The Venice Sketchbook Page 2

As we came around a bend, the Grand Canal became incredibly grand. On either side of us were amazing palaces, marble coated, or in shades of rich pink with arched Moorish windows. They appeared to float on the water in a way that was quite surreal—I wanted to get out my sketchbook right away. It was lucky that I didn’t, as the amount of traffic on the canal made the boat rock alarmingly. The gondolier muttered what must have been Italian swear words.

We were moving along quite nicely for a boat rowed with one oar, but the canal seemed awfully long.

“Ecco il Ponte di Rialto,” Aunt Hortensia exclaimed, pointing at a bridge that crossed the canal ahead of us, rising up in a great arch, as if suspended by magic. It appeared to have some sort of building on it because a row of windows winked in the afternoon sunshine as we approached. I wondered if Aunt H. intended to speak in only that language from now on. If so, conversation was liable to be rather one-sided.

However, this fear was dispelled as she now produced her Baedeker and began to inform me about each building we passed: “On your left, the Palazzo Barzizza. Note the thirteenth-century facades. And that large building is the Palazzo Mocenigo, where Lord Byron once stayed . . .”

This continued until an overcrowded vaporetto pulled out from its jetty. Our boat rocked again, and she almost dropped the book into the murky depths.

Just as I began feeling a bit queasy, another bridge came into sight, this one a more flimsy iron footbridge that spanned the canal at a greater height. I expected Aunt H. to say, “Ecco Ponte something or other,” but instead she said, “Ah, the Accademia Bridge. Now we are almost at our destination. That’s good. I was beginning to feel rather seasick.”

“You mean canal sick, don’t you?” I asked, and she actually smiled.

“Over on that side is the accademia. That white marble building beside the bridge. If you were studying art in Italy, this is where you would want to go. La Accademia di Belle Arti. The Academy of Fine Arts. And it houses the finest collection of Venetian paintings, too. We shall definitely want to see it.”

As she was speaking, we turned off the Grand Canal into a small side canal and pulled up at some well-worn steps. As if by magic, men came running out, hauled us up from the gondola and then grabbed our luggage. When Aunt H. went to pay the gondolier, she reacted as if she was horrified at the amount quoted.

In her stilted Italian, she asked our hotel porters if the amount was correct or if we were being taken advantage of.

“You see two defenceless Englishwomen,” she said, reverting to English, “and you think you can rob them of their meagre savings. Would you behave like this to your own mother? Your own grandmother?” She repeated the gist of this in Italian.

The gondolier looked sheepish. The hotel men smiled. Then the gondolier shrugged.

“Very well,” he said. “I charge you only two hundred lire. But just this once, because you have travelled far and the young lady is exhausted.”

Triumphant, Aunt H. strode into the foyer of a less-than-palatial yellow-painted building with green shutters, where a silver-haired man came forward, arms open, to greet her.

“Dear, dear Signorina Marchmont. You have returned to us. A thousand welcomes.”

I could see now why Aunt Hortensia liked this place, if she was greeted in this way. Frankly, I had been disappointed that we were not staying in one of the palazzos on the Grand Canal, but Aunt Hortensia had said, more than once, “There is only one place to stay in Venice, and that is the Pensione Regina. And that is because it has a garden. When one is hot and tired from sightseeing, one can sit in the shade and drink a citron pressé .”

We were taken up a flight of marble stairs into a large ornate corner room with windows on two sides, a painted wooden ceiling and furniture that looked as if it had come from a museum. At least the two beds looked normal enough, with their crisp white sheets, and there was a desk and chair in the front window, which looked out on to the garden, with a sliver of a view of the Grand Canal beyond. I went over to the window, opened it and gazed out. The scent of jasmine rose to greet me.

“Ah yes,” Aunt H. said when she had inspected our bathroom. “Most satisfactory.”

As I stood at the window, bells began to ring, their sound echoing out across the canals. A gondola glided past; this time the gondolier was young and handsome. I felt my spirits rise. I was in Venice, my first time in Europe. I was going to make the most of it.

May 21, 1928

I was awoken by more bells. It seems there are an awful lot of churches in this city. Nobody is allowed to sleep late! I went to the window and opened the shutters Aunt H. had insisted on keeping closed against mosquitos. The sky was a perfect pale blue, and the sound of bells echoed over the whole city. Swallows darted and swooped across the sky like tiny Maltese crosses, while seagulls screeched and below, in the courtyard, pigeons strutted.

“A city of bells and birds,” I said with satisfaction. At that moment a motor barge went by, its pop-popping echoing from the narrow walls. Bells and birds and boats, I corrected.

A breakfast of warm fresh rolls, cheese and fruit, and coffee instead of tea was served to us under an umbrella in the garden, before we went out to explore the city, armed with my aunt’s trusty Baedeker and map. Luckily, Aunt H. had visited several times before and knew her way, or I should have become hopelessly lost in minutes. Venice is a complete maze of alleys, canals, bridges. The first thing I noticed was that there are no real streets—at least no streets like we knew them at home—only cobbled walkways with bridges over canals. It seems the canals are actually the streets—everything is delivered by water, from goods to people to rubbish, the latter of which we watched being dropped into an open barge.

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