Byron swam home along it, George Elliot’s husband fell in it, Robert Browning lived in a palace along it, caught a cold and died by it. A hawker once towed a dolphin up and down it; and in the fourteenth century an earthquake drained it and left it dry for two weeks. The Grand Canal, at two miles long, and seventy-six yards wide at it’s greatest point, is the life-blood of Venice, from which all of the other canals spring.
After two weeks of walking everywhere, the lure of the water became too great. We paid our Euro 50 and bought our vaporetto or water-bus passes, and for the next seven days we travelled everywhere by boat; just like getting a bus down the High Street – but what a street. Two hundred palazzi line it, four bridges cross it, forty-six side canals enter it, forty-eight alleys run down to it, and ten churches stand upon it’s banks. Standing on the platform in the middle of the vaporetto, we craned our necks, squashed between tourists with suitcases the size of a small house, and old ladies with shopping trolleys on wheels. ‘Attenzione‘, shouted the conductor – ‘permisso‘, as he tried to make his way through the crowd to moor the boat at each floating stop. In the summer locals complain they cannot even get standing room on their own public transport system. The number 1 zigzags across the ‘Canalazzo’, and stops everywhere. It’s quicker to walk, but not half so nice. The water teems with activity. Sleek, gleaming water-taxis; broad, flat-bottomed barges delivering fruit and vegetables for the market, for the shops and restaurants. There are TNT and DHL boats, ambulance, police and fire-service boats. Little skiffs with a lone helmsmen at the tiller, and often a dog in the body of the boat, nose high in the wind. One day we watched a mammoth barge containing two TV trucks being manoeuvred into a tight spot by a tiny tug. Men pulling on ropes, and by-standers placing tyre-rings on the quayside – it was all done calmly, with the exchange of merely a word or two. Spectators shouted ‘bravo’ as it came to a graceful halt.
Those palaces are Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance – but we could never tell the difference. All are grand; seemingly rising straight out of the water. Candy-striped poles for mooring boats, huge doors opening onto the canal, the green-blue water lapping at the landing steps, low tide reveals dancing algae, mud and slime. Tantalising glimpses of courtyards and gardens. Some have obelisks poking up from their roofs, some bear (hideous) glittering frescos, all are a riot of balconies, coats of arms, arches, memorial tablets, weather-vanes, ugly heads, cherubs and chimney pots.
Stories about these great houses and their occupants attest to lifestyles as exuberant as their palazzi. The Guggenheim Collection occupies what was once the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni – the ‘dei Leoni’ part of the title comes from the pet lions the Venier family kept chained in the courtyard. A squat ediface only one storey high, tradition has it that building was stopped by the Corner clan across the water, who didn’t want their sunlight blocked by a house that was going to be bigger than theirs. In the early years of the twentieth century the art-set came here for parties thrown by the Marchesa Casati, who set wild cats and apes loose in the garden, among plants sprayed lilac for the occasion. Peggy Guggenheim herself moved into the palace in 1949. Famous for her multiple marriages and many lovers, Guggenheim jumped naked into the canal, to re-enact her father’s drowning on the Titanic. She had to be rescued by her gondolier.
On the left bank, work began on the Palazzo Grimani in 1559, but was not completed until 1575. A Venetian folk tale attributes the scale of the palace to thwarted passion: it’s said that the young man who built it was in love with a woman from the Coccina-Tiepolo palace across the water, but was turned away by her father, who did not feel he was grand enough for his daughter. The young man took his revenge by building a palace which had windows bigger than the main doorway of the Coccina-Tiepolo. Another story tells of poor old Nicolo Balbi, who was so keen to see his palace finished that he moored a boat alongside it, so he could watch work progressing. Sleeping in the boat was his downfall; he caught a chill and died before his palace was finished.
Not many people live in the palaces these days, but a night time ride on a vaporetto gives snap-shot glimpses into lamp-lit interiors – painted ceilings, wooden beams, Murano glass chandeliers – and private lives. In one palazzo I saw a man sitting in an armchair by the flickering light of a TV; in another a woman reading a book surrounded by luscious red curtains, and soft glowing lights – it seemed incongruous, to be doing something so mundane in such surroundings. Where were the wild cats and lilac coloured plants? High jinx or no, a ride down the Grand Canal, daytime or nighttime, is still a jaw-dropping experience.