Sunday, 26 October 2014


Warning - picture-heavy post alert!

Mum and I are both fans of Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti crime novels, set in and around Venice. I've been to Venice many times but Mum had never been, so when a couple of months ago I asked her if she'd like to visit the city, I had barely got the question out before she said yes.

Mum's also a big opera fan, so the Fenice (Phoenix) opera house seems a good place to start, especially as it is the scene of the crime in the first Brunetti novel; Death At La Fenice.

The fairly plain exterior doesn't give much of a hint of what's inside. Apart from the stalls, the entire auditorium consists of identical boxes in four tiers.

The whole thing is topped off with an elaborately painted ceiling, with a massive chandelier at its centre.

I must admit that we didn't spend a lot of time looking at the main sights of St Mark's Square, partly because it was so busy, but we did take a few photographs to show to Dad when we got back. The front of the basilica is currently being restored (there is always restoration work going on in somewhere in Venice, as it fights its constant battle against the effects of so much water and salt), so a picture of the full frontage wasn't possible. Instead we made do with the parts which are visible.

The jumble of domes, arches, figures and marble that is San Marco

Byzantine mosaic and carving in a niche on the basilica front

The Doge's Palace

The clock tower and astronomical clock

We escaped the crowds and headed off to see one of my favourite buildings in Venice. Tucked away in a tiny courtyard down an unassuming side street is the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. "Bolovo" is the Venetian word for snail, and with its curling external staircase it's easy to see how the palazzo acquired its name.

I always feel with Venice that you don't need to spend a lot of time visiting the 'sights'; just watching everyday life in a city which is built on water is endlessly fascinating. Mum admitted that she found it a bit disconcerting at first, but she soon got used to it. Everything which would normally be done by road, is done on canals. Deliveries of everything, from building supplies to fire extinguishers, are done by boat.

Police 'cars', fire 'engines' and ambulances are all boats.

Petrol stations serve boats, not cars.

Parts of the 'road' are closed off for building work.

Buses (bottom left) and taxis (the small white vessel in the centre) are boats.

Shops spill out of their buildings onto boats, like this extension of a tiny fruit and veg stall.

And the few things which can't be done by boat are put onto pontoons and towed into place, like these cement mixers!

Even mundane activities are housed in amazing buildings. I can't imagine that many places have a hospital which looks like this.

And while a fish market wouldn't normally be worth visiting for its architecture, the Pescheria certainly is.

Each of the pillar capitals has different, fish-related carving. I must admit that I don't know my haddock from my flounder, but I'm told that if you do, you can recognize the different species.

When you see all these buildings, it's hard to believe that they are not built on solid ground. Instead they are built on millions of long wooden piles, packed closely together and driven through the soft silt into the layer of firm clay far beneath. However the angle of some of the many bell towers does remind you that all is not quite as solid as it seems.

One day we visited some of the other islands in the lagoon. Originally Venetian glass was made in the city itself, but the fire risk posed by all the furnaces was so great that in the thirteenth century all glass manufacture was moved to the nearby island of Murano.

While Murano looks like a mini Venice, Burano, which is further north, looks very different. It's predominantly a fishing port, and the houses are all painted in bright colours - allegedly to help drunken fisherman find their own home after a night out!

Burano is also the home of Venetian lace, which is worth a post of its own, so here I'll just include a picture of the lace museum.

As well as glass and lace, Venice is known for its carnival, and of course its masks. Many of the masks on sale now have been made in China, but there do remain some mask shops which make their own, in the traditional way. Ca' Del Sol is one of my favourites.

The number over the door, 4964, is actually the house number! Venice is split into six districts, called sestieri (literally "sixth"), and within each sestiero the house number starts at one and just keeps going. In theory there should be six houses in the city with the number one, but so far I've only been able to find one of them.

Whenever I visit Venice, I'm always struck afresh by the fact that it's essentially a middle-eastern city, in Europe. This isn't surprising really; the city's wealth came from trade with the east. When I visited Morocco with the Ya Raqs girls some years ago, the old parts of Marrakesh really reminded me of Venice.

Doorways in Marrakesh (left) and Venice (right)

All around Venice you find figures in turbans, even one with a camel!

Despite my best efforts, there are a couple of pictures which I've not managed to fit into the narrative of our trip. They are the squero (gondola boatyard) at San Trovaso.

One of a handful of parapet-less bridges remaining in the city: originally they were all like this!

And a building with an amazing collection of windows and shutters.

Finally, I did promise you something sewing-related. Not far from the Accademia bridge is a wonderful shop called Il Pavone (The Peacock). It sells paper and textile products printed with designs based on Venice.

The notepaper block I use in my workroom came from there.

As did the tie Mr Tulip wore for our wedding.

As well as printed products they sell rubber stamps, including stamps for bookplates. I have a smallish reasonable large-and-still-growing collection of sewing books, and I'd been thinking for a while that it would be nice to put bookplates in them. In Il Pavone I found the perfect design, and they even put my initials into it!

A lady busy at work at her sewing machine. What could be better?

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