19th September: Day Four
This was our last day in Venezia so I wanted to make it count, this time we were going to brave Saint Mark’s Square again and try get into Saint Mark’s Basilica itself. From there we would go east to Venezia Arsenale / Naval Museum. We figured it best to keep away from the large pathways and squares as much as possible so we did not get washed away by the masses of tourists, I know we were both tourists ourselves but at least we’re subtle about it. What I mean by that is we don’t carry our national flags above our heads, shouting across a square in English/French/German etc at obscene volumes. I know you’re in a tour group but still, that’s not a legit excuse to act like a douchebag – It probably doesn’t sit well with the locals either.
Thankfully the line for the Basilica was much shorter this time around, it must have been the Sunday rush we encountered – A one-off. Dad had to wait outside though as backpacks were not allowed inside the building (Why? Did he look like a guy carrying C4?) and he didn’t fancy leaving the bag laying around where it could get pinched. Despite all my views I would actually consider myself agnostic, something that really throws people. I consider religious faith misplaced, people should have faith in their fellow man and in themselves before they have faith in a deity. I cannot help but admire and appreciate the art and effort that surrounds world religions, some call it a vanity project – I call it dedication (Expressionism too). Saint Mark’s Basilica has artistic flair to rival the Sistine Chapel and much of Vatican City that’s for sure. As you can see from the left the ceiling motifs are made predominantly of gold, gold plundered from the Byzantines ages past. I already mentioned that Saint Mark is actually a “Stolen Saint” from Alexandria but the stolen gold was an act of revenge against Byzantine for the ill treatment of Venetian traders in Constantinople (Istanbul). I could not help but notice that the floor in the Basilica was uneven and moist, which makes sense given Venezia’s unique architecture. The Basilica is easily one of the heaviest buildings in the city and as a result needs regular maintenance to stop it sinking into the lagoon, some might say that’s poetic justice as a building fashioned of stolen gold and vanity sinks into nothing but it really is a shame. With our modern day technology it is not so much an issue as it once was, but back in the day it was a constant battle to save one of Venezia’s landmarks.
From here we headed east along the waterfront, taking in the view as we went. Tired from the morning’s walking we sat down along the Riva Degli and dangled our feet over the edge. Time seemed to slow down here and I felt a sense of awe, It just felt great to have a cool breeze and a warm sun with no cloud cover. Dad actually nodded off at one point and I could have sat here for an hour quite easily. We had to move on though, the Arsenale was nearby and I was unsure if it’s be open for much longer. Sure enough, we missed them both by 30 minutes. We did get to see inside the Arsenale though despite most of it being sealed off as a “Military Zone”, wow it’s still being used? We decided to one last round trip of Venezia before heading back to the camp, we had some preparations to make for tomorrow when we set off for Rome.
If you ask me Venezia has two distinct types of people: Tourists and their appeasers and Venetians. When it comes to the latter I’m talking about those that you can tell have lived here for generations, the ones with traditional family based businesses. Tradition… the term that a staggering amount of tourists here outright fail to acknowledge. The chumps marching around like Bonaparte (I’ll get to him in a bit) are annoying enough but are those that facilitate them even worse? If you ask me the whole point of going on holiday is to leave what you know behind, throw your arms out and embrace something entirely new to you, not bring the familiar with you and flaunt it – If these people really wanted to know about your culture they’d go on holiday to England/France/Germany etc. Coming back to the “Traditional” Venetians I can safely say I have had encounters with them. This happened when we were about halfway across Venezia, we found a nice looking cafe in a side-alley near San Polo, which we walked into as opposed to being herded into. The goods here were considerably cheaper than any of the chain-cafes such as Starbucks we’d been to in our stay here, more importantly the people were actually happy to have us there (Probably very grateful too) as we were supporting the locals rather than the chains that had invaded their city. Oh yeah, we didn’t spot a single McDonalds, Burger King or (god forbid) Pizza Hut anywhere in Venezia – That would be heresy surely.
When we saw ominous grey clouds approaching we decided it’d be best to hurry and get back to the Mestre. This turned out to be the right call because no sooner did we get back to the bus stop near our camp all hell broke loose. After an absolutely glorious day we were enveloped in a colossal thunderstorm the likes of which I had rarely seen. Breaking into a full sprint Dad and I made for our campsite before we got washed away, the thunder was so fierce that it hit a nearby car setting it’s alarms off. We took cover in an underpass to see if the storm would relent a little bit, it was here that I saw one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen… An old lady, easily into her 80’s, cycled past us holding an umbrella in one hand and steering with her other. I just stared at her as she cycled into the storm without a care in the world, most English pensioners can barely get out of their lavish homes but this old woman was braving the most epic thunderstorm I’d seen in years, on a bike, one handed and using an umbrella… I swear I’ll remember that sight for years to come.
This was a pretty funny jab at our egos so we both stormed off after her and made it to our camp within 5 minutes. We got changed as we waited for the storm to subside for a bit, when it did we headed off to get our last Pizza at that oh-so-good restaurant down the road. While we sat there (again sodden wet) I remembered another famous point of Venetian history which I shared with Dad. I remembered this when I saw a placard back at the Arsenale: Napoleon Bonaparte‘s Invasion of Venice. Most history buffs are familiar with Napoleon’s Italian campaign (1796 – 1797) and how successful he was. For generations the Venetian nobility had been so convinced of their invulnerability they eventually got complacent, and Bonaparte would end up being their downfall. By 1797 Napoleon had conquered much of Italy, with Venezia being one of the few states not under his control. At first he tried to persuade the Doge to surrender to him with this famous message,
“Your whole territory is imbued with revolutionary principles. One single word from me will excite a blaze of insurrection through all your provinces. Ally yourself with France, modify your government for the welfare of the people, and we will pacify public opinion and will sustain your authority.”
Napoleon Bonaparte to Ludovico Manin, 1797
Napoleon knew that the citizens of Venezia were becoming weary of their system of government which had come to favor the nobility over the majority and given time, could have easily instigated a revolution. Here we see some humanity from Bonaparte: he will let the Venetian’s retain most of their autonomy if they reform their government and align themselves with the ideals of his revolution. Despite this gesture Doge Manin and his council refused to yield, believing themselves immune to repercussions. Venezia might have been invincible during the renaissance but this was the dawn of the 19th century and the weapons of war had evolved. In a typical stroke of genius Napoleon set up artillery on the shores of the mainland and bombarded the Venetians into submission, all the while taking care to avoid excessive damage and loss of life – He wanted his prize intact after all! In the end, Venezia’s government was overthrown when the French army entered the city to minimal resistance from the populace and what was left of the military – The Republic of Venezia was officially over.
We headed back to the campsite after thanking the restaurant owners for three days of stellar service, packed up and got ready to head over to Rome tomorrow. It would involve a lengthy train journey that would start at Venezia Santa Lucia, would stop at Florence (Firenze) and would end up in the historic city… Roma.