Without a guidebook or map of Venice I wish you all the best in finding the sights and actually navigating your way out of the place. They do have the odd sign pointing you occasionally to the main plaza or train station, but I get the feeling the locals have adapted in their environment and over the years learnt to be kind and patient to lost tourist. They seem quite happy to lend a hand when required, as it’s so easy in the maze and series of dead end streets to loose one’s way.
We took off to see a couple of the ‘must sees’ and headed for St. Mark’s Square, the main gathering point for the boatloads of tourists coming into the city. There is an estimated 50,000 arrivals each day, so without a plan-of-attack on the day’s agenda one can be stuck in the wrong queue at the wrong time.
We had just managed to just get in front of a particularly large contingent of Spanish tourists that were landing on the dock outside the Palazzo Ducale, one of the main landmarks of the city. The palace, built in Venetian Gothic style, was the residence of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority of the Republic of Venice; in short they were everything to do with the courts and governance of the city.
It’s a lovely looking building and again had too many fascinating corners and stories to mention in a blog without sounding like I’m writing a visitors guide.
What did fascinate us both was the tour of the old prison. I say ‘us’ loosely as, if the fascination level was draw on a pie chart, perhaps my slices would be slightly larger than Nicola’s, but she humors me. There is a special tour attached to the main entry fee that I really wanted to do which involves a look ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak. But, as with many things in Europe over the summer, “we” were not the only ones with the idea and discovered that there was a one-month waiting list.
It is all to do with Giacomo Casanova, an Italian adventurer and author from the Republic of Venice. His autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life), is regarded as one of the most authentic sources of the customs and norms of European social life during the 18th century. His fame and popularity is probably best known for the often complicated and elaborate affairs he had with women, so much so that his name is now synonymous with “womanizer”. He associated and become friends with European royalty, popes and cardinals, along with luminaries such as Voltaire, Goethe and Mozart. Spending his last years in Bohemia as a librarian in Count Waldstein’s household, he wrote the story of his life, which has plots and drama thicker than the whole series of the Bold and the Beautiful condensed into one.
The tour we were interested in was to visit the “The Leads”, where Casanova was incarcerated in 1753. “The Leads” was a prison of seven cells on the top floor of the east wing of the Doge’s palace, reserved for prisoners of higher status and political crimes and named for the lead plates covering the palace roof. A state spy, Giovanni Manucci, was employed to draw out Casanova’s knowledge of cabalism and Freemasonry, and to examine his library for forbidden books… Without a trial, Casanova was sentenced to five years in the “inescapable” prison. He was locked-up for a few crimes, which by today’s standards would be considered a typical Saturday night out in London. They included blasphemies, seductions, fights, and public controversy as well as reading a couple of forbidden books.
What I believe to be true is this spy, Giovanni Manucci, was not born with particularly good looks, had a slightly soft handshake was never invited out to anything remotely fun with the lads. This created intense jealousy of the 30-year stud the women called “hot stuff”, so he did whatever he could to trip him up and eventually had him arrested.
This is the part I will fast-forward, as it’s a fairly lengthy tail, I want to give you the meat without you having to carve it. So in short, Casanova was chucked into a dark room with nothing but flees to talk to in what was described as “the worst of all the cells”. However, he was a resourceful chap and after five months of appeals which got him nowhere, decided he had had enough and it was time to get the hell out of there. He managed to get through the roof, I make it sound easy but he actually had a tough time of it, but out he popped, climbed down with the aid of knotted sheets and disappeared into the mist with the aid of a gondolier. It’s a great story and again as I have said so many times, worth a read.
The area you can visit if you missed out on the tour, as we did, is what is described as the New Prisons and a bridge that links the chambers of the Magistrato alle Leggi and the Quarantia Criminal.
The prison itself is fascinating and if you were unfortunate to be put in there, there wasn’t a convenient roof to climb out of like Casanova had. It’s made of sold stone and the spaces are very tight with solid doors and hard floors. There is Italian graffiti on many of the walls, which if I could translate would probably say things such as… “Bored now, can I come out?” or “why are all the good looking, charismatic, men locked up Mr. Manucci?”
The most famous part of the whole area and one most people have heard of is the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1614 to link the Doge’s Palace to the structure intended to house the New Prisons. It’s enclosed on all sides, which makes sense, and has two separate corridors running next to each other so it can be used for two-way traffic. The well-known name was supposed to refer to the sighs of prisoners as they passed the window on the bridge and took one last look at freedom across the lagoon and San Giorgio. Many were also heard to shout, “she can take the house, but not the car”, but that is only legend so don’t quote me.
After a brief interlude of lunch we were off to see St. Mark’s Basilica, known as Chiesa d’Oro (Church of Gold), mainly due to the millions of bright mosaics containing gold, bronze, and a massive variety of precious and semi precious stones. There are more than 85,000 square feet (or 8,000 square meters) of mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica… or enough mosaic to cover over 1.5 football fields. Most of the treasures came from looting during the Crusades that ended in 1204, and from conquest of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul in Turkey).
There are some pretty impressive things to see. The Pala d’Oro, a Byzantine altar screen of gold, is studded with hundreds of gems. They include 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, plus rubies and topazes.
From the Basilica, we continued our tour, including 25 bridges, 12 religious buildings, 16 glass shops, 9 dead-ends, 38 shops selling masks, 6 pizza sellers and one furious American who didn’t ask the price first and had just received the bill for an hour’s gondolier ride. From that slightly awkward scene on the side of a busy canal we had finally arrived at the Ponte di Rialto, or as the locals call it, ‘the first bridge to be built across the Grand Canal in 1181 by Nicolò Barattieri’. Perhaps the locals don’t actually say those very words, but the amount of words the Italians do use when describing anything is astounding so it has to be something like that… crazy romantic lot…
It’s true that the first bridge was built on that date, but the original few attempts either burnt down, due to their construction in wood, such as in 1310 because of a few angry workers at a pasta factory who were having a revolt led by Bajamonte Tiepolo, or collapsed, like the time in 1444 under the weight of a rather large crowd watching a boat parade, apparently they had all just been out for dinner in a local restaurant with a promotion “all you can eat Pizza –Pasta”. Unfortunately in 1524 it collapsed again and the local mayor wrote to his chief engineer…”enough, for the love of God can we please just make the damn thing out of stone.”
Plans were offered by famous architects, such as Jacopo Sansovino, Palladio and Vignola, but all involved a Classical approach with several arches in the designers, these were judged inappropriate to the situation, I can’t quite work out why. Michelangelo also was considered as one of the designers.
The present stone bridge, a single span designed by Antonio da Ponte, was finally completed in 1591. And a little interesting fact I managed to skim from the surface of this thick and creamy historical dish is… In the construction of this bridge Antonio was helped by his nephew Antonio Contino, who would also later design the famous ‘Bridge of Sighs’ I told you about, see how nepotism works in its purest form.
I think on that note we should all head back to campground and start to pack for our departure the following morning to the next stage of the journey… however, before we put anything into a bag I have to explain something that happened the night before, which took the whole campground by surprise and turned out to be one of the most fascinating things to happen on the whole trip. Not for its historical content, beautiful architecture, gastronomical delight or anything culturally positive now I think about it, but for what I now consider one of the must vulgar human experiments commonly known as “The European Contiki tour”.
I’ll set the scene so you can some idea as to what it was like.
3 x busloads (130 people).
Make sure they are between the ages of 18 and 23.
90% Australians who have never been away from home before.
5% other nationalities, including one Muslim girl from Malaysia who’s father had not read the brochure properly.
5% who we were not sure were humans or animals.
900 x bottles of beer.
50 x bottles of vodka.
30 x bottles of Jaegermeister.
1 x DJ and massive sound system provided by Contiki.
1 x invite for the evening’s entertainment, called ‘beach party’. Regardless of the fact that we were about 20 km from the nearest beach and if they want to call a small patch of grass next to the toilet block of a campground ‘beachy’, then who are we to argue?
We arrived back and immediately had that “oh God, what’s going on?” feeling, as the place had filled up from a few quiet grey nomads wandering around in flip flops, to groups of kids running around with bottles of beer shouting at the top of their lungs at each other. It’s easy for anyone reading this to think ‘Gareth’s getting old and grumpy and wasn’t he young once, full of life and care free?’ I like to think I still am, but I have to admit never found myself of a tour like this from choice.
The evening just got louder as the alcohol started to kick in, girls coming back and forth from their tents seemed to be wearing less and less, while the boys circled like vultures looking for the evening’s meal. It was really fascinating to watch as Nicola and I sat in the corner eating dinner in the once quiet restaurant while the beach party was being prepared. The rules and behavior seemed to be as follows, must have a few beach balls to toss around, wet T-shirt competitions, young men pulling their board shorts down occasionally in front of their mates, girls in bikinis, water hose cooling the crowd of seven dancing in a small group pretending that they were at a rave in Ibiza, have no consideration for anybody that wasn’t part of their group, drink as much as possible in the shortest timeframe possible, scream obscenities at everyone in your strongest Australian accent, vomit all over four of the five toilets in the washroom, have a short drunken fight with somebody in your group that may have just caught the eye of your new “girlfriend” you met the day before… and go to bed at five in the morning.
It wasn’t the best night’s sleep we had ever had, but I still managed to get up at 7am the next morning to do some emailing. A bomb had hit the area next to the restaurant that once had a nice little garden, where the “Beach Party” was the night before. The manager, who was on morning shift, was there scratching his head, wondering what the hell had happened and why the bar was completely empty. The place was strewn with hundreds of empty bottles, cigarette butts, condom wrappers and vomit.
While I sat there completely alone, the first of many to follow came into the restaurant looking a bit peekish to say the least, we have all been there…
What surprised me was that they seemed fascinated with their phones… then a few more arrived and then more and before I know it there were about 80 kids sitting around me looking as though they had all been dragged though a hedge backwards.
Then I realised nobody was talking to one another… they were all on their phones in silence, tutting or muttering to themselves. I asked the lad who had sat next to me as I was fascinated with what they were actually doing and he just simply said, ‘uploading to Facebook’. And then it dawned on me that the simple act of communication in the first degree had been replaced with the fact they were all communicating to each other, sending messages, videos and photos via their phones instead.
Once this had finished they all just wandered off one by one to complain to their friends about how terrible they felt. I truly heard one lad say to his mate that he felt, in more polite terms, ‘rather under the weather’ and how he wasn’t looking forward to the day out in Venice that was part of the tour, as he wouldn’t make it. To which his friend replied, and I kid you not… “Don’t stress mate, we can get smashed tonight, they have half price cocktails at the club we’re going to.”
It appears the campsite makes a fortune from these groups that come in twice a week from the alcohol sales alone, so are prepared to sacrifice the odd boring guest who moves out as a result…
We learnt one thing and that is a Contiki tour is not all about culture.
So Nicola and I moved out. Loved Venice but were terribly embarrassed to say we were from Australia after that night, as after the groups had left, we heard everyone complaining about the nightmare we all witnessed.
Anyway, never mind, life is full of rich surprises and just as we were about to leave the campsite we had one. A couple were sitting next to us with a coffee asked if we were heading north. We said we were as the weather was getting too hot for the bike and perhaps the Alps would offer us some respite. Our original plan was to head south to Greece but that’s what’s great about not having a concrete plan, things can change.
They said that they were heading to Bled in Slovenia, which is to the east of Italy at the northern most part. We asked a few questions about the place and within 5 minutes of looking at maps and seeing a few pictures online via the iPad, we turned the compass heading to due east. Slovenia here we come.