A love that never dies

Half a century after first writing about the splendour of Venice, Jan Morris remains smitten by the city.

Fifty years ago I published a book about Venice. It has given me the pride and pleasure of a love affair ever since - together with a modest private income - so the other day I went back to Venice to spend a couple of days celebrating its anniversary.

I would do it, I told myself as I boarded the aircraft, in the high old style. "Pay the man," had been a leitmotif of my book, "don't argue, take a gondola into the lagoon and watch Venice's magical silhouette sink into the sunset!"

Well, this time I would spend happy interludes of architectural contemplation over coffees in the piazza, and I would never count the cost, and I would take a gondola for a whole day to loiter around the canals and watch that sun go down over the Serenissima - "still after a thousand years," as I wrote half a century ago, "one of the supreme sights of civilisation."

Every romance has its glitches, however. Bitter winds, interspersed with snow blizzards, interfered with those languorous coffees in the piazza, vast temporary posters demeaned the nobility of the city centre and the price of a gondola for the day turned out to be so inconceivable that my inquiry was referred to the president of the gondoliers' organisation, as a cause of wonder, I suppose, or a joke. My favourite bookshop had degenerated into a souvenir store. When I idly picked up a copy of the Rough Guide to Venice I found that its editor thought my book "insufferably fey and self-indulgent".

Never mind. I have never loved everything about Venice. Long ago, for instance, I realised that Vivaldi was not for me. I have always despised traditional Murano glass and detested everything to do with carnival and its vulgar snobbism. Like everyone else, I am depressed by the rising of the waters and by the sometimes nightmarish congestion of tourists. My saddest Venetian day was in 1983 when, for conservational reasons, they removed the ancient golden horses of St Mark's, so proud and generous on the facade of the basilica, and replaced them with the dullard replicas that are up there today.

But I am reconciled now to those loveless animals. I have taught myself to regard their arrival as a historically symbolic moment - the moment when Venice consciously ceased to be a real, organic city, still the living heir to an imperial past (the golden horses were booty from Constantinople), and accepted its passive destiny as the supreme spectacle of all the world. I often used to think, whenever the floods came, that it would be best to let the whole place sink into its mud and end its tale with a mighty gurgling of the tides. Nowadays, though, I enjoy seeing Venice in full contemporary display, jam-packed, scaffolded everywhere, flaunting its glories to the insatiable crowds, raking in the cash and basking, as it always did, in gaudy capitalist success.

Besides, to every Venetian image there is a sort of doppelganger. All among the package tourists are the medieval pilgrims. When the vast cruise ships sail into the lagoon, grossly out of scale, behind them are the crested galleys of the Serenissima. Often I saw the face of Marco Polo himself among the Chinese tourists docilely following their tour guides through the prodigies and more than ever the shops of the Merceria suggest to me the most dazzling and elegant of all oriental bazaars. And still the occasional old aristocrat stalks towards the vaporetto station as once he stalked towards a meeting of the Council of Ten.

For me, all is allegory in Venice and not least its bestiary. Where were its paradigmatic cats, though? I missed those skinny familiars of my youth, now apparently exterminated. On the other hand, the iconic pigeons seem mercifully fewer than they were and their murky infestation in the piazza is relieved by the arrival there of some immaculate black-headed gulls.


A few little Carpaccio dogs still trot on their leads around the alleys, buttoned up for warmth, and for the first time ever I saw a solitary shag diving and bobbing up again off the Riva - still searching, I fondly told myself, for the ring that used to be tossed ceremonially into the water to symbolise Venice's marriage to the sea.

"Pay the man!" Oh, I did, I did. The rise of the euro and the decline of the pound make Venice more expensive than ever I remember but I stuck to my principles of heedless extravagance. All through the long years I had frequented the frightfully expensive Harry's Bar and, on my last night in Venice, I dined there again on the victuals I had always relished: the best scampi thermidor I ever tasted, the best little green salad, lovely crisp rolls that my children used to stick toothpicks into to make animals of, a jug of white wine and, if I asked nicely, a delicate warm zabaglione to polish it off.

Fifty years on, I marvelled as I tossed back a last digestive grappa. Venice changes but, in my mind, it stays seductively, tantalisingly the same. Somewhere in my book I described opening my bedroom window in the early morning and feeling overcome by "a queer delicious yearning, as though some creature of unattainable desirability is passing by outside". I did the same on the final morning of my anniversary visit and this is what I experienced. Through a pale mist, in a choppy sea, a vaporetto chugged by on its way to San Marco, two heavy barges plodded into the lagoon and a taxi boat reversed noisily from its moorings.

No unattainable creature wafted by but a different kind of yearning expressed itself nonetheless. Immediately below my window a group of tourists was embarking arthritically in a trio of gondolas, accompanied by an aged accordionist - all wrapped up in blankets against the cold and huddling together against the morning damp.

Off they lurched into the Grand Canal. The tourists sat shivering silently. The gondoliers, themselves muffled in scarves and balaclavas, looked rather sinister in their lopsided movements and as the little flotilla disappeared side by side into the vapours I heard the faint quavering strains of O Sole Mio from the venerable musician.

I was leaving in half an hour and I yearned all right - yes, in my lover's fey and self-indulgent way, I certainly yearned.

Emirates flies to Venice for about $1850, non-stop to Dubai (14 hours) then Venice (6 hours 15 minutes). Fare is low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax and allows stops in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and departure from another European city.

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