BRITISH INTELLIGENCE ABROAD
LETTERS FROM VENICE (7)
1st November, 2020
The rain was torrential yesterday and hardly anyone was out. This morning – Saturday - the rain has gone, the wind has dropped and the sky is clear. The streets and canal sides are full with people chatting in small groups. On my way to San Zaccheria I enter a small campo and spot a plaque one storey up on the wall of the far end. It is to the Italian Romantic poet, Ugo Foscolo, who, it says, with the typical pomposity of Italian monument writers, “matured his youth" in this house sometime in the early nineteenth century. Just above the memorial, an elderly women leans out of her window. She is talking, with great animation, across the calle which leads out of the corner of the square, to a friend who is one floor above her and at right angles to her. To pass out of the far end of the campo I have to walk through the middle of this conversation. The women cease their rapid fire chatter and gesticulations to look at me as I, first of all, stop to read the plaque beneath the first woman and, then, look up at them as I pass. They resume their conversation the moment I am out of sight. On my way back there are three well-dressed young men sitting on a step near my door. One of them addresses me asking if I can tell them where the nearest bar is. We fall into conversation and they tell me they are architects from Milan come to see the Architecture Biennale for the weekend.
Around 15.30 I take the 4.2 from Celestia to Sant’Elena, almost, but not quite, the most easterly section of Venice hunkered down behind the Public Gardens. On the boat I listen in to two Venetian men having a lively contretemps about football. To the left of the boat the sea is agitated while, to the right, the sun lays down a pathway on the water of dazzling liquid gold. When the boat stops I follow them towards the Stadio Pierluigi Penzo which is on the most easterly island. One long straight canal separates it from Sant’Elena and the bridges to it are used by the stewards to check our tickets. I have a tricky moment when I’m asked for ID and panic because I don’t have my passport with me. The word patente swims up into my consciousness and the steward nods assent and waves me through on sight of my driving license. There is a contingent of riot police with shields standing by the bridge and, down on the canal, a Police boat hums statically in the water watching the tifosi cross as ripples spread from the stern.
I go around the ground to the East Stand which, like three of the stands, is just a raked metal grandstand without any cover. I’m near the halfway line and climb to row A at the top to find an adolescent boy sitting in my seat. I show him my ticket and he moves. I offer to let him set next to his two friends but he stays put next to his father, talking across me regularly during the game. From my seat, if I turn around, I can see the Lido, the Laguna and several islands through the masts of a marina backing onto the ground. There is also a church with a tall campanile just behind me. To my left I can see the Curva Sud at the South end of the ground. This is where the Venezia FC Ultras take their places, pogoing and bellowing chants towards the 30 or so Teramo fans at the opposite end of the ground. The latter sport scarlet scarves and one waves a huge banner bearing the words ‘AL COSPETTO DI DIAVOLO.’ This means ‘In the sight of the Devil’ because Teramo wear a scarlet strip and have been known as the Devils since 1931.
At the centre circle the captains are presented with large bouquets of flowers which they take to their dugouts just before the game gets underway. Venezia are in a black strip with a small flash of orange and green. I’m enjoying the game when a Teramo striker scores with a curving shot from the edge of the area into the top corner of the goal behind which their own fans are chanting. I hear porco cane, merda, che cazzo and stronzo, the words one might expect to hear at a football match. I notice the funnels and top decks of a huge liner pass behind the Curva Sud and can also see the vaporetti arriving and departing at the boat station from my elevated position. Things are evened up when Venezia’s number 19, Alexander Geijo, pokes in a loose ball squirted across the Teramo goal and the teams go in 1-1 at half time. A man in front of me turns and snaps at the three adolescents sitting either side of me who have been keeping up a running commentary about the away fans, occasionally and vainly shouting insults in their direction. Heavy metal music is pumped out but suddenly the campanile behind me bursts into life, drowning out the piped noise below.
The game restarts and, after not very long, Venezia score again thanks to Vittorio Fabris meeting a low cross with a sidefoot volley. The tifosi are ecstatic and the Teramo fans fall silent. Twenty minutes later and Venezia notch up their third through Geijo again and its all over bar the shouting. The boy to my left consults his phone and announces to his friends that Manchester City have finished 1-1 against Everton. This gives me an excuse to talk to the boys. The one to my right is forthcoming and tells me Venezia are in the Lega Pro or third division but near the top. He also tells me the club were in Serie A around 2000 and that the ground, the oldest in Italy, has been cut down in size by half since those days. By now the sun, until this point dazzling me from the west, has fallen behind the West Stand and the floodlights are on. Home fans are already dribbling away, content with the victory, as the game comes to an end. The heavy metal starts up again and I walk down to peer through the barrier fence at ground level. I am able to watch the ritual of the teams going to thank their hard core fans behind the two goals. I imagine the Teramo players are fairly shame-faced as they approach the tiny group of fans who have made the journey from the Abruzzi in central Italy.
I follow the departing fans and recross the entry bridge where the police heavies are lurking still. I turn left directly towards the sea to the south of Venice, walking through a park of black pine trees. Another grander painted bridge crosses the same canal to my left to a Naval establishment, outside of which a gaggle of beautifully uniformed male and female cadets stand talking. A white-painted clipper with four masts and an English name slips by on the Lagoon. As I reach the fondamenta along the sea I turn right towards Venice and am met by a subtle and glorious sunset over the city in the distance. The sky is streaked with wisps of cirrus cloud tinged with pink, gold and azure. The sea is a rippling mixing pot of these intermingling colours with deep green thrown in and darkness is falling. I head west towards the Sant’Elena boat station where I disembarked earlier. The Police squad emerges from the park in front of me and stops near the boat station to ensure good order in this new embarkation of the fans. They board special supplementary boats bearing the words ‘Penzo Facile’ while a Carabinieri boat chugs, stationary, 50 yards off the pier. I decide, as the view is so lovely and, as I seem to have walked into the middle of the Saturday evening passeggiata, to walk back to my flat beyond the Arsenale. I skirt the pine park, which smells gorgeous, along the sea’s edge and soon cross another canal to walk along the outside of the Giardini Pubblichi. I pass a large caffé that protrudes into the Gardens at the next boat station. It is full of people drinking the same orange apéritif on the terrace and is called Paradiso which seems apt to me. I continue to walk westwards with the sight of the twin campanili of San Marco and San Giorgio growing larger in front of me as I advance. Lights are coming on all along the Riva degli Schiavoni. At the end of the Via Garibaldi, a canal filled in by Napoleon to make the only boulevard in Venice, I buy a sorbet and peer up this teeming street with its numerous café terraces. From here I take a right and melt into the irregularly lit velvety darkness around the Arsenale gate. On the way home I stop outside a cicchetteria where a keyboard player and a female singer are performing with their backs to the window. Closer to home I hear a different kind of singing and make out, in almost complete darkness, a ring of navy-clad scouts in a ring inside the cloister of my local church, San Francesco.
I stumble to the boat station two minutes late to catch the 4.2 which would have taken me clockwise round the city to Sant'Elena where I could have changed for San Marco on the number 1. I decide to get the soon arriving 5.1 heading anti-clockwise to Riva di Biasio where I can, similarly pick up a number one, this time heading down the Grand Canal to San Marco. It doesn't make much difference which way round one circles the city. The boatman mutters something about San Alvise as I get on which I choose to ignore. A few stops later at, surprise, surprise, San Alvise, the boat terminates and the boatman explains that it can't do its normal trick of cutting inwards into the city here through the beautiful Cannaregio Canal because, this Sunday morning, it is closed for a Regatta. I cut through on foot from the northern edge to the Cannaregio Canal and emerge opposite a small crowd on the far bank. A broad man with a white moustache and turned up trousers holds a microphone into which he chatters relentlessly, reading out the names of every member of each crew as it passes. Spectators stand on the Vaporetto landing stages, redundant from their usual use. Every two minutes or so a wide wooden boat with a rower standing on the raised stern, with five other standing rowers in front of him punting for all they are worth, heaves into view and passes us to cheers and the encouragement of 'Bravi ragazzi!' and 'Forza ragazzi! from the man with the mike. The normal tourist stream descending from the Railway Station stops to watch from the Ponte Guglie as the rowers pass underneath.
I cut through to San Marcuola and take a number 2, managing to get a seat in the prow for the main stretch down the Grand Canal. Alighting at San Marco I head for the Museo Correr hardly entering the main square and climb four massive flights of marble stairs to see the Ippolito Caffi exhibition.
In the afternoon I head out to the Lido in search of Art Nouveau buildings amongst other things. While I wait, reading inside the boat station, whenever I look up I'm looking into the empty space of a small square section of the ingress from the sea. Suddenly this is filled, just as the carriage of an old-fashioned slide projector might bring a slide into place before the lamp, with the side of a vaporetto, one which I don't wish to catch. The square frame is perfectly filled with the open section of the boat in which stands a beautiful young boatwoman with long, full-bodied raven hair and sunglasses. She cannot but be aware that she is on view and she shakes her mane of hair. She slams open the barrier to let passengers on and off and, then, with disinvoltura, shouts something to someone further up the landing stage before unhitching the rocking boat. Immediately the slide is withdrawn in the opposite direction, and the boat disappears. She is there for a noisy, striking moment and then gone. I carry on reading.
As soon as I disembark on the Lido I am back in a normal Italian city. There are cars, road markings, roundabouts and buses and, at first, not a canal in sight. I head down the Gran Viale which brings me to the other side of this long island which acts as an enclosure of the Laguna and, therefore, as a protection for Venice. On the way down the Gran Viale I take in the Hotel Ausonia e Ungaria which is a tiled Art Nouveau masterpiece with sexy Aubrey Beardsley nymphs on the facade. Although I am now on the far side I cannot see the sea. Over my shoulder I am aware of the Hôtel des Bains which has a 500 yard frontage and seven storeys. It is, however, boarded up on the ground floor. Before me is a painted concrete construction which I negotiate by passing under it and through a short corridor. I emerge, amidst some bar frontages, onto the sand. I pass through a gap in a four foot high wall of sand banked up deliberately by mechanical diggers, and then am on a flat wet beach which disappears in both directions as far as the eye can see. I walk down to the water's edge to watch the Adriatic roll gently in. There has been mist since this morning so, a kilometre or so off the beach, small ships and dredgers appear and disappear from time to time. There isn't a breath of wind.
I want to walk down to the Hotel Excelsior, another architectural extravaganza according to my guidebook, but am in two minds as to whether I should do it along the beach or down the Lungomare Marconi. This is because the space between the two is filled as follows: firstly there is a fence succeeded by three or four rows of beach huts belonging to one of the many hotels. This is followed by another fence and then by the sand wall which I guess to have been recently raised to protect the huts from winter storms. If I walk down the beach I am not sure I will be able to get off it back to the street as most of the beach here is allocated to private hotels. This is the seaside experience on an industrial scale. I take a risk and find that some beach gates are left open. The Excelsior is massive and has minarets and domes but does not seem that impressive. I turn back towards the Gran Viale along the Lungomare ducking into the Via Lepanto which is recommended for its villas. On the way I pass delegates from the National Urology Conference taking place in the Palazzo del Cinema which hosts a Film Festival every September. Many of them chat and smoke on a large balustrade. The Via Lepanto yields up some intriguing Art Nouveau villas with matching railings, tiles and patterning and brings me almost back to the boat station. This is the one whose barrier machines refused me entry a couple of days ago and which does the same today. I duck under the barrier in full view of the boatman on the 5.1 and explain to him what has happened. The boat sets off for Venice and, using a mobile phone-like device, he verifies that my Venezia Unica card is fully paid up.