Reviews & Articles
魅力不凡的威尼斯 | Magical Venice
at 8:37pm on 21st June 2019
Turn an alley corner, and there is the Madonna giving hopeful protection. Photo: John Batten
(Please scroll down for English version)
我們最後乘船來到摩洛哥， 坦吉爾的海傍帶著不老實的氣氛，這裡聚集了不少以兜攬遊客生意維生的人，他們的收入隨著旅客不再到歐洲旅遊而銳減。他們當中有些對戰爭感到憤怒，向我們叫囂道：「猶太人愛好者 ，美國混蛋！」（我們兩者都不是），其他則跟蹤我們徒步往山上找酒店。緊張的氣氛隨著我們到達菲斯這個同樣充滿魅力的古城市而放緩。過去數百年來，菲斯的大學與文化都為伊斯蘭教提供養份。它在伊斯蘭世界的重要性與悠久的宗教歷史，就如基督教的威尼斯。數星期前一次炸彈襲擊摧毀了一間酒店，不少遊客身亡，而通常積極招攬遊客生意，帶著他們漫遊古城迷宮般街道的嚮導，也與外國人保持距離，生怕被別人看到「與敵為友」。當時其實也沒有多少外國人，他們都在避免周遊列國和可能出現的劫機事件。
by John Batten
Venice’s Grand Canal is not as wide or as long as I had imagined, but on either side of it, the palaces, gangling storied houses, alleys, and corridors, canals, piazzas, and a city that wraps itself around its churches, the sea and a history of danger, military conquests, riches, art, piety, decadence and mercantile ambition is magical. It is my first time in Venice, indeed my first trip to Italy. I am here to ‘see’ the Venice Biennale of art and be supportive of Hong Kong participant, artist Shirley Tse and curator Christina Li. Tse’s exhibition is a considered, rambling sculptural installation of connections and intersections that coincidentally mirrors the streets and canals of Venice itself. I will write of Tse’s exhibition in a future column.
I should have visited Italy thirty years ago on my first trip to Europe, but the world was in turmoil then – again - as the USA retaliated to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War began. I almost tracked the war: in Paris, I heard on my short-wave radio that a decision to invade would be made that day in Paris. I and two Hong Kong friends walked that morning near the Rodin Museum adjacent to France’s military headquarters. Gendarmes were on street corners, machine-guns at their hips. The streets were cleared of parked cars. Fear of planted bombs was in the air. Over the following weeks through France, Spain and Morocco, we glimpsed the war’s progress on café TVs and snatches of conversations. Radio reports amplified the sounds of war: Scud missiles, aerial attacks, troop movements, stories of civilian detention and murder in Iraq-occupied Kuwait.
Eventually arriving in Morocco by boat, on Tangier’s dodgy waterfront were desperate touts whose income had plummeted as tourists stopped travelling around Europe. Angry about the war, some screamed at us, “Jew lovers and American assholes!” (we were neither), others stalked us as we walked uphill in search of a hotel. Tensions eased as we arrived in that other magical, ancient city: Fes; whose universities and culture have fed Islam for centuries. Its importance and depth of religious history is for the Islamic world as Venice is for the Christian. Weeks earlier, a fire-bomb had destroyed a hotel, tourists died and the usually aggressive touts who work as guides leading visitors through the old city’s labyrinthine streets stayed away from foreigners, fearful of being seen to be friendly with ‘the enemy’. There were few foreigners anyway, who were avoiding international travel and possible air high-jackings.
Travelling through Morocco’s south and then back north to Barcelona, the war ended as an unsatisfactory ‘victory’ resulting in resentment and dissatisfaction that would be played-out again only a few years later after the World Trade Center attacks in New York. It was the beginning of the mess in Afghanistan, the rise of Isis, Syrian civil war, the fall of Gaddafi in Libya and people power protests throughout the Middle East. Nothing’s much changed: it is a similar history of control, power, trade and religious conviction as seen in Renaissance Venice while the Crusades were fought in the Holy Land.
I decided to go to London to work, convincing myself that historic Italy and Venice could await another time. It would always be there - high tides, and our newer environmental awareness of global warming, permitting. But, had I known Venice was so magical, so unique, I might have been more determined to visit thirty years earlier.
Both Fes and Venice share a marvelous town planning advantage: no cars or vehicular traffic can navigate their narrow streets. In Venice, transportation of goods is by boat, in Fes it is (still) by donkey – and, of course, walking. This makes Venice a pleasure despite the throngs of tourists, like me, traipsing the streets. Venice’s daily local-residential rhythms continue: markets have buyers, churches have worshippers, schools have students, a local bar or café is where locals order an espresso, gulp it down while standing at the counter, and leave - so different from the city’s many tourist restaurants. I am told the distinctive Venetian dialect is still spoken and used and appreciated by young people. The city’s essential businesses can be found in smaller back alleys: hairdressers, pet supply shops, supermarkets, photocopy places, electricians, post offices and air-conditioning repair shops. Above, is drying washing and crucifixes and saints overlooking the city’s piazzas amidst the excited sounds of a football match radio commentary. Turn an alley corner, and there is the Madonna giving hopeful protection; and, the local wine shop sells the region’s wine by the flagon dispensed from a barrel into cheap plastic bottles!
Magical Venice: through wars, religious conflict and disputes it is still here.
Originally published in Ming Pao Weekly, 25 May 2019. Translated from the original English by Aulina Chan.