Archive for UNESCO World Heritage Sites

This is not a cretinata tree, it's one of the most amazing wisteria trees in a neighborhood billowing with wisteria.  I wait for it all year.

This is not a cretinata tree, it’s one of the most amazing wisterias in a neighborhood billowing with wisteria. I wait for it all year.

Cretinate” (kreh-tee-NAH-teh) are actions or statements perpetrated by one or more cretins — a far too useful term in these parts, and one I’m sorry doesn’t exist in English.

But maybe it’s not that there are so many cretins here.  Maybe there are lots of highly intelligent, profoundly sensitive, extremely kind and rich people who just happen to say cretinous things.  If so, there are still too many of them.

A few days ago we heard the latest of an infinite string of fantasies stated as facts by Paolo Costa, the president of the Venice Port Authority.  He gives every sign of being a born believer in the inherent importance and value of Mastodontic Projects, as they put it here, because he has spent the last few years pushing ferociously for approval for the excavation of the Contorta Canal to bring the big cruise ships to the Maritime Zone by way of the lagoon, and not by the Giudecca Canal.

Apart from whether or not this would be a smart move for Venice and its economy (read: keep the port working at full speed), the canal itself has been recognized by an array of environmentalists and even politicians as being enormously damaging to the lagoon ecosystem.  (May I note, once again, that the lagoon is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a fact which apparently is difficult to remember, seeing how casually everybody goes rampaging around doing whatever they want, though if harm were done to the city to the degree that it’s done to the lagoon, the world outcry would resemble several sonic booms).

Let us revel in the double-cherry trees, especially this one which was flowering its heart out in a completely meaningless fragment of Mestre.

Let us revel in the double-cherry trees, especially this one which was flowering its heart out in a completely meaningless fragment of Mestre.

I’m coming to the cretinata, uttered by Mr. Costa.  He has uttered many since the subject of banning the big ships has been current.  The reason he utters them is because it appears to be his heart’s desire to be involved in a Mastodontic Project, seeing as he missed out on the riches lavished on everyone involved in the last one, which is MOSE.

Actually, I don’t know that he missed out.  Perhaps he got his share that time around, and is determined to have a reprise.

Whatever the case may be, no Crusader ever made a vow that could match the vow he seems to have made to himself to get that @#*$%! canal dug.

So where’s the cretinata?  Here it is:

The Contorta Canal is the only intervention which can save the lagoon and the jobs of the cruise business.”

First, it can’t be the “only”  intervention” that could be effective.  There are a number of alternatives which are struggling to be considered, pushing frantically against the inert bulk of the Contorta proposal.  To be accurate, it is the only intervention which has the active interest and support of Mr. Costa, and he is applying pressure for its approval by every means known to humans.  After all, sheer dogged perseverance finally got the MOSE project approved, although it took 30 years.  So it ought to work just as well for this project.  That seems to be the approach he’s taking.

In my opinion, saying that something or someone is the “only” one of its kind, when that just happens to be the thing the speaker wants, is a statement more often made by young, distraught children than mature, responsible adults.  It sounds fishy to me.

Second, I have never heard anyone except Mr. Costa hazard the statement that the excavation of the new canal would “save the lagoon” (though he doesn’t say from what).  I totally understand his desire to keep the port humming, but his opportunistic addition of saying the canal will “save the lagoon” is like telling a woman “By the way, you’re beautiful” when you’ve just asked her to lend you $500.

Many Venetians have long been aware that the lagoon needs saving (from the voracious motondoso, from devastating illegal clam digging, and from the incessant erosion exacerbated by the Petroleum Canal — another Mastodontic Project!).  I didn’t realize that digging a new canal would be a positive step in any direction except more erosion and more environmental degradation.

Since Mr. Costa has never made anything resembling an environmentalist statement, I have to assume that “saving the lagoon” is Costaspeak for “doing what I want.”

Here endeth the first cretinata.

No lilac trees at all in Venice, as far as I can tell, but I'll take what I can get at the Rialto for the few days the lilacs are on sale.

I’ve never discovered lilac trees in Venice, which makes me all the more grateful to see these at the Rialto for the few days they’re on sale.

Interlude: I used to know a little boy who, at the age of about 2 1/2, had already grasped that saying that he wanted something didn’t inspire the desired response from his mother.  So he cleverly switched to saying “I need it.”  That little boy did not grow up to become the President of the Port Authority; perhaps he was a cousin.

These were the pioneer blooms, now gone for another 12 months.

These were the pioneer blooms, now gone for another 12 months.

On to the next cretinata, which comes from the Princess Bianca di Savoia Aosta, quoted in “An Insider’s Guide to Venice” in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago.

I admit that statements from people whose names start with Princess (or Defender of the Faith, or Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, or Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great) get attention.

Having a fancy title doesn’t necessarily mean that you know things, but it does mean that your statements will probably be taken as true.  Such as the Princess’s following remark:

VENETIAN MOPED // Brussa IS Boat. Rent a “topa,” a zippy four-meter boat, at Brussa, to go for a relaxing and fun spin through the canals before heading out into the lagoon. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds—locals use the topas like mopeds.”

Words such as “zippy” and “spin” give the impression that the canals, like the city itself, are here mainly for entertainment and diversion, just one big amusement park with peeling palaces.  They don’t give any hint of the reality — that the canals are narrow, crowded, and full of boats doing real work which take up space and aren’t especially accommodating to high-spirited gilded youths out for a little run about town before drinks at the Cipriani, or wherever.

Second, “locals” do not use the topas like mopeds.  “Locals” have their own boats, usually, or have friends with boats.  Topas are for special jobs or projects — most often like work — which usually do not involve either zipping or spinning.

Third, apart from being awkward and difficult to perform, zipping and spinning would be a challenge to do without breaking the speed limits, which are now being more strenuously enforced since the new traffic regulations went into effect.  The only boats I can think of whose zipping or spinning is overlooked are the fireboats and the ambulances.

“Like mopeds” implies speed, agility, and quantity, like the swarms in Rome and Florence.  There is no craft here which could be compared in any way to a moped. Not one.

Which leads me to conclude that the princess either doesn’t know what a topa is, or what a moped is.  It would be like me saying “Lapps use reindeer-sleds like mopeds,” or “Somalis use camels like mopeds” or “New Zealanders use dolphins like mopeds.”

For a tiny sliver of time each year, ordinary leaves are as beautiful as flowers.

For a tiny sliver of time each year, ordinary leaves are as beautiful as flowers.

But I’m being too serious, it’s one of my major defects.  So let me offer a more effervescent cretinata, perpetrated by two incredibly clever employees of the ACTV who went fishing on company time.

Connoisseurs of lagoony creatures know that this is seppia (cuttlefish) season.  Even if you don’t happen to be a connoisseur, all you have to do to realize the season is on is either go to the Rialto to see what’s on sale, or wander along your fondamenta-of-choice in the morning or evening (or night) to peruse the men who are standing there with their fishing rods and nets and ink-stained buckets.  The Zattere, the Riva degli Schiavoni, the Fondamente Nove, and even scabrous old Tronchetto are all excellent places to snag some seppie.

Unless you’re supposed to be doing something else, like work.

I realize that seppie exert an irresistible fascination, but it's better to indulge it off the clock.

I realize that seppie exert an irresistible fascination, but it’s better to give in to it off the clock.

On the evening between Tuesday and Wednesday, two employees of the ACTV were on duty at Tronchetto in the area dedicated to the ferryboat from the Lido, and one of their tasks was to keep an eye on things in general and to make sure that nobody was doing anything near the landing-stage that could create problems for the ferry.

It would appear that these two zealots decided that seppia-fishing on the nearby fondamenta was likely to create problems for the ferry (actually, for their own fishing plans), so they wasted no time in banishing the fishermen from the fondamenta.

Shortly thereafter, the banished fishermen, watching from a nearby fondamenta, noticed the two zealots pulling out their own tackle and beginning their own great seppia-hunt from the now-liberated good spot.

This was unwise.

The banished and extremely annoyed fishermen proceeded to phone the Provincial Police, who are responsible, among other things, for checking fishing licenses.  Before long a patrol-boat appeared, and the officers showed as much zeal in the execution of their duty as the two ACTV bullies had done in theirs.

The officers took away their traps, their fishing lines, and their seppie.  The officers also searched their cars, and fined them for fishing without a license.

The officers then reported the incident to their employers, who were probably less concerned about the fines than they were about the fact that their two trusty agents had been amusing themselves in an off-duty sort of way when they were, technically speaking, very much on duty.

Moral: Don’t antagonize seppia-fishermen?  That’s a good one.  Another good one would be: Don’t behave like a cretin.

It rained the other day and I happened to be at the Villa Foscarini Rossi in Stra.  Not exactly next door, but well worth the voyage.

It rained the other day and I happened to be at the Villa Foscarini Rossi in Stra. Not exactly next door, but well worth the voyage.

In spite of all this tomfoolery, spring is proceeding in its appointed course, and I am loving every aspect of it.

The trees are fully-leaved, as of about ten minutes ago, and the greenery still looks as fresh as salad.  Trees are blooming according to plan: the white-flowered plums have come and gone, followed by forsythia and cherry and double-cherry, and now the wisteria is slowly being transformed from purple blossoms into green fronds. Random flufflets of cream-colored spores float away from the poplars, and the redbud (called “Judas-tree” here) is making up in color what it lacks in size.

A few days ago I smelled cut grass for the first time this year.  It’s a moment that’s almost as enchanting as hearing the blackbirds at dawn.  And today I got a bonus: Someone had cut a stretch of herbage which contained chives (here called “sultan’s beard,” or “friar’s beard), and the fragile oniony scent was wafting faintly away.  It will be gone by now.

This is one of those perfectly poised moments, when the air is still cool but you can feel the sun’s warmth (if the wind isn’t blowing).  At any time of the day the streets are full of people dressed for every possible temperature: There are couples in T-shirts and even tank tops and shorts, and at the same time there are people in trim down jackets or woolen coats.  Those with bare arms don’t seem to be cold, and those wrapped in feathers don’t seem to be hot.  It’s extraordinary.

Which means that we are approaching one of the tiniest hinges of the season: The moment when everyone ceases to move from the shady to the sunny side of the street, and begins to move from the sunny to the shady side.

When that happens, I declare summer officially open for business.

Down jackets and sunscreen.  We've got weather that everybody can love.

Down jackets and sunscreen. We’ve got weather that everybody can love.

Fred here, or whatever his name is, has found the perfect spot for the perfect dreams.  He's probably dreaming about chasing artichokes.

Spring can be so exhausting.  He’s probably dreaming about chasing artichokes.

 

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The façade of what is now the Institute of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice on the Fondamenta San Gioachin obviously has more pressing concerns than whether anybody looks up at a plaque.  But one day I just stopped and determined to investigate.

The façade of what is now the Institute of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice on the Fondamenta San Gioachin obviously has more pressing concerns than whether anybody looks up at a plaque. (You do see a plaque, don’t you?).  But one day I just stopped and determined to investigate.

Now that I have pulverized every last fermion of the subject of death in Venice (book, author, phenomenon, movie, original language, salt-free-recipe-for), I’d like to amaze everyone’s questing minds by talking about being born in Venice.

It happens a lot, though not as often as one might wish.  But if you really focus as you migrate from gelateria to gelateria, you may notice a number of plaques incised in Italian which include the word “nato” or “nascita” or, if they’re being grammatically fancy, even “nacque.” This means “born.”

Carlo de Ghegha, 1851, while still working on the railroad.  He looks satisfied with the way things are going in this lithograph by Joseph Kriehuber.

Carlo de Ghega, 1851, while still working on the railroad. He looks satisfied with the way things are going, at least as shown by Joseph Kriehuber in this lithograph.

Famous people came to Venice to be born?  Wonderful!

Even more wonderful is how many famous people there are whom I’ve never heard of (thereby perplexing the meaning of “famous”). But I have just discovered someone whose birthplace I pass numerous times a day, and who, once I stopped and paid attention, I acknowledge as deserving not only his fading testimonial, but probably much more. A park, a lake, a bullet train bearing his name would not be too much. Elsewhere he may well receive more recognition than here; in Venice, honor has always been distributed in very small and carefully eye-droppered quantities. He should be glad he got a plaque.

His name is Carlo de Ghega (or Karl Ritter von Ghega), and after being born in Castello, he went on to do some prodigious things that merit at least a slice of marble nobody notices.

Now that I know who he is and what he did, I am going to tell you, because not all of us have had the benefit of an Austrian elementary-school education. An Austrian friend of mine was very unimpressed that I’d discovered somebody she’d learned about when she was a mere child. But then again, she may not know as much as I do about Stephanie Louise Kwolek, so there we are.

Did I say born in Venice, and he’s Austrian?  (Actually, his parents were Albanian.  That’s the beauty of an empire, in this case the Austro-Hungarian version.  Lots of everybody everywhere.)  Read on.

First, here is the runic summary of his life, as carved in stone:

1854  Semmering  1954   On this fondamenta of  San Gioacchino moved to life Carlo de Ghega Engineer whose tenacious genius turned first to the waters and  to the streets of his neighborhood and then to the Norica Alps to be the first to open them amid harsh adversities to the reign of steam. Born 1802  Died 1860

1854 Semmering 1954
On this fondamenta of
San Gioachino
moved to life (was  born)
Carlo de Ghega
Engineer
whose tenacious genius turned
first to the waters and
to the streets
of his neighborhood
and then to the Noric Alps
to open them first
amid harsh adversities
to the reign of steam.
Born 1802 Died 1860

Before I go further, you might want to know that the Noric Alps are a mountain chain between Italy and Austria encompassing the Tyrol, Salzburg and Carinthia.

And in this stretch of peaks and valleys Mr./Signor/Herr/Zoti De Ghega built a railroad known as the Semmering railway, named for the mountain pass it overcame.  It is considered the first true mountain railway ever built, and was a feat so phenomenal that it is now on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Not everybody believed it could be done.  The gradients were too steep (25 percent), the curves were too tight (180 meters/590 feet).  It was too complicated, too difficult, impossible, actually, and also useless.  In the face of such doubting and carping, it was obvious that he was going to do it.  Also, I believe the Austrian emperor had specifically asked him to.

The pass isn’t so high (965 meters/3,166 feet above sea level), but connecting the villages of Gloggnitz and Murzzuschlag appears to have resembled a monumental cat’s-cradle.  From 1848 to 1854, 20,000 workers blasted 14 tunnels and built 16 viaducts, 11 small iron bridges, and more than 100 curved stone bridges.  All this over a distance of a mere 41 km (25 miles).

“Curved” is the important concept here — there isn’t a straight line anywhere.  The curves were so insidious that new instruments and new methods of surveying had to be developed to deal with them.  Further — stay with me, this is important — a new locomotive had to be created (the Engerth locomotive finally won out), and which did not rely on anything so simple as a cog-wheel system to drag it uphill.

De Ghega is a celebrity in the world of railway engineering and design, not to mention trains.  But what else could one expect of a man who graduated from the University of Padua with a degree in mathematics at the age of 17?  Here’s the answer: Being asked (told) to design the entire state railway system of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I’m not saying he was a genius because he was born in Castello; you’ve got to be born somewhere.  But it probably didn’t hurt him, either. In one way or another, great people keep showing up here.

I think the squiggles are enough, without showing variations in elevation, to illustrate what he accomplished.

I think the squiggles are enough, without showing variations in elevation, to illustrate what he accomplished.

The viaduct over the Kalte Rinne in Styria, photographed between 1890 and 1900. (Library of Congress).

The viaduct over the Kalte Rinne in Styria, photographed between 1890 and 1900. (Library of Congress).

Another view of the Kalte Rinne viaduct (Emerich Benkert, color lithograph, 1854).

Another view of the Kalte Rinne viaduct (Emerich Benkert, color lithograph, 1854).

You can still take the train.  I want to do it.  (Phoot: Herbert Ortner, Wikipedia).

The train is still running. I want to ride it one time in my life.  Maybe two times. (Photo: Herbert Ortner, Wikipedia).

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Categories : History
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