November 06, 2009

A Perfect Travelling Pleasure

The human race was designed, in my opinion, not to run for its physical recreation, but to walk. Most people look silly running, but one can walk with swank, one can walk with style, one can walk and feel wonderful parading down the Champs-Elysees. One can observe with dignity the passing scene, one can converse without panting, smile without strain, and take one’s exercise with the composure evolution evidently intended, when it stood us on two legs and made us lords of nature.

Once, on a French national holiday, I really did walk down the middle of the Champs-Elysees, feeling terrifically Gaullist, and I have felt distinctly exalted walking over the Brooklyn Bridge on a fine Sunday evening.

Few pleasures I know are more perfectly proportioned than a single night upon the Venetian island of Torcello, the one whose stalwart campanile you see, beyond the leaning tower of Burano, farthest away of all in the northern reaches of the lagoon. It is one of life’s rules that most pleasures are too much of a good thing. Only the very best of them come and go lightly, leaving you satisfied but not sated, with the sweet aftertaste in the mind that follows your awakening from a happy dream.

For me, such a pleasure is the pleasure of a night in Torcello, even in these times of touristic overkill. By definition it cannot last too long and by geography it cannot be too overwhelming, for the island is only about a mile around, has a permanent population of less than a hundred, and contains at the most a couple of dozen buildings. There are no cars on it, and no paved roads. That campanile greets its visitors with an easygoing tolerance still, knowing that though they may be here today, they will almost certainly be gone before tomorrow.

What I like to do is board the slinky excursion launch that takes the tourists out from Venice for lunch at the Locanda Cipriani, the islands long celebrated hotel. This gives me a flashy reentry to Torcello.

The experience offers a piquant mixture of sensations. The launch sails cautiously up the long narrow creek which is the main street of Torcello, beneath a bridge without parapet (alleged to have been designed by the devil) until it reaches the fulcrum of relative bustle-a moored boat or two, a few spectators hanging around-which marks the presence of the locanda.

It looks like a modest country tavern from the outside, but inside you will overhear confident accents in Parisian, Japanese, or New Yorker, gin fizzes and scampi and laughter between tables. When I watch the great pleasure launch sail away again, all sunglasses, designer pants and now vinous badinage, it is as though the great hard world itself is departing the island, leaving me naïve upon its shore.

On the green piazza beyond the restaurant women in straw hats, sell lace from a parade of canopied stalls. There is the rough-hewn stone seat once popularly supposed to have been the throne of Attila the Hun. Now occupied by a sprawling, lazy, spoilt feline, sic transit…

Tourists come and go in waves all afternoon. By the early evening, everybody is gone. Attila’s throne is empty too. A hush descends upon the island and the few score souls that remain upon it. It is time to go for an evening walk.

A man told me once that he found Torcello “dead as old bones.” He was speaking, though, as a Los Angelinos, to whom such a half-abandoned place, once a thriving municipality with heaps of money, may well offer funereal vibrations. Actually, by the standard of these generally sterile waters Torcello is like an animated oasis.

Dusty lanes take me through its fields, past brackish back canals, through plantations of sunflowers sagging with the weight of their blossoms, besides meadows of indeterminable vegetables and indefinable salad plants, where solitary men are still laboring away. Up a reedy creek, a fisherman rows his boat from the lagoon, standing cross-oared in the old Venetian way.

Dead as bones indeed! Tadpoles squirm in the little rivulets, beetles stalk the grasses, seabirds squawk, hens and pigeons scrabble in yards, cats eye and dogs gaze at me, lizards flick on fencing posts, tall asphodels stir in the breeze from the Adriatic. A distant bell rings across the lagoon, perhaps from the cypress-shrouded monastery of San Francesco del Deserto, and with a laborious gasp, the great bell of Torcello itself awakens to boom mellow and melancholy through the twilight.

So night falls, and I feel myself enfolded in velvet privacy among the waters. All alone I wander after dinner through the quiet shadowy monuments of Torcello’s lost consequence, its domes and its arcades, its crumbled pillars and indecipherable plaques, its campanile half-hidden in the darkness above. There is nobody about but me, unless some of the backpackers have unrolled their sleeping bags beneath the cathedral cloister; only me, the mosquitoes, the frogs, which leap around my feet and the little bats that forage in and out of the lamplight.

In the morning, the swallows have taken over, whirling dizzily around the bell tower and the chimney pots. Now, after breakfast, I look once more at the buildings. I have known this island for over 40 years, but I feel it my duty. Besides, they are not only few, but also marvelous. It was to this sedgy island, fifteen centuries ago, that the first off all the Venetians came as fugitives; the little cluster of buildings that is Torcello now represents the true beginning of all that we mean, all the dazzle and the beauty, all the power and the fizz and the sadness, when we speak the name of Venice.

What a claim! And what monuments, concentrated as they are within the space of a couple of hundred yards! Cool and calm in the simple domed form of the church of Santa Fosca, a though a princely stable has been converted for holy use. Infinitely touching is the lonely figure of the Madonna, high in her mosaic apse, which greets you in the bleached stoniness of the cathedral. Peculiar stone objects of unimaginable age litter the sacred purlieus, and it is a fine thing to sit on Attila’s throne, before the cat arrives, looking across the tiled domes to the mighty tower above. From time to time the bell assembles its energies again to announce that another Torcello hour has passed.

Noon, time for another meal. I ate my way into Torcello with the jet set; I eat my way out with the Italians, for the people who order their seafood or spaghetti at the Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo come mostly from Padua, Vicenza, Treviso, or Venice. This gives the restaurant an organic, family feel, very pleasant to take with a glass of wine and one of the rough rolls that, distributed from table to table out of big wicker baskets, constitutes Torcello’s very bread of life. The conversation and wine flow. Imperceptibly turns the cycle of the island’s life. I am hardly through the cheese when looking up across the patio, I catch sight of today’s boatload of cosmopolitans, looking just like yesterday’s, sailing well-fed back to Venice from the locanda up the way.

Heavens, my own vaporetto leaves at any moment. I pay my bill, grab my bag, and sprint to the landing stage just in time to see the humped shape of the Number 12 foaming up from Burano. And if I’m not in time? Well, I can always catch the next one; or I can start all over again, stay another night, with the frogs, the swallows, the mosquitoes and the great bell of the cathedral, and see how far a rule of life can be stretched.

itchy feet caravan weekend


a reader said...

what a great post

a blogger too said...

Nice post. Very interesting idea.
I also enjoy your postscript pic. Very original "Wolfie"?

T.O. fan said...

Fine weekend read. Thanks

Charles said...

Interesting early Saturday morning read.

SM fan said...

Enjoyable read as always.

Alistair said...

I wonder where the caravan has taken you.

UCLA fan said...

my much anticipated and appreciated Saturday morning read.
Thank you

Tomy Lee said...

Ms. Edna, you are a delight to read. This is a great idea.

a big bad woof said...

and where has little red hot riding hood skipped off too?

love the pictorial postscripts on this blog.

Ms Edna said...

LRHRH and Mona are tripping the light fantastic in Los Angeles this weekend.

a true fan said...

This blog inspires
not just to read.
I stop,
and commence living on its ideas.
What I began by reading,
I finish by using it
as an inspiration
to enhance my daily routine.
Thank you.

a friend said...

Ms. Edna:
Guess what, I have installed my laptop next to my bed.
It has become my Kindle.
I read a post every night before I go to sleep.
So much nicer than the news,
I sleep like a baby now.
Thank you, for your efforts.

G.W., Macau said...

It has been a pleasure-
both to meet you and to read your blog.

Feuerlilie/linuxchik said...

Diese drei kurzen Worte.
Du bist mir lieb.
Das sage ich.
Schön, dass es dich gibt!

a surprised reader said...

What an interesting blog.
Thank you.