Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.
We haven’t been to Venice for close to three years, so it seemed like time to go back. We were a month or two earlier than our usual timing, and found the area around Saint Mark’s Square still throbbing with tourists.
Sipping our morning coffee on the Riva degli Schiavoni, we were treated to a seemingly endless procession of tour groups, all dutifully tagging along behind a guide holding aloft some sort of marker. Some day I’ll write a dissertation on tour guide markers—little bespoke bats with numbers and logos on them; flags on telescopic sticks; half-collapsed umbrellas; brightly coloured scarves … and one hapless guide, presumably fallen on hard times, holding aloft an empty two-litre plastic bottle.
A full moon greeted our arrival, promising the possibility of an acqua alta to add to the fun in Saint Mark’s. And, sure enough, by noon the next day the high spring tide was pushing salt water out of the drains in the middle of the square. The crowds were forced out to the edges, threading between the café tables, where waiters in white dinner jackets were sloshing around in wellington boots, trying to keep their furniture away from the rising flood.
We did our usual thing, wandering at random through the quieter byways. There’s always something interesting to see—like this dark and partially flooded sotopòrtego, from the end of which we could peer out at gondolas passing along a sunlit canal:
After a couple of days, we took a water taxi up the Grand Canal to the Santa Lucia railway station, which must be a great way to arrive in Venice for the first time—its steps descend to a bustle of water taxis along the Grand Canal, and the green dome of San Simeone Piccolo across the water.
We were heading for Vienna aboard the Orient Express—the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, to be exact, which uses a selection of sleeping and restaurant cars dating from the 1920s. I actually don’t have much to say about that part of our journey, except to remark that the staff were efficient and cheerful, and the evening views of the Brenner Pass were lovely. Otherwise, it was a little like attending a fancy dress party inside an exquisitely panelled antique wardrobe, and then having to try to sleep inside the matching chest of drawers. Space is at a premium, and the passengers do seem to like dressing up. It was, as they say, an experience.
Vienna is a handsome, lively city, and pleases me exceedingly.
Venice and Vienna seem to be polar opposites—while the grand buildings of Venice huddle together in grubby and decaying opulence, Vienna boasts madly wide avenues, vast buildings set amid even vaster parkland, and everything seemed to have been carefully cleaned with a toothbrush just the day before we arrived. (We did find some scaffolding around St Stephen’s Cathedral, where areas of pollution-blackened stonework were still in evidence. Some sort of city-wide clean-up must be nearing completion.)
Art galleries! Museums! Parks! Pavement cafés! We circulated from one to another. We managed to spend an entire day drifting around the grounds of the Schönbrunner Palace, with its bonkers fountains, five-storey greenhouse and imperial zoo. We could have spent much longer there, if we’d been allowed to pitch a tent overnight behind the topiary.
We spent a humid half-hour in the Schmetterling Haus, next to the Burggarten park, admiring the tropical butterflies.
We gawped at the giant pink hare outside the Opera House, which seemed vaguely familiar to me. Turns out, it’s based on Albrecht Dürer lovely painting Feldhase (generally mistranslated into English as The Young Hare), which is kept at the Albertina Museum, just down the road.
The big pink version was designed by Ottmar Hörl, and used to be displayed outside the Albertina itself, but seems now to be sitting on top of an underground dinner club. I don’t know why.
And on our final day we walked to the two huge museums facing each other across the ornamental gardens of Marie-Theresien-Platz. Where to go? On the left, Art History; on the right, Natural History. To the left, we could have taken a tour of the work of Pieter Bruegel. But on the right, they had an animatronic allosaurus.
Reader, you can guess where we went.