Venice is a city I never thought I’d actually visit on this trip. Its the kind of place you think of as a romantic get-away, not a place you can take your bike to go cycle touring. In fact bikes are pretty much banned on the island. Unless you’re Danny MacAskill and can trick your way round all the stairs and bridges it’s probably not a good idea to bring one. When I heard that my friend Wilfe, at the Wild Tuscany retreat knew someone in the city I asked if there was chance she might host me. Wilfe introduced me to Nuria, a girl he knew from London and whom he was going spend some time with. After saying hello by email she invited me to stay at her apartment on Lido, one of the larger Venetian islands, with her father Michael Karapetian hosting me. I could not believe my luck. Now all I had to do was get there.
The journey would take me through the wetlands by the coast through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Italy. A place where flamingos migrate to in the in Summer and where Italians like to party at the many beach resorts. On the first day out of George’s place I had to cross the two passes again – I may have said this before but I’ll say it again all cyclists are masochists. The hills were even steeper than I remembered and after doing practically no cycling while at George’s place I was a little reluctant to say the least. I made it all the way to Santa Sofia and slept under an old airplane on the first day coincidentally next to a cemetery.
My knee had completely healed by this point and I was flying, after Santa Sofia the land was completely flat all the way to the coast. The first town on the way was Cervia apparently the home of one of my former flatmates – if I had known I would have asked for a place to stay there! In the end I trundled through this picturesque town and had a bite to eat in the main square. I considered sleeping in or wandering the streets that night but it was way too crowded so I entered the national park to the north where I found a beach bar near a huge campsite. Unwilling to spend any more money on camping I decided to wait until closing time before cracking out the sleeping bag and sneaking on to the beach.
In Italy sleeping on the beach can get you into trouble. Years ago I was once kicked off a beach south of Nettuno by the Italian military losing half my tent and wading through a high tide in the middle of the night – it wasn’t a pleasant experience. My Russian boss at the time had been drinking sambuca and was busy waving his full tumbler defiantly in the face of a military policeman when it was promptly snatched from his hand and thrown on the fire resulting in a fireball that took the soldiers by surprise – they weren’t pleased but we being half cut couldn’t stifle the laughter. The worst part was that I woke to one of my friends taking a dump about five feet from what was left of my tent the next morning. I thought I’d woken up in a sewer.
On this beach however I woke up a little after sunrise with someone standing over me telling me it wasn’t safe to sleep here because of the police. I waited for the bar to open promptly ordered pancakes for breakfast. Then I spent the morning doing some Islamic geometry drawing to create a logo for my Facebook page. After lazing by the beach for the better part of a day I decided it was time to move on. Deeper I went into the Po national park.
The park is a wetland known for its flamingos and other rare tropical birds that migrate here in the European summer. It’s also infested with killer mosquitos. At 6pm in the evening if you’re not covered in DEET you will be eaten alive. During one evening of camping it was particularly bad. I’d cycled around looking for a place to camp on the beach but wasn’t particularly wedded to the idea of being out in the open. In the end I found a car park with one camper van which was even more open but felt a little more secure than the beach. I pitched camp and began cooking, almost immediately I was assaulted by some of the most brutal mozzies on earth. Trying to stir risotto on the camp stove while doing a weird dance to keep them away must have made me look like a crazy man to the locals. I then had to walk around at high speed while eating to fend off further assaults. Then came time to pack up for the night and the last thing I wanted to was to let the little bastards into my tent so I had to unzip and zip-up my tent as I chucked things in one by one the last thing to be hurled in was me. After zipping up I listened carefully for that telltale high pitched whining buzz… nothing exhale… phew. Despite that I was scratching like crazy feeling itchy and paranoid before finally falling into sweaty exhausted sleep.
Next stop was a seaside resort town where the only place to sleep was the a bit of beach that was not private or full of deck chairs. I spent the day sunning myself and reading Eric Drexler’s, Engines of Creation. I had one more day of this beach side vagabonding using public showers and drinking cappuccinos to pretend I was a punter. Then I received a message from my soon-to-be host Michael Karapetian.
“When are you arriving” he asked. “Tomorrow morning”, I replied realising that meant an eighty kilometer cycle at night to Venice passing through the port town of Mestre. I began at dusk cycling like a madman with no street lights and only the sound of crickets and the night time lorries to keep me company. It was a flat ride with very little traffic but I had a full moon on my side. As I approached Mestre the roads turned into motorways with but only a few HGVs, as it was night with little traffic and a full moon I didn’t have to worry too much about my safety. I tend to leave that to my mum, I just hoped my lights would hold out till dawn.
Mestre is one of the ugliest towns in Italy and being a port town this means that you are basically passing through a giant red light district. The ladies of the night were howling at me to pull over as I went by at curb crawling speed on my trusty steed. It must have been a slow season for them if they thought they were going to get business from a poverino like me. After passing by multiple industrial estates, a chemical plant and cycling over about three spaghetti junctions I was finally on the road to the causeway leading to the main island of Venice. I stopped to take pictures.
It was 5 am, 1 hour till dawn, and I was dog tired looking forward to a good spate in the sack. Crossing the causeway, I was presented with the part of Venice that isn’t what one thinks of when one thinks of Venice. It was like a mini-Mestre except slightly nicer looking. People we’re busy working in the modern looking boat and bus terminals and I thought I had crossed at the wrong place but I plodded into the ferry terminal to catch the first boat to Lido, the slip of land to the south of the Grand Canal. I waited in line with some workmen from Rome delivering building materials for the renovation of houses there. By the time I boarded the ferry I was practically sleep walking. I sat on the top deck and almost nodded off as the boat drifted forward.
The sun began to rise as my weary eyes began to close. Before I could drift off into the sleep my body desperately needed I glanced to the left and saw the silhouettes of low-rise 15th century buildings and church domes looming in the distance. Maybe it was the combination of the dawn sun and the full moon or perhaps the chill morning air that woke me. Whatever it was I got a second wind and opened my eyes to a sight I will never forget. Venice in that moment was quite simply the most beautiful city on Earth. I felt what a sailor from the distant past must have felt when setting eyes on this city for the first time – awe at the incredible beauty of this floating jewel. I’m not even going to try to describe what I saw, I leave you with a sample of my pictures from that morning.
I was speechless and grinning like an idiot as I snapped away knowing that this was possibly the most special visual moment of the journey so far and had happened completely by accident. By the time I arrived in Lido I was in a state of over overtired exhaustion, I needed a coffee and found a kiosk open. It was about 6.30am and I mentioned to the guy at the coffee stand how amazing this place was. He nonchalantly replied “yeah I know”, and then he pointed me in the direction I needed to go, the very southern tip of the island. On my way there I passed a park where two other cycle tourists had pitched camp and smiled thinking to myself, “ha suckers I’ve got a place to stay” – because sometimes fuck camping!
Of course I arrived too early to knock on the door so I lazed in the early morning sun watching the boats drop off earlybird tourists at the dock and listening to the sound of a dude casting his fishing line in to the sea next to me. I woke groggy and slightly parched to the sound of a text on my phone, Michael was awake so I went to his driveway next to the apartment block unsure whom I was going to meet and what kind of host he would be. I had actually purchased a bottle of decent wine as my guest present, from LIDL of all places. I didn’t know it was good till Michael told me later that it was one of his favourites, I did spend about €12 on it because I have a little class.
Anyway I think Michael Karapetian is one of those people you meet in life whom you will one day read about in some insane biography or fictionalised account and wonder what kind of man he really was. He is both one of the most comedic and tragic characters I’ve met with a life story that spans three continents, a number wives/girlfriends/lovers and a career in architecture that rivals some of the more well known ‘Starchitects’ but in a much more low key way. He is a man of short stature who is larger than life and in my three days in his company I don’t think I’ve laughed quite so much about so many heart wrenching stories of love.
If you hadn’t already guessed from his last name his heritage is Armenian, Persian born, though he has previously lived in London and LA. Now he resides in Venice with his daughter Nuria. He’s currently helping to renovate the palazzo of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Michael is a contemporary of the late Zaha Hadid and a former mentor to Rem Koolhas, and is now one of his greatest critics. He was more than happy to share tales from his life story and was very warm and welcoming. He gave me a short history of Venice and some of its architecture as well as a quick walking tour while on the way to work.
Michael pootles around Lido in a beat up Golf convertible, with a Porsche engine in it. He says he’s saving it for Nuria but he also admits he loves the damn thing and doesn’t really want to get rid of it. Personally I think it should become his mausoleum it suits his personality perfectly. We drove to the beach in it – I want one. I noticed he had one glass eye which he explained he acquired after having a fight with a spring loaded architects table. He told me a story about once seeing a crazy driver with one eye somewhere in Switzerland or France who drove at insane speeds flying past him on the road. He remembered the driver so vividly that years later when he bumped into him at some gathering or other he actually mentioned the incident and told his cycloptic counterpart that he wondered at how this man could be so reckless on the roads with one eye and now he realised that he was the insane driver with one eye. Its like some sort of surreal Borges tale where life comes full circle.
I didn’t sleep much in Venice I just took vaporettos everywhere, water taxis to the uninitiated, and walked… I walked a lot. I wanted to soak it up. I even managed a quick trip to Burano and Murano famed for their glass and handicrafts, none of which I could afford to buy or to carry. I wished I had someone to share it with. Every turn, every alley, every bridge and dead end is steeped in history and detail, unknowable and unseen for the most part even to lifelong Venetian citizens. There is too much history here and such incredible beauty. If one thing to were to survive the collapse of civilisation and be perfectly preserved as a reminder of humankind’s legacy I think Venice should be it. It’s such a perfect blend of the old and the new, nature vs urban, water and earth, scientific, cultural and artistic assimilation on a grand scale. I like history but I slightly detest museums where things gather dust in cabinets to be gawked at by fat American tourists. I prefer my history to be lived in and Venice is like an old shoe but made by Dior or Cavali. Sure there are plenty of gawkers and god only knows how many millions of selfie-sticks but if you can see past that crap then you can really enjoy this place.
My evenings were spent having dinner with Michael who cooks in the italian style, simple but tasty meals with a few flavours. I would supply the alcohol and listen to his tales. It was all so civilised and I think for me it ended all too soon. One day I might return, in fact I know I will but it won’t be the same without my eccentric host. I hope we meet again though I do believe he like many hosts before him was probably glad to be rid me!
On my last night I missed the ferry to the mainland taking too long to pack, as usual, but I managed to get the the lady attendant on the Vaporetto to break the rules for me and allow me to take my bicycle all the way to the causeway so I could leave Venice the same way I found it shrouded in darkness and still a bit of a mystery.
I’m up for going back in the carnival if anyone will join me!