How, in 2018 (when I had written this) and in the name of all things holy, does one write, and with originality, about Venice? Indeed how, in 2018 and in the name of all things holy, does one write, and with originality, about Venice for an audience tailored to the specific needs and interests of James Bond?
Even if with two minor travelogues for such an audience, one can be pictured sitting in front of a laptop, furrowed of brow and considering these very thoughts. The conflict exerting its presence, between feeling inspired to committing words to screen versus the incontrovertible fact that many ‘ones’ have been there before you. Broadsheet travel writers appealing to the larger masses have bigger budgets and larger lexicons. James Bond fans appealing to other James Bond fans have more time, dedication, grit and focus to their magnascoped goal of factual accuracy.
But the fact is that, swapping the pronoun ‘one’ for the subjective ‘I’, I found myself in this very position. Inspired, but clueless.
Bear with me.
The raison d’etre for the five day visit to Venice was that of my fiancé’s birthday who, with all due deference to the writer god, A.A. Gill, will henceforth be referred to as The Brunette. My focus was first and foremost to her complete enjoyment. That Mr Bond had visited this same concentrated locale was if not secondary, then almost tertiary to this thrust. But visit, he veritably had; with filmic jiggery pokery in From Russia with Love, with abundance of style and presence in Moonraker and Casino Royale, and, literarily, in Risico.
It is thus with much begging of indulgence that I must laugh in the face of conflict, stare down the barrel of a gun and launch myself head long into the abyss of offering yet more words on a subject well-worn, well travelled and well versed.
With roughly 1500 years of history, 118 islands and over 400 bridges in a geographical area spanning north to south three kilometres, and east to west six kilometres, the surrendering to logistics was inevitable. Walk, get lost, have a drink, find yourself and walk again, was by far the most liberating method to explore. Rinse and repeat. Belief in this would lend itself to the belief we would both celebrate and find. And off we went.
Landing at the airport in the evening’s setting sun against a breath takingly clear orange sky, we took the Vaporetti water bus to the Guglie stop in the north west side of Venice. Away from the contrastingly busy south east side of Rialto Bridges and St Mark’s squares, our Airbnb proved to be the perfect get away from our get away. Sitting on the ground floor without a dividing pavement to the Rio Della Sensa canal, opening our kitchen ‘barn doors’ offered a proximity to, and as uncompromising a view of, quiet canal life as one could imagine. As it would eventually turn out, this minute and bespoke night time view would be what we would hurry back to at the end of a day. And later that same evening, after a shower, a bite and a walk to and from the aforementioned Rialto Bridge, the largest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal, this is exactly what we did.
Orientation in Venice for the non-Venetian is either by map, be it digital or paper, or by the slender arrows affixed to buildings pointing one in the rough directions of St Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge or the Academia Bridge. With a hazy understanding of the lie of the land, getting ‘there’ is thus a simple feat. Getting ‘back’ however can be another matter as, unhelpfully, there isn’t a sign back to ‘The Barn Doors’. The Venetian’s might want to think about this.
Strong of mind, healthy of heart, and with a desire to get lost, we headed inevitably and haphazardly towards St Mark’s Square. As bridges were crossed, and signs were missed, and paths were followed, what became transparently apparent was the utter beauty, the art, the decay, the Life, the brick work, the stone work, the water and the water and the water. Venice is bloody beautiful, and a modern day planner’s nightmare. We would pass through alley ways wide enough for a narrow shouldered person. We would be confronted with bridges leading to but one person’s apartment door. We would consider paths that just, ended, with a wall! Filigree and iron work of surpassing beauty, covered thoroughfares, and more bridges, all to the soundtrack and dance of the Italian language.
I was already mesmerised and succumbing to emotion.
Bursting into St Mark’s Square near the shop, Venini Glass, I came into my own. Replete with awning and the step where Bond and M met to enter the shop, it was every bit the scene from Moonraker. Selling glass from the adjacent Murano islands, Moore’s Bond pops in to wink at the shop assistant before opening a set dressed door, not there in real life, to teleport himself to said islands and the glass factories. He in turn, handily comes across octagonal glass tubes that are the exact same size as the photo he had taken with his camera, of documents in Drax’s safe, and that which were being manufactured by Drax to house his nerve gas. Commenting to The Brunette, I wondered why exactly Drax had to have his glass manufactured by the world’s foremost glass artisans as opposed to, say, grabbing from the Unigate factory, a pallet load of milk bottles. Would the suffering humans appreciate better their deaths if served upon them by Murano glass? Perhaps we will never know.
Just adjacent to Venini Glass is the St. Mark’s Clock Tower - Torre dell’Orologio. Of huge importance to Bond fans of Moonraker, and the penultimate thing to go through Chang’s head before calling it a day, upturned in a grand piano, this beautiful clock face was designed by Maurizio Codussi and was built from 1496. The clock displays the time, the phase of the moon, and the dominant sign of the Zodiac, paraphrase I, informatively.
Taking in the Square, it is in this area that you are confronted with the swathes of tours, all lead by guides holding on high, variants on the brightly coloured garish theme guaranteed never to lose even the sleepiest of tourist. Dodging the selfie sticks and those wearing face masks against the multitudinous hazards of nature, we headed away from the scenes of Bond’s hovercraft gondola and afflicted double taking pigeons to quieter areas. And a gondola ride of our own. A cliché all of its own, perhaps, but we managed to find a small gondola station pitching to few tourists, and for 80 Euros, we meandered the quiet canals devoid of any pavements and paths either side to enjoy the solitude of otherwise untrafficked canals. The day was warm to the body, the water was cool to the draped hand, and the gondolier was happy only to row and to leave us to the enveloping silence of the art. I didn’t even look for a hidden button. Nor ask the gondolier if his name was Franco.
We were heading towards the Finice Theatre to enquire after some chamber music. I must qualify the word ‘heading’. Lacking in directional sense, and sight of sun, there was a loose aim to be at the theatre before closing time to purchase tickets. In doing so, and in the spirit of Believe and you will be rewarded, we passed the walled path where, after MI6 turn up to pay a visit to Drax while sporting gas masks, Bond is asked by M if he has a choice of holiday destination.
‘I’ve always had a hankering for Rio’ suggests Bond. And onwards in smart fashion does the film go.
The end of the day saw us heading back to the ‘barn doors’, some food, a friendly grunge bar in the neighbourhood and, again, the ‘barn doors’.
Thursday was to be a Big Day. The Brunette’s birthday was round of number and was suitable to An Event. As such, we booked a room at the Danieli. This hotel was featured in Moonraker as Dr Holly Goodhead’s hotel of choice. Situated to the east of where Bond conquered St Mark’s Square in his gondola, this five star, 14th century hotel is a thing of pink, marble and gothic beauty. To journey from the north west to the south east, we hired a water taxi. As our luck would have it, such was the height of tide that the normal and economical journey to the Danieli was not possible. This would have taken us past industry and shabbiness. Instead, we were taken via the length of the Grand Canal in a newly varnished wooden taxi sporting chromed cleats and yellow leather seats. Enter please, Casino Royale. We passed Academia Bridge, the site of the sinking house, the Rialto Fish Market and the entrance to St Mark’s Basin. Of the aforementioned, the Fish Market was empty as apparently it opens for business only in the morning. But still, it was thrilling to be floating past the site of the scene, in perfect weather with skies unadorned by clouds, where Vesper was considering her life affecting options between Bond and Gettler.
Passing the Basin and St Mark’s Square, we alighted the pontoon for the Danieli. We were treated to an upgrade to a suite and, once settled in, The Brunette and I respectively changed into Coco Chanel shoes and linen jackets for Vesper cocktails at the hotel’s Bar Dandolo and thence, chamber music at the Fenice Theatre.
When one has only to turn five degrees to see another thing of unsurpassable beauty, it seems almost redundant to single anything out for special consideration in Venice. But single we must. Built from 1790, the Fenice was to become Venice’s foremost opera house after the preceding foremost opera house burnt to the ground. Leaving aside for the moment the irony of anything burning to the ground in Venice, the results are evident. While not privy to the main theatre as we were seeing chamber music, the room in which we sat to witness the two young girls playing lead violin and piano was stupendous. A celebration in gold, cream, panelled mirrors, dripping chandeliers and triple height ceilings left us marvelling in silence. Seeing pictures of the main theatre on Wiki draws us to a return visit.
The penultimate day saw us checking out of the Danieli, after a lovely meal on the terrace overlooking the Basin the night before. Leaving our bags at the Hotel, we headed towards the Peggy Guggenheim Museum for some modern art. On the way, we negotiated a bridge suffering under the weight of a world’s population intent on viewing Life through a lens, and from which one wonders at and takes pictures of the Bridge of Sighs. This Bridge under which Connery’s Bond floated, probably in Pinewood’s Studio C, at the end of From Russia with Love.
It cannot be overstated just how lucky we were with the weather. Five days of warmth and blue skies, all contributing to heightening the colours of the terracotta buildings, the sparkling reflections off the water in the canals, the awnings under which refreshing spritz aperols could be enjoyed if being lost needed some help. We continued our wanderings.
We also passed by a familiar sounding Harry’s Bar at Calle Vallaresso 1323, just west of the St Mark’s Square fronting the Basin.
It is at this point that the looseness of agenda of all that has gone before should be forgiven in light of some now serious dedication to duties. Removing ourselves for the moment from filmic references, literary Bond visits Venice in Risico to create the myth to Lisl Baum that he is a prosperous writer who lived high and well; a myth perpetuated through the liberal and carefree sprinkling of Lira in the bars, Florian’s, the Quadri and, Harry’s Bar. A tenuous link to be sure, but as this is the home of the Bellini and various former visiting glitterati such as the similarly prosperous and high living writer, Hemingway, as well as Hitchcock, Chaplin and Capote, it was lovely to happen upon the bar. Not at all big on self-promotion, finding and recognising the entrance door was a feat in and of itself. Inconsequential, incidental and under-stated, there were a couple of false starts as we considered that option, or pushed the other door. A local gave us the confidence to consider and push harder the ‘other door’.
We had a Bellini.
Made with sparkling white wine (Prosecco) and pureed white peaches, this drink was invented in 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, head bartender and owner of the Bar. Rather insipid, lacking in any form of personality or presence, and diametrically opposite to the powerhouse effects of a Vesper Martini, one can only surmise this was not Bond’s choice of drink in 1960.
Harry’s, a strange little bar, had a ‘40’s train station waiting room’ feel to it as white jacketed waiters did their thing with drinks and olives. The bar is also anchored to a global brand, this of the Cipriani name, which in turn makes rather less tenuous, the link back to film Bond. Bringing a close to the above mentioned dedication, this Harry’s Bar is not connected to the other literary Bond referenced Harry’s Bar in Paris, which is mentioned in the short story From a View to a Kill, which is in the same collection of stories as Risico, in a book called For Your Eyes Only.
After culturally feasting on the modern art at the beautiful Peggy Guggenheim, we headed back through the throngs of practising artists to chance upon the perfectly timed arrival of a free and private shuttle to the Cipriani Hotel. Bringing things full circle and contemporarily up to date, Craig’s Bond moors his yacht at the Cipriani in Casino Royale and in doing so for the benefit of the film’s flow, makes a geographical mess of their journey up and down the canal before settling at the hotel. Such was the importance of this landmark, and in celebration of Bond’s erratic journey, we went the right way, once, and had a cocktail at the hotel before shuttling back to the Danieli to retrieve our bags and water taxiing back to the Airbnb and our ‘barn doors’.
Our last day saw us journeying via Vaporetto, the local water bus, to the seven islands of Murano. In talking to The Brunette about the Venini Glass shop, I mentioned that editing trickery had Bond going immediately from Venice shop to Murano factory. She was curious, and indeed so was I. It must be mentioned in the interests of veracity and transparency that I had had this naïve idea of finding the factory that was used in Moonraker. In asking around, apparently, the only factories open to the tourists were populated by the tertiary tier of glass blowing artesian. The premiere tier, to quote a Venice dwelling New Yorker, ‘couldn’t give a shit about the tourists seeing them blow’. And so, I was told, we wouldn’t be going anywhere near a real factory, Bond inspired or otherwise. Murano, a smaller version of Venice, with fewer stories to their fewer buildings, was still a lovely place but its existence now was to sell glass. Glass shops abound and after much walking Away from the throngs we found a small bar sitting in perfect isolation, it also being reminiscent of 40’s train station waiting rooms, and contemplated.
And, just as Bond ended his days in Venice at the Albergo Danielli (Fleming spelt it with two ‘LL’s) in Risico, so ended our five days in Venice.
To be sure, this has not been the exhaustive, Googlemap pinned, blow by blow account of everywhere Bond took a breath in Venice. And it was not meant to be. And for this, I hope you can forgive me.
I am not even sure it answered whether one can still write about Venice in 2018. It might have answered whether I can write about Venice in 2018.