Travel: Assault on the senses in Venice
Venice, the ethereal city of water and stone, casts a spell with its enchanting, northern Italian beauty. The tricks of light reflected in the water as a gondola appears out of nowhere -- and then vanishes again just as mysteriously into a cloak of darkness -- are as hypnotic as when you walk onto Piazza San Marco with the Basilica in the background late in the evening. You can see why Napoleon Bonaparte referred to St Mark's Square as the "drawing room of Europe".
On our first night in Venice, we stopped in the square at Cafe Florian for a coffee amid its famous late 18th-Century mirrored, stuccoed and frescoed interior. Ok, €20 was a ridiculously exorbitant financial outlay for two coffees, but it was almost worth the near-heart-attack to be in a place frequented -- back in the day, before the hordes of tourists with iphones documenting everything -- by the likes of Rousseau, Goethe and the gang and to hear the orchestras play, variously, Mozart and Bach.
Afterwards we went around the corner for a nightcap in Harry's Bar. Opened in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani, it was made famous by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Truman Capote, Orson Welles, Aristotle Onassis and the gang. Ernest Hemingway had his own table there. So it had to be done.
And you know what? We won't be doing that again! You could buy a ghost estate down the country in Ireland cheaper than you could get a round of drinks in Harry's Bar.
Afterwards, an unsurprising thing happened. We got completely lost. It wasn't the drink. It was Venice. It is almost de rigueur to lose your way here.
To get lost in Venice's labyrinth of backstreets and alleyways is to get lost in the past. When you cross a bridge at dawn or dusk, you imagine this was the same one -- and Venice has over 400 of them -- that Casanova stepped lightly over in 1745 en route to a late night conquest, invariably another man's wife, or perhaps the same bridge Lord Byron crossed in the 19th Century with his club foot, up for the craic.
We woke on our first morning in Venice to the chimes of endless church bells ringing out across one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We opened the windows of our hotel -- The Bauer Palladio on the Giudecca island, one of the finest establishments in the city -- and gazed in awe at the Grand Canal.
As much as I love Dublin and its canals (I live by one), opening your window to that sight is like nothing on earth; perhaps because Venice is not really on earth at all. It is like an old movie set suspended, eternally, on the water.
The Bauer, formerly an old convent that looks straight across at the Doge's Palace, has a private shuttle boat, and so my girlfriend and I went back and forth across the giant water-traffic corridor full of gondolas, sea-liners and other private boats.
We wandered the streets and took in sights such as the Doge's Palace. After a candlelit dinner in the splendour of The Bauer it transpired the legendary romance of Venice had intoxicated my girlfriend, who suggested that this would be a fantastic hotel to have a wedding in. Apart from the fact that we haven't two fecking brass farthings to rub together, this sounded like a wonderful idea.
What wasn't quite such a wonderful idea -- in terms of the effect it had on our nerves -- was the late night ghost story tour of Venice we took the following night.
The guide told us tales of people buried alive in the bubonic plague epidemic between 1575 and 1577; vampires rising through sleeping canals and abandoned squares; the spooky assassins in masks, the haunting echo of distant footsteps of The Devil on Rialto Bridge; beheaded noblemen's daughters forever wandering The Grand Canal; and that nearby Poveglia Island is, legend has it, haunted.
The following morning, we had a couple of spa treatments in the Bauer's spa to shake out any lingering thoughts of ghosts in our midst, followed by lunch of pizza in a street cafe in Rialto. There are rip-off touristy places aplenty in Venice, but there are also lots of places where you can eat cheaply, and beautifully, particularly at the north-western foot of the Rialto bridge. After lunch, we spent a few hours in the Peggy Guggenheim Museum looking at paintings by some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century: I even tried on a pair of Peggy's sunglasses in the gift shop, before taking to the streets again
You don't particularly notice that you have walked for hour upon hour -- up and down, bridge after bridge -- because the surroundings are so surreal, so sensual, so seductive. Your senses are cunningly assailed by all that is going on around you, the sudden bends in the alleyways, the old stories.
Every poet has written about Venice's aura and I won't try here.
All I know is for three days last month Venice took me to a place where the burden of life in recession-ridden Ireland was momentarily lifted and much joy -- and some vino -- was provided.
The readers of Sunday Independent and www.independent.ie can avail of a special offer from January until mid-February, 2014, of €280 per night per room, subject to availability, at the Bauer Palladio Hotel & Spa, one of Venice's top hotels, located five minutes away from St Mark's Square. Tel: + 39 041 5207022