May Day in Venice: What we didBy
We ran away. We ran far, far away, out into the lagoon in a little three-oar sandolo called “Granchio” (crab) with our best friend Anzhelika.
By “running,” I mean rowing, naturally. We left the Lido about 8:00 and rowed all the way to Quarto d’Altino, on the mainland shore out beyond the airport. We got back around 6:00; it’s about 45 miles roundtrip, and we were going against the tide. Both ways. And there were also waves, in the sense that after a typhoon you might say there had been wind. I woke up the next morning feeling as if a battalion of small people with big hammers had been pounding me all night.
We’ve done this before, with various people on various types of boat, and it’s always wonderful. The reason is simply because we go out into a distant, seemingly wild part of the lagoon which is so different from the area we’re used to, near the city. We wend our way through the barene, or marshy islets, and along reed-lined channels that seem luxuriously remote (if you can ignore the sound of airplanes taking off from Marco Polo airport just a mile or two away).
This is something like what the lagoon looked like, in a broad sense, to the earliest Venetians who took refuge here from the passage of Attila and his Huns. (I say “broad sense” because most of the barene that formed much of the lagoon landscape even 50 years ago have been washed away by the motondoso, or waves from motorboats.) We had to face our share of motorboats, but what mattered was the haunting loveliness of the waterways.
As we rowed easily along (in the stretches without motorboats), listening to the musical soft sound of our oars and the answering music of the water sliding under the boat, we could also hear the crooning of turtledoves, and a few nightingales, and a distant cuckoo, which sings only in May. There were gleaming white egrets, and one stately heron that flew heavily away. The hawthorn trees were lush with clusters of creamy blossoms, and I could see some tangly bushes of pink wild roses. The surface of the water was streaked with the faint but clear wake of scattering fish, usually grey mullet, and once or twice one sprang into the air, attempting something resembling the long jump. When the breeze shifted, or the clouds let more sunshine through, the wetlands would give off a faint muddy smell which seemed oddly clean. There was a hawk wandering around overhead. And a pair of swans, not far from the fish-farms.
All of this, and much more which I haven’t yet seen, or didn’t know when I saw it, is — of course — under phenomenal pressure from all sorts of human activities. The most dangerous and, for us, the most maddening, and even painful, were the motorboats. Big honking mothers full of trippers from somewhere back in the countryside, or smaller boats roaring past with teenage boys, or even cruddy little old boats with cruddy motors carrying some sort of decrepit men with old fishing tackle.
We stopped for half an hour at the trattoria “Ai Cacciatori” at Mazzorbo, just before Burano, for the usual sopressa sandwich and plenty of water. Lino, naturally, had an ombra, a glass of white wine. Venetians call this morning refresher (or afternoon, or evening…) a “shadow.” The story goes that back in the very olden days, when the Piazza San Marco was something between a Levantine souk and the Roman Forum, there was a man who sold wine from a small stand in the shadow of the belltower. As the sun moved, he would shift with it to stay in the shadow, and so people went from saying “Let’s go have some wine in the shadow” to just suggesting, “Let’s go have a shadow.” That’s the story, which I have no plans to research further.
We got to Altino past noon, and somewhat past the time when I had begun to wish we were already there. For all the breeze, you could still feel the sun, beginning to shine back up from the water onto your face, and it was hot.
We tied up the boat in the reedy little canal that ends at the very old pumping station; there are still fields stretching out here that need to be irrigated, or drained. Altino was an important Roman town on the main road heading northeast, and farmers still turn up assorted Roman relics of metal or marble. We had lunch at the trattoria “Antica Altino”and started the row home around 3:00.
It was about the time we were passing Sant’ Erasmo that I began to feel really tired. Being tired doesn’t impress me, but I wasn’t happy because I knew what was coming up, and it would have been so much better if I hadn’t been tired: Traversing the lagoon between the island of the Certosa and the vaporetto stop on the Lido at Santa Maria Elisabetta. If I were to say “Recreating Lawrence of Arabia’s life-threatening trek across the Sun’s Anvil,” or “Sailing around Cape Horn with only a torn jib and a busted rudder,” I’d be saying about the same thing.
Of course I knew there’d be waves, but they were worse than I had anticipated, caused by the ferries, and the big motonave to and from Punta Sabbioni, and tourist launches, and taxis, and vaporettos, and all sorts of private motorboats. As far as the quantity of boats is concerned, this was one-quarter or less of what it will be on a Sunday afternoon in July. But it was enough for me. Big, heaving, confused waves came from all directions; small, invisible waves tried to suck the boat back out from under our feet; tall, curling waves surged toward the bow, threatening to send sheets of water into the boat; clustering waves just pounded the boat from all sides, with no design, no rhythm, no pauses. And did I mention we were also rowing against the tide? I believe I did. By the time we reached the tranquil home stretch of water, halfway along the Lido, my left knee was stabbing, my right shoulder felt like a hot anvil had been dropped on it, each palm had a stinging red blister, and I was pretty much at the blind staggers stage.
Of course we swore we’d never do this again. We may have sworn this last year as well. If we do this next year, I will undoubtedly swear it was for the last time. Does that mean it wasn’t punishing? Of course not. Next year it will be even worse. But by the next morning — about the time I became conscious of having been bludgeoned with crowbars — the black, fermenting rage that darkened the return had already faded to pale grey in my mind, and now all I really remember are the birds calling and the boatsong, and the scent of the watery land, and what a great thing it was that the old Venetians had diverted a couple of rivers, because otherwise by now we’d only have had fields and parking lots to row across.