Dear Readers, last week I took a trip to my favourite city in the world (after London of course), with my intrepid 89.5 year-old friend, M. M had mentioned that she had a yearning to see Venice ‘one last time’ and, as I’ve spent many happy weeks there over the past ten years, and really enjoy M’s company, we decided to take a chance on a visit. Last time M. visited, she had an unfortunate stumble when she was rushed off of a vaporetto, and ended up with twenty stitches in her shin and a rather exciting ride in a speedboat ambulance across the lagoon. We were determined that nothing so unfortunate was going to happen this time, and indeed it didn’t.
For the past four visits, I have rented an apartment with a company called Visit Venice: it’s on the Cannaregio canal, which is much quieter than ‘the main drag’ around St Marks, and it gives me a chance to shop and cook, which I enjoy. I was a little worried that M would have trouble with the precipitous staircase, but she managed it like a trouper, as she did all the other steps and trip hazards of the city. Indeed, her turn of speed when we wanted to visit a 12th Century basilica on Murano that was due to close in 20 minutes was such that I had to hurry to keep up.
But surely such a watery, stony, cramped environment would be somewhat bereft of animals? Well, dear readers, what it lacks in biodiversity it makes up for in opportunism, for I have seldom felt every mouthful of croissant being watched so carefully. If you sit by the canal with a panini, you will soon be accosted by all manner of seabirds. Huge menacing yellow-legged gulls stand on the mooring posts, eyeing up your mozzarella with a calculating look.
The smaller black-headed gulls swoop like sea-swallows. Pigeons peck at your feet, some of them with interesting patterns of iridescent and white feathers on their necks, and sometimes a cheeky sparrow will land on the back of a chair and consider, with tilted head, whether he can make an assault on your half-empty plate.
In short, all the usual seaside suspects are here, and if you want to examine gull behaviour I can recommend a coffee next to the fish stand by the Guglie Bridge, where you can witness every possible gull tactic, from distraction (one gull struts along at the front of the counter while another gull is pulling squid from a bucket at the back), ambush (one gull steals a sardine and is then chased until he drops it by a bigger, older gull) and subterfuge (a gull sneaks underneath the fish stand and pulls at a fish until it falls off, unnoticed).
Egrets can sometimes be seen patrolling the edges of the quieter canals, watching for the tiny fish that eat the algae on the steps that are used by the gondoliers, or picking at the crabs that haunt the hollow places. They are not averse to using the gondolas themselves as a perch.
Venice is located on some of the main migratory routes from Europe into Africa, and so it was no surprise that there were many flocks of starlings heading south. Men in camouflage gear often puttered quietly out into the lagoon at first light, sometimes with a little dog standing at the bow, nose twitching, as if it was already possible to smell the scent of wild duck. And as we stood on the Tre Archi bridge one evening, a man pointed skyward, and we all watched as a flock of birds flickered overhead, on their way to warmer climes. I am always moved by these vast movements of animals from one place to another and mentally bid them good luck as they run the gauntlet of hunters and starvation, ill winds and sudden freezes. May they reach safe harbour, may they prevail.
But most of the biodiversity of Venice is tucked away out of sight. You are never more than a few steps from a canal here, and the sound of water slapping against stone, the sun dancing on ripples, is the quintessence of this place. It all seems somehow unreal, like a dream, at least until the chug of a waterbus or the mewing of a gull brings you back to reality.
The walls of the canals quickly become home to algae and snails and all manner of invertebrates, who are in turn eaten by crabs and fish. Each waterway, each set of steps, becomes its own microhabitat, washed by the tide twice a day like any stony beach. In general, the water is cleaner than it has been for years – although Venice has a reputation for being a smelly place, I have never noticed this (although in fairness I do visit out of season – the combination of crowds, mosquitoes and heat in high summer are a bit more than I care do deal with). There is even talk of the lagoon becoming a destination for divers who want to explore the many wrecks and the undersea communities that have grown up around them. For animals, I suspect that the whole of Venice is a kind of stony island, full of wasteful creatures who aren’t too careful where their crusts end up. It always interests me to think about how a non-human would view a city, and somehow nowhere is this clearer than in that magnet for everyone who visits Venice, the Piazza of St Marks. There are some of the most important historical sights in Europe crammed into this space, and yet, for the seagulls, these matter not. Yellow-legged gulls cruise around the mosaics of the Basilica, circle the campanile, and terrify the small children who are attempting to feed the pigeons. All our works are nothing more than a potential perch and, probably, a bit of a nuisance. There is a Venice that is navigated by the birds, and a Venice that is visited by us, and these two cities are superimposed, one on the other, just as there is a ‘dog’ Venice, and a ‘cat’ Venice, and a Venice as experienced by small children. The Venice of a sailor or a gondolier must be very different from Venice as loved by a rather scruffy middle-aged insect fan and her 89 and a half year-old friend. How interesting it would be to bring all these experiences together! It makes my head spin to think about it.