Saturday, 25 April 2009
From Florence the Eurostar rips silently across a countryside whose impossibly bright green forests preclude any suggestion that it might be New Zealand whizzing past out there. There are brief stops in Bologna and Padova and then, sooner than I expected, a grimy industrial town with a station called Ve. Mestre. This is the real world part of Venice; the bit where people live in tenements and drive cars. Then there is a causeway at the end of which the 21st century is left behind. We trundle our suitcases down an ordinary railway station platform, go down some steps and we're in a postcard.
There are no cars. There are no Vespas. There are no power poles, traffic lights or zebra crossings. There are motors pushing boats about the place, but all the streets and all the buildings are made for people not cars. The only way to travel is by very slow boat or by foot, so even though the streets are thronging with tourists, the pace of the city is leisurely. Streets are narrow - some barely two metres wide - and many of the buildings look like they really are many centuries old. Everywhere there are enclosed piazzas and bridges and markets and people drinking cappuccini at tables by canals. I love this place. There are many things to speak of in Venice, but three spring to mind after a full day.
We have been into a lot of churches and this morning wandered by happenstance into the Church of the Twelve Apostles. It is, of course, huge and old. There are wonderful frescoes and paintings, dating back to the thirteenth Century, and from every century between then and now. In the middle of the nave there is a large, modern altar and a baptismal font designed for full immersion. Surrounding these are comfortable looking red chairs. This is no museum; it is the hub of a contemporary worshipping community and it shows.
Later we made our way to the city's extraordinary Cathedral. St. Marks is one of the world's great buildings. Overdecorated? Well it's certainly not a Shaker meeting house. St.Marks raises extravagence in detailing to a whole new height - quite literally. Four larger than life sized gilt horses on the facade? Why not? Towers and domes? Cheaper by the dozen! Gold mosaics? Hey, let's cover the WHOLE ceiling in them! and half the walls while we're at it! Statues? How many have you got? We'll take the lot. Because it is so huge and because each of the parts has been done so well, the whole thing actually works and makes a church like no other. A powerful, sumptuous, reverent communication of the grandeur of God and the hope of glory.
Late in the day, and also by chance we stopped at the other end of town in a small piazza, and found it was the Gheto Nuovo. It was from here that many of Venice's Jews were herded off to die in the camps of Poland in 1943-44. Men with hats and with ringleted sideburns sat reading the scripture. There was a Kosher restaurant and many shops selling exquisite artwork. There was a synagogue and on two walls of the square, a memorial to those who had perished. Spare but strong artwork told the story of what had happened. The memorial listed names and ages: 73... 45... 19... 2... 57... I found it unbearably moving. All around children played, boisterously and freely: the young relatives of those who had been loaded into the cattle cars sixty years ago. It was a wonderfully redemptive scene except for a single chilling detail. In one corner of the piazza was a policebox: a small octagonal room with bullet proof glass and machine gun ports. Inside it two armed Carabinieri watched us and the children. Even though the policemen looked pleasingly bored and underworked, something has obviously made such a precaution necessary. Even in a place as beautiful as this, we are still human, for better and for worse