Summers in Davis, California are ridiculously hot. I know that to you back in Blighty that means little comfort while you have the usual soggy British summertime, but it’s honestly too hot in Davis. Oh it’s a ‘dry heat’ which means you don’t sweat constantly, as we do when it gets hot in London, but still it’s too hot to do anything. You don’t want to leave the cool air-conditioned house, which can then make you go stir-crazy. Davis is too hot. The first summer I had in Davis back in 2006 was so hot that air-conditioning units crashed the local power grids several times; though ours was fine, many people in Davis would escape the hot evenings and go to the bookshop I was working in, just to cool off. Even my nice office was not immune during the day – the power would go down, and the building would gradually heat up, until everyone was just sent home. Davis summers don’t see as many power outages these days (usually they happen during storms now) but the summers are still ridiculous, and our PG&E bills certainly reflect that. However there is one way to beat the heat – get out of town and drive west to the San Francisco Bay Area. That first summer, it was on a Davis day of 115 degrees Fahrenheit that I first realized how different our climates were, the Central Valley and the Bay Area – on that day it was around 65 – 70 degrees in Berkeley. Quite a difference. And so, a few weeks ago, we decided to leave the boredom and heat and drove one Sunday down to Baker Beach in San Francisco, where the air was cool and the sky was blanketed with fog. Yes in California we leave the sunshine and heat and head to the coast to cool off beneath overcast skies and this is normal – I truly have moved across the world, and found my people. There we all were enjoying the foggy skies, in full view of the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge – full view, except for the top, obscured by rolling waves of fog. It was heaven. Of course, those harmful rays can easily get through that fog (I only ever get sunburnt in San Francisco, it’s deceptive) so we were still lathered in sun-screen. We hung out at the beach for a few hours until we got hungry for cheesecake, and then attempted to drive home. That took a very, very long time. First of all, we left the beach at 3:30pm, but did not reach the Golden Gate Bridge until 5pm, and you can see how near it is. Traffic was completely stuck. Over the bridge we stopped for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, hoping the traffic would ease off, but it didn’t – after another long wait in unmoving traffic we abandoned all hope of crossing the Richmond – San Rafael bridge, and headed north to sit in more traffic along Highway 37. We weren’t home until 9pm, five and a half long hours later. And of course, Davis was still hot. So it is worth it to get out of town and cool down, but you might end up in a car for a very long time.
I wonder what my Venice ‘limit’ is? How long could I be in Venice before I got bored by the bridges, confounded by the canals, tired of the tourists, frustrated by the flooding, and hounded by the humidity? Maybe never, and maybe always? Maybe all of that is the charm of Venice, and maybe it is something I don’t notice when by myself but becomes more prominent when with others? It’s hard to tell. I’ll always love Venice, always be amazed by its very existence and history, that is is an eternally crumbling yet living and breathing beauty? I could spend a long time there wandering and sketching, but even Venice would end up feeling small and familiar. Other cities may not be as pound-for-pound beautiful, but may have a more lasting attraction – Paris, for example. Over the course of three days however Venice is magnificent and divine, and every scene is a potential watercolour. The morning light in Venice beats everywhere I have ever been. The sketch above was done on my second morning in Venice, while wandering about the narrow paths of the sestiere of Cannaregio, looking for a specific spot which I knew to be nearby the place we stayed in 2003. I found it – the shiny marble church known as Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which I remembered to be surrounded by cats the first time I saw it. There were no cats this time. I sat on the steps of a bridge on the Fondamenta del Piovan and sketched the above scene, painting the colourful reflection in the soft morning light, before wandering back to the apartment, Venetian breakfast pastries in hand.
Later that day, we had a morning and afternoon of slow wandering around the two sestieri on the other side of the Grand Canal, San Polo and Santa Croce. We took a traghetto over, looking for the natural history museum, but spent ages getting lost among the alleys and courtyards. This was a much more residential area than I had expected, and while we were lost (because we were a bit lost, we never found that museum) my son watched local kids playing football in the small squares (though he was a bit shy to join in). I did get one sketch done, looking for a route to the Grand Canal, sketching the magnificently domed Chiesa di San Geremia across the wide turquoise canal. Scenes like this make Venice feel like a made-up city, a pretend place, but it’s very real, and boatmen moored up bringing their goods onto the fondamenta. This was actually my last sketch in Venice and tired feet were not looking forward to the journey back to England, but we were all ready to come back by that point. Venice is beautiful and fun, as is Rome, but there is a lot of walking. Our next vacation will involve a little more beach and pool.
One last sketch though, a quick pencil sketch of the Rio de S. Fosca, in Cannaregio, drawn quickly the evening before, after dinner. I didn’t want to be out sketching after dark so drew this as the sun set and went back to settle into the apartment with thoughts of future Italian trips in my head. Next time, Florence, Tuscany, and maybe the Italian Lakes. I’d like to visit the Ligurian coast, all the way down to the Cinqueterre. Genoa has always sounded interesting to me, and Bologna. Naples scares me a bit, but I had a pen-pal from Naples when I was about 13 (we never met, but she would write to me all about the south of Italy, and I’d write back all about London). Similarly, Sicily always seemed wild and distant, but I would love to explore its villages and coastal towns. I don’t know; I want to go everywhere, I guess. At least we were able to go to Rome and Venice, and that was worth it. Arrivederci Italia. Ciao!
We stayed in Cannaregio, the northern quarter of Venice, a neighbourhood of canals north of the Grand Canal and east of the train station. I kept spelling it Canareggio, which is wrong. I also spelled it Cannareggio, which is also wrong. I never spelled it Canaregio because that just seemed obviously wrong. We arrived on our train from Rome in good time, that trip across the lagoon making the old heart thump around with excitement. We were staying in an apartment we had booked online, and we had the address, and we had even looked for it on maps online, and here is the thing – Venice makes no sense to anyone except Venetians. They don’t have streets, you see. That might seem obviosu, because they have canals, but they literally don’t have streets – what they have are Calles and Fondamenti and Campi, but if you have an address it’s not like, 52 Gondola Road, Venice. Instead each address is a number, followed by the name of the area. For example, the address of the church Madonna dell’Orto is Cannaregio 3512. It’s a bit like saying you live in “Willesden 4586” without giving any street name or other distinguishing feature – people just know where it is, and to locals it makes a lot of sense. To the outsider however, it can be very confusing, and Venice is like a labyrinth anyway. In fact, while all those Calles and Fondamenti have big signs letting you know at least vaguely where you are, it turns out those were added by the Austrians years ago to stop themselves getting lost, Venetians had never needed them.
What I am saying is, yes we totally got lost trying to find the place. ‘Fondamenta Moro’ is also very similar sounding to ‘Fondamenta dei Mori’, two canals over. We hadn’t been to Venice in 14 years and I think had forgotten how much it can turn you around. We got there in the end, and it was a nice neighbourhood not too far from Strada Nuova, which actually is more of a street and has a good supermarket for stocking up on supplies (dio mio, I love Italian food!). It was an apartment we reached through a dark and slightly slanted covered alleyway, and the narrow canals were right outside our windows, boats and gondolas drifting by quietly. It was a world away from the Rome apartment with its spectacular view and exhausting staircase, but peaceful and homely, with a row of canalside restaurants and gelaterias nearby. The top sketch was done out the front of the building, stood by the bridge in the early evening, Venice at its most serene. The sketch in color above was done at dinner, and you can see the back of our apartment on the corner of the building’s ground floor. That’s my son, sketching a boat. We ate at the Trattoria Misericordia, and the food was decent (not as good as Rome but pretty good), but the waiter fancied himself as some sort of comedian, but came across as, well, not a comedian anyway. We ate while the sun cast long yellow streaks in the sky and then walked home across the bridge.
Cannaregio means ‘Royal Canal’, as it was the main route into the city before the railways were built across the lagoon. These days it is the northernmost of the ‘Sestieri’, the six areas of Venice. Above, a Venetian fire hydrant, covered up like those ones I drew in Lisbon years ago, remember? Now it isn’t the exact same one as below, which was nearby on the Campiello Diedo, but I thought you might like to see it because it is quite similar in many respects.
It was a trip to Venice at the end of my undergraduate degree in 2001 that got me into what we now call ‘urban sketching’. I had always drawn stuff, but drawing the world around me just wasn’t something I did. Oh except those few times in my teens, usually for art homework, plus a poorly scribbled panorama of Prague that I did sitting on a hill during my 1998 European railway adventure. I planned a few days in Venice after finishing my final exams – my degree was in French and Drama – and at the end of year party in the Modern Languages department at Queen Mary University of London one of my French professors (Marian Hobson) talked to me about how much she liked exploring Venice, and she recommended that rather than take a load of photos I should consider drawing while I travelled, because I would really see with my own eyes. I am paraphrasing a bit but I remember that conversation, and when I flew out to Italy I took extra pens and some coloured pencils (no sketchbook, didn’t bring one of those) and drew a few pictures on location in the white pages at the end of my Lonely Planet guidebook. Venice was too amazing not to draw, and too different from Mile End not to savour every moment. I explored early in the morning, getting up as the sun rose, before the tourists, before even the pigeons, while tradesmen moored their boats on jetties delivering to the local shops. Venice really was an impenetrable labyrinth, like nowhere I had ever been. I don’t even have that guidebook now and the sketches were small and not hugely detailed but I never forgot that feeling, and carry that sentiment with me whenever I sketch, even Davis, that I am using my own eyes to see things as they are.
I went back to Venice a year later, but did no sketching as it was February which meant thick dense freezing fog, thick dense Carnevale crowds, and more thick dense freezing fog. I went back a year after that, with my future wife, and we got engaged in the middle of Piazza San Marco. That was an amazing and memorable trip, in the sticky depths of August. I would also get up early and wander Venice with a sketchbook, free of the crowds, drawing what I could. Venice is an unusual city, but I always loved it and thought that we would be back sooner – if not every year, then maybe every couple of years. Then we moved to America, and so it was that we didn’t return for 14 years. Venice is still there, it hasn’t sunk yet (“oh you’d better go now,” people say, “I heard it’s sinking and it’ll be too late!” Venice has been sinking, or rather flooding, forever. Venice is still here.) When the chance came this year to finally return we jumped at it. We were going to Rome, so why not get a train up north back to old Venice?
And of course, I could get back to the early morning wandering and sketching. After 14 years away my sketching had improved somewhat so I was eager to try out my more developed sketching skills on Venice. Before the family were awake, I would get up and wander the labyrinthine calles and alleys looking for a place to sketch, returning to our Cannaregio apartment with Venetian pastries for breakfast. The sketch at the top of the famous Rialto bridge was done at about 7am, when the canalsides were calmer and the local traders carted goods ashore, and postmen wheeled little carts up and down the stepped bridges. You can see the golden light peering onto the water beneath the Rialto bridge; I can tell you that the view from the bridge itself of that other side at 7 in the morning is one of the truly magnificent sights to behold. I’ll draw that on the next trip, if I dare, when I’m a bit better at it. There is nothing like standing by the Grand Canal listening to the Venetian morning sounds and drawing in a sketchbook.
I have a good few sketches to show you and I’ll try to keep the storytelling concise but here is one more, of that very Piazza San Marco. It was pretty incredible to be back here in the spot where we got engaged, but this time as a family. I did a quick sketch of the Campanile and the Basilica San Marco while my son rested his tired legs (Venice equals a lot of walking). It wasn’t yet too crowded, but it was getting busier, so we got a Vaporetto back to Cannaregio and had a rest. And, of course, a gelato.
We didn’t see the Sistine Chapel. We didn’t see the Pope on his balcony. We didn’t look inside St.Peter’s, and we didn’t climb up the Basilica’s massive dome. But the Vatican City State was still pretty great! We walked there from our apartment, crossing the Tiber, my son super excited at the possibility of checking another country off of his list of visited countries, and the smallest recognized one at that. Sorry Sealand! Ok, so before I tell you all about the Vatican, I’m going to say that I promise not to make any puns or word-play jokes, not out of any reverence (careful now, that was nearly one) or respect, but because pope-based puns are just too easy, even for me. I’m not promising but I vill see Vatican do (dammit, promise broken). So, approaching the Vatican, you can always tell how close you are by the number of people coming up to you offering you special deals to beat the line, look at that line, I can help you beat the line. By the time you get up to the little boundary that is the border between Italy and Vatican, it becomes unbearable. You only have to turn your head and look at the big line and someone will notice and pounce, “I can help you beat the line! Don’t you want this special deal?” So many of them. They would not leave us alone. I expected devout Catholics everywhere praying n the street (no idea why I had that impression), but it was mostly aggressive unofficial tour-guides with tricks on getting past the big line. So, what I love about the Vatican – as soon as you reach that frontier, they vanish. Like cursed ghouls they are unable to cross the invisible holy line. It’s incredible actually. Now I’m not religious, I don’t believe in God or any of that stuff, but being able to banish all annoying tour-guide-line-jumping-irritants with one magic line is pretty much magic in my book. So we went into the Vatican City-State, no passports or visas required, but we did not enter the Vatican building itself (if only there was a way to beat that line! Why didn’t I listen?), and I took in the experience by sitting and sketching it. I love to sketch a cathedral, big church, basilica etc when I can, and like, dudes, this is the big one. It is massive. The dome of St. Peter’s! My name-sake. (The ‘r’ is silent in my name, as is the St.) We bought postcards, and sent ourselves a postcard from the little Vatican post-office (and by the way, it arrived very quickly, unlike the one from Venice which I am still waiting for, so score one for Vatican Mail. I was disappointed to see that it wasn’t called the ‘Holy Post’ though). I’d like to go back and see all of it some day, but reserving tickets ahead of time is the way to go. We had a lot more sightseeing in Rome planned, so we moved along.
Easy, Tiber. I did come back to the river early the next morning to sketch the view of the Vatican, along with the Pont Sant’Angelo, from the Ponte Umberto I. That bridge you see actually dates from the Roman Empire (it is also known as the Pons Aelius) and was built in 134 AD by Emperor Hadrian. Ok wait what, 134 AD? Rome has a lot of ancient buildings, but a bridge that old?? Remember how I said the Romans built London Bridge? Yeah that one didn’t survive obviously (there is a famous song you may have heard about the problems you get with different building materials, but I don’t know how true to reality the song is given that at one point they suggest building a bridge across a wide river in a major metropolitan centre by using ‘silver and gold’, though to be fair they do concede that the people of London may be inclined to strip the bridge of its valuable metal). Well anyway, back on point, this bridge was also built by the Romans and there it is still, to this day. That is impressive. It leads over to the Castel Sant’Angelo, where the Emperor Hadrian has his tomb. The early June morning light reflecting against the waters of the Tevere was so gentle, serene, despite the buzz of mopeds on the street behind me, and the morning tourists posing for selfies. I miss Rome already. I did throw a coin into the Trevi fountain, which means I will definitely, absolutely return to Rome. By the way I still have more Rome posts so don’t go away. Rome wasn’t sketched in a day.
It’s February, the birthday month. I don’t really do a lot to celebrate, I don’t have parties or anything, don’t really have enough of a social circle for the sort of nights out I used to have when I was younger, now it’s more a quiet meal with the family, a pint of beer and some cheesecake. Now this sketch, done on the first day of the month at the UCD Arboretum about a minute from my office, was not meant to be metaphorical of birthdays but in that great way you can retrospectively attach meaning to anything, this is a bridge, signifying crossing from one time to another. Weak I know. On the far side though is the Robert Mondavi Institute of Food and Wine Sciences, which includes the Beer lab, so I supposed that signifies celebratory tipples in some way. There is a STOP sign, which must mean I need to stop and assess myself, and there is a yellow sign for a roundabout, which of course as we all know signifies the Circle of Life, obviously, that one’s obvious. The path, well part of it falls into shadow which of course means the path is not always clear, and then of course there is the Creek, and that one is easy, it signifies my creaking body as I get older each day. I had no idea there was so much semiotic depth to my sketches! I wonder what all the fire hydrants mean? Actually don’t answer that.
Recently, for our anniversary, my wife and I took a couple of days down in the City. That is San Francisco to you. We stayed at the Fairmont Hotel, which is an old San Francisco spot of legend up on Nob Hill – it was here that Tony Bennett first complained to lost and found about losing a vital organ, through the medium of Croon. I’ve always wondered, is that song supposed to be a metaphor, or did he actually leave his actual heart lying around? And his other city based songs, is Chicago really just a tantrum-throwing two-year-old? I don’t know, Tony. I love San Francisco though, it’s honestly one of my favourite places in the world to be. I did leave a shirt there once, hanging in the closet in the Hyatt. Above, Crissy Field, out near the Presidio. We went to the Walt Disney Family Museum, very interesting.
Our room had absolutely stunning views over the City. As the sun went down, before getting ready for dinner, I sketched a couple of the views – the peak of the TransAm Pyramid, golden in the sunset light, and Coit Tower, up on top of Telegraph Hill. I wish I were rich, I would just live in San Francisco for ever and ever and ever. It’s a city that is pricing people out though, so I don’t think drawing a few pictures and writing a few books is going to get me to San Francisco. When Tony Bennett sang that song, he was actually talking about having to farm out his own organs just to cover the rent. Ah, perhaps it’s for the best. One of the things I love about San Francisco is getting to visit it – it is so utterly different from Davis in every way, it’s always a nice change of scenery.
I have sketched this big old church before, Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. I did their Christmas Concert program a few years ago. Since we were staying so close I wanted to get a Sunday morning sketch of it in. I didn’t have a lot of time, so I drew in my new purple Leuchtturm sketchbook that I got in Manchester.
After that, we went to ZineFest, and that was kinda fun. Actually probably enjoyed it more in previous years, I found fewer gems this time around, though I still spent on a few zines. I tended to buy some of the really random ones. We got the Muni back down to Union Square for a little bit of shopping; I bought some underpants at Uni-Qlo, I really like their underpants. I realize you don’t need to know that, but I’m just saying for those of you who also wear underpants (a good deal of you, I suspect), that Uni-Qlo do make really comfy ones. While my wife continued shopping, I sketched Tad’s Broiled Steaks outside, an old eatery on Powell Street. Always wanted to sketch this place, though I don’t of course eat steak. And there you are, San Francisco again. I want to go back!