Half way through our planned five year cruise and it was time to sail to Venice, the highlight of the year and, perhaps, of the whole trip.
The voyage from Rovinj involved a 0500 start but we had to tie up at the town quay and wake the Police and Customs man to clear out of the country. I am convinced he didn’t grasp the situation but he stamped a crew list and we were on our way. The wind direction and speed was variable but we managed to sail for a couple of hours during the ten hour crossing. A turtle was surprised to see us so close and dived quickly and three dolphins appeared but they were more interested in following the nets of a trawler than in us. We do hope they have sense enough not to become ensnared in those nets as, judging by the lack of dolphins in the northern Adriatic, many have been.
We are amazed that the depth of water for the entire 70 mile voyage did not exceed 35 metres. In fact the whole of the northern and central Adriatic is shallow with depths no greater than around 80 metres. It is not until the South Adriatic basin that soundings reach 1100 metres. Not at all like the 3000 metres we are used to in the western Mediterranean and the Ionian Sea
Miggy cut my hair as a sacrifice to Neptune no doubt. It is much more comfortable short in this hot weather and she did make a good job of it.
Nearly fifteen years ago when we were here on our honeymoon we wished and in a way pledged that we would sail into Venice on our own yacht. To have achieved this dream, sailing right up to the Piazza San Marco and the entrance to the Grand Canal, was a truly wonderful and emotional experience that bought a tear to the eye. Sailing in Venetian waters is not without its dangers however with vaporettos (water buses), ferries, taxis, tripper and working boats going at speed randomly this way and that creating wash reminiscent of the Needles Channel with a strong wind against tide.
We found a berth at the Diporto Velico Veneziano club marina at San’t Elena where we experienced a new method of mooring stern to with our bows tied to piles each side in a typically Venetian way. The Marina has good facilities and costs less than we had imagined although still expensive at €45 per night plus €4 tourist tax per person. We were so pleased to be moored in the heart of Venice experiencing the colours, sights, sounds, smells and tastes that evoke so many very happy memories.
In all the visits each of us has made to Venice, together or separately, neither of us has explored the eastern Castello in which San’t Elena is situated. The area, which is off the tourist trail is at the eastern limit of the city and is very much the home of the Venetians. Our walk started in the Via Garibaldi, the home of John Cabot and his son, Sebastian the Italian Navigators who in 1497 discovered what they thought to be China but in reality was the Labrador coast of Newfoundland. This local busy shopping street for the residents of the area was created when Napoleon filled in the canal in 1808. We bought a few ‘Italian’ specialities including some Gran Padano cheese and two umbrellas to shield us from the torrential rain that lasted on and off until the evening! July is supposedly the driest month of the year with an average of just 2cm. We had that and more during our stay. Still when we were here on our honeymoon in April 1994 it snowed!
A peaceful three mile stroll took us through quiet streets, over bridges and along the narrow canals to the small island of San Pietro di Castello, one of Venice’s earliest settlements. The church of San Pietro founded in the 7th century although the present building dates from the 16th century was the cathedral of Venice and remained so until 1807 when the Basilica San Marco took its place. The church houses the marble throne from an Arabic tombstone originally said to have been the Seat of St Peter. The elegant 15th century free standing campanile tilts quite dramatically as many in the city and islands in the Lagoon do.
San’t Elena has a pretty Gothic church founded in the 13th century and extensive shady gardens along the waterfront.
We had supper at a gem of a Pizzeria, ‘Vecia Gina’, which was packed with locals. The Pizzas, and there were 41 varieties on the menu, were delicious with thin bases, moist pommodoro and mozzarella and a liberal amount of topping ranging from anchovy to suckling pig. The antipasti were also wonderful comprising mainly a selection of local cheeses or a generous platter of cold meats including suckling pig, salami, cooked ham and prosciutto crudo. It was cheap to boot.
We revisited the glorious heart of Venice and reminisced about the time we were here on honeymoon over fourteen years ago. The monuments are the same although some have been restored in the interim but the crowds of tourists here was something to which we were not used, it being winter or spring when we have visited before. Nonetheless the splendour of this unique place prevails over the 12 million or more visitors that invade the city every year.
Many Venetians may argue with this statement and would contend that so desirable are apartments to foreigners for occasional use that rents have risen beyond their means. A Venetian now resident in Milan told us that the number of born and bred Venetians resident in the city had fallen from 150,000 to 50,000 since 1950. Most jobs created by the tourist industry are filled by people living on the mainland.
Becoming a museum is not the only threat to Venice. The city has also been in grave danger from the ‘acqua alter’ or high tides that result in flooding and paralysation of the city and from the excessive wash from power vessels plying the canals aerating and undermining the foundations of the buildings so causing decay in the wooden piling. The first of these problems is being addressed after protracted controversy by the building of a flood prevention barrier across the lagoon but the wash issue remains – You can’t tell an Italian to slow down!
The Grand Canal is the two and a half mile long winding main thoroughfare sweeping through the heart of the city from the Piazza San Marco to the Piazzale Roma where road and rail connect to the mainland over the causeway. The return trip in the No.1 slow vaporetto which takes about an hour and a half gave us time to admire the fine architecture of the grand palaces lining both banks and the former markets of the Rialto to which in the past stately galleys, gondolas and trading vessels made their way. The beauty of the Canal, the hustle and bustle of the waterway and the sounds and smells all so typical of this great city, came flooding back to us.
The Gondola is, of course, a Venetian institution. They have been plying the canals for over 1000 years, formerly as transport for the aristocracy and of goods from the markets to the palaces and now used in the main for the pleasure of the tourist. Gondolas are hand crafted from nine woods; beech, mahogany, cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, oak and walnut. A new boat takes three months to build and costs in the region of £10,000.
As well as a ride along the Grand Canal we will never tire of the elegance of the Piazza San Marco with its Basilica and Campanile. The views from the top of the Campanile over the city and the lagoon are spectacular. If you are lucky and visibility permits, as we were, the peaks the Dolomites set a dramatic backdrop to this superb vista. It is also the only tower, minaret or campanile of the hundreds we have climbed in the many cities and towns we have visited over the last two and a half years that has a lift! The current tower replaces that which collapsed in 1902 and was built ‘’dov’era e com’era’’ (‘’where it was and how it was’’)
The central section of the beautifully proportioned and richly decorated 15th century Torre dell’Orologia opposite the Campanile was built with seafarers in mind as the highly ornamented clock face displays not only the time but the phases of the moon and the Zodiac.
Time had dulled our memory of the supreme magnificence of the awe inspiring Basilica San Marco. This 11th century edifice, strangely for a church, is filled with the rich stores of conquest. To give the RC Church its due this eastern bounty was gained by the powerful Venetian Republic when San Marco served as the Doges private chapel before it was adopted as the Cathedral. The rich interior gleams with golden mosaic covered ceilings, arches and domes, with multi coloured marble columns and marble and glass mosaic floors. The external elevations are fascinating with ornate stone doorway carvings and fine facade mosaics. One mosaic in particular that amuses us shows St Mark’s body being smuggled out of Alexandria reputedly under slices of pork to deter prying Muslims.
A visit to Piazza San Marco is not complete without a coffee at the Cafe Florian. The elegant charm of the interior of the Cafe, founded in 1720, strikes an atmosphere of the age when it was frequented by 19th century literary figures such as Byron, Proust and Dickens. Sitting indoors or at a table in the Piazza watching the world go by is brilliant the only drawback being that a cup of coffee costs about the same as 500g of good quality fresh ground Arabaca coffee and a club sandwich filled with ‘’bresaola’’ (cured raw beef) asparagus cream, thin slices of parmigiano and rocket, the price of a good steak and chips. If the resident orchestra is playing an additional packet of coffee per person is added to the bill.
A walk around the back streets of Piazza San Marco to find a Venetian flag drew a blank so we walked a round about way to the Rialto where Miggy found the flag we were looking for and which Bella now wears with pride. We had a beer in the shade of the famous Rialto Bridge at the canal side watching the Gondoliers gracefully and skilfully row their craft in and out of impossible situations.
We were unaware when we arrived here that the Festa del Redentore, when the people of Venice commemorate the city’s deliverance from the plague in 1576, was happening during our stay. We weaved our way through the Venetians street parties and joined the crowds lining the Zattere, which was filled to capacity with anchored boats ranging from gondolas to mega yachts, to watch a spectacular firework display. It was all very reminiscent of the Cowes Week fireworks!
Another essential trip for us when in Venice is to take a vaporetto ride to the islands of Torcello and Burano, passing Cimitero, the cemetery where many 19th century writers and painters are buried as well as locals, and Murano, famous for its glass, on the way. Burano is an island of fishermen and their cottages fronting the canal are individually painted in differing colours, some pastel shades and some not so restrained. It is an extremely appealing sight. We were amazed to discover that the restaurant in which we chose to at lunch quite by chance was that in which we had lunch during our honeymoon all those years ago. The proprietor and the waiter that served us were there then as well!
After a delay of a day due to strong winds and having shopped for things Italian, mostly luxuries that we are unable to buy in Croatia such as Parmesan cheese, potted shrimps, artichoke and so on, we sailed for Pula.
One has to get used to the ebb and flow of tides in the Venice Lagoon, where they can run up to 4 knots at springs, and in the whole of the extreme Northern Adriatic basin. Our progress was helped or hindered by as much as 2 knots in the open sea between Venice and Pula. It is just like being in the Solent.
The Dolomites were exceptionally clear from the water and we could see the 3000+m high snow capped peaks around Cortina over 100 miles away. The hills of northern Croatia hove into sight 50 miles off and for a long time we could see, at the same time, the mountains and hills surrounding the entire basin of the extreme Northern Adriatic. Visibility was therefore at least 100 miles!
Whilst at anchor in Pula, the most stunning sunset we have ever seen lasted for all of an hour and to top it all there was a double rainbow after the sun had gone down below the horizon! And so with this natural spectacle we came to the end of our ‘holiday’ in what is perhaps our favourite city in the world. We raised our glasses with the wish to return to Venice, the most romantic of places, in the not too far distant future.