Anna Dreda is currently in Italy on our annual Readers' Tour of Venice. Here is the first of her reports from the field:
Our hosts and tour guides Anne Amison and Michael Albutt (see photo) met us yesterday afternoon to deliver the first of our walking tours. From the beautiful hotel (which used to be an orphanage where young boys were taught the skills to enable them to get a trade), we walked a hundred yards to the sparkling Grand Canal and stood in sunshine while Michael told us about the geography of Venice: how this tiny city is divided and subdivided into six sestieri and then into parishes and campos. He told us about the Brownings, Robert and his son Pen, who lived (and Robert died) in the palazzo Ca' Rezzonico across the water.
Moving away from the canal side through a small maze of calles and campos, we learned about the various scuolo that had once been active in this tiny district. We saw the empty shops, with one painting, or piece of jewellery or sculpture in the window, which used to be bakeries, hardware and grocery stores. We saw the one small grocery shop where Anne and Michael do all their food-shopping (a political decision), and heard that they had counted the closure of 36 small, independent shops in the last three years. Depopulation is a far bigger problem to Venice than the water. "The water comes in, and it goes away again," said Michael, but the political and social problems facing this beautiful city remain.
After the walk and talk, full of humour, intelligence and banter between husband and wife - "I stand corrected again!" laughs Michael - the group splits up in search of beer or Prosecco according to their taste. I'm always in the Prosecco camp, and enjoyed two glasses with cicchettii by the canal in late afternoon sunshine before meeting up in the evening for an excellent meal at Ai Cugnai, a fouvourite haunt of old.
A wander through darkening calles to Campo San Marco: moon shining on windows, elegant jazz bands playing outside even more elegant restaurants, juxtaposed with the latest craze of luminous blue/green plastic helicopters and we are in the tourist centre of Venice. Amazed and appalled in equal parts, we head away from the square and wander back to the Accademia Bridge, where a man is playing a lute, beautifully.