Monsieur and I slumbered long, that first night in Venice. In fact, we somehow slept through our alarms before finally falling out of bed at an embarrassing 11am. That was stupid. Now we’d have to move fast to make up the time.
Our lateness didn’t escape the attention of the hotel receptionist. A man exuding Italian confidence, with the wickedest of smiles, called us ‘early birds’ as we dropped off our key before braving the rain outside. Beyond the Fondamenta, the lagoon was grey with mist, punctuated only by the smudge of terracotta brick walls on the cemetery island. We puddled along beside the water to the Fondamenta dei Mendicanti, turning away from the lagoon to begin our day’s exploration. In spite of the unwelcoming weather, the exhilaration of being in Venice again made me want to skip across the slippery stones singing O Sole Mio, but Monsieur would have pushed me into the lagoon to drown my dulcet (?) tones and it was already quite wet enough.
Across the canal from us stood boat houses, where gondolas sat on the Venetian version of terra firma, wearing bright, acrylic raincoats as they awaited maintenance. All around us, Palazzi climbed with centuries-old pride out of the water and a rare garden glistened green in the grey. Then, near the hospital, I pointed at a Venetian ambulance boat. “Everything happens in boats here,” I told Monsieur, “there are boats for each of the emergency services, WITH sirens, hearse-boats for funerals; even DHL and Fed Ex deliver by boat.”
By the time we reached the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, we were sodden. Even Monsieur’s rucksack squelched with the wet. We were in dire need of refuge from the rain so in we went, our damp footsteps joining the snail-like trail of others who’d had the same idea. This church is something different in a city where decoration is frequently ornate-gone-mad; Santi Giovanni e Paolo has a simple red brick structure, its high ceiling dwarfing all visitors. Pondering this, my phone made an irreverent buzz. It was a text message from a friend back in London: “Let’s meet for coffee?” I quickly switched it off, remembering that when I’d lived here years before, I only ever used one mobile phone and it was a complete brick belonging to the museum where I worked. These days, that example of telephonic apparatus would be an exhibit in its own right.
Meanwhile, the scent of old church candles and the smoke of censers permeated the chill air inside the church. We ambled about, looking at the altars and paintings. Stopping to light a candle for the Madonna della Pace (Madonna of Peace) we took a last look at the Bellini altar before venturing back into the damp outdoors.
The piazza bordering Santi Giovanni e Paolo is usually pleasant, with its giant equestrian statue and surrounding pastel houses. Today it was subdued, with a group of bedraggled tourists huddled over their guides by the statue boarded up for restoration. We scurried across to the blue and white sign pointing towards San Marco and persevered in the downpour.
The tourist mecca of San Marco was a long zig-zag away on such an unpleasant day. To warm up we ducked into a strange café en route. I call it strange because of its décor. The stained stucco ceiling looked like cappuccino froth peaks hanging upside down, a tad too low for true comfort. We sat dripping amongst the dusty plastic poinsettias and Chinese lanterns and one particularly large Chinese porcelain vase. The resident aquarium was so green with algae that you had to fear for the longevity of the poor fish inside but the icing on the cake in this establishment was the bill; a double espresso and a cappuccino set us back an astronomical 8 Euros 40. Mind you, we were the only customers at the time and the disinterested waiter had to earn his living in the off-season somehow. That’s Venice for you.
We then darted back and forth across bridges until the reassuring sight of the campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore could be seen in proximity. In summer this walk is a breeze, but with the damp of the lagoon seeping into your bones, it’s a challenge. To distract us there were suddenly many more shops than we’d been passing, now mostly filled with garish masks and other tourist tat, by which I confess to being fascinated. In keeping with the more visible commerce was the number of people in the area, which continued to swell as we approached the Riva degli Schiavoni, the lagoon-side yellow brick road leading to St Mark’s Square.
No longer sheltered from the cold by huddles of buildings, the exposure of walking along the Riva was enough to send us in search of an interior – any interior in which to warm ourselves. I thought this might be a good time to visit the Basilica of San Marco and was excited by the thought of not having dripping eyebrows for a while, but Monsieur was hungry and, as any caring woman knows, when men are hungry it’s best to feed them as quickly as possible or they will make us pay. So off we set across an eerily-deserted St Mark’s Square in search of lunch where even the pigeons had disappeared in protest against the weather.
I steered our party of two past restaurants advertising meals in five languages, ignoring the casual bars with their trays of tremezzini as we headed along the chic Calle Lunga lined with designer boutiques. We crossed the wooden Accademia Bridge, following a path behind the gallery to the Taverna San Trovaso. This had been my favourite place to eat when I was an intern, being dangerously located between my apartment and the museum. The family who own and run the Taverna became friends of the interns, the sons joining us for evening drinks after their mid-week football matches on the mainland. Fabio and Alessandro were still there, looking comfortingly similar to the way they were more than a decade ago. Alessandro, tall and bespectacled, had barely changed, while Fabio, who poked his head out of the kitchen door repeatedly until he was sure it was me sitting in his dining area, had a plumper face and slightly receding hair at the temples. He bounded over to our table to greet us in such a warm fashion that it we forgot the gloom outside, and the ensuing conversation must have sounded quite wrong because Fabio doesn’t speak English, my Italian isn’t great and Monsieur doesn’t speak Italian so the language was more than a little mixed up.
Fabio disappeared to take care of his other patrons when our food arrived. I had ordered the in-house specialty of seppie neri with polenta, whilst Monsieur refuelled with an old favourite – scaloppine al limone. Thoroughly enjoying this lunch at an old Venetian haunt, I smiled at Monsieur. He looked me straight in the eye and said “I love you, darling, even when you have black teeth.” So if you ever make it to Venice with a loved one, avoid anything with squid ink. What it’s capable of doing to your teeth is far from impressive.