“There is still one of which you never speak.’
Marco Polo bowed his head.
‘Venice,’ the Khan said.
Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’
The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’
And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Venice is a bizarre place, there’s really nothing quite like it and I would struggle to compare it to anywhere else I have ever been. The first and fairly immediate dose of weird is having to get on a boat to go anywhere, and it was with abject puzzlement that I got onto a a little ferry, ‘vaporetto’ straight out of the train station. I mean, I knew that Venice was built on the water, but never having encountered this sort of set up before it felt quite strange.
Since the island of Venice itself is hellishly expensive and requires some serious advanced booking at all times (there is no off season here) we opted to stay on the little resort island of Lido. This suited us fairly well since it had a beach that stretched the length of the island and the weather was still good enough that this was a soothing place to walk along and nurse our Bellini hangovers. Lido was actually an excellent little find which I would recommend as a holiday spot in its own right. During the summer season it attracts 30,000 holiday makers and the entire island is catered to this summer trade with holiday homes and hotels making up the majority of the islands real estate. As it was, the army of little beach huts had been long locked up by our arrival and the place was looking a little desolate. The recession also seems to have got its hooks into the industry here, Venice might never be short of a wealthy visitor but Lido was supporting more than one derelict hotel. Sad times. I would love to holiday here in the summer though.
When we did venture onto the main island we were greeted with a great mish-mash of architectural styles. Venice is famous for this mix, a place where east meets west. The influence of the renaissance is here of course, and Santa Maria dei Miracoli was probably my favourite amongst the the many churches I saw. Just like the duomo in Florence the coloured marble cladding incredibly bright.
I have to say that I found Saint Mark’s Basilica (Venice’s most famous church, next to the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco) to be absolutely hideous. Again, this is another example of how words and photographs are a poor substitute for reality because I had always assumed that Saint Mark’s was probably rather beautiful. Perhaps its individual elements are, I guess, but together it’s a bit of a nightmare. It’s a patchwork vomit of numerous architectural styles which have been piled on over the years in an uncountable number of alterations and additions. Mark Twain aptly described it as, “a vast warty bug taking a meditative walk”. Saint Mark’s is like an embodiment of Venice’s achievements in the wider world, an architectural trophy cabinet of precious objects and materials traded, pillaged and plundered from abroad. The Doge’s Palace which sits right next to the Basilica looks charmingly ordered and beautifully articulate in comparison. What can be seen in so many Venetian buildings though is evidence of Venetian wealth and prosperity as one or the trading gateways to the east. You can see the byzantine/ottoman influence at work in both of the buildings below.
Wandering away from the crowds down the labyrinthine backstreets away from Piazzo San Marco brings you to an altogether different Venice. The streets are narrow and buildings are crooked, leaning drunkenly into each other or over the narrow waterways. In these crumbling backstreets it is easy to imagine the Venice of different era, a medieval town wracked by plague*, the prosperous merchant town of Marco Polo, the playground of Casanova.
Our trip ended rather unfortunately with a bout of mutual food poisoning (can’t win em all, and ironically this wasn’t the fault of the famous Venetian seafood), but Venice will stay in our hearts I’m sure. If you haven’t been then I’d definitely bump it up the list, but personally I think it will a quite while before Venice succumbs to an inevitable watery grave.
*A quick endnote on the plague in Venice. If you have a morbid imagination like me then you would probably be interested in this article about Poveglia, an abandoned and supposedly haunted island near Venice. Poveglia was used to quarantine incoming merchants as well as plague victims, and later housed a mental hospital in the twentieth century. Rumour has it that you won’t find a boat that will take you out there as the island is considered unsafe for visitors.
So after not having the best start to my week in Florence I did eventually get to see the mind blowing art and architecture that I was there for. My one real regret for the week was that I hadn’t had the money to be able to visit this city sooner when I was a History of Art and Architecture student; I definitely would have had a renewed vigour for my studies! I was astounded by just how many buildings that I had studied that were gathered together in such a small space, from the Uffizi to Palazzo Vecchio, the Medici Riccadi, Palazzo Pitti, Santa Croce and countless others. I was in architectural bliss.
For me the absolute stand out architectural piece was the obvious one; the duomo. When I first saw this building, making slow progress towards it down a narrow Florentine street, I was totally unprepared by what I was about to encounter. I spent an entire year studying Renaissance (re:90%Florentine) architecture, but obviously no amount of reading, lectures or tutorials managed to convey the majesty of this building. I just could.not.believe.it. The marble cladding is just so bright and beautiful, it’s incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a building, or at least not in my recent travels. I reckon it’s probably a contender for the most beautiful building I have ever seen.
In my head I was comparing it to Notre Dame in Paris because Notre Dame (1160-1345 w/later alterations) is also a city centre cathedral, but of a very different type. Every time I see Notre Dame I think about how it must have looked to medieval peasants when it was first constructed. It is a magnificent building now, but a person alive back then it must have looked like something that came from heaven; truly a house of God. I think if I had been alive back then I would have gone to church just to bask in the architectural glory alone, and in Florence this idea is still very tempting in 2013.
Florence’s Cathedral, colloquially ‘the duomo’ and formerly referred to as ‘Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore’ was begun in 1296 and completed in 1346, although the green, white and pink marble facade that amazed me was a later 19th century addition. Notre Dame always seems so dark and spindle-y to me, like a great black spider on the banks of the Seine while the duomo in contrast seemed incredibly bright. The austere interior was a pleasant relief to the ‘busy’ facade and it was nice to be able to concentrate on the solid lines of the construction. Absolutely astounding. I’m a little bit sad that I never picked up this kind of enthusiasm for the building while I was actually studying it, I guess seeing something in real life is worth more than a thousand words, or even a picture. Better late than never I suppose. And here are some (totally inadequate) pictures:
Appetite for beautiful architecture sated but not quite satisfied, my next stop was Venice which I’ll be writing about in my next travel post 🙂
I sure was in a sticky situation when I woke up on my first morning in Florence. Events from the night before having impeded me from booking a hostel for the next night, and my morning scouring of the internet having been unsuccessful, I hauled my tired and panic-y self and implausibly heavy little suitcase off to the tourist information office.
Florence was not forgiving on that first morning. I hadn’t been prepared for the narrow streets, and it was with some dismay that I noted the sheer amount other people dragging around suitcases on that Saturday morning. It seemed as if hostelworld.com hadn’t been lying to me after all, and the city really was full to capacity. Not wanting to stay too far out of the city, or in another criminally bad hostel I was even psyching myself up that this may in fact be the time for a hotel room. Ouch!
On arriving at the tourist information office the man behind the reservation desk eyed my luggage sadly, apologised, and confirmed that the city was indeed booked out due to an international conference. When I asked about hotels he regrettably informed me that the cheapest he had was €130 a night, and that, even in his personal opinion, was too much. For me it wasn’t just too much but just totally out of the question. I was swimming in panic and cold sweat at this point as I crossed the road to the train station to think. It was at this time that I started musing on how nice it be to not have to solve this problem ALONE. Travelling alone might have a plethora benefits, but two heads are always better than one in a crisis.
I considered getting a train to another town close by (Pisa is not too far) but realised of course I would be in the same situation there – nothing booked. Or, I could give in to my fears and book one of those forgotten-or-undesireable-even-on-the-busiest-weekend-EVER hostels I had been avoiding. I ducked into a cafe with wifi (luggage in tow) and made my peace with this decision. The clock was ticking and it was mid afternoon by this point, the ONLY priority for the day was to have somewhere to sleep. It was with tearful reluctance that I got a taxi to hostel 5km out of town.
I was dismayed beyond belief when the taxi turned off onto a endless potholed drive that led up to the hostel, past campsite and vineyards. I felt liked I had been deposited in the middle of nowhere, and all my defences had well and truly been worn down to the point where I couldn’t even appreciate the beautiful entrance hall (shown above). I feel quite sheepish admitting to this now, especially considering my warm and tender feelings towards this place by the end, but after I’d checked in and gone to my room I cried for the first and only time during my independent travels. Aw. I briefly convinced myself that I would leave Florence on the first train I could get the next day, and draw a line under the whole nightmare. But luckily, food, a shower, a nap, some new friends and quite a lot of wine are great revivers of weary travellers spirit and in just a few short hours I decided that I would stick around after all and absorb all Florence had to offer.
After initial scepticism about its distance from the city centre I fell completely in love with Villa Camerata and ended up staying almost a week before finally switching another hostel in the centre so I could enjoy some city nightlife. For a girl who likes her architecture this was an absolute delight to come home to every night:
I couldn’t help myself from doing some research on the building (it’s prime dissertation material, if you want my opinion – I’ll be waiting – History of Architecture students) , but I wasn’t able to turn up that much. Apparently the villa was a meeting place for the Accademia degli Svogliati, a 17th century association of writers in Florence. I couldn’t have thought of a better base for my stay in the city. Aside from the stunning marble in the entrance hall, the peaceful veranda with occasional sketching artist, the nearby vineyards, the manicured gardens, what I will remember most about this hostel will probably be the people. I met some wonderful people here, and I really was very sad leave in the end. I think this is a tribute to an unconventional choice gone right (as opposed to wrong, which has also happened a multitude of times). Villa Camerata would not have been my first choice, but it will be next time.
Would you like to stay at Villa Camerata? Summer months are highly recommended so you can drink wine and draw on the veranda. Bring insect repellent. I can assure you 100% that I am not being paid for such shameless advertising (more’s the pity) but you can book here.
Labyrinths. There’s something about labyrinths that I find endlessly (no pun intended) fascinating. I think it must the element of danger or the excitement of the unknown. Something beautiful, intricate, deadly – always alluring and yet sure to hold something nasty.
Maybe when you think of labyrinths you are transported first to ancient Greece. On the island of Crete King Minos would periodically chose seven boys and seven girls to be sent into his labyrinth. Inside they would be hunted and eaten by ‘Asterion’ – the Minotaur, a mythical creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. So the legend goes, when the third sacrifice approached Theseus volunteered to slay the monster. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos fell madly in love with Theseus and offered him a ball of thread to help him to find his way out of the labyrinth. Theseus successfully killed the Minotaur and was able to lead the surviving youths out of the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne’s thread.
Skipping forward to more modern times the labyrinth has proved popular fodder for creative types.
Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges imagines the labyrinth at Knossos (Crete) from the point of view of the Minotaur. Lonely and bored he plays games, imagines meeting another Minotaur and reflects on the labyrinth itself,
‘All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is like another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards, pools are infinite in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather, it is the world.’ ~ The House of Asterion, 1947
Another Argentinian writer, Ernesto Sabato drew upon the image of the labyrinth in his short story The Tunnel. The Tunnel is a tale of the dark psychological distress of painter Juan Pablo Castel and his obsession and subsequent murder of Maria Iribarne. Sabato uses the dark twisted pathways of the labyrinth to reflect the state of Castel’s mind. The painter muses that;
‘And it was as if the two of us had been living in parallel passageways or tunnels, never knowing that we were moving side by side, like souls in like times, finally to meet at the end of those passageways before a scene I had painted as a kind of key meant for her alone, as a kind of secret sign that i was there ahead of her and that the passageways finally had joined and the hour for our meeting had come.’
But eventually Castel comes to realise that:
‘ . . . the whole story of the passageways was my own ridiculous invention, and that after all there was only one tunnel, dark and solitary: mine, the tunnel in which I had spent my childhood , my youth, my entire life.’ ~The Tunnel, 1948
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth explores the idea of a mythical labyrinth as imagined by a little girl named Ofelia. Despite appearances Pan’s Labyrinth is not really a suitable film for young children, the real life drama will give you nightmares if the mythical monsters don’t do the trick. Ofelia is going through some tough times. The story is set in Spain in 1944, and Ofelia and her pregnant mother have come to live with Captain Vidal who is to be Ofelia’s new father. It’s post civil war era and Captain Vidal is busy rooting out anti-Franco rebels and being generally unpleasant. Ofelia finds a labyrinth in the woods nearby, and it here that she meets a faun who recognises her as the long lost Princess Moanna. As things become more difficult at home, her mother is ill and Vidal reveals himself be bloodthirsty in his pursuit of the rebels; Ofelia increasingly escapes into the world of the faun, completing a number of tasks for him. When everything really begins to fall apart at the end Ofelia runs into the woods and is drawn back to the labyrinth.
Ofelia’s labyrinth is very much one that is linked to her emotions and her mind; a psychological retreat. I’m never quite sure what to make of the faun, as at times he is creepy and cold and although he ultimately helps Ofelia I wouldn’t exactly describe him as a benign influence. Interestingly enough the word ‘pan’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘all’ – like the all encompassing nature of the labyrinth perhaps? Pan was the Greek god of the wild, and in Roman mythology appeared as a faun.
If you haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth then it’s definitely worth a look as it’s an incredibly beautiful piece of cinematography and actually deals with some very difficult themes. (I also highly recommend The Orphanage, 2007, which del Toro worked on as executive producer).
I’m a long time fan of Neil Gaiman’s Death and Sandman, and they’re probably amongst a small pile of books that I’d describe as ‘comfort reading’. Easily my favourite out of the lot is the seventh book in the series; Brief Lives. Brooding and miserable after being ditched by his girlfriend, Dream is drawn into Delirium’s hunt for their missing brother Destruction while harbouring his own ulterior motives. After a series of mishaps and arguments Delirium and Dream eventually decide to consult their brother Destiny for help in finding their missing sibling. They decide to walk to the garden of Destiny, and there’s only one way there: through a labyrinth.
As Dream and Delirium walk through the labyrinth it twists and changes until they finally emerge into the Garden of Destiny. It is interesting that this should be the route to Destiny and is a thoughtful reflection on the course of our lives. No matter what paths we take are we always ‘destined’ to end up at the same place? Are all paths really the same path? I have mixed thoughts on the concept of ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’ so my answer to this is that I just don’t know.
The indisputable beginning of my obsession with labyrinths was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, one of my all time favourite books. This book is quite long and complex so I’m only going to give a very abbreviated summary. An average American family moves into an average American house in what is supposed to be a dream move to the country. Shortly after moving in the family discover that the house is larger on the inside than on the outside, something which the father – Will Navidson is determined to get to the bottom of. One day a doorway appears in the living room, the doorway leads into a cold dark corridor that seems to extend impossibly beyond the dimensions of the house. Navidson is eventually moved to assemble a team of professional explorers to plumb the depths of the labyrinth he has discovered. The story has several different narrators, each calling into question the accuracy of the next. The entire book is a semioticians dream – if you’re into that sort thing. And if not, well it’s still pretty addictive.
The labyrinths in House of Leaves are varied and many. First of all it is possible to get lost in the text itself which twists and turns according to the story:
The house is often linked to the mental state of those exploring it. If they are frightened or lost then it expands, if they are sure of the way then they paths become shorter and easier to navigate. All those who come into contact with the house are moved to explore the depths and pathways of own their mind, forcing them to reflect on the things that have shaped them and the things that are important.
The final labyrinth on my list is one that I have actually been to at The Salon zur Wilden Renate in Berlin. This labyrinth is inside a very cool club, and for 10 euros you are given a gold coin and a message of welcome:
After waiting in the bar for a while I was blindfolded and taken to the entrance of labyrinth. Once there I deposited my gold coin in the the door and entered. Although I’d heard people talking about this place and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore a real labyrinth I have to say I was a little bit nervous – anything could have been inside. What I actually discovered was a womb or heart like chamber with a number of ‘corridors’ leading off it. Some of the corridors became crawlspaces, some were dead ends, and when I finally did want to leave pretty much all of them seemed to lead back to the same place! The most terrifying part was a door that lead into a completely pitch black brick corridor. However old you are there is always something terrifying about being unexpectedly alone in the pitch black in an unfamiliar place, and I could hear my heart beating. As I felt my way along the corridor a bright light would flash every few seconds, and I am now reminded of Ernesto Sabato’s words, ‘My mind is dark as a labyrinth. Sometimes there are flashes, like lightening, that illuminate some of the passageways . . .‘ When I finally did find the exit and was talking to my friend afterwards he suggested that it wasn’t scary in there unless you made it that way – what you find in there is yourself.