“Mother and daughter, you behold them both in their widowhood – Torcello and Venice.”
Had I heard Ruskin’s mournful words before my 25th birthday trip, perhaps I would have been able to imagine Venice. As it was, I wasn’t sure how to anticipate the city. I saw it as a tick on the bucket list, a nod to romance, a historical thrill, a glimpse of unattainable luxury. What I didn’t expect was to lose my heart to subtle enigmas and decaying beauty.
I don’t know why I played it down in my mind. Perhaps it was a fear of disappointment. After all, I had read so many books of Gothic adventure and darkling beauty set in the Italian North, I needed to prepare myself for life failing to imitate art.
As it goes, Venice is everything I’d read and more. Nothing could have prepared me for stepping off the train in that dying October light and walking straight into a fantasy world. Every florid passage in every Romantic saga, every dark crevice in historical novellas, suddenly brought to life before me. She was merriment – harlequin checks and bustling crowds – and she was darkness – flooded foyers and unlit catcreeps.
We got lost on the way to our accommodation, down a tiny passage in the Jewish quarter. And, over the next days, we learned to love getting lost – diving down alleys away from the crowds, reemerging hours later at some semi-submerged church.
Yes, St Mark’s was beautiful – we swayed in the square to a string quartet as the sea lapped around our shoes. Yes, the grand canal thrilled – though moreso the vaporetto ride out of it, and into the Adriatic, where the elusive Dolomites shone like phantoms through the haze. Yes, I stood at the Bridge of Sighs, by day and by night, and shuddered at that singular pathway where terror and beauty were one.
Yet for me this was only a facade. A well-worn mourning veil. No, the true face of Venice lay deeper, in the vastness of its Necropolis, in the eerie silence of forsaken Torcello, and in the city’s tremendous, tenacious people – artists and dreamers all, for how else could you survive in a world such as this one?
We rose early on Halloween, and discovered that Venice knew us. That was the only way to explain how, wandering into a seatless pasticceria, where working men stand to drink dark coffee, the bartender wordlessly grinned up at us and turned on The Cure’s greatest hits.
Satisfied by Boys Don’t Cry and pistachio moretti biscuits, we jumped on the vaporetto for a visit to San Michele – the island of the dead. Befitting All Souls, the water bus was filled with families bearing bright bouquets and red-tinted lanterns.
We were struck by the Catholic sentimentality of the graves – faded photos and paper flowers. The grave of Sergei Diaghilev was particularly chilling, strewn with faded ballet slippers by his devotees. Little lizards basked on stones, and scuttled into tombs as we approached.
After gazing awestruck from the austere iron gates of the dead back toward the city skyline, we took the next vaporetto to Murano, where we eschewed the hard-sell showrooms in favour of a glass of cheap prosecco, and the purchase of a singular glass dipping pen – the wand by which I will one day weave magic.
By the time we approached Torcello, the last light of October was already slipping behind the horizon, momentarily illuminating the distant Dolomites in red, then purple, before fading to black. With this final violent blaze fresh in our minds, we stepped onto the ghostly island – ominously alone – and began our walk along its lone canal.
By the time we reached the abandoned cathedral, we may have been the only people on the island. Ruskin’s quote came back to me as I gazed upon the crumbling remains of Venice’s first settlement, the motherland of an empire, and in the still night air I let the weight of history consume me. Our return to the jetty was solemn, broken only by a detour to the Devil’s Bridge – it seemed only right on Halloween night.
If Torcello was in mourning, then Burano was the wake. We wandered the brightly-coloured streets of fishermens’ cottages with a cone of perfectly crisp fritto misto and a bottle of local prosecco, drinking in the authentic feeling of village life. Sam stopped suddenly, alerted by what sounded like a distant bass guitar.
Determined to discover its source, we wound through a tangle of small canals until we stumbled out into a low-lit square, serenaded by a local band playing the Dark Side of the Moon while children dressed as witches raced away from locals sipping Aperol. What could we do but stay, and dance, and drink, and feel like we’d somehow come home?
Later, back in Venice herself, sucking on sweets bestowed by devil-dressed children, we wandered our way down the darkest canals, taking the long way home, wondering how we could possibly surmise this strange patchwork of Venetian life.
A piano line and a gravelly voice drifted from the square up ahead of us, “Oh it’s such a perfect day.”
Our eyes met. We smiled. There was time for just one more spontaneous street party before the Queen of the Adriatic was through with us.