Sunday 26 July 2020

Empty Venice is a dream

Janet Daley in the Sunday Telegraph says today:
"London, once the most vibrant cultural and social metropolis on earth (believe me, I have lived in great cities on two continents) looks as if it has been hit by a neutron bomb. It became, virtually overnight, a de-populated museum of weirdly preserved, unoccupied buildings like a set in some dystopian cinema epic."
She wonders why no-one seems to want to return to city life, preferring to work far from city centres.
"Where is the understanding that a great cosmopolitan conurbation - which attracts and throws together people of different ethnicities and backgrounds, varying trades and occupations, disparate classes and attitudes - is essential to the progress of civilised life? Indeed, since the Renaissance, the growth of the great cities of Europe has been central to the development of civilisation itself."

Empty London sounds irresistible and yet I know people who are too frightened to walk from Kensington Gardens to the National Gallery or take the tube in from South London.

Your intrepid hero, on the other hand, at very short notice went to an eerily empty Optopeni airport in Bucharest, took a plane that was mostly empty to Munich, sat in an empty first class train carriage (EUR 80) in a train to Innsbruck and then took the train on to Venice and Florence. 

The direct train from Innsbruck to Venice is suspended because of the pandemic and I decided to spend two nights in Verona instead of just changing trains there. I was in a first class carriage in the train from Innsbruck to Verona (EUR 29, a snip) and I shared the carriage with one other person.

In fair Verona where we lay our scene, to quote the second line of Romeo and Juliet, I was ravished by the emptiness. Few people and almost all Veronese. 

Take a cheap plane to Venice, gentle reader, next weekend, provided you are not Romanian. Romanians have to quarantine for fourteen days.

Verona needs two full days. In some ways I like it more than Venice but I would not like it with tourists. I did not bother to see Juliet's supposed balcony. I did eat an excellent risotto cooked in red wine in an empty tourist restaurant called Liston da Barca for three successive meals. 

All churches were closed when I arrived but many opened the next day.

Umberto Eco wrote an essay on the self-confidence of cities. First-tier cities, he said, (Paris, New York, Rome) are slogans in themselves, completely self-explanatory. You are not asked about your opinion on them as there can be only one. He might have included Venice and Florence. 

I don't know why he included New York. I never was in New York but decided early this year it wasn't interesting and instead bought ticket for New Orleans, which always sounded fascinating.

The premium class carriage from Verona to Venice was far from full but not very empty because it was Friday afternoon and Italians were going to spend the weekend Venice. I stayed in a soulless four star hotel, the Splendid, whose rooms were marked down from EUR 450 to 125, and felt at first depressed by the little shopping street the hotel is on, with expensive shops and tourists.  But only a handful of people make a narrow street busy.

Walking five minutes to Piazza San Marco was a revelation. I was almost alone. I couldn't get enough of this and sat there each day drinking aperol spritzes, which were invented in Venice, at Cafe Florian which claims to be the oldest cafe in the world. 

It was founded in 1720. Older London coffee houses morphed into White's and Brooks's and Lloyd's of London, I suppose. Goldoni was a regular when it opened. Casanova and Byron were fond of this cafe, perhaps because it always admitted women. 

White's and Brooks's still haven't, which is absolutely fine. 

Coffee has Christian origins, coming from Ethiopia, but it is Muslims who brought it to Venice and Europe, for which I am very grateful to them.

Googling on the train told me 2.4% of the almost five million strong population of Veneto (or, as it should be called in English, Venetia) is Romanian. 90% are Italian. 7.6% "others". When I got to Venice I found that most of the others in Venice are Bangladeshi waiters and shop assistants, who are or will become Italian citizens. Venice has a thriving Bangladeshi community and two mosques.

For the 2015 Venice Bienniale the church of Santa Maria dell’Abbazia della Misericordia, which had been closed for forty years, was turned into a fully functional mosque, but after the Biennale the mosque was shut down by the city council, the modern equivalent of the Ten that ruled the Most Serene Republic. The church now stands empty again. 

The Grand Canal was empty too and I glid serenely back and forth on it. I got round at last to reading 'Death in Venice' and sympathised with the bachelor protagonist traveling alone, though unlike him beautiful boys do not interest me. Apparently the fourteen year old boy represents an allegory of the pagan ideal of beauty, but it is obviously also about Mann's repressed homosexuality. 

It would not be published for the first time now, but I didn't think I thought of pederasty when I saw Visconti's haunting film in my first term at university, so unimaginably long ago.

In Italian quarantina means ‘forty days’, from quaranta ‘forty’. Quarantine was invented in Venice and imposed on ships from infected ports, which had to sit at anchor for forty days. 

Shortly after I left the Redeemer Festival would have taken place on the third Saturday in July to commemorate an outburst of the plague in 1575 that caused 50,000 deaths in two years and killed nearly one out of three Venetians. However it was cancelled because of the Coronavirus. 

The permanent population of Venice is now only about 50,000, so a Venetian schoolgirl whom I spoke to in Florence told me, which means it's one third of its population before the 1575 plague and less than a third of its population in 1945 of 175,000.

Venice is the only place I know of where the seaside is the one place free of tourists. It's also beautiful, chic and ten minutes on foot and then twenty by the vaporetto that goes every five or ten minutes to Piazza San Marco.

I don't plan ever to return to Venice but if I did I'd stay at the beach, where the film of 'Death in Venice' is set and which the guide books and the concierge said isn't really worth visiting.  

In fact, now I think of it, the idea of an Edwardian beach holiday there in September appeals....

If you follow my advice and visit, you'll find food in Venetian restaurants is expensive but not fattening as it is mainly freshly caught fish. I cannot praise too highly the fish soup at a newish restaurant with reasonable prices called Gransapor.

The Grand Canal at Venice is on my list of seven wonders of the modern world, but even without tourists Venice is not  a real place but a museum. It is a monument to a lost civilisation, which is now plant for much the biggest industry in the world, tourism.

What struck me in Venice is that all the cities of Europe are museums now and European Christian civilisation will before too long be as dead as the doges. 

The Coronavirus is a symbol. So are the beautiful churches where saying Mass has been made illegal.


  1. A man opened fire at a Dallas bar enforcing COVID-19 guidelines after he was denied entry

    The Riverfront Boulevard bar had only reopened Saturday after a lengthy shutdown due to COVID-19. DPD officials said the shooting erupted before midnight after the bar's lone bouncer denied entry to three men because the bar was at full capacity. Allowing the three men in would have been in violation of the city's COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.

    Witnesses said the shooter went back to his sport car, took an assault rifle from the trunk, walked back to the bar and opened fire at the building.

    The gunfight resulted in one man being critically injured, another shot in the arm, and another suffering non-life threatening injuries from a gunshot wound. 

    The shooter fled before police arrived, and remains at-large.

    1. Crazy America news stories. I have been reading them all my life. The morning after the referendum an American girl TV presenter said, "We are supposed to do the crazy things, not the British!"

  2. A very good piece of travel writing; some excellent photos too.
    It deserves to be published.
    I like the depth of the piece, how you have woven in references to other writers, the apt and illustrative quotations and drawn in the origins of coffee, aperol spritzer, quarantines, etc.
    Plus of course your unique and idiosyncratic outlook - thoughts, opinions and conclusions.
    An interesting, entertaining and useful read.
    IMO travel writing is your forte, I wish you would concentrate more on it.
    However, this is your blog and you are entitled to write about whatever takes your fancy.

    1. David thank you. I wrote it very quickly and without joy just to get it done and thought it very makeshift. Yes I mean to stop writing about politics altogether.

    2. "...un chrétien ne peut fuir ses responsabilités d’ordre temporel, et notamment politiques."

      Pierre Manent : le refuge et le risque

    3. Paul,
      Obviousy writing qucik

      It reads to me as lovingly crafted piece.
      But please write more in the same vein, quickly and without joy, if this is the quality you can achieve :).

      Ha, ha, ha.
      Tres drole :)

  3. Once upon a time, in the Acropolis of Athens, there was a magnificent Orthodox church overlooking the city. It had been a (relatively minor) Pagan temple for eight centuries, dedicated to Athene Parthenos. With the coming of Christianity, it was rededicated to the Theotokos ‘Atheniotissa’, the Athenian. The site of a miraculous ‘inextinguishable light’ and holding the relics of St. Macarius the Great, it was one of the chief pilgrimage destinations of the East Roman world.

    I propose that we Orthodox should emulate the Turkish Muslims and begin a campaign for the restoration of the Parthenon as a cathedral. The restoration should of course respect the pagan origins of the building—those Classical era mythological carvings not already moved to museums in Athens, London, or elsewhere should remain. Visitors and tourists should be welcome (except, obviously, in the restored apse). Archaeology, too, should continue (perhaps with a less exclusive focus on the Classical and pre-Classical periods, however). But the building should cease to be a ruin and should once again become a working church.

    The Parthenon is one of the most famous structures in the world, and (although this would have surprised Plato and his contemporaries) has become the pre-eminent symbol of all that is best in both the Hellenic and broader Western cultural traditions. By reviving the Parthenon as an Orthodox cathedral, the Church could signal to all that Orthodoxy is the universal faith, the faith that encompasses everything that is good, true, and beautiful. The existence of such a cathedral would testify that the idols have been overthrown—not so much Phidias’s long-lost statue of Athene as the idols of secular arrogance. At the national level, it would demonstrate both the continuity of Greek culture and the radical transformation brought by the Gospel. Located in the heart of an Orthodox Christian city, the Parthenon would be guaranteed a congregation (which Hagia Sophia will never have until the Turks convert). Who knows—perhaps God will even grant a miracle, such as the inextinguishable light of old.

    May all the effort currently put into protesting the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque be redirected into converting the Parthenon ruins into a cathedral, of COVID-emptied churches into places where visitors do not know if they are on earth or in heaven, of good Muslims into better Christians, and of our sinful hearts into temples of the Holy Wisdom.

    Dionysius Reddington,
    Lubbock, Texas