Half mist, half rain, and warm to the touch

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, Dublin

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, June 2016

A confession – I don’t do music outdoors.

Hiking, running, walking – no problem. But not music and certainly not in Ireland. My home country’s weather is a perfect disruption to a decent outdoor gig.

First off, it’s likely to rain. If not for all of the show then certainly for part of it. Secondly, while the sun may shine and it may be July, the temperature will still be south of 10c and you’ll shiver your way through the evening.

The third factor is a hidden one, the element few think of as they hunt for their old wellington boots or under apply sunscreen. And it’s the worst.

It’s the wind. While it’s well known that you enjoy four seasons in a day in Ireland, it’s less publicised that every one of them will be windy. And if you’re standing in the middle of a field, side-on to an Atlantic westerly as your favourite act steps onto stage, you’ll notice it.

You’re likely to experience, as I have on many occasions, songs unwittingly deconstructed – the bass one minute, then a snippet of vocal, then what sounds like a cymbal but may be feedback. The song ends when the audience starts clapping, but I’ve even witnessed 50,000 cheering fans hoodwinked by a stiff June breeze, to the shock of a band launching into another verse.

This amounts to sort of improvised performance – just one improvised by an Atlantic depression and not the E Street Band.

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

And so, when I woke last Sunday and reached to check the weather (a routine as common for today’s Irish as the Angelus at noon was for our grandparents), my heart sank. Rain tapering away to dull, depressing mistiness, with a breeze (of course). And we had tickets to Sigur Ros, outdoors, that evening.

While shaking our fist at the weather gods is a national pastime for the Irish so is optimism – a blind faith that flies in the face of all common sense (and underpins most of our international soccer wins).

It was with equal parts dread and optimism then that we headed to Dublin city centre to meet friends for the show. Under grey skies our group drove on to the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, where the Icelandic act had set out their stall.

And then, as I walked onto the sodden grass at the venue/field, the weather didn’t matter. Instead it struck me that, in my late 30s now, I attend so few outdoor shows that just hearing music without a roof is a novelty. Who cares if it rains, if the Irish summer dumps its contents down on the city for the evening, if…hold on, is that the sun?

Optimism rewarded, the audience looked over their shoulders to see the light breaking through the clouds beyond the Phoenix Park. At last – a show in the setting sun! Primavera and Coachella be damned!

And then – you guessed it – it started to rain.

Just before Jónsi Birgisson struck the first note we received a gentle drenching  – half mist, half rain and warm to the touch – followed by an arching, shimmering rainbow, which framed the stage, the audience and the Royal Hospital itself. Beauty amidst the gloom – just as Sigur Ros began to play.

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The kick that changed Ireland’s outlook

Wes Hoolahan's cross

The cross

The greatest moment of one of Ireland’s greatest soccer performances wasn’t Robbie Brady’s goal, or the thousands of fans singing and crying in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, or the sight of Irish president Michael D Higgins dancing for joy.

No. What mattered in Lille last Wednesday night took place seconds before Brady’s header hit the Italian net – a goal which settled a 26-year debt and put the Republic of Ireland through to the last 16 of the European Championship.

It was, instead, the millimetre-perfect cross delivered by Wes Hoolahan, a player who – seconds earlier – appeared to have scuffed a clear goal chance and, with it, a country’s hopes.

Running through with only the Italian ‘keeper to beat and all of Ireland on its feet, roaring him on, the 34-year-old misconnected with the ball, his timid effort coming off Salvatore Sirigu’s legs.

The horror of Hoolahan’s miss extended beyond the match, or even the tournament. This fluffed shot would haunt him down his years, an albatross around his neck of Ireland’s best player, his surname to be forever followed by the word ‘miss’. Even in the moment, it was hard not to feel sorry for him.

As Ireland collapsed to its knees the script appeared written. When it came to the big day the Irish had once more bottled it and, as soon as the final whistle sounded, we’d begin years of self-recrimination and rumination. Because the only thing that raises Irish blood more than a great victory is a sound defeat, a resounding fall.

Wes Hoolahan

Wes Hoolahan

Not this time. What happened next was a break from tradition, courtesy of the man who missed a minute before.

As the country, still open-mouthed, looked on Wes Hoolahan threw himself back into the game.

Extrapolating shifts in national consciousness from split-second events on a football pitch is an unsound practice. But given the once-in-an-era feel of the game, the way the Irish underdog triumphed, the feeling that history had – for once – turned in our favour, this time it’s forgivable.

In picking himself up after his miss, running forward, lifting his head for a pass, taking the ball and delivering to Brady, Hoolahan stepped out of the predictable narrative.

A commentator later remarked that the Irish team had “balls”, which accounted for their win. Courage was part of it, as was commitment and skill – and it was all summed up in the two minutes between Hoolahan’s miss and his cross.

Gone were the ‘what ifs’, the ‘not quite good enoughs’ and the ‘moral victories’. Getting knocked meant one thing – you had to get back up, nothing else.

This was the Irish spirit in Lille last Wednesday. Maybe it’s a new one.
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Orwell’s poor call on the England-Russia game

George Orwell - not a football man

George Orwell – not a football man

What would George Orwell have said, had he been walking through Marseille’s Old Port district last weekend?

It’s likely to have been some combination of ‘duck’ and ‘run’, followed by ‘I told you so’.

The violent clashes between Russian and English football supporters echoed The Sporting Spirit, an essay Orwell wrote following the 1945 visit of Dynamo Moscow to Britain, during which the Soviet side played four ‘friendly’ games.

Citing on-field clashes between Dynamo and Arsenal players, and the booing of the Moscow players by the home crowd, Orwell pithily concludes, “serious sport has nothing to do with fair play…in other words it is war minus the shooting”.

The English writer, though forgiving in parts (a game of football with friends “on the village green” is acceptable, just about), sees little merit in competitive sport – and much malice.

“At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare,” he writes. “The significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators; and, behind these spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests.”

Writing in an age before FIFA was the $2bn-a-year behemoth it is today, Orwell notes that – even in the first half of the 20th century – “games were built into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions”.

The essay, written six months after the end of the Second World War in Europe, concludes, “If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of [international] football matches…watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators.”

Fans clash in Marseilles. Pic: Twitter

Fans clash in Marseilles. Pic: Twitter

What’s the solution then? How can we avoid rousing the savage passions that see a city like Marseilles locked down, people kicked and beaten police firing tear gas, and dozens injured?

Orwell’s is simple. Don’t play such games. And, if you must, send out a team of no-hopers to highlight the pointlessness, if not danger – of the entire thing.

Which goes to show that even the greatest writers of modern times, can be blindly naive, and wrong.

Denying peaceful national passions an outlet in a Europe riven by internal discord and home to a rise in support for the far right could result in a continent that Orwell was all too familiar with – the simmering Europe of the 1930s.

Aside from the soccer and the small hooligan minority, the Euro 2016 football championship provides a space for national rivalries to play out in a loud, assertive but non-violent manner – perhaps even a boring one, as anyone who watched rivals Germany and Poland play out a 0-0 draw last night will attest.

Football is, as Orwell put it, ‘mimic warfare’. Better that than the real thing.

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Every picture tells a story, or does it?

New York, 2003.

New York, 2003.

The past picks curious times to come back and haunt you.

As I picked through boxes of old paperwork last weekend a picture fell out. There I was, back in the early Noughties, looking bedraggled as I perched on the edge of a bunk bed in a divey hotel room.

The image is black and white, which suits the grimy surroundings of the place – a fleapit hotel north of 100th Street on New York City’s Upper West Side.

At least I think it was.

I’d like to write that the picture brought me back, unlocking a store of memories from the time. But this room’s closed to me. I’ve no idea what circumstances led me to the hotel, though a shortage of money on a trip to the city was surely the cause.

Likewise this was – I think – taken on a visit during which my friend S and I played a series of open mics, but in the absence of any instruments I can’t say for sure (is that a leaning guitar case on the right hand side?)

As for my shoeless tee-shirt look, I’d most likely put that down to a late night – of which there were a few at the time. Or, more charitably, it could be the sweat of humping a backpack and a guitar case uptown on the subway. Or the absence of AC in a $50-a-night room.

It’s the sort of image that calls for a good backstory, that cries out for a New York anecdote to put Patti Smith’s Just Kids to shame. But if there was one, it’s gone.

That’s sobering. How many more days, weeks or months have I lived and lost to memory? Conversations, experiences, thoughts and emotions that will never be recalled? All pushed out by a new password or a shopping list or an email I’m writing to a colleague.

At least it looks like I had a blast, somewhere in New York, sometime in 2003.

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Purification

Detail from 'Three Sunflowers', Vincent Van Gogh

Detail from ‘Three Sunflowers’, Vincent Van Gogh

He stood alone in the park, at the centre of an exposed, open space. Midsummer, beneath a noon sun. Willing it to happen.

Navy personnel in the Pacific told how the blast light from tests would show up the bones in their hands. The wind speed registers at 1,000kph, almost the speed of sound. A one megaton airburst kills every thing within three kilometres and everyone within a mile of the hypocentre is completely, cleanly destroyed.

Every clear morning he took part in the act. He travelled to the place by train, at speeds of 100kph, reaching the park between 11.30 and 11.33am, the discrepancy a failing of scheduling or growing weakness in his body movement.

Rain or cloud meant it was aborted – the undertaking required pure, vacant air.

Today a man shouted in the distance and, on the edge of his senses, he heard the alarm call of an ambulance.

He recalled that the doctor seemed disinterested at their final meeting. “It’s caused by an infectious agent. Some call it Koch’s bacillus.”

At that stage he had become used to the operator leaving the room, the click and blast of the X-ray machine, the no-feeling of ionising radiation striking.

Within a mile of the centre you would feel nothing, purification would come before the flash. Each thing clear and cleaned, circumstance and chance subjected to perfect science – the neutron strikes and the nucleus splits. 

Everything within three kilometres. He stood, waiting.

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The five stages of runner’s grief

The foot

The foot

“The waiting is the hardest part,” sang Tom Petty in his 1981 hit, a song written as he recovered from a hand injury which limited his guitar playing. Or so I once heard.

At least Petty got back to the fretboard. My own experience with injury of late has been more along the lines of The Long and Winding Road, most of which has been pedalled.

For the past three years I’ve suffered with a running injury that worsened from an annoying niggle to a painful case of plantar fasciitis to a diagnosis of osteoarthritis in my big toe.

The result has witnessed a collapse in my mileage, from around 50k a week in 2013 to a pitiful five (10 if I push it) at present.

A programme of physiotherapy, along with exercises, x-rays and shoe inserts, was followed by a medical consultation and, finally, an appointment to an orthopaedic surgeon next month. While I wait on the latter my exercise regime has been confined to static, dull hours on a stationary bike, broken up by long walks (tantilisingly along my old running route).

The ongoing big toe saga also led me to google ‘how to cope with running injuries’, which brought me in turn to a Runner’s World article documenting five stages of ‘runner’s grief’.

First off, I’m aware that there are bigger problems in the world that a painful toe. But anyone who’s been injured will have encountered one or more of the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and – the fabled holy grail – acceptance.

Run or walk? Jogging in Porto, 2015

Run or walk? Jogging in Porto, 2015

In my case the first two, denial and anger, were one and the same, signifiers of a period when I’d run 40 and 50 kilometres and then lose my temper when I could barely walk for three days afterwards. Being as stubborn as most runners, this pattern of jog-wobble-hobble repeated itself for a year.

Then, with the onset of physiotherapy, I shifted to the third stage. I’d trade a dull, 45 minutes on the exercise bike for a 5k run. Then it became an hour for 2.5k and a handful of Vitamin I.

Was I depressed at this point? If I was I buried it in sweat and episodes of Deadliest Catch – still my stationary bike show of choice, mainly because the Bering Sea looks like the only place less enjoyable thank the tedious pedalzone I set up in our living room.

Then, one afternoon last December I walked into a radiology department at a Dublin hospital and, at long last and by way of my doctor, received a diagnosis. And now I’m awaiting the surgeon’s appointment.

Cue acceptance.

But not so fast (a bit like my 5k times). While I convince myself that I’m at ease with my injury and assure myself that I’ve learned lessons of limitation, ageing and common sense, the first question I’ll pleadingly ask the surgeon will be “can you help me run 50k a week again?”

To which he’ll likely laugh – and then recommend a stationary bike. Petty was wrong. The waiting’s been easy – the accepting’s the hard part.
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Sole survivor – adventures in male pedicures

Salon savvy.

Nailing it

It wasn’t until she pulled out the razor and smiled that I asked myself “what the hell am I doing here?”

I froze, the woman stared and my wife, seated next to me in the salon, laughed.

As a 30-something Irishman with no previous experience of pedicures, to say that I was out of my comfort zone – despite the luxurious massage chair and complimentary coffee – was an understatement.

So began my first – and to this day, only – such treatment, at Vietnamese nail salon favoured by my wife in her hometown of Los Angeles.

We were visiting for Christmas and I, on a heady whim fuelled by days of hot December sun and evenings of whiskey cocktails, had decided to embrace the male pedi-revolution. This was a significant move – for most Irish males ‘pedicure’ means a hasty toe-clipping and a quick visual once-over.

I was ahead of the curve. In the 18 months since, according to a Guardian report this week, sportsmen like David Beckham and LeBron James have inspired “average blokes” to pamper their toes.

As someone who knows his share of “average blokes” I’m not so sure. But perhaps, a bit like a sockless yours truly that morning in LA, they’ll try anything once.

At the time of my salon venture I was running 50k a week, with the feet and toes to prove it. My default home treatment was a handheld scraping device, which was crude but effective. When things got really out of hand I’d head to my podiatrist.

Of course he’d used a blade too. That said, maybe it was the clinical surroundings, the latex gloves, or (more likely) his stiff fee, but I never felt nervous when I turned to me bearing a scalpel.

Male pedicures before Beckham. Pic: Wellcome Trust

Male pedicures before Beckham.
Pic: Wellcome Trust

It was a different matter amid the magazines, cushions and foot baths of a disconcertingly female-focused salon – or so I thought.

Idiot me, however. Twenty minutes of clipping, scraping and buffing – the latter with a furiously-applied pumice stone – had restored my feet to a presentable standard. There was even some not-unpleasant tickling.

What’s more, my Dublin podiatrist had never given me a post-treatment foot-rub – my toes hadn’t felt this good since I first stepped out of my cot three decades earlier.

Little wonder men had been enjoying pedicures from back before Beckham donned a sarong – 4,000 years back, to be accurate.

So this story ends with me becoming a regular salon visitor, right? Well, not quite.

Oddly enough I haven’t been for a single pedicure since that first experience, in Dublin, Los Angeles or anywhere else. I’ve come close to walking into one of Asian salons on Capel Street, on my wife’s recommendation, but I’ve always pulled out at the last minute, too busy, or self-conscious or downright Irish to follow through.

Call it cold feet.

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Hail to the grief – Willy Vlautin and Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke, 2013. Pic: Yasuko Otani

Thom Yorke.
Pic: Yasuko Otani

“Multilayered tinklings and murmurings”.

“A subliminally shimmering aura”.

“A spiral of tension, cryptically portraying a society ignoring its own witch hunts as a clattery, insistent string arrangement ratchets up the dissonance and agitation”.

Three sentences from one review of Radiohead’s new album – a release that, at times, seems less a suite of music and more a herald of the End of Days, a soundtrack to the collapse of 21st century consumer society.

But what if Radiohead’s post-millenial tension is not your thing? Then you might turn to James Blake, another artist who released an album last week. Worth a listen, you ask?

“The melancholic funk of ‘I Hope My Life (1-800 Mix)’ or the dive bomb synth swoops of ‘Radio Silence’ show Blake’s ability to orchestrate moments that mimic the stark romantic bombast of a Caspar David Friedrich painting,” says Pitchfork.

This is when I reach for my Revolver. Or the latest – and final – Richmond Fontaine album.

The Portland, Oregon, band don’t do sweeping existential soundscapes – creeping, trailer park existentialism is more their style; less how did we end up here, than how did end up here (and why’s my wallet empty, and my hand still bleeding)?

Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin

Bandleader Willy Vlautin doesn’t have Dylan’s songbook or Springsteen’s bombast. Nor can he offer the song-for-song batting average of John Prine or the gut-wrought polemics of Steve Earle.

But what he does offer is fear – the terror felt by people at the end of the line or crashing headlong toward it – tempered by small moments of release.

I Got Off The Bus, the keynote song on Richmond Fontaine’s last album, contains more dread than Radiohead’s Burn The Witch and more regret than their Daydreaming.

Like Daydreaming, the Richmond Fontaine song has, at its root, a broken relationship; but whereas Thom Yorke goes for the too-clever option of singing the phrase ‘half my life’ backwards, Vlautin plays it straight.

“I called a girl I used to know
A nurse from Saint Mary’s
We had a place on 7th street
But I Ieft her in a rough way
Her dad said she got married
Was living in Stockton with a baby
He said he couldn’t remember me –
But I knew he was lying
The night seemed never ending…”

Needless to say, the song doesn’t end well for Vlautin’s drifter. But his short, desperate story contains more humanity than a ‘tense, cryptic portrayal of a society ignoring its own witchhunts’.

Perhaps that’s because – as Thom Yorke once put it – all of us are “accidents waiting, waiting to happen”.

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You can’t always get what you pay $399 for

1035x776-PosterDesert Festival? Why didn’t they just call it Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and have done with it?

Music fans who like to mix their morbid curiosity with four course paired-wine dinners will be reaching for their wallets on Monday, when tickets to a three-day music event next October go on sale.

Call your dad, and your granddad too. Because Desert Festival’s six acts – Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Neil Young and Roger Waters – fall firmly into the catch-’em-before-they-pass-away category.

The festival’s blurb speaks of a “once in a lifetime” event, with the acts “serving up three incomparable nights of rock’n roll”.

It neatly skips past the large, existential elephant in the room – the fact, given the age of the performers, this is indeed very likely to be a “once in a lifetime” chance to see rock’s 1960s survivors in one place. That said, grim mortality never went that well with the 60s’ spirit (though perhaps the Stones could repurpose Miss You at short notice if needed).

Keith Richards and Mick, Jagger, 2013. Pic: SolarScott

Keith Richards and Mick, Jagger, 2013. Pic: SolarScott

Putting cynicism to one side (always necessary when reading about the Rolling Stones), and discreetly ignoring the mind-blowing ticket prices (general admission starts at $399, with an extra $99 to pitch your tent, and that’s before the wine pairing) could it all be worth it?

If you’re a hedge fund manager flying business class to Palm Springs the answer is a comfortable ‘yes’, not least because you can squeeze six legendary acts into three days while enjoying four course meals ($225, plus fees). Stomaching a Neil Young rant on the evils of corporate America is unlikely to present a problem breeze, particularly given the excellent bar facilities.

But for fans who are – to put it bluntly – poorer, there’s a less of a pull. Any rock listener worth his or her salt has seen some or all of these acts previously or, if they’re like me, has turned down the chance to.

More to the point, the groundbreaking recordings many of them have made have become, after half a century in some cases, separate from the acts themselves.

The 20-something Bob Dylan who performed the thin, wild mercury sound of Blonde on Blonde will not be in Indio, CA, nor will the angry Pete Townshend behind Won’t Get Fooled Again or the Roger Waters  who co-wrote Shine On You Crazy Diamond for his pal.

This music is out there, with a life of its own, long distanced from its composers.  Very little can bring us back 50 years in music, history or people’s lives – not even the opening riff of Satisfaction.

Mind you, it would be worth $399 to see the look on the hedge fund manager’s face when Bob Dylan embarks on an hour of Frank Sinatra covers.

Bob Dylan does it his way, London, 2011. Pic: Francisco Antunes

Bob Dylan does it his way, London, 2011. Pic: Francisco Antunes

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Venice – five ways

Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone – but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear…

La Serenissima was already sinking when Byron wrote his famous verses about the city more than 200 years ago. Nowadays the city is subsiding into the surrounding lagoon at the rate of 2mm a year.

Not that it matters to most of us. The waves could be lapping at the altar of St Mark’s Basilica and it would still be crowded with visitors. I suspect that even in the depths of winter, amid fog, rain and blasts from the bora, the sidestreets around the Piazza San Marco and the market stalls of the Rialto are still full of sightseers.

But that’s no reason not to go, and so I found myself standing on the Viale Giardini Pubblici last week, as the April sun sank behind the Salute and the last light of day fell across the Grand Canal and onto the Riva degli Schiavoni.

The great landmarks of Venice – San Marco, the Canal, the Salute – are well known and well populated. But there’s another Venice to the one trodden by cruise-ship groups and tired families, of course. Here’s five ways to experience Venice that mix up the well-known with the less visited.

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Early evening libations in Harry’s Bar

This simple decor of this small room, where Giuseppe Cipriani opened a bar in a former rope warehouse 85 years ago, belies its reputation as one of the world’s most famous watering holes. The home of the carpaccio, the bellini and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, it serves a fine Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail with a ‘doppio’ measure – Papa would hardly approve of anything less.

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A stroll around Peggy Guggenheim’s pad

After stints in London and Paris the bohemian art collector Guggenheim settled in Venice in 1949, setting up residence in a 18th century palazzo on the Grand Canal, which housed her collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Futurist and Abstract Expressionist paintings. Her house now serves as a gallery for the paintings. The view above is from her living room, through a window nestled between a couple of Kandinskys.

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burano

Crossing the lagoon to lunch in Burano

“A wide brackish waste surrounds it, exuding dankness…it is a muted scene…but in the middle of it there bursts a sudden splurge of rather childish colour…this is Burano”. So wrote Jan Morris of this small island, home in its heyday to fishermen and lacemakers. Forty-five minutes across the lagoon from Venice, it’s a million miles away in spirit. Small, house-proud, well-swept and very well-painted, Burano is a reminder that the people of the Venetian lagoon were – before the yachts, celebs and royalty – ordinary seafarers and merchants.

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Browsing the gondolas at Libreria Acqua Alta

This bookstore has a novel (sorry) way of keeping its stock dry from flooding – sticking the titles into gondolas. That’s not the only gimmick in this chaotically-shelved shop – a series of steps in the backyard are made of old encyclopedias, while canoes and other odd vessels can be found crammed with paperbacks.

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On the waterfront at the Viale Giardini Pubblici

We rented an apartment for our stay in the quiet Castello district, near to the Giardini Pubblici, the gardens created by Napolean Bonaparte when he took control of the city in the early 19th century. The quayside fronting the Giardini is remarkably quiet, used mainly by local strollers and joggers, yet affords beautiful views west along the Grand Canal, taking in the Salute, the Campanile di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. ‘States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die’…anyone for an aperitif at the Danieli?

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