The Water City
First this: Venice needs a sound track. Perhaps something operatic, or if you can’t stand wailing soap operas, perhaps something classical. And if your collection doesn’t include either of the previous genres, some early James Bond theme songs work nicely (Shirley Basey and Matt Monro in particular). Set? Okay…
Getting lost in Venice has to be one of the top ‘getting lost’ highlights of my life. And I’ve been happily lost in a quite few cities. Here’s how you do it:
- Stand in the queue to get up to the top of the Campanile for an aerial view of Venice. (Queuing is not something I do on principle if I can avoid it, but going up the Campanile is thoroughly worthwhile and the queue moves quickly.)
- Once at the top you get the faintly deceptive impression that Venice is dinky enough to see on foot in just a few hours. Almost surreally so.
- Return to the ground and begin walking…
Venice is made up of 118 islands – most of which are joined to each other by a tangled network of 409 bridges. Cross just three and they begin to twist and writhe into each other like something organic. And you get mesmerized by it. Every bridge stretches over the kind of scene you imagine in your head when you think of Venice – even if you’ve never been there: lazy gondolas, half-shaded canals and beautifully decaying old buildings. It’s one of the few times in my life where my fantasy of something matches reality almost perfectly. And it makes my head spin. Venice makes an annoying, ogling, wowing tourist of us all.
As a first timer, setting foot on Venetian ground for the first time is an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance. My mind keeps telling me to step carefully in case something beneath my feet gives way. And my nose prepares me for the stink. But Venice doesn’t smell any more than most cities and it isn’t not sinking. It may have once, but haven’t we all stunk and sunk at one stage or another? Venice is fine now; healthy and vibrant. Except for rising sea levels caused by that pesky global warming thing. And, of course, there are seasonal floods – but there always have been – it’s what all of the stacked tables are for in St Mark’s and other places: people set them out and walk on them when the lower parts are under water. That’s when you really have to tread carefully.
There is no better city to get to know on foot than Venice. And it will only take you a few days. Of course, you don’t really have much of a choice in the matter. But you will see things that I think very few visitors see. And take a gondola – it’s very touristy, but so what? And the locals are the nicest, friendliest people I met in all of Italy. And that’s saying something.
But there always comes a time when you have to move on. It’s time to leave Italy behind and to head up to the Alps.
It’s always a bit of a shock to hit a border post when traveling through united Europe. It’s even more of a shock to get to the Swiss border. For one thing, they clearly take the border thing seriously. For another, there is such a sharp change in the roads and houses and sign posts and everything else one second after you cross into Switzerland. The Swiss are like your annoying neighbor whose grass is always greener and more closely cut than yours, whose house always has a fresher coat of paint, whose wife and children are prettier and healthier than yours, whose car is something sleek and purring, who shops at farmers markets, drinks designer beer and who plays tennis on the weekends. In short, Switzerland is better than you. F@#ing Switzerland.
You know those pictures you’ve seen of the snow-sprinkled green mountains and the dark blue lakes and the quaint little villages and the rosy-cheeked people in Switzerland? They’re lies. Switzerland is even more snow-sprinkled and dark blue and quaint and rosily cheeked than you can imagine. And everything is just so neat and tidy and pruned and otherworldly clean. This is what it must be like if an entire country is a five star hotel. (Or maybe a five star hospital – their flag looks like it could be a marker for a hospital.) It’s fantastic to look at, but you always feel a little too pale and ugly and underprivileged to ever fit in. I do anyway. F@#ing Switzerland.
So we arrive in Interlaken and decide to go on an afternoon ramble. My god, but it’s pretty. And then even more pretty. And then even even more pretty. And eventually my stomach begins to turn like it does after too many chocolate croissants. On a whim, we amble away from the city into the residential area. Sleek, purring cars give just the gentlest of hoots as they go by. Why we wonder? Are we breaking some pristine little law about which side of the road to walk on? Are they being friendly? Every house is picture perfect. It’s spring and there is still a little bit of snow damage, but the gardens are all little miniature worlds filled with gnomes and trinkets. I do feel a bit like I am walking through a children’s story. Stuff just left outside like that behind tiny little walls wouldn’t last long where I’m from. How pretty Switzerland is. How safe it must be to live in Interlaken. Eventually it dawns on me that the drivers’ neutral little toots are not to warn us or to greet us – they’re to warn the residents that there are grungy non-Swiss looking people around just bidding their time to steal a gnome or two. We do an about-turn and head into town. F@#ing Switzerland.
Eventually in Switzerland, you have to go up a mountain or two. The Jungfrau peak is the obvious first choice – mostly because you can get there in the relative comfort of a heated train. I only just manage the journey to the top between altitude dizziness and the crush of the many, many Asian tourists. Thankfully, a blizzard sets in when we reach the top of Europe and the haze of snow means I don’t need to add vertigo and raw fear to my list of woes (although before long the price of a coffee and a pastry reminds me of how much money I am having to spend just to buy the basic necessities in this place – dear Lord Vader and all the pagan gods but Switzerland is expensive!) But at least I get to go and have a minus 14 degree cigarette or six while we wait for the group. Because no uber-fit Swiss are skiing in these conditions, we have the outside to ourselves – and promptly set about messing with the snowplow and the shovel. There are no polite neutral little hoots up here to tell us not to. F@#ing Switzerland.
The Swiss should run the world. Seriously. Let’s get them in as advisors on every government cabinet in the world and let them set up our laws, our infrastructure and our businesses and our social codes. I did not see a single policeman in my short stay in Interlaken. And everything just works so well. And the people are wonderfully helpful and polite – albeit slightly uptight. And you do get the feeling that the Swiss are very, very serious about money. This is what it must be like when a country reaches dignified, liberal, well-healed old age. F@#ing Switzerland.
It is easy to get out of Switzerland: get on to the pristine highway, follow the excellent signage (another feature of every place you care to go to in Switzerland) avoid the temptation to take any of the ausfahrten – especially the one to Bumplitz, and there you are: on the border. (I can’t help but share that old joke to the effect that Ausfahrt must be the biggest city in Switzerland because every damn autobahn exit goes there – sorry.)
You don’t so much leave Switzerland as you feel like an unwelcome house guest (who has grubbed up the white coaches and spilled crumbs on the shiny floor) getting the door politely but firmly shut behind you. F@#ing Switzerland… what a beautiful place.
PostScript: There was this house, in the middle of Switzerland with Nelson Mandela’s prison number on the front wall. A reminder of how much the Swiss value human rights – and a reminder of home. And a reminder that despite my feelings to the contrary, every human being is of value in Switzerland. This is, after all, the home of the Geneva Convention and the Red Cross. It would be a few short months before Mandela passed on, and when I think of Nelson Mandela to this day, I still think of this image I saw thousands of miles from home.