Why did I wait 50 years to witness this? After half a century of marriage, author Ray Connolly’s wife finally drags him to Venice…and he can’t believe what he’s been missing

  • Ray Connolly has always avoided Venice but his wife has been three times
  • The couple decided to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary there 
  • As well as the city’s artistic treasures, the author discovered its tiny islands

Some couples celebrate their golden wedding anniversary by holding a feast for friends and family to show how they’ve made it through the obstacle race of marriage. But that wasn’t for us.

Instead, my wife Plum decided she would educate me by way of the obstacle race that is Venice – climbing up and over dozens of the 400 or so of the city’s little bridges, and hopping on and off boats.

This was her third visit, but my first. 

Burano is known for its hand-made lace but its colourful houses (above) are simply dazzling

For some reason I’d always avoided Venice. Perhaps it was simply a result of watching Donald Sutherland being stabbed to death by that dwarf in the red anorak in Don’t Look Now, or maybe it was all those masks and cloaks at carnival time.

Whatever it was, I was wrong. From the moment we left the airport bus and said goodbye to anything on wheels for four days and instead stepped on to a vaporetto at Piazzale Roma, my neck began to stretch and to swivel in happy astonishment.

Nothing had prepared me for the 45-minute journey along the length of the Grand Canal, past the hundreds of cheek-by-jowl Byzantine, Gothic, baroque and Renaissance palaces and mansions which line both banks. 

And I wasn’t the only one in shock. All around me, fellow first-timers wore identical smiles as we soon encountered our first matelot-shirted gondolier.

Venice, I was already thinking, is unique. But then nowhere else on Earth did the inhabitants of a place decide to turn a lagoon, and an archipelago of tiny islands and sandbanks within it, into a port.

In the vast Piazza San Marco, it’s usually party time, with children playing and eating ice cream, couples snogging, and almost everyone smiling

If you were starting now, it would be the last place you would build a city. 

But they were starting 1,500 years ago, when vessels were tiny, shallow-bottomed ships. And in this corner between Italy and the Balkans, West met East and fortunes awaited the merchants who traded there.

Ah, yes, the merchants. As a schoolboy, I was puzzled about the setting of Shakespeare’s play about the two posh spivs who, with the help of a cute lawyer, shaft poor Shylock something rotten. 

Why did Shakespeare select Venice if he’d never been there, I wondered. Why not choose Bristol?

But by the time we had dragged our suitcases from the vaporetti pier to our hotel, I understood. 

By 1598, when Shakespeare was writing his story, the ostentatious wealth of Venice would have been the talk of Europe. 

Arriving in style: Water taxis make their way along the Grand Canal, where hundreds of cByzantine, Gothic, baroque and Renaissance palaces and mansions line both banks

There was even a Jewish ghetto (a Venetian word, by the way) from where the character of Shylock could be summoned. It’s still there – the oldest Jewish ghetto in the world.

For centuries the city was stuffed with merchants like Shakespeare’s Antonio, and as wealth and beauty went together then, guys like him built… and built with style. 

The aim throughout Venetian history seems to have been to build, embellish and then re-embellish, and because of the merchants’ egos and attempts to buy their way to heaven through the erecting of churches, there was always money and artistry to do it. 

By trying to bribe God, the Renaissance rich bequeathed us a jewelled city.

The view from our hotel room, for instance, was of the facade of Santa Maria del Giglio across the street. 

In most European cities, a 17th Century church such as this would be the most famous local place of worship. 

Oar-some: A gondola on Venice’s canals (left) and a mosaic of St Mark (right)

But in Venice, despite there being a Rubens Madonna And Child and John The Baptist at one altar, it isn’t even famous – it’s just one of 139 churches scattered around town.

It’s the same with Titian’s largely unnoticed Annunciation, with its huge Angel Gabriel and a barefoot teenage Mary looking like Cinderella, on a side altar in a church a few streets away in the Piazza San Salvador. 

 Unless you know it’s there, you’ll miss it amid all the other artistic treasures

Unless you know it’s there, you’ll miss it amid all the other artistic treasures.

The greatest concentration is in the Basilica di San Marco, which, with its five huge domes and shimmering gold mosaic walls, looks as though it might have been magically transported from Constantinople before that city became Muslim Istanbul.

Art experts tell us that the basilica is an Old Curiosity Shop of Byzantine and Middle Eastern art and statues pillaged at the time of the Crusades. The treasures may have been stolen but the looters chose well, and Venice – and now we – are the beneficiaries.

In the vast Piazza San Marco, it’s usually party time, with children playing and eating ice cream, couples snogging, and almost everyone smiling. 

Ray and wife Plum during their trip in Venice to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary

Napoleon may or may not have described it as the ‘drawing room of Europe’, but whoever did would now have to broaden the description as every day thousands of tourists consider it the focus of their visit.

And everywhere roam legions of quiet Brits of a certain age – wives studying guidebooks as they walk, husbands following obediently with their cameras. Why do so many British women take up studying art history in retirement?

It’s only a short walk from San Marco past the pink Doge’s Palace to the lagoon. With more time, I’d like to have crossed the Bridge of Sighs from inside the palace to the prison next door, from where Casanova is said to have escaped in 1755. 

But we had a date with a boat to take us on a tour of some of the lagoon’s other islands.

That’s something else I didn’t fully realise about Venice. Out in the lagoon, which covers more than 200 square miles, are many little places.

Torcello, which takes about 45 minutes to reach, gives a good idea of what Venice must once have been like. 

Murano was once a pioneering glass-blowing place. There are still glass furnaces on the island and skilled experts at work in them

Not more than a couple of feet above sea level, its great days were between the 7th Century, when a cathedral was built – the oldest remaining building in the lagoon – and the 12th Century, when a sparse but beautiful Byzantine church went up next door.

Then this part of the lagoon became silted up, there were plagues of disease-carrying mosquitoes, and, as the population moved away, nearly all Torcello’s grand houses were pulled down to provide stone for building Venice.

Now, although the cathedral boasts a stunning 12th Century mosaic of the Last Judgment, there are fewer than a dozen inhabitants left – yet Torcello is still reckoned to be a good place for writers to get away from the world.

Not quite so badly depopulated, but where the people have different ways of life from their ancestors, is a cluster of interconnecting islands called Murano. 

Once a pioneering glass-blowing place, there are still glass furnaces and skilled experts at work in them, but tourism is what brings in most of the euros to the gift shops that line the canals.

Anthony discovered the ostentatious sights of Venice and was surprised to find so many artistic treasures

And there’s something not quite right. For a place so ancient, so much money has been spent on restoration that it resembles a new Hollywood set. 

They say Casanova used to visit Murano for orgies. From the super-clean look of the place, I’m not sure he’d know where to find one now.

Further away across the lagoon is Burano. 

Once lace-making by hand was the speciality of the women here, but now the shawls and napkins on sale are all imported. More interesting are the dazzling colours of the houses. Oh, to own a paint shop here.

Centuries ago, Venice’s two tides a day made it the cleanest city in Europe as it washed away the daily leavings of the population. But with so many tourists today, Mother Nature might not work so well any longer.

So if you’re wondering, septic tanks in the major hotels now take care of much of that problem. For the rest… the tides in the canals, and the dredgers, still have a job to do. All the same, as Plum warned, best not to fall into the water.

Ray Connolly’s Being Elvis, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is out now, priced £19.39.


Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com, 020 7593 2283) offers a range of hotels in Venice. 

Prices start at £598pp for three nights, including return flights, water-taxi transfers, B&B accommodation, tickets to the Doge’s Palace, Guggenheim or Accademia, Kirker’s guide notes to restaurants, museums and sightseeing, and the services of a concierge. 

Courtesy: Daily Mail Online

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