Venice in July

Venice is art, music and history, with a big helping of mystery and surprise.

As Sydney comes out of yet another, and the longest so far, Covid lockdown, we’re starting to look around at travel opportunities again. I saw an ad land in my in box, a hotel deal for Venice, right next to Piazza San Marco. It looked expensive, so I looked up the place we’d stayed in. Much cheaper, actually comparable to a hotel in an inexpensive Australian country town. Oh, the memories!

Everything Venice — the sea, the damage it does, and the means to get around. Venice, 2018.

A good friend had been booked to go to Venice for her first-ever trip before Covid hit. I sent her some photos and the name of our hotel in case she’s interested. It’s time to plan our travel again.

I thought back to when we planned our own trip. Venice had been on our own bucket list after so many books we’d read which were set in that unique city. But we could only squeeze it in during July.

‘Don’t do it!’ we were told, far too late. ‘Venice is nice, although a bit overrated. But in the height of summer, in the heat, the stench is terrible!’

We were making our way across Europe in 2018 and visiting places along the way. We’d been homebodies for most of our lives, armchair travellers only. The world has so many special places we wanted to see, and our trip was bookended by people we needed to visit. But many other more seasoned travellers were trying to mould our itinerary to their own preferences. But we’d booked. Couldn’t back out. When you’ve been stuck at home most of your life, the chance to visit places like Venice, ever, were just too enticing. Even in the heat of July.

From Greece we flew to Rome and joined a tour which also included three days in Venice. In early July the summer heat was intense. Rome with its free-flowing water at various fountains and faucets was more refreshing than we’d expected.

We were travelling by train. Some people might turn their noses up, but not us. And the Italian train service, the Frecciarossa (‘red arrow’) at 300 km/hr is almost as fast as a plane, with the added bonus of scenery out the windows closer to hand. There were other benefits to Frecciarossa — wifi on board, USB and plug-in power, a call button system similar to airline seats and comfort. Good food, too. And for me, plenty of time to write. The plug-in power meant no chance of flat battery on my laptop interfering with my creativity.

Our first view of Venice, as the train crossed the lagoon.

Despite the comfort we were out of our seats to watch as the train slid across the bridge of the Venice lagoon. We could only see a tantalising glimpse of Venice, as if it was a treasure held loosely in a closed hand. Then we were indoors at the railway terminal (ferrovia, or ‘iron way’) for Venezia Santa Lucia. Just the name was exciting and romantic.

From the ferrovia, the steps of the railway station.

For the tour, hotel transfer was included. But for Venice, don’t expect a minibus or even a minicab. We got met, and then we walked. Not far, however. But as we left the ferrovia, we just had to stop and gasp. Venice! Grand Canal! Opposite was Chiesa San Simeon. We had to shake ourselves and hurry to catch up with our bags which were in danger of disappearing around a bend in the path. But our guide had paused, smiling. ‘You will enjoy our beautiful city, I think,’ he said, ‘after we have checked you in to your hotel.’

The foyer of Abbazia Hotel, Venice. 2018
In centuries past, this was the dining hall and a monk would give readings from this lectern during meals.

The heat of the day outside was instantly cooled in the high vaulted ceilings of out hotel, Abbazia. It is a former monastery converted to a hotel and was only a few minutes’ walk from the railway station. We were early for check-in and also had to register with our tour guide, but even indoors there was so much to explore.

When we finally saw our room, it was a lot larger and less spartan than a monk’s cell. It wasn’t huge, but it was large enough for a huge TV directly above a large, black bathtub. I kid you not — there was a bathtub in the bedroom. We discovered the separate bathroom with some relief. Taking to the other tour members, it appeared each room was distinctively different, and we were the only ones with such a tub.

The bathtub under the TV, at the end of the bed. The rest of the bathroom is on the other side of that wall.
Looking back the other way. The chandelier was Murano hand-blown glass. There was a white one in the bathroom.

As with so many other cities, we headed out the door as fast as we could. While we had tours organised for the next day, our afternoon and evening was free. So we crossed bridges, we walked, we window-shopped and just goggled at it all. Towards the end of the day we saw smartly-dressed Venetians gathering for a drink in a bar before heading home. Many of them chose to lean against a counter outside, sipping their Aperol Spritz. Having walked so much, we decided to sit inside. Despite the coolness after the scorching heat outside, there were very few people indoors. Our choosing seats marked us as tourists (assuming our clothing and accents didn’t do that already). I think the price went up too, for table service, but our feet needed a break.

Aperol Spritz on the Grand Canal, Venice 2018
Food franchises around the world. *sigh* Venice, 2018
The first Venetian mask we saw.
…and the second.
For the Star Trek fans, spot the Venetian borg. Venice, 2018.

We walked further and found a small supermarket. I needed my supplies of lactose-free milk (‘latte sensa lattiosa’). On the way back to the hotel we were distracted constantly, by Venetian masks, flags, shop windows full of exotic blown glass and a confectionery store specialising in nougat. Bliss!

You could get very fat in this place.
Cascading chocolate. Venice 2018.

The next day began with a vaporetto taking our small tour group to Piazza San Marco, where we toured the church then explored the Doge’s Palace. This included a demonstration of glass blowing, as gondolieri plied their trade past the windows. We succumbed to temptation and bought a set of tumblers, to be shipped home.

Piazza San Marco. Venice, 2018.
Looking doen to the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace. Note the round fountain in the centre.
Such opulence! Looking down the Grand Staircase to the courtyard. Venice, 2018.
The last view of Venice as the prisoner is taken to the dungeons gave this enclosed bridge the name, ‘Bridge of Sighs’. Venice 2018
Bridge of Sighs from the outside, seen from another room in the Doge’s Palace. Venice 2018
Venetian glass. Venice 2018
Beautiful blown glass, a touch of Cappadocia in Venice 2018.

Impoverished by the purchase, we were glad lunch had been included in our tour as we were taken to Burano Island to see an even more colourful side of Venice.

Burano Island. Lots of colour and curtains instead of flyscreen doors. Venice 2018.
Flowers, colour and wafting curtains on Burano Island. Can there be any more romance? Venice, 2018.
Mystery, music and temptation. Venice, 2018.
Yours truly, Burano island. Venice 2018.

One thing I was very aware of, was people everywhere. In such a picturesque place, it is difficult to get a photo that doesn’t have other people in it. Unless we were out of the way, exploring quiet, dark, dank alleys, we were around other people.

The next day was ours alone. We bought 24 hour passes on the waterbus and just took ourselves where we wanted to go. We saw more of the normal daily life of Venetians, rather than the tourist trail. The tiny alleys, little curved bridges, steps everywhere. So easy to get lost, but when every blind alley is showing something new, nobody cares.

The hidden, quiet corners of Venice.
Gondolier off duty. Venice 2018

We looked at the prices of gondola rides, then looked at the challenges of getting into one of the things. We decided to pass. Maybe if I was forty years younger and forty kilos lighter (and forty thousand Euros richer) I’d have had a go. We watched them glide by without a regret.

I think it was something like 60 Euro for half an hour. We passed.
The view from the top of the bridge (previous pic). The open area to the right is the ferrovia piazza – the railway station square and building. In thre foreground to the right is the waterbus terminal for Ferrovia. Grand Canal, Venice, 2018.

On our way back from Piazza San Marco, we saw a notice for a music performance. A small string orchestra, performing classical music. We booked tickets and returned later that evening, just on sunset, to the palazzo near Ponte Rialto. The tide was high, lapping the base of the bridge and I was determined to paddle.

High tide lapping at the doors. Venice 2018.
The water was pleasantly warm. Venice 2018.

The music performance was divine. A splendid way to spend our last evening in Venezia. The performers were all in Renaissance costume which also fascinated me, with my own involvement in various events requiring medieval or Renaissance clothing.

As the waterbus took us back to our stop at Ferrovia, so close to our hotel, we could see by the moonlight and the city lights that the tide was even higher. A combination of sinking sands and rising sea levels will be the death knell of this city, but for now it lives on, a delightful, fascinating place to visit.

And the ‘nasty smells in July’ of Venice? All we could smell was the clean salt smell of the ocean, overlaid with various aromas of cinnamon, chocolate and fried onions.

I long to go back.

Spring is Sprung — Wildflowers of Royal

For nearly two months, our road access has been limited and when we need to go to “the mainland” as we call the city, it involves a much longer drive. But as we emerge from winter, the signs of new life are all around us.

Fringed lily — a special find!

When you live in a place like this, you get to know the secret spots, the wildness. The Aboriginal people described six seasons, and the flowering of certain plants would herald a season change. Each area had its own signals for season and its rules to follow. The time of Ngoonungi, for example, is heralded by the flowering of the waratah, and signalled time to move towards the coast. That’s supposed to be September and October, but with climate change the seasons are starting differently, flowers are out of their proper time. The waratahs began to flower this year in August.

Waratah — highly visible.
Gymea lilies in bud.

Also notable in our area are the Gymea Lilies. The name sounds so pretty and sedate, like something you might find as a potted plant in a Victorian palm court. The reality is far more shocking. These bright red, untidy flowers the size of your head grow at the end of a stalk that can be 6 metres (20 feet) high. The base of the plant looks like flax, with lime-green strappy leaves in a clump from which the single stalk rises through winter with a tight bud at the top. Then at the end of winter the bud bursts open in a glorious splash of crimson. In the wild they are not known anywhere else but on Sydney sandstone, but they are so amazing to look at that the plant has been cultivated and exported more widely. There is nothing coy or polite about this plant. It screams its existence as it dominates the landscape. When the flower stalks are spent, they darken and blend in with the tree trunks around them. If fire comes through they will briefly flare again perhaps, or drop to the forest floor to decay and feed the next generation. The heat of the summer days splits open the seed capsules and the seeds fall to the leaf litter below.

Flowering from August are the tiny dancing ballerinas of the blueberry ash, Eleocarpus. They hang on the tree like corps de ballet from Swan Lake but soon change to small, purple berries.

On the side of the road, all these flowers in profusion.
Watch where you put your feet! Colour is everywhere.
A touch of sunshine.

Flannel flowers were always highly prized in my childhood. With their creamy-white star shapes and grey-green foliage, they seem so insignificant and plain, until you touch them and you can feel the soft, velvety fabric feel that gave them their name. On close inspection you can see the pale green tips to each petal, and an echo of the same pale green in the centre of each flower. The daisy-like flowers point to the sky and a profusion of flowering occurs in spring and continues through to Christmas. However, in some secret places, I have found flannel flowers almost the whole year round. When the plant has finished flowering, it is almost impossible to find, even when you know where to look. Often there are other white flowers that distract and confuse — white spider flowers, for example. For me, the flush of flannel flowers lifts my heart because my favourite times are the warmer days, and flannel flowers give me notice to prepare for holidays and sunshine.

Fabulous flannel flowers!
Eucalypt flowers like a bridal veil.

From the late winter flowering of “eggs and bacon” which continues through the summer, to the various wattles which light up the bush with gold that looks so much better where it grows then even in a photograph. As a child I wanted to bring some home to my mother, who loves flowers. The springy, tough branch wouldn’t pick easily and I had to twist it, to wrench it free (losing a lot of the fluffy yellow blossoms in the process). When I arrived home with an armful of flowers for my mother, she immediately ordered me outside with it. Wattle drops flowers when in a vase, and my mother also blamed much of her asthma problems on wattle flowers. We now know, erroneously.

Wattle in bud — macro photo.
Deep inside a wattle bud — microscope photo.

At any time of the year, wattle is in flower, one variety or another. It is so distinctively Australian, our “green and gold”, like the sunshine of summer.

Fragrance is not something we usually associate with Australian flowers, but wattle, and even eucalypt, has a strong honey perfume when in flower. Australian honey (made by European honey bees which were imported in the early days of colonisation) has a stronger flavour than the delicate European floral honeys.

Many Australian native animals, birds and furry creatures, often feed on the abundance of nectar from many Australian flowers. Waratahs and Gymea lilies can visibly drip with nectar. And if you ever get the chance to get up close and personal with a brushtail possum you can smell the honey on its breath.

In our backyard, which has remnants of native trees and shrubs which we never cleared, the Christmas bush is in the first white flush of flowers. Most people know the Christmas bush as a profusion of tiny salmon-red bracts, overflowing vases on the Christmas dining table. But the true flowers are the white buds which cover the trees from September.

Christmas bush flowering early. The salmon-pink bracts come later.

As we drive through “the bush” we watch the seasons ebb and flow. There is always something in flower at any time of the year, and we watch the landscape change in colour and form, and mark the passage of time.

Flannel flowers on Sydney sandstone.

The Social Distance Funeral

I was volunteering at what turned out to be the last face-to-face outing for some local elderly people when the phone call came in. My old friend Al had died. Not from Covid-19, he had been well and active. He had been found in his armchair after returning from his usual Sunday bike ride. A heart attack, we were later told. A quick, peaceful end for someone actively involved in his community. Al was 81.

He had lived in our village until about 18 months previously, when his family circumstances changed. He always loved being near the sea and in his new home, he could walk along the shoreline and feel at peace. A gentle, quiet man.

On the Friday two days before Al died, our Prime Minister announced new guidelines to the country — from Monday, outdoor gatherings would be limited to 500 people, indoor ones limited to 100. Not compulsory, just a recommendation.

On the Monday, however, after football matches had gone ahead with crowds of spectators and an especially large international church gathering had taken place (the church run by a friend of the Prime Minister) the proposed guidelines came in and were immediately made mandatory. Added restrictions on social distancing would be factored in so in many cases, the indoor limit of 100 was not going to be possible.

I spoke to the management staff of a nearby club. This is an entertainment venue in our country where meetings can be held formally or informally; receptions, conferences and classes. They also have gaming machines (a source of revenue) a couple of licensed restaurants and a bar. They were allowed to have a maximum of 100 in each room, but they had to allow four square metres per person. This meant some of the smaller rooms were limited to only twenty patrons.

I had a meeting at that club, the day before Al’s funeral. With four of us in the meeting, we had no difficulty with social distancing. Up in the restaurant where we took a break halfway, the usually bustling place was empty. We were outnumbered by the staff. When we left a few hours later, it was at a time when people would normally be gathering for dinner. We were the only customers in the place.

In the club. The customer at the counter was someone I’d come to meet. Social distancing between empty tables.
The clubs were all closed by the government two days later.

We drove to the funeral, unable to socially distance in the car so friends drove in separate cars. My husband and I planned to arrive early, so we could go in to the chapel even briefly. We expected there to be issues with social distancing. At a funeral we want to hug one another, to offer comfort or receive it in return. But here, no touching.

When we arrived, the TV news was there, filming. We had been warned. They were very respectful and paused to let us go inside.

Inside we could see that the pews had been marked with a gaff tape X on the seats to indicate where we had to sit. The pews were alternated; two Xs in this pew, one X in the next. Two after that. The pews with two Xs had seats at opposite ends. The single X was in the middle. So we sat, checkerboard fashion. This way, the small chapel could accommodate just over thirty people.

The chapel at the coast. A beautiful day. He’d have loved it.

Many of Al’s family were not permitted to travel for either health reasons or distance. They had sent their own messages which were read out. The funeral was being live-streamed with the link available for several weeks.

I wanted to reach out, to squeeze my husband’s hand, to touch the shoulder of my friend Mary who sat alone in the pew directly in front. No comfort permitted.

We listened to Al’s favourite music, we watched the slide show reflecting our lives intertwined. The minister of Al’s new church spoke. Family gave the eulogy. Someone read that wonderful passage from Ecclesiastes 3: 1-22, To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heavens.

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. And a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. How true. (Quotes taken from King James Version (KJV)

The chapel window looked out over the sea. I remembered when Mary and I had walked around the chapel with Al while he pointed out his favourite spot for a morning swim. He’d showed us where he went to community classes. We’d had a cup of coffee at the nearby cafe, sitting at a table in the sunshine with many other people sitting nearby. He missed our village but had made a new life for himself.

The sea after a storm. A place of peace.

Outside the chapel after the funeral we did elbow bumps or fist bumps, somehow seeming too light-hearted for a funeral. Plenty of hand sanitiser flowed along with the cups of tea and fruit cake. One friend of Al’s told us of the coping strategy of ‘biffing distance’. If your outstretched fist can reach the outstretched fist of another, you’re too close.

That evening we had a more informal social distance wake for Al, at his favourite place on our local beach. We had music playing and I wore a swimsuit under my dress. We raised a glass to Al in the sunset and I threw off my dress and went for a swim. The saltwater was warm in the evening, refreshing. I thought of Al, who had died before the restrictions had interfered with his life. Al, who had loved the beach, a regular swim and riding his bike. And his music.

Raising a glass on the beach to an old friend. This will not be possible for some time.

We kept our distance from one another and took ourselves home afterwards, to wake to a new world order in the morning. Funerals limited to ten. Weddings to five.

The next day, the clubs were closed. Cafés and restaurants closed except for takeaway. Schools to remain open but keeping students learning at home if possible was recommended.

Every day, it seems, the goalposts get shifted. The word ‘unprecedented’ has been getting thoroughly overworked.

And all through it all, the one thought comforts me — Al never knew, and will not have to endure it.