Monthly Archives: April 2016

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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Skipping the masterpieces in the Uffizi

In 20 or 30 years I might suddenly feel bad about it –
Stuck in traffic somewhere, or in a supermarket queue,
Assuming that cars and foodmarts haven’t gone the way of the Medicis by then.

But what person could stand in a gallery – even in the Uffizi – when they could sit
Above the Arno and the moving city on this April morning.

I can see it, stuck at the wrong party beside the wrong person,
Who’s just asked the wrong question.
“How could you visit the city and not see the Venus?”

And I’ll respond then – as I respond now –
“I saw Venus come out of the river, a badger with a fish in her mouth,
And Florence alive above her” .

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Turning pages and cappuccino hiss

Books Upstairs

Books Upstairs

Given its reputation as a sociable city, a town of meetings and conversation and general human hubbub, it’s surprising that Dublin doesn’t have more good coffee shops.

In the years I’ve lived here only a handful stand out – the long-gone upstairs cafe at The Winding Stair (when it was a bookshop), an Italian place on Stephen Street where I had my first Turkish coffee, a brick-walled spot on Coppinger Row that’s now the site of an on-trend restaurant.

There’s been dozens of others, most of them forgettable –  though the subterranean cavern that was The Buttery, with its muddy brew served in polystyrene, will never leave my memory.

One reason for the lack of stand-out coffee shops may be the fact that, traditionally, the city’s social exchanges have taken place in pubs. A coffee shop was a sober, more prosaic, institution.

When I first arrived in Dublin in the mid-1990s a cup of coffee meant either freeze-dried instant grains or a watered-down offering, served in a dripping-wet cup and saucer at Bewley’s. You usually went to the latter to read or chat quietly under Harry Clarke’s chapel-like windows.

The early Noughties saw a change, albeit a slow one. During these years my friend W had a regular gripe that it was impossible – with the exception of Cornucopia on Wicklow Street  – to get a decent cup of coffee in the city after 6pm.

Then, with the Celtic Tiger crash, the dam broke. Lower rents in the city meant small business could gain a foothold, if they could scrape together the funds to launch. And so small coffee shops, serving quality joe, sprang up.

The result is that 2016 sipper is spoilt. Most parts of the city centre seem to have one good mainstay, accompanied by the inevitable Starbucks-Insomnia-Costa outlet.

Nowadays if I’m north of the river I hit Camerino on Capel Street (where the coffee’s only half the draw, as anyone who’s sampled the baked goods knows). On the southside it’s usually Kaph on Drury Street.

Camerino

Camerino

As of last weekend, there’s a new addition to the roster. The cafe at Books Upstairs on D’Olier Street is a dripping slow, calm space in the city. And the fact that it’s sited above one of Dublin’s best bookstores is a welcome bonus.

If caffeine and reading’s your thing you will lose a couple of hours in this place. Even better, they don’t offer Wi-Fi, meaning that the only sounds are pages turning, low conversation and cappuccino hiss.

Perhaps it’s not all that different to the afternoons I spent in Bewleys 20 years ago – except nowadays the coffee’s drinkable.

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I love that book – what’s it about?

What was that last book about?

‘What was that Camus novel about?’

Four months ago I read Haruki Murakami’s short novel South Of The Border, West Of The Sun.

Today I can barely remember a thing about the book. The characters (I’m sure there were male and female ones, maybe one of each), the plot (a quest of some sort, maybe involving travel across borders?), the ending (not happy, I’m fairly sure of that) – it’s all a blank page.

Now the book sits on a shelf, needling me from across the room. The problem is that it’s stacked alongside a Dave Eggers’ short story collection and a Jay McInerney wine book – and I can remember very little about those either.

What’s going on? Do I pick forgettable reads? Is my empathy through the floor? Or my concentration shredded? Am I reading on autopilot?

Part of this is age-related, of course. At 38 I’m likely experiencing the onset of age-related memory impairment. But I read Ask The Dust after Murakami’s novel and I recall every rooming house, bar and street corner.

About a boy. And a girl.

About a boy. And a girl.

Sitting on my shelf next to Murakami and Co is Patti Smith’s memoir M Train. In this account of her mid-life years, Smith is often preoccupied with the irritants of ageing. At one point the poet-singer (a Murakami devotee herself, incidentally), re-reading Albert Camus over her black coffee writes of “an intermittent, lifelong enigma”.

“I finished many books in such a manner…closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content…I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember”.

That’s the thing. If I forget writing that was forgettable to begin with, that might be understandable. But some of the great long and short works that I’ve loved – Goodbye, My Brother; Great Expectations; The End of the Affair – are lost to me, in details if not in spirit.

The downside of this is that I often have a vague notion that a book is great but can’t really recall why. The upside? I’ve an excuse to read it again.

But not South Of The Border, West Of The Sun. It turns out it’s about a boy and a girl. The boy travels on a navel-gazing quest into his own past and winds up at sorrowful, empty ending. Sometimes your memory – or the lack of one – is enough.

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Do you remember alternative rock radio?

Rock on air

Do you remember?

Who listens to alternative rock radio anymore?

That’s what occurred to me as I read of the impending closure of TXFM, the radio station set to disappear off Dublin’s airwaves in the coming months.

The reason is, unsurprisingly, down to cash – the lack of it. And lack of cash is down to lack of listeners – TXFM’s 19,000 gave it a 0.7pc share of the Dublin radio market, nowhere near enough to survive.

News of TXFM’s imminent end brought me back almost 20 years, to a younger incarnation of both myself and the station.

Phantom FM, a pirate venture run from a shed, was staple listening in my shared student house in the 1990s. I’ve a distinct memory of burning myself attempting a pasta dish, my expletives drowning out the soothing strains of Neil Young’s Are You Ready For The Country? on the radio.

Phantom grew up to be a fully legal station, eventually morphing into TXFM. I grew up too, but still injure myself in the kitchen (albeit less often and not as loudly).

Meanwhile, the idea of listening to alternative music on the radio while doing any task – other than driving perhaps – doesn’t occur to me anymore.

Please, not again. Pic: Stig Nygaard

Please, not again. Pic: Stig Nygaard

That job’s been filled by Spotify. Research from the streaming service, published this week, shows how its main use is to “programme one’s own radio station of current hits”. If current hits aren’t your thing its radio feature – which allows you to create virtual radio stations on the basis of the music you already listen to – can be fearsomely well-curated.

And consider the sheer amount of music available on the service. Why would you sit through yet another Foo Fighters song on TXFM?

That said, there is one thing I will miss about the station. A fortnight ago my wife and I were headed to Wexford and stuck in morning traffic outside Dublin on the M50.

To amuse ourselves we texted a request to TXFM’s morning show. Minutes later the presenter read our message and played our song. We were stoked, we were excited, we were teenagers again. But teenagers have to grow up.
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