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August 01, 2006

Can a visit to the touristic fairyland of Venice still be enjoyable? Jane Kelly finds out - and then succumbs to the even more fantastical world of the Orient Express

Posted by Jane Kelly

Has tourism destroyed Venice? Or destroyed at least the experience of Venice for the visitor? Jane Kelly finds out - and then succumbs to the even more fantastical world of the Orient Express.

One moment I was in a graffiti smeared multi-storey car-park, the next I was in a boat on the Grand Canal in the dark, gliding out of the 21st century into the 16th, away from all modern ugliness.

The only light came from lanterns over narrow doorways. I saw shadowy figures in the dark crossing small Baroque bridges, and then I was hauled onto a creaking jetty and led through an unlit marble entrance hall, ankle deep in canal water.

It was my first visit to Venice and when I saw the carved wooden angels guarding the entrance to my apartment in Palazzo Mocenigo, I became a "Venice Idiot", this was it - the ultimate place of enchantment.

I was staying in what was once the home of the powerful Mocenigo family, where they entertained royalty and political allies in the 1570s. I had a thousand square feet of mosaic marble under my feet, silk brocade walls, six delicately painted wardrobes and Murano glass chandeliers overhead. This was the Venice of my dreams, a place where I could commune with a world of high art. I spent my first night in a bedroom once used by Lord Byron.

The morning after, as so often happens, wasn't so good. Who was this next to me in the morning light? It was the Piazza San Marco, that epicentre of European culture, once described by Henry James as "the drawing room of Europe", where Sand, Stendhal, Balzac, Wagner, Mann, Byron, Rilke, Hemmingway enjoyed bumping into each other in Cafés Florian and Quadri. Even in the 1960s the comedian Kenneth Williams was delighted to spot Dirk Bogarde there, and get an autograph from the film star Eve Arden.

Today you make your way to the Florian through a slew of litter. Inside a scowling waiter will sell you "toasts" at an inflated price, while Japanese tourists in identical sun visors troop past the window. The square is more like a fast-food joint than a salon, although the product being gobbled is culture.

Venice is what the French writer Regis Debray cynically terms "the most essential of educational fairylands", but most of its students haven't a clue what they are seeing, gawping in lines at sacred things which they find unrecognisable. In the grand churches there is certainly no feeling of faith or any sense of a living culture.

In the surging flood of teenagers from every campus in America, all from what I could hear discussing where and when they were going to get their next "calzone pizza", or their next cold "Bud", I gave up on the Doge's Palace. It was easier to get into the less famous Academia, not on the prescribed list of things to stare at.

I hoped to see The Tempest by Giorgione, but it had been taken down for some reason and replaced by a photo. I did see the Dinner at the House of Levi, painted in 1573 by Veronese, a canvas 42 ft long and 18ft tall, with wonderful cats and mongrel dogs playing under the table. Its expressive hedonism got the artist into much trouble with the Inquisition, when Venice was a very dangerous place to live for anyone with a free mind.

Despite its treasures, the gallery is dingy with an air of neglect, and when I complained politely that my electronic commentary, which sounded like a Caribbean woman talking from under the lagoon, had died long before we got to the late 16th century, the attendants furiously blamed me, with much eye rolling and arm waving.

Things were easier, perhaps because less Venetian, in the cool tranquillity of the low slung Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, overlooking the Grand Canal. The American steel heiress Peggy Guggenheim lived in the Palazzo for thirty years, until she died in 1979, and left the best part of her 20th century art collection there, including works by Gris, Kandisky, Klee, Modigliani and Picasso.

The gallery is fascinating because it reflects her life, as many of the artists on show, such as Max Ernst, were her husbands and lovers, and she even features in some of their work.

In a reversal of roles she was a generous patron and a lot of her interest was based on sex. She learned all she knew from her lover Duchamp and later backed the fetching Jackson Pollock, calling him "the greatest painter since Picasso".

The rear of the mansion hosts a separate collection of Italian Futurists, who hated Venice as even in the 1930s they saw it as a pastiche and a sham, and work by Morandi, the great Italian modernist, including a rare nude study, from 1914, and his first great still life done in 1916.

If you are a "friend" of the Royal Academy or the Tate in London you can get a reduction on the ticket price and in the shop.

To gain any sense of a real city, you need to get as far away form St. Marco and the galleries as possible, struggle through the narrow streets - a battle if it is raining and everyone has an umbrella - up past the Rialto Bridge. Its fish market is the first sign that real people still live and work in Venice, just.

Venice is one place where you can look at shops without slumming it. I don't mean Versace, Prada and Fendi which are everywhere around St. Marco, or Nardi where you can buy jewelled Moor's heads, but tiny places that still have a whiff of something interesting.

My hotel, the Bauer, owned by the appropriately named Signora Bortolotti, was festooned with Rubelli silk wall coverings and fabrics from Bevilacqua, whose family have been weaving in Venice since 1800. You can visit Paola and Mario Bevilacqua, on the Ponte della Canonica and watch elderly women making velvet, which costs nearly €1,000 a metre.

Venice is famous for its marbled paper. It's so striking that in the tiny Il Papiro, on Calle Del Spezier, I saw Japanese tourists videoing the wrapping paper and envelopes.

At Legatoria Polliero, in the San Polo area, you can find the art of Venetian book binding. This hovel is stacked with books and unique stationary. Gianni Basso, on Calle del Fumo, offers wonderful, personalised business cards and letter head.

Making your way past strange objects of street theatre, including a man on a plinth who poses as a marble bust, you can find delectable shops such as Bucintoro's pastry shop on Calle del Scaleter, where they carry on the local tradition of sweets and pastries, including a little meringue called a bacingondola (kiss in the gondola), the kind of thing that Casanova might have offered his ladies.

Mascari, an old family business run by two brothers on "Spice Street", near the Rialto market, offers dried fruits, mushrooms, chocolates, sweets and fine teas. Vizio Vertu, in San Polo, is a new chocolate shop and bar opened by two foodie young women. They make all the chocs themselves, adding pumpkin, wild dill and balsamic vinegar to their recipes. If you've got to queue for anything in Venice, it is worth lining up for their hot chocolate.

You can take home handmade pasta from Le Spighe, in San Polo and surprise your friends with black spaghetti, brown tagliatelle or tortellini bursting with artichokes and ricotta cheese.

My trip reached its apogee, or at least the height of its absurdity, when I travelled back to Blighty on the Orient-Express. A surprising range of people will tell you that they long for this experience.

The train was invented in 1883, carrying elegant travellers between Paris and Constantinople. Today its 14,000 passengers a year are mostly British, longing for a sense of good old Britishness and Japanese who are strangely fascinated by the whole thing. I also met an Indian journalist hoping to get the tiny percentage of rich in her country interested. "They will love something so exotic", she said.

"This is really a British fantasy", said Manuel Valerio, twenty-eight, our Spanish somewhat camp coach-attendant, who looked after us during the thirty-one hour journey, fetching tea, zipping me into my dress and bringing in breakfast.
He said:

The English live it. They bring the clothes and the fantasy. Other nationalities come for a luxurious ride, but they don't understand what it is really about.
Really? As we waited in the bar for dinner, 1,200 ft up in the Alps, a rather wrecked looking Italian pianist played On the Street Where you live, and then perhaps racking his brains to please English taste, Roll Out the Barrel. I was expecting the Lambeth walk next as portly English women appeared in gowns more M & S than belle epoche. The best dressed lady was sadly French, in a burnt orange silk suit. I was in a red silk cheongsam from Singapore, and got stared at by the English wives as if I might be a loose woman.

Dinner was not terribly exciting because we were served food that the Simplon Orient Express know that English people of a certain kind think very posh; the cruel foods - lobster, fois gras, veal.

Around me fat couples tucked in, sawing their bread rolls with knives held like pens, and cutting up their asparagus.

I couldn't help drawing an analogy with Venice itself, which the writer Debray describes as "having its little finger genteelly stuck out", a place now used as a drawing room for the whole planet, where "people of quality" display common behaviour.

The best thing was lying in my brocade sofa-bed while the train thundered and whistled across Europe. My cabin, fourteen metres by ten, was beautiful in its way, with walnut and lacquer cupboards and furniture decorated with art-deco marquetry. The armchairs, carpeting, bronze Lalique lamps, even the pink velvet coat hangers were designed exclusively for the train, but there is no loo or shower en-suite. When it was built in 1926, people, very different from us, weren't so fussed about showers.

My grandmother would have felt quite at home, if a little above her station in there, and as a journey it still manages to perform the illusion of being both safe and an adventure.

When I arrived at Victoria I felt that my whole trip had been a fantasy, in which I had viewed, rather than taken part in an elaborate play about the Old World, long dead, but still mourned.

Jane Kelly worked as a full time staff feature writer for the Daily Mail for 15 years, but she now lives as a freelance journalist and painter in west London.

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