s hard to imagine such atrocities, especially as the feline representatives seen lurking in the Colosseum nowadays amount to mangy feral cats, and Christian worship has been legal in Italy for so many centuries that the seat of the Roman Catholic Church is just across the Tiber in the Vatican.
There wasn’t enough time to wait for a ticket to enter the world-famous site if we were to see more of Rome, so we walked past a straight Roman road leading into the Forum to try and find a taxi. I couldn’t remember whether a vacant taxi had its light on or off, so we simply waved hopefully at every cab until one stopped. This time we were off to see the Pantheon.
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