sense and serenissima

Fondamenta del Piovan Venice sm

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.

Grand Canal Venice sm

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.  Rio de S Fosca Venice sm

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!

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sweating at il santo bevitore

Il Santo Bevitore Venice sm
A short two-minute walk from our apartment was a small local bar called Il Santo Bevitore, quietly perched on the canalside, and when everyone fell asleep after a long day’s Italian travel I went for a stroll in the sultry lagoon evening, thick gloops of summer rain plopping down unexpectedly, while the dark water crept up from the canals and over the pathways and into doorways. Venice is no stranger to humidity. My previous visit had been on a baking hot August weekend in 2003, when no end of Fanta Citron could quench my thirst and three or four showers per day were the norm. After a stroll through the dark narrow Venetian streets (I have always felt Venice after-hours to be a bit spooky, I prefer it in daylight, preferably early morning) I stopped into Il Santo Bevitore to have a beer and some of the little Venetian snacks, pieces of bread topped with various foods, fish, cheeses, all sorts of things. This was definitely a bar I wanted to sketch, and I had enough time to do a full sketch with colour, but the fans were not on and they didn’t exactly have air-conditioning, so sweaty-in-Venice I was once again. I probably lost loads of weight in sweat sat sketching in that place. I put some of it back on with those little snacks though, they were so good. I had just the one pint and gave up the sketch, going back to the apartment to cool off by the fan (with a couple more of those little snack things, I wish I remembered their proper name; one that I really liked was called “Baccala’ Mantecato”).

Baccalo Mantecato sm

canalside in cannaregio

Fondamenta Moro Venice sm
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.

Fondamenta Misericordia Venice sm

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.

Hydrant in Venice

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.

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veni vidi venezia

Rialto Venice
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.
Piazza San Marco sm

on the tracks and in the sky

Roma to Venezia
And so we left Rome on a fast train from Termini station, speeding through the Italian countryside (and what countryside!) on one of the nicest trains we’ve been on. I once spent a summer travelling Europe on the trains and this was nicer than all of those as well (that was in 1998 mind you, and most of them were overnight trains in central Europe). It took us over 3 hours to reach Venice from Rome, stopping in Florence on the way (but not getting out and looking around, we’ll save that for next time). My son was proudly sporting his brand new AS Roma shirt that he bought with money his Nanny in England had given him (it’s by far his favourite souvenir from Italy!) (when I say Nanny I mean my Mum, not a Nanny like in someone who looks after kids for a living) (international translations here). I wore my Sampdoria shirt so we were the Serie A Boys. The Calcio Kids. On our way out of Italy, flying back to London, we were both wearing our Tottenham Hotspur shirts and the border guards immediately called out to us with big smiles, “Eh, Harry Ka-ne! Totten-ham!” We had to wait while they looked up something, it turns out they were just trying to look up the name of Tottenham’s stadium, but were confused to see that it was now Wembley. They were very excited about Spurs.

Speaking of airports, while I am showing you my in-train sketch of Trenitalia Frecciarosso 1000, here are the other transport sketches from our summer trip. First off, Oakland to Gatwick, which started with a 3.5 hour delay, which was fun. On mt left was a woman who when I first got on board hurriedly picked up a bunch of items from my seat before I sat down, I assumed they were her things. Then when she just sat there holding them I asked, are those mine? (Blankets, headphones) “Yes, I picked them up for you,” she said, “and you are lucky, I don’t usually do nice.” Which was an odd thing to say to a complete stranger. She was British. “Ok, thanks,” I said, taking back the blankets in a bit of a puzzle. I’m not really one for conversations with fellow passengers. I noticed as we sat on the runway she was reading through not only the Daily Mail but also the National Enquirer, which I’d never seen people actually read before, so you see something new every day I suppose. We were in Economy Plus – these BA flights from Oakland to the UK are so much cheaper than we usually pay that we upgraded for a bit more legroom – but still it was a long and hard-to-sleep-on flight. I did at least get my sketch in. I had time…
Oakland to Gatwick

We flew Ryanair to Italy, from Stansted to Rome. As you may remember I call Ryanair “Difficultjet”, and this time the difficult bit was that they don’t let passengers from the US (or non-EU at least; good luck Brits, in a few years) use paperless boarding passes, unlike for example Easyjet, who do. Which means if you are travelling and need to print your boarding pass a day ahead (because you have to check in online nowadays, no other choice) and don’t have access to a printer, as we didn’t, you have to pay loads of money to Ryanair for them to print it out for you, at least fifteen quid a ticket. So that’s annoying. In the end we did find someone with a printer, but most travellers wouldn’t necessarily have that option. Otherwise though I don’t mind Ryanair, they fly to a lot of places and are cheap. It was exciting flying over Belgium, Germany, Austria; my son asked if he could check these off and say he’d been there now, but no, flying over is not the same as being somewhere. If it were, then we’ve been to Greenland loads of times.
Stansted to Roma
Venice to Luton was on Easyjet, which was pretty easy. My son’s hair in this sketch looks red like mine, bu it really isn’t, it’s more light brown/blond. However my paints were very much stuck in the Easyjet colour scheme. Boy we were tired after that trip.
Venezia to Luton

And the final flight of the vacation! This was a trip in which we went through SIX different airports (Oakland, Gatwick, Stansted, Roma Ciampino, Venice Marco Polo, Luton) which of course is my favourite thing, I love airports, SOOOOO much. This was a decent flight home. I had no stranger with a Daily Mail next to me (although my son put the brown BA blanket over his head, making him look like a Jedi). This little Miquelrius sketchbook/random notebook, which I’ve had for five years now, has a lot of in-flight travel sketches in now. Lots of Bon-Voyages.
Gatwick to Oakland

wherever i lay my hydrant, that’s my rome

Hydrant in RomeRome Hydrant sm

Almost there with Rome! Rome wasn’t blogged about in a day, but this will be the last one, much shorter and with less complaining. Above are a couple of fire hydrants! I was pleased to discover some in Rome, add them to my collection. Not many, but here they are. Rome is also well known for its fountains, not just the grand ones in the piazzas, but also the smaller ones dotted around the streets with drinking water for anyone who gets thirsty in those heavy, hot Roman afternoons. So I sketched the one below, the man with the barrel and no nose, in Via Lata. Next to that is a very quick perspective sketch just off of that street.

Rome noseless fountain sm

Now one fountain I did not sketch, you will have noticed, was the world-famous Trevi Fountain. It was very crowded there, and the surrounding streets thick with tourist-tack. Beautiful fountain, but not my favourite spot in Rome. We did nevertheless each throw a coin into the fountain, ensuring, as the legends and all the guidebooks say, that we will return to Rome. And I’m sure that we will, and I can’t wait. Arrivederci Roma!

nice one centurion, like it, like it

roman soldier (playmobil)
And so, a couple more Rome posts before moving on to Venice. There is an endless supply of Rome puns and Life of Brian references to draw from yet. Above is a little Playmobil Roman soldier I picked up near the Forum, goes nicely with all our Playmobil knights and pirates. So one of the things we did in Rome was the Gladiator School, which as I’ve mentioned before, was not worth it. It’s listed in  lot of magazines and guides and tourist videos about Rome as a fun activity with the family, but I must say I wasn’t impressed. It’s quite expensive to take part, and I took part with my son so it was twice the cost. On top of that, it’s outside the center of Rome so you have to take a taxi there. Our taxi driver from the Forum fleeced us with a 30 Euro ride (his meter was not running, tellingly). The taxi back on the other hand was 17 Euro, but we had to wait 45 minutes for it to arrive. Now when we got there the place is pretty small, it’s a space for a group that does Roman re-enactments, and they go full on with the costumes and put on shows and things I guess. There were lots of photos of the Roman guy who runs it with various celebrities who had gone there in the past, Arnold Schwarzenegger and so on. The Gladiator School is for kids really but it was like, well it must be good, famous people come here. I was wearing my Sampdoria shirt and the same guy spoke to me, saying that Sampdoria are just a bunch of drug users and miming someone taking an injection. Hmm, okay, I said. We ended up being in a fairly large group of around twenty or so adults and children, and then we were given a history lesson with a whole bunch of Roman helmets and weaponry, which was interesting enough, except it was in a very hot room on a very hot day and went on for an hour. The guy taught us a lot of history, and some got to wear very heavy helmets, but all of the kids were getting quite anxious to get out and learn swordplay. When we finally did get to move into the practical space, the instructor gave us costumes – red tunics for the adults and white robes for the kids. Massive white robes that didn’t fit kids at all, and tiny red tunics that we adults all barely squeezed into. Hmmm. Some of us laughed about it, but at this stage one family had had enough, I’m not sure exactly why but I heard that the instructor had made some comment to their son, a tall lad, which had upset him, so the instructor spent the next 10-15 minutes off talking to the secretary while we waited around wondering what to do next. Finally the instructor reappeared and introduced a small obstacle course which we had to run around five times, while he went off again, distracted. Then he showed us a wooden structure which gladiators had to learn how to put together quickly which was supposedly used in battle, and so everyone took turns, while everyone else watched, because there is only one. We spent a lot of time watching. In the meantime the instructor would wander off, or just chat to the mothers seated on the benches (“Americans and British today,” he said to one, “No Australians thankfully, the Australian women are very rowdy because they are all descended from violent criminals.” He actually said that. Hmmm. When finally we got to learn swordplay, which was with the wooden practice swords, we all lined up and he told us to copy certain moves, then he would go around to each of us and maybe show us how to do that one move, or in the case of my son, just say one dismissive sentence and move on without showing him anything (his only words were, “Too much Jackie Chan,” whatever that is supposed to mean). It seemed like there were far too many in the group for anything more, though he didn’t seem particularly bothered. The sword practice was about ten minutes at most, and then we got to sit and watch while two kids or two parents at a time were able to fight each other. Kids couldn’t fight parents however, which disappointed my son who wanted to battle me. It was only simple gentle battling, and again the instructor barely took any notice, preferring to go and chat to other people instead, or ask that the mothers get up and fight because he “wanted to see two women fight”. And that was it. He gave us all certificates, and then thanked us as a group for funding their Roman re-enactment society, and then he went into a tirade that they get no funding from the Roman city government, who prefer to fund things “for gay people and foreign migrants”, mincing about as he did so. Eh? Stunned confusion from everyone. “Hi, can we have our money back?” I said, knowing that was not a battle worth our time fighting. As we waited for our cab home, a 45 minute wait, I peeked in to see the group after us, which was smaller, and who had a different, more enthusiastic instructor. They seemed to be having a great time. We and the rest of our group however all felt a bit underwhelmed. However. We got back and had a gelato, and still loved Rome, and in the end, you get to see this picture of me squeezed into a very, very tight tunic, fighting a duel. I guess it was worth it for that…

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