Travelogue from Venice, June 11th 2004
The Guggenheim Collection
Today Helle is the early riser and we're at the breakfast table a few minutes past 8. There are new guests every day; most seem to stay for 1-3 days only and with so few guests you cannot help notice.
I phone Antonio as agreed and my concern as to how, where and how much evaporates. Antonio has planned everything: we are to visit his home to see his chess library, and then we can either go to the chess club or he can show us around in the neighbourhood.
We agree on a time between 5 and 5.30, and he explains how to find his home, which is just beside Ca' d'Oro, one of the famous palazzi along Canal Grande.
We decide to visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which is said to be an impressive collection of modern art - Picasso, Ernst etc., which Peggy Guggenheim bought for her Venetian home (now the museum) in a vain attempt to battle the growth of her fortune.
The vaporetto carries us to Salute. It isn't far and we're at the gate 20 minutes early - they open at 10. It is already 35°C in the sun so we track the shade in our search for a bar, where we can kill time and an espresso.
We need not search for long. An espresso at the bar costs 80 cents, which is cheap, but a coffee bean's incarnation as espresso is short-lived, and outside we find a shadowy bench where we kill time watching some men struggling with a new and huge fridge for the bar we just visited.
The Guggenheim museum is beautiful and efficiently air-conditioned, however it is not the breakthrough that teaches us to appreciate modern art. We like a few pictures, but despite being painted by the brightest stars on the sky of modern art most works leave barbarians like us untouched.
Shamelessly we are more fascinated by the beautiful terrazzo floors with marble in various colours and patterns with mother of pearl.
I am impressed though by the sculpture, "Angel of the City" (L'Angelo della Città), on the terrace facing Canal Grande. A horse carries a person with open arms, and the condition of a certain body part leaves no doubt that the angel is a male.
Click for larger image
We leave Peggy's palazzo and cross Canal Grande via Ponte d'Accademia. Through many crooked alleys with built-in refreshments we reach the main road (if you can talk about roads in Venice) towards Rialto.
In one of the count- and useless shops Helle finds a leaf-shaped pendant made of Murano glass. It has golden colours and is triumphantly much cheaper than other pendants just like it in other useless shops. It is pretty though.
On the San Polo side of the Rialto Bridge we do some more shopping: a leather belt, a children's book (to improve my Italian) and a pace flag, which Helle has wanted ever since we visited Rome in 2001.
Pace means peace and you see Pace flags in windows, from balconies - everywhere. The Italian peace movement is strong. At the good local bar in the alley to the vaporetto stop we have a sandwich and then it is back home for a much needed sieasta-pace.
We Visit Antonio
At 4.30 p.m. we leave for Antonio's, but before we go to the vaporetto we have ice cream. Italian ice is something special and with a #1 vaporetto every 10th minute there's no need to hurry.
There are only two stops to Ca' d'Oro and as instructed we turn left at Strada Nova and walk the 50 meters to a small square on the right with a fountain - as described. There should be a pace flag hanging from the balcony, however there are pace flags everywhere!
Fortunately I had the good sense to ask Antonio for the number of the house and it is not on the square, but facing the square. From a roof garden on the first floor hangs a pace flag and Antonio's name is on the wrought iron gate. Bingo!
The gate is open, so we approach the door and ring the bell. Antonio appears in a window on the first floor, waves and the door opens with a buzz.
Just inside are two wheelchairs and a staircase with a mechanism to hoist wheelchairs. The walls are raw bricks.
Antonio greets us on the first floor and takes us to his study. The walls are covered with books from the terrazzo floor and up almost to the ceiling.
His collection of chess books is huge, and Antonio explains eagerly while extracting one book after the other. The treasures are in a glass-fronted bookcase. Among the jewels are old tournament books and chess books from the 17th and 18th century.
Antonio talks non-stop interrupted only when he leaves to help his wife get out of bed. While he's away I find the Italian chess magazine from 1927. I miss two games from Denmark's match against Italy in the chess Olympiad in London the same year, and maybe there's something here.
Alas, there's one game, but it is known already and the missing games are probably lost forever.
The wheelchairs at the bottom of the stairs are Cristina's. She rolls into the study and we say hello. Would we like coffee, water, wine or…? We all prefer coffee and Cristina leaves.
Antonio continues with enthusiasm to tell stories about chess and history and books, but now and then he runs mid-sentence to help with the coffee.
Coffee is served in the living room. It is an old house and I guess there are some 4,5 meters to the carved wooden ceiling, and despite the heat outside and the open windows the rooms are surprisingly cool.
From the living room we look down a lush garden that stretches to Canal Grande, and the wall to the left is Ca' d'Oro. The doorbell rings and we say hello to Cristina's mother and aunt, but they have just come to deliver something and leave almost immediately.
After coffee we continue in the study. There are also books about math, physics and more philosophical matters. Antonio is a retired math teacher and a bit absent-minded in his eagerness.
"What can I show you? What can I show you?" he repeats and piles books on the table while telling their history and how they came into his care or possession. From time to time I discreetly save some bottom-books from the burden of latter times and put them aside.
At some point Antonio's son in law is on the phone. We go into the living room to chat with Cristina, and when Antonio returns we say goodbye. Antonio joins us, or more precisely: we follow Antonio. On the way he shows us a storage room in the basement with piles of boxes that all contain chess books.
Antonio in the Lead
Antonio takes the lead with vigour and has a story about everything we see on our way. Around the corner we see the house where he was born in 1942, and soon we loose all sense of direction in this labyrinth of crooked alleys.
There's no end to Antonio's stories and just around the next corner is always another exciting item - if we have got ten minutes?
Of course we have got ten minutes - this is gold and Antonio is a gifted storyteller. Among other things we visit Scuola Grande di San Marco, where Antonio boldly takes us to the hospital grounds.
"Tourists never come here", he says, "but the manager is a chess player, so we'll be okay!" Keeping in mind that the hospital is hundreds of years old and built before concrete was reinvented it is an impressive building: large, architecturally impressive and with beautiful marble floor mosaics and a peaceful garden bordered by a colonnade.
Helle makes an attempt to befriend a hospi-cat in the garden and Antonio says with a grin that the cats of Venice never catch a rat, but that rats stay away if there's a cat! Maybe that is why they never catch any.
We continue our criss-cross towards Rialto and Antonio often greets people he knows. Many are old pupils and at least twice we meet a chess player and I am introduced formally as "un maestro danese".
Antonio takes us across the Rialto Bridge and we enter the square in front of the oldest church in town. The bell tower has one of the peculiar clocks with 24 hours.
This spot, Antonio explains, was the birthplace of modern banking; in the days of glory a courier could deliver a voucher from Venice to Istanbul in just seven days.
And close to this spot, which Chase Manhattan, Deutsche Bank and many others owe gratitude, we say goodbye to Antonio, who just manages to catch a traghetto across Canal Grande and thus save 20 minutes' walk.
If you want to try a gondola ride you can cross Canal Grande for half a Euro, whereas a ride in one of the tourist gondolas is a very expensive matter.
Feeling spent we settle for a tourist menu at La Spada very close to the hotel. The food is honest and cheap, but doesn't deserve elaborate description.
Sitting outside we are not the only ones to enjoy a tourist menu; local mosquitoes feast on Helle's ankles and are discovered too late. My skin is also punctured in a few places, but contrary to Helle I am immune and do not swell or itch.
Just across the street at Osteria Vivaldi we enjoy a goodnight beer and then it is off to bed - it has been a long day.