ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: SEVENTH DAY
VERONA TO VENICE (AND BACK)
THURSDAY 25 MARCH
Some years ago, when I was but green in deed, the BBC decided to dispatch me to a Presenters’ Training Course, on the wholly justifiable grounds that my nascent presentational style was rapidly developing from ‘wayward’ to ‘incompetently unpredictable’. The course took place in Bristol, which didn’t help, and I’m not the one to judge its effect on my subsequent career.
But I remember it very well, probably for all the wrong reasons, and made serious attempts afterwards to put into practise what we were told.
If, for example, a phone-in caller greets you with the familiar ‘Hello, Ian - how are you’, you should never, ever, EVER reply ‘Fine thanks. How are you?’ They might actually tell you, and thus subject you and your other 37 listeners to a bombardment of aches, pains, worries and family problems which you didn’t bargain for when all you were expecting was the answer to a quiz question.
In the same way, we were told, never ever assume that, just because YOU are in a great mood and think that all’s well with the world, your caller will feel the same, or even be in a position to know.
These lessons were brought home to us forcefully when various radio ‘blooper’ incidents were played back to us. The ‘how are you?’ trap was perfectly illustrated by a listener who wasted no time at all in telling the hapless presenter about his bad back, his upcoming hospital appointment ‘to find out if the tumour is malignant’, his recently deceased wife and the theft of his car.
Another presenter - uncomfortably close to home - greeted a caller by saying how lovely it was to see all the trees coming back into their springtime glory once again, only to be told by the caller that she was blind. That sort of thing really does stop you in your tracks.
It also plants in your mind the unstoppable gremlin of the ‘Freudian Slip’. In the case of the blind caller, the presenter proceeded to pepper the conversation with ‘I see’ and ‘How often do you see your brother?’ and ‘Do you see my point?’ Each time we heard it, we winced at his discomfort and pain.
In the final session of the course, we wall wanted to know the same thing. What makes a good radio presenter? And the answer surprised us.
To be a radio presenter at all, you have to believe that other people will want to hear what you have to say. For that to work, you have to have something to say and not just an engaging way of saying nothing.
To be a successful radio presenter, we were told, you have to possess a sense of self-importance way beyond the average. You have to be a bit of an egotist - but as blamelessly as you can.
I don’t think I ever quite got the hang of blameless egotism. My egotism was always unmanageably obvious and blameworthy. I guess it still is. After all, throughout my descriptions of the Grand Tour, I have been declaiming my opinions about some of Europe’s greatest cities - as if my opinion mattered.
Whereas, if the truth be told, I know perfectly well that my opinion matters no more than anyone else’s. I’m just one of those people who have too many opinions that I hate to deprive other people of hearing.
And this recalcitrant syndrome is at its worst when it comes up against ‘conventional wisdom’. You know the sort of thing: eating bread crusts makes your hair curl; carrot consumption enhances night vision; all gay men are hairdressers, clothes designers or air stewards; where there’s smoke there’s fire; Venice is the most unforgettably beautiful city on Earth.
Let’s get this straight. There are some things in this life - in this world - that you can be absolutely certain about. The longest river, the highest mountain, the phases of the moon, the ugliness of babies, the inevitability of death and taxes. Most birds can fly, the tides will come in and go out again and, if today is Tuesday then tomorrow will very definitely be Wednesday.
And unless you’re a member of some obscure religious sect, or perhaps the Flat Earth Society - and you were prepared to give it a moment’s thought - you would probably find these incontrovertible certainties quite comforting, as I do.
But I start to feel uneasy when I’m confronted with opinion masquerading as fact. How can you ‘know’ that the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece? How can you promulgate the Taj Mahal’s beauty over all other buildings as a ‘fact’? Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world (fact) but who is to say if is the most magnificent (opinion)?
And, over the years, I’ve found that this phenomenon is particularly common in the heady realms of ‘High Art’ - design, painting, sculpture, poetry, drama, literature. In these matters, over and above the basics, there are no facts on which to base a reliable opinion at all.
I find it incredibly difficult to like, or even appreciate, something simply because I’m supposed to. I can’t understand most of what Shakespeare wrote. I reckon that the music of Mozart - venerated amongst the cognoscenti - is repetitive and samey, and, after struggling for years with ‘The Classics’ of English literature, I believe, quite sincerely, that the world would be a much better place if the likes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen had never been born.
For me, there are things other than beauty that are in the eye of the beholder.
None of this is ground-breaking stuff, I admit. It’s median-level scepticism on a scale rising to base-level cynicism.
And it’s why I don’t like Venice.
It’s not entirely Venice’s fault, of course. And I know that Venice can survive perfectly well without my endorsement or ‘approval’. In fact, the ‘hurt’ (if that’s the right word) is more on my side than Venice’s. I wanted to like it. I wanted to love it. I wanted to be as enraptured and as captivated by it as so many others have been over the centuries.
The causeway over the lagoon comes as a blessed relief after Venezia Mestre - the part of Venice that sits on the mainland and is never photographed because it’s a seemingly endless, drab, unkempt and ugly Italian version of Grimsby. The hideous decrepitude of Venezia Mestre is impossible to ignore and made me wonder, as the train passed far too slowly through it, why the praise-singers of Venice never mention it.
After that, Venice was probably on a hiding to nothing.
Having said that, the entry into Venice ‘proper’ by train couldn’t be better. You walk out of the station and there it all is; everything you’ve heard about. The Grand Canal passes the station exit. There are the gondolas and waterbuses, the numerous churches and palaces. When I arrived, there was even a brass band playing and people singing.
Quite by chance, my brother called me just as I was trying to take it all in. I tried to describe to him - multo agitato - the scene before me and those feelings of incredulity anyone would feel when they had finally arrived - after 61 whole years - in a city which, according to 'conventional wisdom', everyone should visit at least once in their lives.
Strangely, Hildie chose almost exactly the same moment to call as well. I’m still not sure what she made of my over-excited, garbled exclamations.
There’s no way that a first-time visitor’s very first journey along the Grand Canal can ever be anything other than amazing. It’s surprisingly wide and tightly lined with a vast assortment of buildings, from humble tenements and markets to ornately baroque palaces, churches and museums.
The Grand Canal is, of course, Venice’s ‘High Street’ and, as the day wore on, it became ever busier with any High Street’s Venetian equivalent; waterbuses, water-taxis and water-vans and -trucks. As well as the city’s very own gondolas and traghetti.
At this point, I could look askance at you - all supercilious and patronising (as so many Venetophiles are) - and say ‘You do know what a traghetto is, don’t you?’ (Notice, too, my careful differentiation of Italian singular and plural just now.) Except that, before I arrived in Venice, I didn’t know what traghetti were, either. So, for the benighted amongst you…
There are mysteriously few bridges across the Grand Canal. In their comparative absence, you can pay €1 and join the passengers on a traghetto, a gondola-ferry. Tradition dictates that only the cowardly sit down for the crossing. Real Venetians stand up, at some considerable risk to their dignity.
The waterbus journey along the Grand Canal is mind-blowing. I have no problem with admitting that there really is no place anywhere on earth quite like Venice - or even remotely like it. My first waterborne view of the Rialto Bridge, and all the hustle and bustle around it, will stay with me forever.
But somehow, just as the waterbus deposited me at St Mark’s Square, it all started to unwind.
The bus had been packed and stuffy and I had been looking forward to some landward fresh-air.
But the crowds stayed right there with me. Venice was the first ‘world-class‘ tourist city on my Tour. As I fought my way towards the Piazza, I realised that the only other city I had visited with that kind of status is Paris which - take it from me - copes much, much better with its visitors than Venice does.
I struggled past innumerable stalls selling cheap-looking fridge-magnets, kiss-me-quick hats and ‘I heart Venice’ T-shirts and turned into Piazza San Marco itself; the heart of the city.
And here, words fail me - and for all the wrong reasons.
The main sights are the Doge’s Palace (on the right in this picture), the Duomo (Cathedral) of St Mark (in the middle), the Campanile (Bell Tower) (just visible on the left) and the open square itself. If, that is, you can get anywhere near any of them through the heaving throngs of tourists.
If you’ve never experienced an exploited honeypot tourist trap - and I hadn’t - then Venice would be the best place to go to see what they’re like. The squares, streets, monuments and great buildings of London, Paris and Istanbul suddenly paled into frightened submission before this champion of champions. Countless thousands of photo-clicking tourists, many of them herded into extraordinarily large groups - blocked my way and my view in all directions. It was virtually impossible to move about.
After ten minutes or so I found myself standing at the base of the Campanile in a kind of frustrated rage. There were just far too many people (me, of course, amongst them) with too few options to disperse.
At one stage, I even started to panic a little. I know that crowd-panic is a not uncommon phenomenon but it was new to me and unnerved me completely. A French schoolteacher called Celeste offered me a gulp of water and engaged me in conversation until I felt better. She suggested I join her and her charges on a trip to the top of the Campanile ‘to get away from all this noise down here’. ‘Don’t worry’ she said, ‘there’s a lift!’
Which is just as well, as it’s 99m tall (that’s almost 325ft in British money).
It was lovely up there. Visitor numbers are controlled and we were amongst the first of the day. The views over the Piazza and the Duomo, across the city and out over the lagoon to the other islands were stupendous. Once again, it felt as though the trip had been worth it.
And then, quite suddenly, they rang the bells. They began to swing slowly above our heads - very close above our heads. We looked at each other in disbelief. Surely, we were thinking, they wouldn’t ring the bells with us standing so near to them.
But I’m glad to say they did. Another ineradicable image of Venice which I’ll cherish forever is of two-dozen or so startled French schoolchildren gazing up in open-mouthed amazement as the bells of St Marks loudly - almost deafeningly - welcomed them to Venice.
But the bells were ushering me away. I found a narrow alleyway leading off the Square and wandered along it, just to see where it went. And, quite suddenly, I was totally alone. I kept turning corners and crossing tiny canal bridges until I was utterly lost and perfectly happy again.
I found a small cafe which the gondolieri were using and used it myself. The panini, apple pastry and coffee were wonderful. And the gondolieri were handsome enough to defuse my cynicism about their ludicrous costume - which is (OK, I admit it) quite dashing.
I could almost feel my heartbeat slowing down a little as I meandered aimlessly and contentedly along the city’s lanes, which criss-crossed the smaller, more intimate, canals. Small bridges gave me glimpses of the decay which seems to lie at the very heart of Venice. Grand squares and monumental architecture notwithstanding, the city is falling to pieces. You don’t have to scratch very far below the surface to see collapsed plasterwork, rotten shutters and brickwork turning to dust.
Confirmed Venetophiles - of whom there are countless millions and to all of whom I apologise profusely - will say that all this is deeply romantic in itself. They will insist that the mouldering decay of a once wealthy, cultured and artistic city is as enchanting as the quality of the light and the drama of the sunsets.
But a very great deal more than 21st-century daydreaming is needed to save Venice.
The city’s population has fallen to an all-time low of just 60,000 - that’s two Peterlees - and I wasn’t surprised. As I walked up and down its hidden alleys, I began to wonder where ‘ordinary‘ Venetians do their shopping. I saw no grocer, no butcher, no newsagent and certainly nothing resembling a supermarket. Plenty of cheap pizzerias, cafes, expensive jewellers and clothes shops, though.
I also wondered what Venetians do to earn a living. All the evidence before me pointed to one frightening conclusion. Venice is probably the only city on earth which is totally dependent on tourism.
In itself, this need not necessarily lead to disaster. Even given this status quo, Venice would excel if it was somehow being preserved and maintained as a living, breathing museum for the pleasure and enjoyment of the whole world; if its development was being managed and planned for; if its infrastructure and facilities were being improved to meet the ever-growing needs of the tourists on which depends absolutely.
Instead though, an unhappy reputation goes before it. It is perceived, quite rightly, as a grasping, expensive and exploitative city which earns countless millions of euros from its tourists but which seems to spend all that money elsewhere.
If Venetians don’t care about the upkeep, planning and reputation of their city, why should anyone else?
Back in beautiful Verona I felt a need to put my disgruntled thoughts about Venice behind me. My wonderful B&B hosts recommended that I try one of Verona’s best local restaurants, so I did.
It was one of those places where the waiter scowls at you if you order the ‘wrong‘ wine, so I accepted his recommendation - which cost twice as much (naturally). For some reason - probably the strangeness of the day - I also accepted his menu recommendation.
Which is why, for the first time in my life, I ate horsemeat.
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