Thursday, September 9, 2010


A red glow from the lone light struggled against the dark shadows. I tip-toed down the stairs, past the lobby where a large bemused rhino, carved out of mahogany, was staring up at three naked women hanging on the wall – a distractingly beautiful renaissance-like print called ‘The Bath’. Unlike the rhino, I managed to tear myself away from the fetching trio, past the sleepy head on the reception desk and there I was, under the inky blue pre-dawn sky, in search of a city that I couldn’t find yesterday...

Yesterday, Venice was a city lost in the arms of its many suitors…like the belle of the ball, twirled around and passed on, from one greedy hand to another…hands that touch, hands that caress, hands that grope, until the moment becomes a whirl of colours and passions that leave her with her head spinning, gasping as she holds on to the closest pair of arms, so that she may stop and catch her breath. To a bystander, she, in such a moment is stripped of both her beauty and her virtue… and that was how first I saw Venice last afternoon, gasping in the arms of strangers.

Tourists had invaded every shy corner; trinket toting hustlers from Burkina Faso to Bangladesh lined the walkways along the lagoon and fossil-fuel belching motoscafi (motorised taxi-boats) terrorised the gentle quiet of the narrow canals…I had come to Venice seeking a city famed for her limpid beauty and instead I found a city writhing, ripped and ravished.

So this morning, I wanted Venice all to myself. As I walked by the water, along empty walkways, over little bridges that arched over the languorous canals, I saw a demure Venice, still nuzzling into the sheets of a gently fading night. Street lamps blinked uncertainly. Their reflection illuminated the waters near the bank while the heart of the lagoon, hitherto dark and murky like the night sky above, lightened up, like a heavenly hand had just dipped a brush with a dash of colour into the waters…dawn was breaking.

Before I knew it, I had reached Venice’s most popular tourist shrine – the traghetto or gondola station. At this early hour, these sleek black flat-bottomed beauties were tethered to poles, gently bobbing in the water. If only they could talk, what tales they would have told of the magic and romance that this historic city has inspired over generations. I sat down carefully on the slippery steps of the jetty and took out my camera in the hope of catching the first rays of the sun shimmering on the waters of the lagoon. I was about to take the first test shot when I heard a voice “Gondola ride, sir?” I turned and saw a young man, mid 30s, wearing the traditional gondolier’s red striped shirt and straw hat. Of course, I wanted a ride. A trip to Venice without a gondola ride is a bit like a trip to Disneyland without a roller coaster ride. But isn’t it too early? “No, no…in Venice, there’s always time for a gondola ride. Hop in…”

We started on open water but soon we were navigating along one of the narrow canals. Emilio, the gondolier, asked me which country I was from and then broke into an aria which I guess was supposed to remind me of Asha Bhosle singing “do lafzon ki…” (remember that gondola song from The Great Gambler?), but the song came with the sad, and rather painful realisation that not all gondoliers can sing like Pavarotti. So after gnashing my teeth through another Emilio special, I asked him if he knew of a nice story instead. Now that he did…

“This story is from long ago but every Venetian will tell you that every word is true. The year was 1340, and it was the night after St. Valentine’s day. A great storm arose. It threatened to sweep everything away. People cowered behind closed doors and shuttered windows. The waters of the lagoon pounded the walls and dark clouds of doom enveloped the city. While the people prayed for deliverance indoors, moored under a bridge, sleeping in his gondola that night was an old gondolier. Tired and drunk, he kept sleeping while his boat was torn and tossed into the stormy sea. The salt water woke him up but he was sure he’d surely die. But somehow, as if guided by a divine hand, he and his boat managed to scramble to the shore.

There on the bank, apparently waiting for them stood a man in the holy robes of a priest. Calm and serene even in the face of that great storm, the man asked the gondolier to take him towards the mouth of the sea. The gondolier was aghast. ‘Impossible! We’ll die…’ said the gondolier. Don’t be afraid, said the holy man. ‘You’ll be safe and you’ll be rewarded.’

Reluctantly he headed seaward. He needed the money. The holy man began his prayers. As he neared the sea, the clouds got darker. Demonic warriors surfaced and assaulted the little boat but the holy man kept chanting until the clouds and the villains disappeared. All was quiet. The holy man asked him to row them back to shore.

Once ashore, the gondolier went down on his knees and asked, ‘Who are you master?’

‘I’m Saint Mark (One of the apostles of Christ and the patron saint of Venice),’ replied the man. ‘Those evil beings were the emissaries of the devil. They would’ve descended on Venice and taken away her souls but I’ll always protect this city’. The saint blessed him, but the gondolier needed more. What of the riches he was promised, he inquired respectfully. The saint asked him to go the Doge (Duke Bartholomew Gardenigo) who would fill his cap with gold. But why would the Duke believe this story? ‘…for you’ll have my ring,’ said the saint and so he gave him his jewelled ring, one that ought to have been safe behind three locks in the Duke’s treasury.

“The next day, the gondolier presented the ring to the duke who was stunned by the miracle and thus was the gondolier rewarded for his service to the city, and since then us gondoliers have remained special ambassadors of Venice.”

Not a bad story, but as it came to an end I realised that we’d stopped in front of a large white weather-beaten villa. “Whose house is this…?” I asked Emilio. “It is my great-great-great-great grand uncle’s house… his name was Casanova… know him?” …but that’s another story….


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