Yesterday, I received a forwarded mail with pictures showing Venice inundated by the recent flood , almost turned into an Atlantis Theme Park !
I remembered our own visit to Venice and our dread at just such a prospect ! The water level was pretty close to lapping over the stone avenues when we arrived at the San Marco water taxi jetty. We later learnt that we had escaped an episode of 'aqua alta' ( High Water) by just two days. Aqua Alta flooding is a periodic phenomenon that leaves major portions of this beautiful historic city submerged knee deep in tidal backlash for short intervals. Not that this discourages Tourists swarming in ! Come Hell or High Water, excited gaggles of camera toting visitors overrun Venice throughout the year, wearing rubber boots when necessary. If you can capture a quiet corner all for yourself, consider yourself fortunate !
Our visit was just a daylong trip . Chugged in by the early morning train and took the last one out. A fully packed day, "doing" all the important sites around Venice proper and taking the 3-Islands tour to see a glass workshop in Murano ( awesome), a hand-lace making demo. in Burano ( exquisite) and an old Cathedral (- Santa Maria Assunta -) in Torcello( splendid ).
( The rows of variously coloured houses in Burano, giving the village a bright, happy, toyland kind of look, was a memorable sight.)
So what did we, typical tourists, do in Venice ?
Clicked pictures in the iconic Piazza San Marco ;
Fed the pigeons ( and got royally scratched by their over-eager claws too) ;
Toured the Grand Canal, wondering at the antique palazzos that just emerge out of water without pavement or compound ;
Shopped for masks and pretty, coloured glass baubles( bewildering choice !) ;
Crossed some Bridges with jostling crowds, frantically marking the names in the guide book lest we forget or get confused;
Gawked at the works of Renaissance painters inside the Doges Palace;
Ate hot, roasted nuts ( chestnuts, i think) from roadside carts;
Enjoyed cheap thrills posing with Posters of the Indian Films participating in the Lido Festival;
All the while, in the background, was the unforgettable stench of diesel , wet wood and algae- scented water ! And the recurring, nasty thought : what if Venice sank suddenly, like the cataclysmic disappearance of many a fabled city of yore ? After all, according to the gleeful guide, the whole city was built on piles of ancient ( rotting ?) wood and was "subsiding" millimeter by micro-millimeter - more rapidly now due to the proliferation of artesian wells all around.
Have been reading, since then, about various efforts to keep the hightides invading Venice ; the most ambitious one, inaugurated in 2003, involves barriers of inflatable pontoons to stop the incoming seawater.
Gondola ride ? No. Too time- consuming for a short trip. And too expensive to boot. The 'Vaporetti' ( Water Bus) suited us just fine.
Venice was like a dream, in more ways than one.
THE VATICAN -The Holy See
There are shrines and shrines. And there is St Peter's Basilica . ( Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano) What can one say ? It strikes one dumb. Totally tongue tied by its grandeur...........only Faith can move people to build so magnificent an edifice, putting everything a human is capable of into its making - and maintainance.
Situated west of River Tiber, its ground plan is shaped like a crucifix and the alter is directly above the tomb of St Peter the Apostle. It has one of the largest domes in the world. Certain skylights allow sunrays to fall in shafts of light during certain times of the day, creating a fabulous illusion of Divine Grace. The Alter is a brilliant work of Art, inspiring awe and respect for the artisans.
The marble Pieta made me misty eyed. I strained to catch Michaelangelo's monogramme " M" carved into her palm, but could not make it out clearly because of the jostling crowds.
St Peter's square, a vast, colonnaded Baroque Piazza , comes alive with pulsating seas of humanity every wednesday when people throng to get a glimpse of The Pope, who gives his weekly darshan from the balcony. We were not aware of this wednesday ritual, but fortuitously found ourselves there on that special day . We were most happy to see the Pope ( John Paul) raising his frail hand in blessing and it was thrilling to hear the ecstatic crowds go : " Papa! Papa !" The statues of the saints and apostles , standing atop the rim of the facade, look very dramatic against the sky.
Among the crowds (from all nations on earth), we saw a group of nuns from Kerala who had come with a permission to meet the Pope close up. Earlier , we had seen a stream of newlyweds in bridal wear, and some newborn babies in bassinets, lining up to be blessed by the Pope. We saw many women in the concourse, chanting prayers, sobbing, kneeling and raising some icons above their heads in religious ecstacy . Many attractive icons were on sale all around the square and sales were brisk......
A Romani ( Gypsy) couple, with chiselled features and bright native clothing, came up to us and declared they were our " cousins" ! In a brief chat , in accented English, they told us that their ( gypsy) ancestors were Indian and they still held some "Aryan beliefs", and that they were so glad to meet us.
There are three other shrines within the Holy See , St.Mary Major, St. John Lateran and St Paul Outside Walls out of which we visited only the last one.
The Vatican Museums ( started in 16th Cent) contain sculptures, inscriptions, scientific instruments, paintings, pottery, gems & jewelry, tapestries, maps etc from different civilizations, all of great historic value, collected by the Church . Particularly interesting were the astronomical models and instruments used during Rennaissance. The Library was only partially open, large parts of it curtained off.
But the most wonderful images imprinted in memory are from the Sistine Chapel, tucked behind the galleries. The visitors queue was serpentine and it took a while for us to enter. But the wait was well worth it. All those wonderful, familiar images - there on the ceiling and walls in original !!!!! I could have swooned.
Tourists, craning their necks and pointing frantically, could mot suppress exclamations and gasps of wonder. Only the cautioning clap of hand and "Shhhhh" issued by a majestic monk in voluminous robes, at regular intervals, kept voluble appreciation in check.
The Restoration of the Frescoes , a long, painstaking project, was almost fully complete when we visited, but there was some scaffolding still left standing in one part, the final patch.
The uniform of the Vatican guards, apparently unchanged from the days of the Rennaissance, are very colourful and ceremonial. And the guards cheerfully pose for pictures, as they seem to have nothing much to do !