Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Days 447 to 451: Venice

Venice has two prospective Wonders on my list: St Mark's Basilica and the Santa Maria della Salute. During my four days in Venice, I saw them, but no reviews will be forthcoming. That's because I wasn't able to visit them properly, and form a proper opinion. And that's because of this:

This is the Hilton Stucky Molino, once a flour mill and as of 2007 a Hilton and one of Venice's premier hotels. It's just over the water from the main island of Venice, on the island of Guidecca. And Danielle and I stayed there. For three nights.

If you're even partially aware of our usual accommodation situation during travelling, you can probably guess that the Hilton, in Venice, is a little above our regular station. This change in circumstances is due to a very timely lottery win last week, which has made us wealthier beyond our dreams. No, in fact, it is due to points, Hilton points. Not mine, but Danielle's father's. Over the years, he has accrued rather a lot of Hilton points, a handy side-effect of staying in hotels for business, and very generously he offered to let us use some of them during our travels. Some months ago, they decided they would visit us in Venice - there seemed no better time to use the points.

Perhaps one day, when I've become a Hilton connoisseur, I'll be able to assess the Venice Hilton more astutely, weighing up the pros and cons against other five-star hotels. As it is, the only other Hilton I can remember staying in is a Hilton near New Orleans airport a couple of years: the Venice one trumps it considerably. It also trumps all our other accommodation over the last six months, although as these are a mixture of dorms, shared bathrooms, cockroach pits, and attic rooms rented from amateur artists who enjoy painting female genitalia, this is perhaps not a difficult feat. In fact, the biggest problem with the Venice Hilton was that it was in Venice. We'd have happily stayed in the hotel for three days without leaving... but then we'd have missed Venice. Yet the more we explored Venice, the less time we had in the hotel. Turns out that staying in the Hilton is crap for visiting Venice.

Our first day in Venice was our last day with my mother and my sister. It was hot. They'd had a terrible sleep because of a bizarre sequence of events in their rented apartment that night, which had involved my sister going to the bathroom in the middle of the night to discover the door had locked and wouldn't unlock. Fortunately, she was outside of the door, but even a man with a screwdriver couldn't unlock it and so, in the middle of the night, they had to transfer to a different apartment. It meant that by the time they'd rested, and by the time we'd got the train to Venice, we only had a handful of hours there. It was too hot to rush around, so we had lunch at a cafe, and found our way to St Mark's. Right now, it looks like this.

Submerged by scaffolding. So submerged that you can barely see the building. It took me a few seconds before realising: I cannot possibly judge this in this state. The famous domes are barely visible. I'd booked a tour for the four of us, which turned out to be a mistake - it was terrible. Half our group were middle-aged Korean women who needed constant translation, and our guide was harrassed and unable to deal with the numbers - maybe around 30 of us in all. Her accent was too strong to make out her descriptions of art history easily. Inside St Mark's was nice, but it was hot, we were tired, and the tour was, frankly, boring. The crowds were immense - a congestion of human traffic flooding the cosy interior.

The streets were likewise. Venice, I should say now, is an absolute dream. It is truly beautiful, straight from a book of medieval fantasy but made real. A floating city without vehicles, just canals and boats and cute little bridges. But oh my, the tourists. Venice worries about tidal flooding - the city is slowly sinking - but it is the flood of people that are sinking this city. On a hot day especially, it's almost more than you can bear. The streets are packed, and anywhere around St Mark's especially so. The dreaded tour groups are out in force, and some of them are larger than armies. Venice is also a popular spot for cruise ships to dock, and large numbers of the tourists are day-trippers from the ships. And these ships are truly colossal.

That was the view from our hotel window and from just along the street. Truly gigantic ships dominating the city. They are also endangering it, the vibrations from the massive engines structurally weakening Venice's fragile foundations. Happily, from November this year it will stop - no more cruise liners spoiling the view. They've effectively been banned, restricted to the port. I'd go a little further, restricting them all to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, forever, or at the very least never allowed to go near anything beautiful ever again.

Danielle's parents arrived the next day, with the weather turning almost uncannily for their arrival. At first this was a concern - it looked like it might rain for days and you don't travel from Scotland just for more rain. But it turned out to be a godsend - there was only rain for one evening, the temperatures cooled considerably, and the remaining days were sunny and warm, and perfect for strolling around or sitting inside in.

And stroll we did.

In between strolls and admiring the Hilton (largely between 5 and 7pm in the executive lounge where we had free wine), we saw a few sights. St Mark's was the obvious one, but Danielle and I popped to my other Wonder for what turned out to be a preview. The Santa Maria della Salute is a very large dome on the other side of the Grand Canal from St Mark's. It's handsome, though was always an outlier on the Wonder mission. I'll return some day for a proper review.

And return some day we will. In the winter. Venice is definitely one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited. It comes with a lot of hype, and it delivers. But I can see why some people hate it: the tourism. Venice has become a tourist island, a gigantic real-life adult Disneyland rammed with tourists. It can be very frustrating. No doubt, it gets in the way of the appreciation of what's there. It's like viewing the Mona Lisa: there's a work of art there, but so many people waving cameras that it's impossible to enjoy.

Venice's streets are best suited for quiet, romantic strolls and that's difficult to do trapped behind a tour group or noisy family, invariably walking at glacial paces. Difficult, but not impossible - stray away from the highlights and there are still plenty of more peaceful lanes.

And if there are still too many people for you, well, why even leave the Hilton?

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