Before I could imagine Marco Polo’s Chinese wife setting fire to her clothes and jumping out a window, I saw the sky retreat.
Francesca, my tour guide, pointed to a couple of windows that were shut and painted a deep green, but they moved farther as I squinted at them. The breeze had stopped blowing by then. Clenching my fists, I took a deep breath.
I was part of a walking tour in the heart of Venice. How could I pass out in the middle of that square? I have dealt with recurrent blackouts throughout my life and I knew the signs.
But what could have triggered such a frantic fluttering of the heart and ringing in the ears here in this beautiful city?
The rest of the group gathered around Francesca whose eyes grew bigger and bigger as she explained how the great adventurer’s wife ended her life. “It is legend,” she said, waving a flag that drooped to reflect the melancholy of her tale. “They lied to her about her husband’s death.”
Marco Polo’s young wife is rumored to have ended her life here in The Milion Courtyard, or Calle del Milion. The girl jumped into a canal as her body burned. “Allora,” said Francesca, her fingers etching the shape of the woman’s ghost in the air. “Her spirit still hovers…” The torpid air around me swallowed her words as I stumbled across to a cafe and sat with my head in my hands.
It was my first trip to Venice — the city of lovers — but giddy (not with love) and nauseous, I spent the rest of the day and night in bed with my feet a few inches up. It’s the heat, I thought, or fatigue from walking around for hours, but nothing explained the persistent sense of doom I fought everywhere in that city.
As I retrace my journey, I realize I wasn’t prepared enough for Venice. It isn’t just another city that you traipse in and out of. Venice is a place burdened by tales of love and loss, a city haunted by its past and unsure about its future.
The water taxi, which dropped my husband, daughter and me from Venezia Santa Lucia railway station to our hotel, sped through a huge canal that spat cool water at us. The Gothic structures around the canal reflected the shimmer of these green waters as the sun blazed above. The smell of salt tickled my nostrils.
A while on, we entered smaller waterways that were clogged with boats and gondoliers maneuvering their oars. Bridges stood like apparitions, looking down at us, trying to test our skills at surviving cramped spaces.
Hotel Saturnia & International at Calle Larga welcomed us into a 14th-century building with low ceilings and narrow walls. The elevator could accommodate four people at the most. I took to climbing up and down the staircases where olden portraits of men and women hung from the walls. Ancient corridors and mirrors pockmarked with rust almost hypnotized me into thinking I lived in a different era.
La Caravella, a part of the hotel since 1963, served us pasta with grilled vegetables (mainly aubergines, potatoes and zucchini) and wine for lunch. It was one of the best meals I had ever had. The tiramisu wasn’t too sweet with just the right amount of cocoa and cream. Brilliant.
But there was something about the place that made me want to run out.
The restaurant was small and it sat surrounded by tall buildings with creepers climbing up the walls. It wasn’t too hot but not a leaf moved. I could hear the clatter of cutlery and the sizzle of pancakes. “Latte?” asked a waiter, impeccably dressed, his eyes a shade of blue I had never seen. “Enjoy,” he said, and poured, as I watched a steaming stream of light brown liquid slosh into my cup. Sights and sounds grew sharper. People queued up for seats blocking the only exit I could see.
Back in the room, I opened the windows to see other windows staring at me. A small plant grew out of a crack on the ledge. I had an urge to sprinkle some water on it knowing it caught no rain or shine. Many people walked below on streets that were little more than alleyways, some blowing puffs of cigarette smoke that swirled in the air. The sound of laughter wafted up from an adjoining lane as someone sang something in 18th-century operatic style. Whatever you did in Venice remained trapped within its walls, ricocheting from one window to the other. For the city is built upon islands with little space.
Venetian Jewish writer Shaul Bassi says one could call Venice the world’s first vertical city. He is right. Venice just moved up, squishing into itself.
We strolled through the streets in the evening, stopping to take in the splendor of Saint Mark’s Basilica and its 9th-century bell tower. The square surrounding the basilica —Piazza San Marco or Saint Mark’s Square — lay before us like a carnival.
Apart from hordes of tourists, there were hundreds of pigeons fluttering for feed. Snow-white seagulls flew too close to the ground. It was a hot day. There were nervous — or perhaps thirsty — dogs straining on their leashes and children licking scoops of dripping ice-cream. A souvenir seller bargained with women who bought a few scarves from him. Musicians played at an adjacent corner of the square, their melodies drifting up to the sunlit domes of the basilica where the golden winged lion — the symbol of Saint Mark — stood.
The square lies at the end of the Grand Canal, which opened to the ocean and beyond, promising tourists a memorable ride under a sky tinged with shades of an approaching sunset.
Our Venetian guide Federico met us early the next day at Campo Santi Apostoli, an open square with a flea market that sold women’s apparel. The sun bore a hole through my head as Federico — with a Shiva tattoo on his arm and an intense curiosity about all things Indian — took us around on an Eat & Drink tour. He jostled through a crowd into Bacareto d
e Lele, a tiny eatery that was popular with the locals, and came out carrying plates of mushroom and chicken panini. The eatery was located at Ramo Quinto Gallion O del Pezzetto and looked out at a canal that was already filling up with gondolas and tourists.
We washed down the paninis with glasses of white wine and turned towards Federico who pointed at the canal. He explained that Venice stood on poles — thousands of them — thrust into the salty lagoon. That’s right. We were walking on poles and stilts of larches, elms, pines and oaks brought down to these marshlands from the Venetian Alps.
But how do you build a city on slime?
Author Tiziano Scarpa writes in his book Venice is a Fish:
The trunks are mineralized because of the mud, which has wrapped them in its protective sheath, preventing them from rotting in contact with oxygen: breathless for centuries, the wood has been turned almost to stone. You are walking on a vast upside-down forest, strolling above an incredible inverted wood. Let me tell you what happens to your body in Venice, starting with your feet.
Perhaps my subconscious self could tell I was standing atop a floating city with millions of breathless tree trunks carrying its people and cathedrals. There was a lingering feeling of imbalance, as if the world was coming at me in waves.
Writer Justin Demetri writes in Life in Italy that earth subsidence has always threatened Venice. (1) He warns that every century would see the city sink a few more centimeters into the marshland it stood on. Demetri writes that the waves and salt churned by increasing numbers of boats and cruise ships are eroding the mortar holding the city in place. It endangers the very earth Venice is built upon.
Like animals that sense hazards, a lot of people talk about feeling vertiginous in Venice. Hungarian blogger Jennifer Walker talks about it in her 2017 travel blog. “I had to sit down and breathe in the middle of Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia for fear of passing out,” she writes. “It took an Aperol Spritz and thirty minutes on a vaporetto to forget the dizziness.” (2)
The feeling that one is sinking is heightened by buildings rising around very narrow lanes that look like heaven with slivers of sunlight falling through them. And such is their beauty that you look and keep looking — at the crumbling red bricks and green waters, at people walking through streets, their bodies mere silhouettes at times, as if in shadow play.
There’s a bridge with locks here similar to the one near the Notre Dame in Paris. I stood there a while listening to the waters lapping the walls of surrounding homes. A gondolier ducked to avoid hitting the bridge. A seagull wailed.
How would it be in winter when the sky darkens fast? How would it be when all the travelers are gone, when all that remains is the sound of footsteps on deserted cobblestone streets?
Francesca told us a story about the 16th-century Rialto Bridge, the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal. The Devil appeared as the bridge was being built, she said, and demanded that he be given the first soul that crossed the structure. The architect Antonio de Ponte sought to outwit the Devil by letting a cockerel cross the bridge, but the Devil goaded the architect’s pregnant wife to cross it. The woman thus lost her stillborn child whose spirit could be heard crying under the bridge for a very long time. It’s a gondolier that helped the infant’s soul cross the canal, Francesca concluded.
Venice is built not only on stilts but also on spirits.
Lovers kiss on the waters under the Bridge of Sighs, which is made of limestone and connects the interrogation room in the Doge’s Palace to the prison across the Rio del Palazzo canal. It’s said that the sighs of the countless couples that have kissed under this bridge could bring good luck to relationships. The bridge was built well after the prison saw tortures and executions, but some believe it got its name from the sighs of the convicts it transported. There are windows covered with stone bars, and all that the eye can see through them are fragmented views of the city.
The ghosts of a bygone era continue to march across Venice. Its magic is immortalized forever in Lord Byron’s poem where he stands on the Bridge of Sighs, “a palace and prison on each hand”. The poem describes the city as a goddess rising with her “tiara of towers”. Scarpa’s chapter on “self-defense against beauty” highlights the plight of ordinary Venetians who grow up amidst such splendor that they are permanently stupefied. Writes Scarpa:
The whole city knows the click of cameras and the hum of video cameras: a sign that almost every rio, calle or riva that can be walked upon beside a canal, every campiello and bridge, radiates and overflows with beauty.
Days after I left this brooding city, its vulnerabilities stayed with me. Venice stands on fantasies. The place is rife with daydreams and stories that bring to life the supernatural. It’s the city of magic.
It took a while to regain my sense of balance as I struggled with the spasms it stirred, but through it all I wondered…
Was it the gull that swooped low — almost touching the heads of passing tourists — or the wave that twisted around an oar, the mask that hung from a nail on a wall or the light rain that disappeared into parched ground?
It could be the woman trapped in a centuries-old portrait or the man who leaned from a window — breathless perhaps on a still, warm night.
- Demetri, Justin. “Venice is Drowning”. Life in Italy. https://www.lifeinitaly.com/tourism/veneto/sinking-venice.asp
2. Walker, Jennifer. “Vertigo in Venice”. Perceptive Travel Blog. https://perceptivetravel.com/blog/2015/05/31/vertigo-in-venice/
Susheela Menon was born and raised in India. One of her latest short stories was published by Litro Online.