It took an Aperol Spritz and thirty minutes on a vaparetto to forget the dizziness. My first solo trip, and I had to sit down and breathe in the middle of Venice’s Gallerie dell’Academia for fear of passing out.
I heard Venice is sinking, but no one had warned me that I would experience vertigo for the duration of my trip. It is possible to blame part of that feeling on the city being built on stilts swaying for centuries under the weight of decadent marble palaces, but it was more likely my dizzy spells correlated with the fact I had just handed in my PhD thesis in only a couple of days before I got on a plane to Marco Polo airport.
Venice is a city of dreams and a strange destination choice for a solo traveller, even without the vertigo. It’s a place full of expectations, but in my case, I found the Venice I was looking for.
I arrived a week after carnival. Confetti still decorated the cracks in pavements, recalling only a faded memory of the hedonism from the week before. At the end of March, the cruise ships were few and far between, the weather was pleasant enough to wander without a destination, but it was not so hot that the city’s sewage perfumed the canals. I found it easy to fall in love with Venice, but I could also see the potential to hate it. Each street had misleading turns culminating in a dead end, a canal or an underpass that felt like trespassing into someone’s private courtyard. Each stroll spiralled past house numbers that went in the order they appeared in the district and not by street. At times, all I could hear was the sound of lapping water in the background of my footsteps echoing off the flaking walls.
Being alone in Venice opened up a novel in which I could become the character. I was in a mindset to chase dreams inspired by Thomas Mann and Gustav Mahler, and enjoy my own solo romantic trip in La Serenissima, climbing the steps in the Basilica di San Marco in heels and stockings and wandering the cemetery, with the gravel crunching underfoot on the silent and empty Isola San Michele during the golden hour searching for Stravinsky and Diaghilev’s headstones.
It does get lonely experiencing the city’s labyrinthine streets alone, having a dinner for one each night, even though I’m comfortable with my own company. I took to the Internet to find someone to share a conversation with. I turned to online dating sites to find a local travel companion. Back in the day when OKCupid still included a blog with your profile, I put out a call for someone to have a drink with me. I got a response from an Italian who was born and bred in Venice and we arranged to meet for pizza, which we ate hot out of a box on a stone step in Campo Santa Margherita, before stopping off for drinks in a dingy bar in the student quarter.
He took me round Dorsodoro, to ground floor wine bars, where a couple ran into a bathroom for a spot of noisy copulation before the barman started hammering on the door. By this point the Aperol Spritz loosened my tongue and our conversation grew more intimate. I forgot my secrets and my vertigo, but I was not in the right place to want more.
For most, Venice is a city that inspires romance, for me it was a city of contemplation, where I desired nothing more that to sit on a boat and watch the world float by. Maybe it was the place I was in my life, on the cusp of finishing my PhD with the word of the work behind me and an uncertain future. I came to Venice to forget the past few years and become a new person. I wanted to make that transformation alone, not through a holiday romance.
My host took me round the dark, winding streets in the Dorsodoro neighbourhood. At night the city’s streets fell silent, where even the familiar white noise of traffic disappeared. Away from the tourists and pigeons on San Marco and Rialto, we passed a gondola workshop, empty at dusk, almost an echo of the past. Over the years Venice’s population continues to drop and the Venetian by my side told me the city’s young people are leaving. It seemed his kind became rarer and rarer within the city.
We walked up to the edge of the canal, with a view over to Guidecca and the Hilton Hotel, lit up like a fairytale castle reflecting back in the still, saline water. At that moment he positioned me, winding his arms round my waist and leaned in. Something in me seized up. I was still dizzy from the vertigo that’s plagued me the entire trip and this wasn’t what I wanted. On paper it was the perfect romantic conclusion to the Venetian fantasy, but something inside made me move away from him. I changed the topic of conversation to the architecture of the church and babbled till we walked back to the Ponte dell’Accademia. He was polite, and the moment never mentioned again. We said goodbye with two kisses on the cheek. I thanked him for showing me his city and went our own ways.
Back at the hotel the vertigo still made me swirl. The rain hammered on the window and ended the silence outside.