Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Venice dead Islands- Part 2

Day Two in Venice was really what the whole trip was about, and it started at a party in Darlinghurst.

My lovely friend Cassandra works in the art world, and her party was filled with arty types. I never know what to say to artists, I love art, but I don't know art, and I had all those 'am I talking to someone famous and I don't know it' anxieties. Yes, I later learned, I was.

I started chatting to a man in a beautiful shirt who quickly introduced his wife. She was a writer who had lived in Florence for a few years, and had amazing knowledge of the city. She mentioned that they would be traveling to the Biennale in Venice, and I mentioned my itch for exploring the islands. Fantastic! She was in!

Once back in Florence I started putting together a boat trip in Venice, signed up a few other people, and after much, much research we found ourselves all boarding a boat- an old Venetian Bragozzo with a friendly local named Paolo and heading into the lagoon.

Paolo first took us into the arsenale- the military shipyard where boat makers still ply their trade and a large part of the Biennale is exhibited. We had a sneak peak of a chinese artists' huge phoenix sculptures in the wet dock, and Paolo explained with much grimacing and head shaking about the lagoon flooding system, Mose, currently being installed amid much controversy and bribery scandal.

We then headed to our first dead island- the fort of Sant Andrea, at the mouth of the lagoon and designed to protect Venice from invasion. The cannons were only ever fired twice, Paolo explained, when the fort was opened, and then on Napoleon, who quickly turned around and entered the lagoon through the 'back door' canal south of Lido. 

Now home to a colony of goats, the fort is an interesting monument of stairs and sneering gargoyles, and is still the first sight of Venice for the cruise ships and anyone else entering by sea. 

On our return home we watched the 2005 film 'Casanova' and were thrilled to recognise the fort as the scene of a duel between the protagonists. 

We then headed to Sant Erasmo, the 'orto' of Venice, where fruit and vegetables have been grown for venetian tables since the time of the doges. They also have a particular purple artichoke gown almost exclusively on the island. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in any other Italian country town and we strolled around, revelling in the peace and space and green that venice is so not famous for. 
Back in the boat, we skirted the island of Lazaretto Vecchio, which from the 1400's to the 1800's was a leper hospital, plague hospital and quarantine station, so basically all human misery in a nutshell. Recent excavations have unearthed, amoung thousands of skeletons, that of a suspected vampire which had been buried with a brick in her mouth, the preferred 16th century method to keep a vampire down. Spooky.
                     picture source:

Moving right along, we traversed the wetlands of the lagoon, low grassland half submerged, where migratory seabirds were getting ready for nesting. We arrived at the island of San Francesco in Deserto, once home to Sant Francis of Assisi, now housing only four Franciscan monks.

Here we pulled up in a quiet canal, with signs extolling us to contemplate and not to sunbathe, and Paolo prepared the best seafood picnic I have ever eaten. He had made Sarde in Saor, curry prawns and a squid and ink pasta, all of it better than any restaurant in Venice.
 The sun came out, we lounged around, and after coffee and biscuits we left the monks to their reverie and headed to the most populous of our destinations, Torcello, once the thriving centre of the lagoon and home to thousands, now with a grand total of 10 inhabitants. The longest continuous settlement of the lagoon, Torcello has risen and fallen since the 3rd century, leaving behind a large church and little else- the building materials were scavenged over centuries for nearby Burano.

Burano and Murano are popular for tourists, and we have visited both previously. This time we cruised through the main lagoons in the centre of the islands, marvelling at the pretty houses of Burano and the glass warehouses of Murano. Once a thriving global business the now slide softly into the sea, surviving on selling trinkets to tourists.

Some islands we passed were nothing more than empty shells- once the sites of monastries and convents, Napoleon had torn them down and the Austrians had constructed military barracks. Paolo had as much sneer for the Austrians as he had for the more recent management of Venice and the lagoon.

And then we were back in Venice, with all the noise and bustle of the major water routes. We said goodbye to the lovely Paolo, squared our shoulders and entered the thronging crowds. If you're heading to Venice, and want to get in touch with Paolo, drop me a line and I'll pass on his details.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Venice dead islands Part 1- Poveglia

Perhaps my first excursion into an abandoned industrial building was when I woke early one morning and broke into the abandoned gasworks on the wrong side of the tracks in Bathurst. I was 18, and with my flatmates and the neighbour boys we went over a fence and under another and we were inside amongst the concrete, steel and broken glass that sat silent in the dawn light. Somewhere I have pictures that tried and failed to capture what was so fascinating, but I think it was the added ingredient of my churning, guilty conscience that added to the beauty. There were machines of inexplicable function, graffiti, a rope noose hanging from a beam, and a 3 metre promotional rocket, with ‘cooking with gas’ stamped on the side. 

Since then I have rarely trespassed into dilapidated industrial zones, but I get a thrill passing the lacy ironwork of old gas tanks, closed up warehouses get me swooning, and I dream of one day overseeing a loft conversion of a warehouse or sub station. 

Which leads me to Venice. Industrial decay is not the first thing that pops to mind for most when thinking of the floating jewel of a city, but since Napoleon’s invasion, and subsequent takeover by the Austrians, minor islands that once housed monasteries and convents passed from places of contemplation, to military installations, and then to ruin. 

Day two of this adventure had been a long time in the planning, but on our first day there we found ourselves, just Beppe and I, with a boat and nothing to do but satisfy our curiosity. 

It was an article about the uncertain fate of the island of Poveglia that had revived a mild curiosity about the lagoons islands, and we set off to find it. Poveglia had a spotty history of occupation and destruction, passed a period as a quarantine station, a plague hospital and then an asylum for the mentally ill in 1922, which was then abandoned in 1968. 

Legends abound around the maltreatment of the inmates of the asylum, including crude lobotomies performed by the hospital director, who later threw himself from the imposing bell tower to his death. 

The island has at least two plague pits filled with the remains of at least 100,000 people who died on the island, and is considered cursed by Venetian residents and has been described as the most haunted island in the world. Naturally I wanted a look.

We approached the island through the proscribed canals, marked by regular pylons in the shallow lagoon, passing the newly refurbished San Clemente, now a luxury hotel, and the completely ruined San Spirito. I had expected to find an impediment to our visit- fences or some sign of authority, but we tied off on the quay and started looking around with just a little trepidation. 

The first room we entered was filled with old laundry machines, the metal rusted but the uses evident; washing machines, steam mangles and drying racks, in the room next door the imposing barrels of two autoclaves. I only knew what these were thanks to a visit to Sydney’s quarantine station. An elegant wrought iron stairway led up to a roof level, where the flapping curtain of the asylum building stopped my heart for a moment. 

We picked our way through ruined rooms in the main building, heaps of plaster and reeds fallen from the ceilings, hospital furniture overturned as if thrown about by phantoms, most probably by thrill seekers less respectful of the past. In one room piles of rusted bed frames, in another roof tiles lay deep on the floor, caved in by the creeper that now provided a green canopy overhead. 

The kitchen still held the bones of the exhaust hood and the heady, overturned range. We didn’t dare brave the staircase, and we didn’t press on past the first few buildings, as creepers blocked the paths and we were not brave enough to alter the location at all. The air was ominous, and we came back out onto the quay euphoric, happy to find the boat hadn’t floated away. I realised then I had been holding my breath. 

I didn’t see any ghosts, but it was a fascinating visit to a singular island. The moniker of ‘Island of the damned’ is a bit unfair. 

I do also have to mention lunch. We found a trattoria in the village of Malamocco on Lido, and toasted our adventures over sard in soar and the local seafood pasta, which tasted even better with the relief of surviving Poveglia. 

We returned the boat to Venice, surprisingly without incident (did you know boats don’t have brakes?) and found our way to the local bars for a couple of much deserved Spritz.