I recently re-visited Venice and my goodness, it was cold, although it made me remember a time when I’d been very hot there in the blazing heat of August.
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Occasionally in the life of a touring singer, there is an opportunity to extend a work trip to include a few days holiday. When I get the preliminary schedule for a tour, the first thing I do is to see if there is a chance to ‘opt out’ of the inevitable London Heathrow flight and book one from Gatwick Airport.
I live in Brighton, so it’s only half an hour on the train to Gatwick whereas Heathrow involves an hour and ten minutes on the train, then a long underground ride – not to mention the struggle down the stairs through the crowds with your suitcase at Victoria Tube station. If it’s one of those hideous, early check-ins (that seem to be the norm now) then it can be almost impossible to get to Heathrow at 7am without staying in London the night before – expensive and awkward.
We were due to go to Ferrara for the first leg of a tour in February 2012, which would then take us to Tenerife and Gran Canaria. The group would fly from there to Barcelona and finish off the tour with a concert in Madrid. It was a programme of Schumann with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The Monteverdi Choir had been invited as guests along with our conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
We finished rehearsing on Thursday evening, and the choir would fly to Venice early on Monday morning and from there, be taken on the bus to Ferrara. I noticed that the soloists were going to Venice on Saturday and asked if I could tag onto that flight – the office said yes, but I would have to pay for the extra night’s hotel in Ferrara. It was probably cheaper than staying at Heathrow and would avoid the early wake up call, followed by a rehearsal in Italy so I was tempted…….but then a brilliant idea popped into my head.
My partner had never been to Italy – what better than to arrive in Venice by boat in the romantic mists of winter? I quickly looked for flights and found that we could get a easyjet flight on the Friday morning and then I could come to the airport with him on the Monday to meet the group for the tour, as he flew home.
I checked this was ok with all parties and posted a plea to my well-travelled friends on Facebook; asking for recommendations for accommodation in Venice. The indomitable Rebecca Taverner (who runs Capella Nova in Glasgow with her husband, the conductor Alan Taverner) turned out to be Venice Tour Guide Straordinario and I duly duly awarded her the Spaghetti Dell’Oro award for services to Italian Holidays.
The bed and breakfast she recommended was off the beaten track and when I went to their website it looked charming and was very reasonable – somebody else recommended looking on TripAdvisor and it turned out, that the same place was rated very highly there too. With flights and rooms booked, we couldn’t wait to go – A guide book and a novel based in Venice were given as stocking presents at Christmas to get us in the mood.
As February approached the weather forecast in England threatened snow and I groaned as I remembered the nightmare journeys which I had to undertake during the previous winter for another Monteverdi Choir tour. (Click here to read that article). We were due to fly on the Friday, but snow was forecast for Sunday and Monday. If we could just get there then the only problem might be that we would be stuck in Venice and couldn’t fly home – Che Fortuna!……Apart from the fact that my flight home was booked for the Wednesday and if the group didn’t get out then I might have to sing the alto line all on my own in Ferrara – not very satisfactory for the audience, and worse – not get paid – not very satisfactory for the bank manager – and who would pay for the hotel and all those Italian meals in Venice?
Friday finally arrived and R and I got the train to Gatwick. I checked my luggage on but he only had carry-on. As we walked past the business security point , a man ushered us through – this never happens when I’m on my own! After a coffee, we walked to the gate and found that we were right at the back of the queue. The airline made an announcement appealing for passengers to check in their hand luggage to make more room in the cabin of the plane. As we had to wait for my case anyway, R went to the desk and gave them his small suitcase. (He just hadn’t wanted to pay for luggage in the hold.) They ushered us forward and we went on the plane first – for being so helpful!
When we arrived into Marc Polo airport we had to exchange our printed Venicelink ticket for a real one, so I headed off to do that, whilst the bags were coming off the plane. As instructed, I went at booth 71, but the man there told me that we had to exchange it on the Quayside.
As we left the airport, we encountered the biting, freezing wind for the first time. We waited in the queue for a good ten minutes before we got our new tickets and we huddled in an open barge where we would eventually get onto the boat. Half an hour later and we were absolutely frozen, despite a full-length padded coat, thermal vest, fleece and scarf and ski gloves.
When I arrived in Venice for the very first time, I remembered a large boat with open sides where you could stand outside if you wanted. I had a picture of this in my mind when I pre-booked the boat online – I wanted R to see the beautiful city as we approached from the lagoon – a wonderful memory for me (See the picture above). When the boat finally approached it was more of a motor cruiser and we had to go down into the lower deck. Great for warming up but the windows were covered with salt and ice so you couldn’t really see out much. I have to say I was a bit disappointed for him, but we had bought a 72 hour boat pass so there was plenty of time to explore.
We got off at San Stae – the stop before the Rialto Bridge and easily walked the few passages and bridges to look for the hotel. The light was just going but the magical colours of the city could still be seen. I had also asked my facebook friends for restaurant recommendations and a Trumpet player sent me this picture – the truth was out – that most of the rehearsal is spent deciding where lunch would be! As we walked from the boat, that very restaurant was on our way, so I popped in and reserved a table in my best Italian……the proprietor asked what time we would like to eat and I said eight, eight thirty expecting him to pick a time. He replied in Italian, “eight or eight thirty – see you later” which made me smile. Welcome to Italy!
We arrived at the tucked away passage that housed the door to the residenza Ca’Bonvicini and were greeted warmly by our host and told that, as their best room was available, we could have that one for no extra charge. He explained their map which had their favourite, six restaurants marked – The one we had booked for that evening was at the top of the list! I love it when a plan comes together.
He explained about the Venice boat and ferry system and I showed him the boat ticket we had bought on the internet. Unfortunately it only worked on boats for that particular company, and didn’t include the hop on ferries that went everywhere. It seemed it would have been better to buy an airport transfer then buy a local boat pass at the Rialto bridge. It seemed I had made a mistake and the landlord was cross on my behalf – as we intended to walk around the city anyway, it seemed a small problem. It only remained for us to choose a time for our breakfast to be delivered to our room the next morning– heaven!
Having dropped off our bags, absolutely delighted with our room, we wrapped up warm to explore the City by night for a couple of hours before going to the restaurant. It was magical, mostly because there didn’t seem to be many people there. When I had come the time before, it was teeming with crowds of tourists. When we’d woven our way though to St. Mark’s square, it was practically empty…..we quickly walked across to see the gondolas on the water and the Doge’s Palace, but the icy blasts of wind drove us back to shelter.
We popped into a dark little bar with low ceilings and ordered a beer and red wine and decided to share one of their home made mini pizzas, as we were really hungry. It was hot when it arrived and really surprised us. Tiny, wild mushrooms, prosciutto, garlic, herbs and the best mozzarella. Whether it was because we were so cold, or it was the first thing we ate together in Italy, I don’t know, but it was one of the most delicious things we ate that weekend.
Wandering round those picturesque passages took me back to another memorable time in Venice. I was in the Swingle Singers and we arrived on the boat during a heaving, hot August. We were due to sing in a live television show recorded at a studio some way from the city. At the time, the group had a very glamorous, blonde, Danish agent in Italy.
You can see her here on the water taxi talking on her mobile phone – which was revolutionary in the early 1990s. On the right s the musical director at the time, Jonathan Rathbone. On the day of the recording we all headed off in shorts and sandals as it was very hot. We took our costumes for the rehearsals and show and expected to come back to the hotel before heading out to eat. All went well that day and as we left, the producer told us we were invited to a reception. (Our agent had forgotten to tell us). Always glad of a free meal, we climbed onto our water taxi and headed off to what seemed like a very grand palazzo.
The doorman looked horrified at what we were wearing and wouldn’t let us in. Eventually somebody came and ushered us into a side room, where we had to stay in disgrace as the party went on in the very grand room next to us. Our tenor, Andrew Busher was the only person who had long trousers on and was allowed to go to the buffet and bring us back some food to eat. Whilst there, he made friends with the operatic mezzo soprano who was a rising star at the time and who had also sung in the television programme. We actually had a fun time as we werehen we left to go back to our hotel, she stood on the quayside and sang an aria to us (but mostly to our handsome tenor!)
In 2009 we were to encounter that amazing singer again, as she sang the title role of Carmen with the Monteverdi Choir in a production at the Opera Comique in Paris – some twenty years later.
Back on my romantic weekend in Venice, we had some wonderful meals and had a great time, but often got chilled through to the bone. Here I am wrapped up against the cold. We even got chilled whilst walking around the Doge’s palace, which was inside but unheated. As we crossed the Bridge of Sighs to the dungeons, I really understood the terrible plight of those prisoners as they huddled in the freezing, damp cells waiting for their death. This must have been something of a relief after the conditions, not to mention the torture they endured.
On the last day it was still bitterly cold but the sky was very bright. We took a trip to Murano for lunch. Here is a picture I took of the island of Isola di San Michele where the Venetians bury their dead. I loved the way the driver of the small boat passing by was checking his mobile.
We took another long boat ride around the city to arrive into St. Mark’s Square the way I had remembered it all those years before. We were happy, but absolutely frozen, as we stood out on the open deck of the ferry to take in the glorious view of the city. I was amused to be greeted in St. Mark’s square by a canvas covering a building regaled with the enormous image of George Clooney – another beautiful national treasure!
It was Sunday and I heard by text that due to snow in the UK, the soloists had waited at Gatwick for seven hours for their flight to Venice – they never arrived in Ferrara until 1am on Monday.
I mused that I had definitely made the right choice as we headed back to Osteria Moceniga for our final meal. and the next day, I decided to catch a train instead of waiting at the airport for the choir, as their plane kept getting delayed as well. I kissed R goodbye and got off the boat at the extraordinary 1930s station, the only Modernist building to face the canal.
I bought a first class ticket for only 11 euros (well after all , I was used to being upgraded now) and in an hour and a half, after a beautiful ride through the snowy countryside; I was having lunch in Ferrara.
We certainly have a wonderful job sometimes!
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