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Monday, 6 April 2009

My 'Beautiful'
Way to Venice

By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer

Venice, Italy
Almost every inquiring tourist in Venice winds up hearing at one point or another: 'Do you want to go by the short way, or the beautiful way'? Actually, that bit of rhetorical cleverness is a false dichotomy: Venice's center is compact, and pretty much, for the visitor, at least, confined to the campos (squares) in the San Marco sestiere (district). As for beautiful? What isn't in this ancient city-state, founded in the 9th century and home to Marco Polo to Cole Porter?

But I didn't come here recently to praise. Even this article --more memoir than travelogue -- wasn't conceived beforehand. My primary aim was to catch up with some English friends, now settled here, and in particular to interview one of them, the best-selling author Laurie Graham, for a more literary-minded piece. Venice, the place, was going to show up as an ancillary issue -- what attracts female English authors like Laurie (Gone with the Windsors, and more recently, The Importance Being Kennedy) and Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and the like to seek their literary muse here. Even, before them, mucho machos like Ernest Hemingway. And latterly to the roster, the well-known American writer Donna Leon, scheduled, interestingly enough, for a talk at the Free Library 23 April.

Venice hasn't been an easy place for me to know. I was here, for the first time, about 40 years ago, and, again, another life time ago, in the 1980s. On my first sojourn, I accompanied my late father, an art historian, and we divided our/his time inspecting great works and drinking Negronis at Harry's Bar. On this most recent trip, I skipped alot of the great works, but the Negronis ($18 a pop) were still first rate, though Harry's is less glamorous than I remembered. (The Dad factor, I guess).

In my mind, I've always been put off by Venice's association with a louche, decadent lifestyle, embodied by works by Henry James and Thomas Mann, and, in between, by the lives of Peggy Guggenheim, Sarah and Gerald Murphy, and, quintessentially, Cole Porter who, with wife Linda, spent several summers here frittering away fortunes from their palazzos on the Grand Canal. Latter-day song writer, Elton John, carries on the tradition.

Some cities are masculine: Chicago, and, yes, Philadelphia. Others are feminine: Paris, or San Francisco, say. On the other hand Venice, almost uniquely, has another gender sensibility, a kind of metro-sexuality.

Where else is a city so dedicated to art, an effete connoisseurship, virtu, dilettantism, and fashion? I counted two bespoke bootmakers. Numerous paper shops -- some purveying hand-made and printed varieties -- abound. Antique stores. Shops that are the exclusive preserves for costumes, capes, and masks.

Add to that numerous outlets of some of the most luxurious goods anywhere -- Italian brands like Ferragamo and Armani and French names like Cartier and Louis Vuitton -- and some of mostly smartly turned out natives and tourists alike, and you further get the idea. All this in a core city of about 50,000 denizens!

What makes the shopping aura also quite different than that, say, at the King of Prussia mall (besides canals and gondolas surrounded by 15th-century palazzos, of course) is the odd absence, amidst otherwise dripping excess, of American luxury marques. What, no Ralph Lauren? Coach, Tiffany, in Venice whither art thee?

Is Burger King a Luxury brand?

Apparently, it was, if not a luxury, at least a necessity, to one American tourista I spotted in front of the Chanel shop, hardby the Piazza San Marco. This countryman had button-holed a policeman, and was bellowing (volume apparently the replacement default mode for the Italian language-challenged), 'Burger King! Where's the Burger King!' Some things never change.

At plumb, Venice is simply what may be called, in an old-fashioned way, romantic. I reckon that's why so many women -- their romance gene kicking in -- feel such an attraction to this place. (In fact, many visiting groups, small and large, seem to be composed of women).

How romantic? Well, Joan, my partner, and I were in our room at the Ottocento, a short distance from the Canal Grande, for less than 15 minutes when we began to be serenaded by a gondolier in a rio below. (At this point, even my hard-hearted romance gene jump-started). Did all hotel guests get this welcome treatment? Actually, looking out the window, I noticed that the passengers in gondola gliding by were really getting the full-frontal Mario Lanza -- and paying dearly for it, I'm sure.

There's more. The Piazza San Marco, one of the most beautiful constructed urban spaces anywhere, is if anything romantic. Even dark, narrow alleyways (otherwise foreboding in their incarnation back home in Philly) are here, well, romantic. You can almost hear the violin strains of native Venetian Antonio Vivaldi wafting in the air about.

To be sure, not all are groups are women, nor are they smitten by estrogen-induced schmaltz. One fresh-faced lot of about 50 students I encountered certainly didn't quite fit the mold. These kids, decked out in yellow baseball caps, were from the Community College of Philadelphia. Who knew?

The interesting bit about the 'beautiful' way in Venice, whether it's wandering through St. Mark's or discovering the Fenice opera house in a square of its own, is that getting here, thanks to US Airways, eschews the short way. In other words, you can't get here (Venice) from there (Philadelphia). Directly, that is.

Despite Philly's significant Italian-American population (South Philly, anyone?) and an enough of a native Italian presence in Philadelphia to warrant a full-fledged Italian consulate there, US Airways restricts its winter Philly-based direct flights to Rome. The result? Joan and I took the 'beautiful way,' by train, from Rome, via a stop-over in Florence. (In the summer, US Airways does have direct flights to Venice's Marco Polo Airport).

Arriving by vapparetto, I was wandering about and wondering about Laurie and her husband Howard Fitzpatrick (Joan and I had dinner plans with them that night) when I wound up in an art shop for a look-see. Behold, in the shop, was a young man with all the look of a modern-day Bernard Berenson, beard and all, and, don't you know, he spots a silver bracelet I'm wearing.

'Was that made by the Masai?' he asked.

Huh? Masai? Like the African tribe?

'Mine was,' my Bernard Berenson look-alike went on in a lilted English. Whereupon he showed me his own bracelet, quite similar to mine.

This gambit opened up a bit of conversation, involving a review of my interlocutor's early life in Kenya, 18 years in London ('the English were quite cold'), and his eventual return to his native Venice.

If there were anyone who would know Howard Fitzpatrick, my wondrous friend from London, Laurie's husband, and now an art tour guide based here, it would be this young 'Berenson.'

'Oh, yes,' he said. 'The cultured 50-year-old. I know of him. He's a guide even a Venetian would want to hire.'

That night, over drinks at his fourth-floor flat in the 14th-century Palazzo Loredon overlooking the Grand Canal, Howard was lapping up the 50-year-old reference. He's actually 62, you see.

Laurie is serving up olives and Champagne.

Their full-floor apartment is dark, leased and outfitted with heavy furnishings and a library filled with leather-bound books. Even the 15th-century etchings on the wall came with the place.

To some, such a setting could only spell, well, even more romance. But not according to Laurie. The plumbing stinks, she tells us. The campo in front, the building's de facto forecourt, frequently floods. There are no food markets nearby. No lift in the building. No children. (The average of a Venetian today is more than 60, according to Howard). The hallway light, timed on a switch, shuts off regularly before one can reach the fourth-floor landing. The aged woman on the third floor never leaves her apartment.

What's worse, Laurie says, is all the schelping. Groceries and wine need to be bought a boat ride away and then lugged step by laborious step up to their apartment. Similarly, travel requires bags to be dragged up and down. OK for younger persons, perhaps. But less joy for youngish geezers, she notes. A building porter, perhaps? Not done in Venice, Laurie reports.

There's another thing. Regardless of age, you don't want to be infirm in Venice. Just picture negotiating a wheelchair down narrow cobble-stoned alleys and over stone bridges with no ramps. Actually, better not. It gets ugly.

Later, a short walk away, we're at dinner at trattoria on an embankment next to the Guidecca Canal, and the place is nearly empty. The owner greets Howard like a long-lost brother, and we settle over an abundance of scampi and Chianti.

Where are I other diners? I asked.

Howard explained that Venetians, unlike almost everyone else, do their main social entertaining and dining at lunch. It's then that restaurants are packed. At dinner, restaurants simply cater to tourists and ex-pats.'By the way,' Howard adds, 'all restaurants in Venice are tourist restaurants.'

Valentina Draghi is perhaps typical of this luncheon-dining Venetian. I met Valentina, a 32-year-old lawyer, now living in Rome, while on the train returning to the capital. Her parents live near the Palazzo Gritti, she told me, and each month she returns home. Each month. Every month.

There's another Venice the tourist never sees, according to Valentina. This is the Venice of her youth. Tennis courts and swimming pools hid away inside buildings. Cycling and skateboarding are simply not done. Soccer is only played at the Lido, on a nearby island famous for it summer beaches.

Municipal controversy also rarely finds its way into tourist publicity. Anger is currently directed at a bridge recently constructed connecting a carpark to the city's railway station. This, though city government ignores renovations to the uninhabited palazzi on the Grand Canal.

Later the night of our dinner with Howard and Laurie, as we await our vaparetto back to the hotel, Laurie is happily telling a Peggy Guggenheim story. About her mothering; rather her lack of maternal nurturing.

First, there's Peggy's son, Sinbad . Guggenheim was always dressing him down. 'You'd amount to nothing,' she told him repeatedly.'We never expected anything of you.'

Then, there's Peggy's daughter, Pegeen, an artist in her own right. Shortly after her blockbuster gallery show in Philadelphia in 1966, she succumbed to drug addiction, dying a year later, at 40, in Paris.

Howard is also an anti-Peggy kick, scoffing at Peggy's museum here, the Collezione Guggenheim, as depository of second-rate art. Actually, he's on to something. The Michelin Guide gives the the place one star. Personally, I think that's even generous.

In some cities, they say, one is liable to lose one's heart. Paris? Easy. San Francisco, of course. Lord Byron once called Venice 'a fairy city of the heart.'

Finally, lo these many years, thanks to Howard, Laurie, and Joan, I was enchanted by this place. But I did I lose my heart? Actually it more like my hat. As I was meandering by the Hotel Danieli one afternoon, the wind ripped off my trilby, depositing it like a twirling brown top onto the Grand Canal. The last I saw it, it was floating out to the Adriatic.

As for my heart? That remained firmly anchored where it was supposed to be.