Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Out Soon - The Venice Lido

This book is an unashamedly personal view of the Lido, coloured by my prejudices and enthusiasms. These were kindled when I first came here nearly thirty-five years ago, at the end of a school trip to Venice. We were staying at the Pensione Seguso on Zattere, then a fairly reserved establishment, a favoured retreat of James Lees-Milne. The trip was led by the genial and worldly Drawing Master at Winchester, Grahame Drew. Everyone was to fly back to London except two of us, me and a friend, Oleg de Baikoff, I destined for Athens, he for Vienna. Grahame’s kindly but firm parting shot was memorable. “You’ve one more night at the Seguso. You’ll be absolutely fine so long as you don’t do three things. Avoid them with the ends of several barge poles. Don’t go to Harry’s Bar, don’t drink Grappa – and do not go to the Lido.” Later that night, after martinis at Harry’s, we rolled along the Riva degli Schiavoni and caught the vaporetto to the Lido, clutching our bottles of Grappa. We ended up in the brightest looking bar on the Gran Viale with a gang of friendly young Italians who invited us to a party. We crammed ourselves into their dangerous Fiat and tore off towards the pine forest and beach at Alberoni. There we roasted fish on hot stones and drank wine until dawn, finally falling asleep amid the trees and dunes. I awoke in the blaze and breeze of mid morning, stripped and flung myself into the warm shallows of the Adriatic where, in a specifically spiritual sense, I have remained ever since. This book is an attempt to communicate my boundless love for the Lido and to encourage all its readers to head for its warm and glamorous shores.

The Lido isn’t just about a glamorous past, though this is what I’ve tried to recreate in the book. Go there today and you’ll find it no less colourful and alluring, in or out of season, than it was in Byron’s day. Carpets of shells crunch underfoot; tractors arrive on the beach at dawn to clear away the seaweed, dead fish and crabs; rollers follow them, smoothing the tousled coverlet of sand. Here are the boys who rent out pedalos and sailboards; there go the Dravidian kite-sellers and Nigerian handbag-merchants, patrolling hungrily back and forth along the beach. There are the bronzed lifeguards, the children leaping from piers and pontoons, the artists who colonise the murazzi with their ramshackle driftwood shelters. Away from the beach, along the Gran Viale and in the surrounding streets, there are the Liberty villas, their gates and facades alive with wrought-iron, stone or ceramic lions, lilies, nymphs, tritons, butterflies, dragonflies and spiders, their pilasters, ogee arches, gardens and statuary shaded by palms and cypresses. The capanne, the beach cabins of the Excelsior and the Hotel des Bains, are rented by Italian families who save up for this summer treat, for either the timber cabins favoured at the Excelsior or the straw-topped variety known at the Hotel des Bains as tuculs. There, glamorous old ladies, grandmothers the rest of the year but now self-appointed countesses or film stars for a week, play cards and drink prosecco under the candy-striped awnings. Out of season the hotels remove the straw tops from the tuculs, revealing the naked, skeletal frames beneath. Then, the beach at low tide, strewn with driftwood, is combed by families collecting vongole for lunch, clutching the distinctive bright-yellow plastic bags of the local Billa supermarket. Flocks of goats invade the murazzi; baby flounders are stranded in the shallows; dogs of all shapes and sizes leap and bark for joy along the endless, endless strand in the glassy February sunshine. This is the Lido I love and that I invite the reader to share.

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