I had already told my companion that I had absolutely no interest in seeing the interiors of any of the world’s best museums and palaces, of which Venice seemed to contain at least fifty if not more; but she wouldn’t hear of the same about the churches; and promised to take me to the nicest and quietest ones only and then follow it up with a surprise of the visual kind. Gastronomic surprises were sure to follow later.
A short walk away our first halt was the church of San Giacomo di Rialto. ‘This is the oldest Venetian Church,’ Maria said, ‘over thousand years.’ Maria pointed out the Gothic portico that was spectacularly inscribed. We loitered a while in the black-stoned quadrangle with the central sprout and then left for the next church, San Polo, at a stone’s throw from her uncle’s place. It was a magnificent edifice of Byzantine origin mixed with a generous amount of Gothic and neoclassical periods as well. ‘It had to be restored,’ Maria interjected. The great rose-window of the façade stood out prominently as did the splendid bell tower. I spotted few paintings in the interior, noteworthy among them that of J. Tintoretto. From there we made a short work of the imposing Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, my eyes trying to find a route up the brick wall all the way to the top of the bell tower. Maria insisted that I see the wooden statue of St John the Baptist, so I did, though I didn’t find anything striking about it. Since I had done some readings about Tintoretto’s art work and sculptors some time back I was keen to visit the Guildhall of San Rocco that lay nearby. It was an impressive array of canvasses depicting scenes from the New and Old Testament. I was veritably moved beyond words at such play of light and colors on canvasses and murals more than 500 years old.
‘We are now in Dorsoduro and I have something to show you that you would surely like,’ Maria hinted mysteriously as we crossed a narrow canal and suddenly came across a large open space with a glorious fountain and huge trees. ‘This is Campo Santa Margherita, one of the finest gardens in all of Venice.’ I had never imagined such a large verdant place in Venice but Maria confirmed that Venice had nearly a dozen such gardens that the tourists seldom see. We sat on a bench near the fountain and gazed longingly at the children playing in their exuberance. All around the park ran a pathway that was lined with fruit and fish sellers and gelato vendors in their mobile kiosks. It was a lovely place with beautiful people all around and I wished to linger around but Maria would have none of it, ‘It’s your fault Sat, you only have two days and you must see things that you must.’ She pulled me up and we headed, as she promised, for the last church of the day, only to be viewed from the outside. I dragged my feet to Angelo Raffaele Church and what I really fell in love with the place was not the church itself (which to me seemed a regular affair) but by the canal skirting its wall. It was a tranquil place with colorful boats tied up with the piers into the narrow canal. Somehow Maria sensed my inner thoughts.
‘Let’s take a waterbus,’ she hailed one and we hopped into the boat that had only two locals besides. The bus driver cum conductor touched his cap at Maria and I offered to buy the tickets. Soon we weaved through the canal and came out into the waters of Canale Della Giudecca, which is to the South of Venice, leading out into the Adriatic. Shortly we alighted at the steps of Zattere and headed up to a place that Maria introduced as the Squero of San Trovaso. To say that I was rendered speechless at what lay in front would be an understatement. It was a boatyard for building and repairing gondolas with slipways and iron tracks. It was a hauntingly picturesque spot, one that was completely out of the touristy route. The edifice of the boathouse towered above the green trees and threw moving shadows into the blue-green water of the San Trovaso Canal. From there we headed straight up north and skirting the grand Gallery of Accademia (which houses the most priceless range of works in all of Venice) crossed Grand Canal over the bridge of Ponte Dell Accademia and entered the district of San Marco, the hub of Venice tourism and commerce.
Sun had set by now and into the gathering twilight we loitered around a bit in Campo Santo Stefano and then onwards to the ‘world’s best restaurant’ run by Maria’s childhood friend Marco.
Creatively named, ‘House of Marco’ the restaurant owned and run by three generations of Marco family was tucked into a corner around Palazzo Contarini facing the Grand Canal. It had a bar, a café outside and spaced out interior that was redolent with the fragrance of spices and basil that immediately watered my tongue and imagination. Marco Jr. who came forward and planted a resounding kiss on Maria’s lips seemed right out of a renaissance painting. He was all bronzed sculptor and could have easily replaced Clark Gable in ‘Gone with the Wind’ on a bad day. His eyes sparkled in delight as he took my hand and shook it with the gusto of a long lost brother. It was a relief that he did not kiss my cheek. ‘Welcome my friend; I have the special table as always for Maria,’ Marco guided us to a table for two on the wooden extension that hung outside of the restaurant over the Grand Canal. The view was spellbinding. I felt as if I sat on the dancing waves and the city light reflected like countless stars on the now-dark water of the canal. Every gondola that passed us emanated some romantic song and so did the entire place. If not the ‘world’s best restaurant’ it certainly was the best located one in all of Venice or so it appeared. I could simply sit here all night and count the stars above and below and feel absolutely content with the world. Finally I caught the twinkling eyes of my guide and friend.
‘You like it?’ Maria asked eagerly.
‘This is amazing, I love it.’
Marco arrived soon with a bottle of Chianti white. ‘Wine from Tuscany,’ Maria interjected as Marco showed me the label and proceeded to uncork it in one single twist. ‘The best in our cellar my friend.’ Marco assured as he poured a generous amount in my glass. I hoped that his ‘new found’ friend is not footing the bill; else I could easily forget the rest of my Italian extravaganza. We raised a toast to our friendship and life and silently sipped the smooth fluid. Food followed soon in typical Italian style Leccino olives, artichoke soup, risotto, fish, cheese platter, salad, pudding and concluding with a cup of dark espresso. As we hopped from one course to another accompanied by the wine, small talks and deep silence of admiration at what lay around and into each other’s eyes, I literally lost track of time and of my past, present or future. I was full to the brim and feeling rather heady from the wine. If it was possible for Maria to look more enchanting than she was looking so. We finally left Marco after much display of love and fondness between the two friends, of which I got a fair share in the form of a kiss on the cheek, which in my inebriated state and also the fact that the evening was totally gratis, I did not mind.
As we walked into the night and the semi-silent footpaths, I sang some soulful Hindi numbers as a tribute to the night and my companion while she broke into Italian love songs and what a duet we churned up the night with! Odd that no one protested our ululations. After some minutes of senseless walking I asked, ‘Where are we going?’
‘Tiramisu at my Uncle’s, the house of Garibaldi, of course!’ Maria said.
I had totally forgotten about my Holy Grail and I doubted if I still had any space left in my stomach. Hearing my predicament Maria said, ‘Don’t worry Sat, your palate and your system is now ready for Tiramisu, as it has been oiled by Marco’s food.’ I too hoped so.
Maria led me towards the Rialto Bridge. Within the sight of the Rialto Bridge the pathway takes an S like curve where it bifurcates to the east into a narrow lane. Right at that corner we came across a small but densely crowded (even in that hour) shop that proudly proclaimed ‘Garibaldi Patisseries’. Maria jumped up in glee and literally pulled me off my feet for the last 10 meter or so. While I groped among the jubilant crowd, Maria disengaged herself from me and dived straight into the milieu. Soon enough I heard a resounding greeting followed by kisses from somewhere beyond the jostling crowd and then appeared Maria’s hand gesticulating from above the sea of heads, asking me to enter. Using all my survival skills learned in the jungles of Amazon I too managed to squeeze through and finding a low-headed gap beneath the serving counter with Maria on her knees on the other side, simply tunneled myself in.
Even before Maria could pull me back on my feet my head spun with the whiff of the freshest and nicest Tiramisu and assortment of pastries and Italian coffee. I could have happily left my earthly self at that moment as I sank in that ocean of aroma. Finding myself in the deathly hug of a grizzly I opened my eyes to find a huge red faced and nosed man of seventy attempting to break my back within his grasp even as his twinkling eyes took me in with obvious joy and deliverance. Maria said something in Italian that only increased the pressure on my back; though I understood that it came out of pure love and happiness. By then Maria had managed to lift off a sizeable box from somewhere and we wriggled back out of the shop without any permanent damage anywhere on our countenance.
‘Come, now we go to Rialto and enjoy the world’s finest Tiramisu,’ Maria ran ahead and we ascended to the middle of the arched bridge, right where the two sides met. There was a tiny space where already three couples were lost into each other. Maria went down the other side few steps and picked up a vacant spot. I joined her and together we gazed down at the dark water now pulsating with the city lights and scattering from the street lights from either banks. The halcyon breeze brushed our hair; Maria’s fluttering around her shoulders, while mine getting all messed up. Someone was singing somewhere and empty gondolas returned home languidly. The entire bridge, which in the day has so many people that you cannot stand without touching someone, now had no more than a dozen couples. The moon was almost full and threw a silver shimmer on the canal. Glasses tinkered in some unseen bars and people whispering far could be discerned as they came floating across the waves. It was a romantic place and moment. Except us, everyone around were clasped together. My mind was on the scent emanating from the box held carelessly in Maria’s hand. She seemed to have forgotten of it completely.
‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Maria sighed deeply and looked at me with melting eyes.
Maria smiled and touched my hand briefly. ‘I always come here at this hour; I like Venice when it goes to sleep and is silent. Do you know that even Michelangelo had submitted his design for Rialto when it was being commissioned in the sixteenth century?’
‘Really?’ I said.
‘Yes, but his design was too archaic and expensive while the city administrators wanted it to be economical and functional so it was given to someone else.’
We relapsed into silence and looked out into the water for a while. Finally Maria chirped, ‘Now for Tiramisu. Do you know how to eat it?’
‘Just the way I eat any food, through my mouth.’ I said.
‘Come on Sat, be serious. I will tell you the way to savor Tiramisu.’ She opened the box and pulled out two large size glass goblet into which sat two equally large shaped Tiramisu. The fragrance hit me like a prize fighter’s left hook.
I picked up one and the accompanying spoon.
‘Now follow my instructions. First take it close to your nose and take a deep breath, inhaling the aroma right down in the pit of your soul and keep it there.’ I followed suit and felt my soul intoxicated. ‘Now feel yourself being light and soft, as if you can fly in the air without wings.’ With a writer’s imagination I had no difficulty in doing that. ‘Dip your spoon and take a small portion into your mouth and hold it on your tongue.’ My tongue didn’t want to hold on to it, my esophagus wanted to suck it. ‘Let the rich flavor sink into your pallet, your taste buds, feel it’s dreamy texture.’ I was already dreaming with eyes open. ‘Allow the coffee and the liquor to kiss your inner being as you let it slip in.’ I kissed it back. ‘Now suddenly a teeny-weeny, almost non-existent hint of chocolate explodes around your tongue and vanishes in a blink.’ I was ready to explode. ‘Your entire mouth is wrapped in the finest silk and you feel Heaven inside you and you are in heaven.’ Maria completed her instruction. I was in heaven and had no intention of returning ever. We ate in silence, prolonging each spoonful as long as humanly possible in our mouths before swallowing it down. Even if it wasn’t the finest Tiramisu in the world, it certainly was the finest I had tasted anywhere in the world.
Next morning Maria shook me up with a steaming cup of the darkest Italian coffee.
‘Rise and shine, sleepyhead, it’s our big day. I have packed in our picnic basket and two wine bottles from uncle’s cellar.’
I was ready and shining in under twenty minutes. She led me to a small pier nearby and we hopped into a roofless boat with a 50 hp OBM. ‘Can you handle this?’ Maria challenged playfully. ‘I can handle it and also the lady in it,’ I replied laughing. ‘Ok Captain, all yours.’ Maria took off the rope from the bollard and off we went.
As I weaved around and through the narrow canals, Maria told me about the local rules of boating and navigation and kept directing me. Soon enough she was convinced of my boat-handling skills. ‘You are a good sailor boy.’ She laughed into the rising mist from the water. Our first stop was Lido. Our boat being small, light and shallow, we simply beached at one corner and jumped out into the water. We ran and walloped in the sand like children. The elegant tree-lined Moorish-styled villas along the stretch of the beach held some of the richest and famous people on Earth at that moment, of that I was certain. Lido was where the rich and the famous came to holiday and soak in the Adriatic Sun. It was a picturesque island. Soon we dived into the sea. At that early hour the sea did not have many bathers and we pretty much shouted and screamed as much as we could.
From Lido we headed to Torcello. Still soaking and enjoying the sea spray on our bodies, we both in our bathing attire. At Torcello we took a lazy walk around the island enjoying the lapping waters of the breathtaking lagoon and we lingered in the island centre square to take in the scenery. Surprisingly not a single tourist was visible in this pretty little island. Maria did play the perfect guide and educated me about the rich history of Torcello that now escapes me totally. As a final ode we climbed to the top of the Bell Tower and spied the lagoon and the backwaters from this vantage point.
Our final destination was Murano. Being the center of the Venetian glass blowing industry, Murano is perhaps Venice’s greatest and finest export and a Murano glass work is prized and pined for all over the world. Murano is a group of nine islets crossed and linked by a wide canal and as we stepped onto the main pier, which already had a regular tourist boat, I immediately fell in love with the place. The riot of colors took my breath away. The row of houses, most of them glass blowing factory cum residence, along the canal and the boats resting silently in the water came in all sorts of vibrant colors and texture. It was unusually quiet and a kind of ululating hush permeated through the air. We walked through the streets and crossed the bridges from one islet to another, while admiring the exquisite works of Murano glass on most of the windows. After much strolling we finally visited the Glass Museum and Maria guided me from one exhibit to another. I was amazed at the glass masks and the gold gilded figurines. The price tags amazed me more. We then visited two factories to see how the families worked together. First trip to Murano cannot be completed without buying one of the glassworks, so I hummed and drummed till I finally found a tiny turquoise-blue dolphin within my budget.
We capped Murano Island with a late lunch and wine and with our feet dipped into the water and my heart never wanting to go back. Maria handled the boat on the return trip as I lay on my back on deck and just let my eyes linger longingly on the islands passing by. We took a longer trip back to the home pier and Maria pointed out Piazza San Marco from the sea, where she would take me in the night. The Basilica of San Marco along with the Piazza must be the most sighted and photographed and well known of all Venice attractions. It appeared mammoth and grand from afar. We chugged along with other bigger boats and hand-rowed gondolas. Maria knew some of the boatmen and she exchanged playful banter with many. As the Basilica had closed by the time we reached, we climbed to the top of the Bell Tower and looked down upon the Piazza, which was full of pigeons and people, all of whom appeared and moved like ants. As the evening deepened, we stepped down and finally took a gondola ride (without which no trip to Venice can be complete) and I sang the famous song of Bollywood that had been shot in a gondola in Venice – do lufzon ki hai dil ki kahani, ya hai mohabbat ya hai jawani (the story of heart has only two words, it is either love or it is youth) to my companion as she snuggled close and sighed even deeper.
After alighting from the gondola we headed for a mobile Pizza vendor (who made the most delicious pizzas) and we both helped ourselves to Grande slices of pepperoni pizza with extra olive, basil and jalapeno. The entire day under the heady sun and sea travel had made both of us hungry. Maria carried her picnic basket that still had an intact bottle of red wine. We walked back to the Piazza of San Marco in silence. It was nearing ten in the evening and the moon was up in her full glory, being full moon, rising up from behind the tall Bell Tower. High tide was approaching and the water had started filling up the Piazza. We stepped into the cool water and splashed our way through. There were rows of tables spread through the width of the Piazza for people to step and walk upon to avoid wetting their feet. We walked in the shadows and into the spilling moonlight. We crossed the entire quadrangle and came out towards the sea and there Maria bid me to take a seat on the cold stone.
We sat in silence as the whispering sea filled up the Piazza evenly, rising around us as well. Only shadows moved and danced elusively without form or shape. Maria snuggled on my shoulders with our hands intertwined. The cool breeze stirred us with a pleasant chill. Maria passed me the bottle of wine and we shared it over the next hour. Words were unnecessary and so were any action. We simply remained as we were, totally transfixed and transformed into the night as every other thought became superfluous.
Next morning Maria walked me back to the station. She kissed me lightly on the lips as the train started and waved her hand. ‘Would I see you again, Sat, somewhere? Would you call me?’
‘Sure Maria, I would never forget you.’ I blew her a kiss into the wind and withdrew inside as the train gathered speed. For me she must remain my promise of a reunion and a dream out of my reach.
‘Ave Maria,’ I smiled at the old lady next to me and nuzzling deeper into my long seat closed my eyes and finally let my body slip into the much deserved stupor after so much gallivanting and sinful activities.