It was a bright sunny morning when Claudia, Giacomo, Silvana I headed for Italy from Freiburg. The first Swiss town we went through was Basel, which is known for its university and chemical firms near the Swiss-German border.
The sky was a cobalt-blue as we sped through the Arisdorf tunnel. In Switzerland you have to go through a lot of tunnels. The Swiss have introduced a vignette system whereby every car has to have a sticker pasted on its windscreen at a cost of 30 Swiss francs annually. The Swiss autobahn (highway) was surrounded by breath-taking scenery, with green pastures and rounded hillocks. In the distance you could see the Alps. As you speed along the well-maintained highway you see picturesque tiny towns and hamlets with their cute church-tops. There are extremely romantic settings ahead as you watch the mountains reaching out to the lake. You see the mountains right in front of your nose with their pine forests and snows tops. You drive past the Seelisberger lake and view a magnificent mountain scenery.
There are pretty petite Swiss huts on the lush green slopes of the hills with pine trees and jagged peaks, which have often served as backgrounds for scores of Bollywood films. With Lata Mangeshkar’s touching and sad version of ‘Kabhi khushi, kabhi gham’ blaring from the car’s stereo CD player, we certainly felt like Bollywood stars. I was a Nepalese from the middle mountains of Nepal and Claudia was from Germany’s Black Forest and we’d met at a ballroom and latin dancing class at the university town of Freiburg. Giacomo was from Brescia, a town in northern Italy and Silvana was from Sicily, and had, as expected, a lot of jovial, southern temperament.
Near Luzern, the Alps appear suddenly in their majesty. When we went past the Sempucher lake I was reminded of the equally beautiful Phewa lake at Pokhara. Then came a series of tunnels. Every time you came out of a tunnel you were rewarded with a panoramic view of the Swiss Alps. Near the Vierwaldstätter lake in Luzern we went past the William Tell chapel. Tell, it might be noted, has become something of a Swiss institution ever since he shot the apple from his son’s head.
The Gottard tunnel turned out to be a feat of engineering but also 17 kilometres of exhaust gas inhalation. It certainly was good for the environment and local scenery but bad for the traveller’s lungs. The air was thick. There were SOS-
telephones and video-cameras at regular intervals in the well-lit tunnel. And finally we arrived in Lugano: an extremely stylish and elegant city with a waterfront–the lake Lugano. A board with the notice ‘Funiculare angiole’ cropped up. Lugano and Tessin are the Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland, in addition to north Tirol in Italy. In south Tirol the Italians of German descent, like the climber Reinhold Messner, prefer to speak German and are proud of their Teutonic traditions. A pretty blonde Swiss policewoman was busily distributing tickets for wrong parking. I had the impression that she did it with a sadistic delight.
The Italian highway is called the autostrada. It read Milano 64 km, and after Milano came Chiasso, the border town and then the San Nicolao tunnel. In Italy we had to pay an autobahn tax. ‘I love travelling to Germany by car,’ Giacomo had said once. It was only now that I understood why. In Germany there was no road tax for the autobahns, except for heavy-duty lorries, and you could drive non-stop from one part of Germany to the other without being stopped. A lot of Swiss Ferrari-owners test their newly bought cars along the route, because one is not allowed to drive so fast in Switzerland.
Milano had mostly brown or ochre coloured houses with bed-sheets and other clothes hanging out of the windows, like in Naples. That’s Bella Italia, I thought. There was a traffic-jam along the Milano road at 4:30 pm (rush hour) with commuters impatient to get home. We drove past the not-too-picturesque river Adda and an area with big factories coughing up a lot of smoke. There was a lot of smog in the vicinity of Milano. Suddenly, you could see the Italian Alps in the distance to the right.
Bergamo turned out to be a city on top of a hill and heavily cemented like a citadelle, with its pompous church-spire. You could see the marble blocks stacked together in front of a marble-quarry. A series of hillocks appeared to the right with small fortified towns on their summits and a vista of the Alps in the background. And we arrived in Brescia, the Nepalese base-camp, for further excursions in Italy.
It was already dark when Giacomo suggested that we drive to a small hill overlooking the town of Brescia or Brixia, as the Romans used to call it in the old days. There were myriads of gaudy lights winking at you. One couldn’t help thinking about Kathmandu, as seen from the temple of Swayambhu. After a typical rustic Italian dinner we descended to Brescia.
The next day we went with Giacomo, our young amiable, bearded Italian friend, to see the Roman ruins of Brixia which proved to be very interesting. There was a Roman theatre with reconstructed pillars and tombstones. I had the impression that they were still excavating the ruins. Giacomo said that old Roman city of Brixia lay at least four metres deep under the present-day Brescia.
The town-council and theatre buildings were imposing. There was a bustling vegetable and fruit market in the middle of the city and it was fun to watch the gesticulations and mimics of the Italians haggling with each other. It was like the market scene at Asan Tole in Kathmandu, except that there were no cows roaming about and the women wore skirts and showed their legs and shoulders, and were not draped in colourful saris.
Giacomo suggested we try out a typical Brixian lunch at Sovenigo which was some 50 km away. It was a homely restaurant and it began with a soup with tortelli. The polenta proved to be a thick yellowish dish made of maize-flour.
‘It’s the staple diet in the north,’ explained Giacomo. And went on to explain that the word ‘polentona’ is regarded as a terrible insult when people from the north are confronted with this word by those from the south. The northeners retort with: ‘terroni’, which means something like a country-hick who’s bound to the terrain. It was akin to the eternal problems between the madhisays and paharis, the flatlanders and the highlanders in Nepal. A mixed-grill dish appeared next with roasted fowls, pork, canines and small birds. And all this was consumed with Tura and Valpollicella wines.
After the sumptuous lunch we headed for Verona.
Verona was a beautiful city, with old houses and a pompous amphitheatre in Roman-style. The alleys were crowded, it being Sunday, and the Veronese were wearing their Sunday-best and the women were dressed to kill, if one might say so, looking elegant, proud and oh-so-self-conscious. Embroidered net-stockings, black lack shoes and scarlet lips were in.
Who hasn’t heard of Romeo and Julia? But few people know that the Venetian writer Luigi Da Ponte created in 1500 the tragic Romeo-and-Juliet story. And William Shakespeare made the eternal drama out of it. Every year you see tourists on their way to Julia’s memorial, to the famous balcony of Julia and to Julia’s grave.
You still see the buildings from the Roman times in Verona such as: the Roman theatre, the Borsari gate, the Porta dei Leoni, the arch of Gava. And the bridge that was frequently destroyed and repaired: the Ponte Pietra and naturally the arena. The big amphitheatre with its 72 arcades, which functions today as a summer stage for world-renowned operas and ballet, was built in the first century. During the Roman times, it was the arena where ferocious animals and gladiators fought. Today, the streets approaching this arena are packed with camera-wielding tourists and strolling Italians.
Outside the city, you still see the ancient city-wall, which was constructed for defence purposes. At this stage their car had developed thirst and started snorting and fuming. It had to be cool down and watered. We stopped near a sprout and admired the pedestrians and the buildings and then drove on towards Venice.
There was an impressive castle to the left with walls that conjured up images of the Great Wall of China. Castles cropped up every 20 kilometres. There were miles and miles of vineyards. In the Monti area we went through at least three tunnels. We had to pay another highway-tax up to Chiogga. There were dry patches of land along the way which normally get soaked up by the sea during the tide. The waterway was marked with wooden poles painted red and white.
Chiogga is a picturesque and romantic fishing-town in the southern part of the lagoon. It dates back to the Roman times. The main attraction is the Corso del Popolo, where the most important buildings are located: the Barock church St. Andrea, the gothic grainary. The St. Martino church is an excellent example of brick-gothic architecture.
Chiogga is connected with Sottomarina by a dam, which in turn is an Adriatic bathing resort with a beautiful beach. At the entrance of the Adriatic harbour in Chiogga, where we intended to spend the night with some Italians friends, we had to go past a check-post. I naively asked the purpose of the check-post, to which Giacomo replied, ‘Oh, from here it is possible to take a boat to Yugoslavia.’ Our charming and garrulous guide talked the Italian police over and we drove past in no time. I wondered how Ludmilla Tüting would have faired with her polaroid-number at the Italian check-post, because she mentioned in one of her Nepal guide-books that it helps to have a polaroid camera when one goes to the Nepalese countryside. ‘The Nepalese just love to see themselves in instant photographs,’ was her explanation two decades ago. It’s digital pictures now.
We were given a warm welcome by the skipper Luigi, who ran a 5-boat sailing school, and his German-speaking wife in their beautiful cosy house with a fire-place that was already crackling. We had, what the Germans call Schollen (plaice), tasty self-made Italian bread with butter, cheese and noodles with parmesan cheese and a birthday cake too. Giacomo, who turned out to be an excellent troubador, played Luigi’s guitar and we sang English and Italian songs late into the night.
We slept in one of the school’s boats, a moderate affair with six sleeping berths. I slept very well in spite of the fact that it was a bit chilly. There was a strange toilette on board where you had to use a handle to pump the water. The tap had to be pumped with a foot-pedal, like in one of the French trains..
The next day we went to Chiogga, which has three parallel canals cutting through the town. There were pretty arched bridges, and nearby there were Italian vendors with stalls displaying Mediterranean fruits, vegetables and fish. It was a bright day, and we could feel the bustle of this small sea-town as we went about our errands. There were fishermen drying out their nets and Italians talking animatedly. I took a photograph from the bridge and a burly moustachioed Italian in a two-piece suit who came in the way and said, ‘ I’m sorry’ with a smile and touched the tip of his hat and walked away, like in a Fellini film.
As we took a walk through the town’s main street, we noticed the Italians talking in small groups. Most of them were men. A macho society, one is likely to say. The women were probably in the kitchen or in the church or with their children. You see old, dilapidated houses, people staring at each other from windows and balconies. We noticed, however, that there was life there. The noise coming from the street, the children playing and emitting screams of delight. In the narrow lanes you saw the ubiquitous clothes-lines stretching from one house to another, a sight that’s unusual in German towns, except during the carnival celebrations (Fasnet) when the houses are decorated with colourful flags, like the ones during the Buddhist Losar celebrations.
We changed money at the local bank in Chiogga and learned to our dismay that it was dead slow with its service and pretty crowded too. The Nepal Rastriya Bank isn’t fast either, I thought. From Chiogga we headed for Mestre, a colourful harbour town on our way to Venice.
MASKS AND COSTUMES
‘Jetzt sind wir bald in Venezia,’ said Giacomo, after all we were out to enjoy life in Venice, as we went past the Guarda di Finanza building. “Bella Venezia!” shouted Silvana, stretching her hands in the process. I remembered the time I’d come to Venice in a bus from Rottweil. Most of the passengers had spoken with heavy Swabian accents. The Swabians are a jolly folk with business acumen, and they’d laughed and cracked jokes and poked fun at all and sundry. The British would have looked stuffy in their presence, I had thought.
I read aloud, “Linea direta autostrada” written on a big sign-board. It always fascinated me to read boards written in foreign languages. In Italy you still have to pay toll on different parts of the highway because they are owned by private persons. We went past Mailand, known for its Theatre Scala, the Verdi museum and one of the biggest railway junctions in Europe. There were endless rows of factories to be seen en route, and then we were relieved by the sight of the snow-capped mountains of the Italian Alps against a blue sky.
We were excited about the carnival in Venice. Unlike the noisy carnival in Germany and Switzerland, in Venice it is serene and this ancient, historical town in the lagoon with its many bridges, palaces and buildings, waterways, gondolas becomes a magnificent background for the festival of costumes and masks. As Shakespeare said in “As You Like It”: All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. Venice at carnival-time suddenly becomes a stage with performers from all over the world, each playing his or her role with dignity and cool, in exotic and extravagant costumes. Nonchalance is the order of the day.
Venice has always had a special meaning for everyone. For Nietzche it was another word for music. When you see all those costumed and masked people from Italy and other parts of Europe, you are inclined to ask: do they hide their daily lies and lives behind them? Even the ugly become beautiful during the carnival, adorning themselves with finery in brocade, chiffon and yards of silk, and the beautiful wear hideous masks. The ghastlier the better.
As our car approached Venice and went past the graveyard of St.Michael, Claudia and Silvana said that they smelt the sea. A huge Campari ad appeared to the left as we sped along the bridge to Venice. There were seagulls circling around hoping for tit-bits from the tourists. A series of rusty cranes appeared and right near the harbour was a turquoise coloured boat, loaded with kegs of red wine. The cost of the ferry to Venice was 10,000 lire, before the euro was introduced.
We drove through Mestre, which was rather polluted and had a number of dilapidated and unfinished buildings. That’s because the Italians haggle while constructing their houses. The more you haggle the more it takes time, and the lesser the costs? Giacomo said, ‘They try to press the price of cement, wood and building materials.’
The lagoon to Venice was closed and the Venetians were breeding mussels and clams. The colour of the water reminded me of the Bagmati and Vishnumati rivers of Kathmandu valley. There were a few ships and containers at the ferry harbour, which was connected by train and road.
We put up at the Sheraton in Padua, because it was rather difficult to get rooms in Venice itself during the carnival. In the evening we went to do the sights of Padova, as it is called in Italian. The huge dome of the Basilika was impressive. In front of the Basilika were scores of pigeons and the tourists were photographing them. There were pretty cafes and restaurants around the Basilika. We entered a building and saw a huge congregation of Italians attending the mass. There were priests at every corner and the pious catholic Italians were doing their confessions with earnest faces. It being a university town, like Freiburg, there were many young students in the streets.
We then left Padua and drove past the blue snow-capped mountains of the Monte Crappa. Typical Italians houses fleeted by and industrial complexes appeared and all the while we had canned music: Eros Ramazotti`s scratchy, passionate Latin-lover voice. In Germany his fans call him “Ramazottel”.
We left our cars and headed for Venice. It was an enticing, ravishing Venice full of fantasy, illusions and excitement. At the Piazza San Marco there were extravagantly clothed people with and without masks to be seen. Faces and costumes that conjured up images of the times when Venice was flourishing and was a world power. There were sheikhs with a row of beautiful harem ladies, children dressed in the fashion of Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor”, Gieshas, Robotcops, Batman and Robin, Spiderman, Mr. Incredible and his whole family, Swiss and German tourists dressed as barocque noblemen and ladies with powdered faces and a lot of silk. There were at least a dozen people dressed as the Doge, bearing masks and dark clothes with cloak. It was the Doge who ordered all the gondolas to be painted black in 1562.
We crossed the Bridge of Sighs and there was laughter as the passengers emitted feigned sighs. The unique Venetian atmosphere had captivated them. We headed for the Piazzo San Marco and further in the direction of the Piazza Academia through wind-swept alleys and crossed a good many bridges.
You have to slow down your pace in this lagoon-city to take in the optical fare spread for your delight. Every now and again you come across people in breathtaking costumes from another century, and you look at them deep in their eyes. The pair of eyes behind the mask stare at you. You feel it. And in a moment the magical contact disappears. Thoughts swerve in the air. You realise you need more than a pair of eyes to take in the ancient backdrop of Venetian palaces, houses, bridges and captivating canals of Venice.
Claudia, Giacomo, Silvana and I walked along the Academia corner, crossed the Canale Grande and admired the many Venetian art galleries and the Guggenheimer collections with works of: Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Moore and Pollock to name a few.
After all that we were a bit tired of walking around and entered an Italian cafe and discovered that there were a lot of American tourists. Some thick-set Venetian fishermen dropped in and the atmosphere became lively. It was interesting to watch the Italians talking and discussing. The gesticulating hands, the facial contortions and the pitch
of the voices rising in crescendo along with the consumption of grappa and wine was amusing. Even if they have
nothing of relevance to say it sounds important and passionate. The coffee, chocolate and sandwiches and grappa (Italian raksi) were excellent.
We strolled towards the Piazza San Marco. Dusk was falling and the Italian monuments took on a new golden hue. Every few steps you could see costumed people walking by leisurely. We couldn’t care less that we had cold feet. Gusts of icy wind blew in every alley. We were out to celebrate, and be a part of the Venetian carnival, and nothing was going to stop us. Ah, Venice, where Thomas Mann wrote his ‘Death in Venice’ in 1911 and now a Donna Leon writes fiction about murders in the canals of Venice.
At the Piazza San Marco, which is the saloon of Venice, there was a great deal of tumult, and a sea of humanity was gathered there. Costumed figures were posing elegantly in front of the historical buildings. As soon as someone started posing, a swarm of professional and amateur photographs would swoop down on him or her with their digital and auto-focus cameras, camcorders and throw-away ones. The costumed and masked figures would change their positions slowly and gracefully, moving their upper extremities with controlled gestures.
The Venetians have worn their classical costumes from the times of the Serenissima and the Doges. The entire court was present. And the tourists came from another epoch. There were younger tourists who were having a good time disguised as dollar-coins, scarlet plastic shampoos, or ecology-conscious ones carrying garbage bags draped around their torsos.
Later, Giacomo said at the Sheraton, “If I were a Venetian I would run away from this revelry and artificial merry-making.” He hails from Brescia and shuns the tourists. When the Karneval tourists come, the Venetians make for the open spaces, especially the Alps to do a bit of skiing. Far away from the maddening crowds. Venice receives 12 million tourists per year.
Some German tourists were rather rude, as they jostled for better camera angles like the paparazzis running after prominent people, but the costumed figures were kind, patient and graceful as they posed near the Venetian fountains and pillars. It was so wonderful to discover the various alleys and water-lanes with their cute little shops. There were gondolieros waiting for passengers and hotel guests with immaculately dressed bell-hops, waiting for the water-taxi to arrive. A gondoliero earns 75 euros for 25 minutes, and 1000 euros per day. Venice’s canals are rather congested with its 20,000 boats. And there’s a speed limit of 11 kmph in the lagoon, and the water-police are always around the corner with their laser speed checks. However, the biggest waves in the lagoon are caused by the police themselves.
In Venice you try to take in the visual feast that is spread in front of you with your all-seeing-eyes. You look at the masked ladies and gentlemen dressed in the clothes of the Doge and Marco Polo and the Middle Ages, and if you look deep enough you might see the blue, brown or green eyes flash back, or twinkle at you. This flirting and coquetting is done in Venice with dignity and a certain nonchalance. Claudia danced with an elegantly dressed Doge and I danced the fox-trot with a masked lady to Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York.’ After the danced was over I thanked her for the dance and asked her if she was a Venetian lady. She replied in English with a heavy Bavarian accent, ‘I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m from Munich’. I told her Claudia and I were from Freiburg and we had a good laugh. One meets tourists, and not Venetians, in Venice.
There is no chance of getting lost in Venice because there are yellow signs pointing to the Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge or the other sights at all important junctions and corners. But at night it is a different matter. It’s dark and you might get the creeps, with all those long shadows thrown in the alleys of Venice. Venice sleeps at night.
———————————————————— Satis Shroff writes in German and English, and lives in Germany according to the motto: once a journalist, always a journalist and has written over a period of three decades, what the Germans would call a “Landesumschau,” for his readers with impressions from Freiburg, Venice, Rottweil, Prague, Paris, London, Frankfurt, Basel and Grindelwald. Satis Shroff has worked with The Rising Nepal (Gorkhapatra Corporation), where he wrote a weekly Science Spot and wrote editorials and commentaries on Nepal’s development, health, wildlife, politics and culture. He also wrote weekly commentaries for Radio Nepal. He has studied Zoology and Geology in Kathmandu, Medicine and Social Science in Freiburg and Creative Writing under Prof. Bruce Dobler, Pittsburgh University and with Writers Bureau (Manchester). He was awarded the German Academic Prize.