A Room 200 Steps From St Mark's
A Convent Stay in Venice
The morning mists still swirled over the lagoon as the ferry approached Venice. At first all we could see were the wooden channel markers as they drifted in and out of view. The water lapped softly against the boat, and the cry of gulls filled the air.
Arriving by vaparetto (or water-bus) from the airport remains the most magical of ways to enter in Venice. Against a backdrop of campaniles and medieval torres, the ferrymen shout out greetings while helping tourists and locals alike across the gangway. Subject only to the tides, the vaparetto takes its time, slowly weaving between the islands of the Venetian lagoon. Then comes the stop of San Marco, and the world erupts into chaos.
The Piazza San Marco
The stop of San Marco is along the Riva degli Schiavoni, a sweeping promenade named after those Dalmatian traders (the Schiavonia) who once used this stretch for mooring their boats. Now dozens of gondolas float side by side, waiting for business. The promenade offers spectacular views across the Venetian Lagoon to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Amongst the jumble of medieval buildings hawkers cheerfully tout postcards, toy gondoliers and t-shirts, alongside stalls selling gelatos of all flavours (for a day in Italy without eating a gelato is day wasted.)
Despite luggage in tow, we paused on the Ponte della Paglia to stare at the Bridge of Sighs. How many have stood here, desperate for a final glimpse of a loved one doomed to disappear forever into the infamous dungeons?
The Piazza San Marco was once the centre of Europe. Our place of abode, the Istituto San Giuseppe, lay merely two hundred steps away. Our path lead under the Torre dell’Orologio, where two huge bronze moors have struck the hour (with variable accuracy) since the fifteenth century. Our next steps lie along the Mercerie, a string of narrow alleys linking San Marco to the Rialto. Famous for shopping, it is only the things sold which have changed down the centuries; not the cobbles, not the buildings, not the throngs of people. The shops are tiny, often with room for only two or three people.
By step forty we'd left the crowds for a world of restaurant-lined streets and tiny piazzas. Chairs and tables spilled from the cafes, and the smell of coffee and garlic filled the air. Our first slice of pizza proved thin-crust and perfect.
The Istituto San Giuseppe
With a turn of a corner – few streets in Venice run in a straight line – a limestone bridge arched gracefully over a canal. Our convent lay directly opposite, a door opening directly onto the water. On cue a gondola glides by, coming to a colourful stop outside our convent to collect passengers.
The Istituto San Giuseppe proves a maze of grand staircases and marble halls. Paintings cover the ceilings and walls – in a room large enough to host a masked ball, a fresco lies hidden under the scaffolding of restoration – and everywhere is bathed in peace.
Our room is simple and clean. The windows open onto a terracotta skyline, with clothes strung between buildings. Across a flower-strewn courtyard a woman in black is busy in a kitchen, filling the air with delicious aromas. Geraniums hang everywhere in pots. In the distance a camponile towers (at a slight angle) over the other buildings, tolling away the hours.
Next morning we wake to the sound of seagulls, followed shortly by the first bells of the day. As is the way all over Italy, each church keeps its own, strict time, and the bells chime a few minutes apart, never quite in unison.
In Italy, convents and monasteries have offered hospitality for centuries. Most provide breakfast, and may have a restaurant attached. Rooms may be simple, but this does not imply austerity. Convents and monasteries are found in Renaissance palaces, medieval walled towns or set amongst lavender fields and vineyards. Many house artistic treasures; a painting by Rubens, or walls adorned by Fra Angelico. Each religious house has its own character, (such as the monastery Convento Sant’Agostino in San Gimigiano which refused entry to HRH The Prince of Wales because he arrived after closing time. The story alone makes the place worth a detour).
Venice Of A Morning
One of the delights of Venice is how the city changes with the hours. Of an early morning, the famed four horses of San Marco look down onto a piazza home to pigeons and people downing a quick expresso on their way to work.
The Rialto markets are less than ten minutes of cobble-stone streets away. As the sun rises, stalls overflow with products from the sea – unrecognisable fish, bags of crabs, slabs of fresh swordfish. Aside from les frutis de la mare, there are also stalls of fresh meat, cheeses, breads, and fruit. Breakfast comes in the form of delictable cups of fresh berries and peaches. We sit eating near the statue of the Gobbo (The Hunchback), an expresso from a nearby café close to hand.
Venice is a city to be explored on foot. Chaotic streets suddenly become deserted alleys. No matter how confusing the winding streets, there is always a sign pointing either to the Rialto Bridge or to San Marco's – often in a direction which seems counter-intuitive. Most streets wind, many bridges bend, and by late afternoon even space and time seem to curve until reinforced with a strong expresso.
Venice by Day
By mid-morning, the cafes and restaurants lining the Piazza San Marco are overflowing. Competing string quartets fill the air with waltzes. Seeking the Palazzo Cantarini del Bovolo, (famous for its curving, snail-like stairway), we left the Piazzo San Marco and religiously followed the map, only to re-enter the piazza on the other side. A second attempt and we were rewarded – only by following other people with cameras at the ready, rather than relying on the small signs pasted haphazardly along the way.
The Squero di San Trovaso (not far from the Ponte dell’Accademia) houses a gondola repair shop, one of the few remaining in Venice. Although closed to the public, it can easily be seen from the other side of the canal on the Rio San Trovaso.
Catching the No. 1 vaporetto is a perfect way to sit back and watch Venice unfold. The vaporetto travels from San Marco to the railway station, and with its frequent stops allows plenty of time to watch as grand palaces and forgotten houses float by. Many of the buildings have frescoes on their facades, or grand entrances at water level with exquisite moorish windows on the higher floors.
The Evening Promenade
It is during the evening promenade, however, that the Piazza San Marco truly comes alive. As the evening mist swirls in from the lagoon, pink lamps glisten against the gathering darkness, and sense of carnival fills the air as tourists and locals in their finery fill the square.
The light shimmers with white marble. Venice becomes once more a medieval mistress, a city of Renaissance allure and masques, daring you to come and explore.
(c) Anne Harrison 2011
The Literary Traveller
Part of the Jonathan Argyll Mystery Series, which appeals to anyone with love of Venice, history and art - or who has dealt with the in-fightings of committees or the ineptitude of the Italian police bureaucracy.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Anne Harrison