For English writer and Model Citizen Colin Bell, it wasn’t Death In Venice but Life on Venice’s Lido:
I haven’t been too well this year but I’m on the mend so it was a great idea to spend two weeks in Venice this summer (That’s me pictured above, in my Blue Seersucker Pants). When I got back even though I couldn’t report a miracle, I felt that I’d been for a cure and that I’d visited one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
I live in England, in the small Sussex market town of Lewes where I have the perfect life, well, the life I always dreamed about before it actually happened. There is a close and very arty community here who know just when to be there and when to leave you alone.
After many highly enjoyable years working in television as a producer/director of arts documentaries, I now work as a writer – novels, poetry and, yes, a daily blog. I’m lucky to spend my days in that strange internal world that writers inhabit where what goes on in my head is a real as anything I can see out of my study window. My first novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, was published in 2013 and I have been busy finishing a new novel, Blue Notes, Still Frames, that will be published in 2015 but, as well as publishing poetry, and writing a daily blog on my website. I have also embarked on my third novel which I hope to finish next year.
My desk and my brain were in chaos when I finished the new novel’s final draft. I use a mixture of computer and pencil and paper for my various projects so my study changes from obsessively tidy to crazily muddled in a very short time. Here I am in it, wearing my Saddle Blanket Sweater.
Nothing could be better than a self-indulgent couple of weeks in my favourite holiday destination – Italy.
I was staying in a rented apartment on the Lido, the island that faces the Adriatic on one side and the Venetian lagoon on the other, ten minutes away from Saint Mark’s Square by the Vaporetto water bus. It was home from home and after two weeks I was beginning to feel that it actually was home. It didn’t take long to get into a new routine and a new rhythm. It’s strange how quickly I can adapt to other people’s decor.
Especially as there was a large wrap round balcony where life could carry on almost entirely alfresco. Rest was the name of the game and I spent a fair amount of time reading while lapping up the Italian sun. Even though I was in one of the most beautiful cities in the World, there was something enjoyably decadent about spending time up here in my own private zone.
It was the perfect space for my morning Kungfu practice, exercise, I believe, is a form of rest and relaxation and I have always tried to keep this routine up every day wherever I am. Kungfu on my Italian balcony soon became a habit.
Being high up but near to water felt very Zen and I’m convinced that this ritual built a connection between me and my surroundings. As with all the other Venetian islands, everything has to get here by water and there was always something interesting to watch down there on the canal.
Where there’s water, there is always something to watch – the light itself is drama enough.
My view was still interesting at night with little boats about their business ferrying party-goers to and from the small outdoor bar across the road.
There was a bar next-door to my apartment too and it was one of life’s essentials to make it down there for coffee every morning. I particularly liked the fact that it was frequented by Lido residents and not just holiday visitors like myself.
If you succumb in the end, and everyone does, to the charms of the romantic old city of Venice itself, it was just ten minutes away across the lagoon. Venice is a World centre for great architecture and art. This is the home of great artists such as Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and the Bellini family and you can find their work in the art galleries and the many churches throughout the city. Of course Venice is an art gallery in its own right and some of the most enjoyable things to do there is just to wonder around the little canal lined streets and look.
The Lido is more “normal” than the rest of Venice. The houses are mostly late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century and even though motor vehicles have to be transported here by ferry, some people actually do drive cars or, more commonly, travel by bicycle. If I lived here permanently, I’m not sure that I would bother with a car. The Lido is still very tranquil and reminiscent of the days before motorcars changed the environment for the rest of us. For centuries this island has been where Venetians go when the city gets hot and humid. The Lido is green and decidedly leafy so a gentle stroll down the avenue to the sea is enjoyably shady.
The art nouveau style houses are wonderful – they lack that rotting-around-you look of Venice’s much older buildings. They are little Italian palaces with all mod cons.
I envied those gardens with their palm trees and scented hedges and wondered why anyone ever bothers to grow geraniums if they don’t have an Italian balcony.
Five minutes walk from the apartment was the public beach with its flights of engineering fancy, raised walkways and an open air night club for when the season gets going in July. I was happy enough with the restaurant on the beach where it was, naturally, still possible to get a cup of very good coffee.
Here everyone could get on with whatever they like to do on the beach on a hot Italian morning. No one seemed to notice when I got on my with my tai-chi (in my Betabrand swim trunks). The coffee must have revived my dormant energy. The Lido really is the place to cool down – the sea was warm and clear and decidedly welcoming. The public beach was free and people leave you to get on with your own thing – even if it’s Kungfu.
A short walk away, under another avenue of trees, there was a much more expensive option for a day by the sea. Just down the road was the Grand Hotel Des Bains, the most fashionable Lido hotel in the early Twentieth Century. I visited here a long time ago but could only afford one drink inside its lush interior.
Sadly that is no longer possible as the hotel has closed and is being refurbished as an extremely expensive set of apartments. While I was there, it was well and truly locked up.
It still looks fine from outside and I was delighted to be able to see it from the beach. This is the hotel where the Russian ballet impresario Diaghilev not only stayed but it is also where, in 1929, he died. Dying in Venice has always been trendy. The German novelist Thomas Mann stayed at the Grand Hotel des Bains on many occasions during the first half of the Twentieth Century and he knew the hotel so well that he was able to write about it in great detail when he used it for the principal setting of his famous novella Death In Venice (1912).
The Italian film director Luchino Visconti (1906 – 1976) made sure that the hotel became an cinematic icon when he made the film of Death In Venice (1971) staring Dirk Bogarde who, as Gustave von Aschenbach, was filmed dying on the hotel’s private beach. The beach is still there and I was lucky enough to be able to spend a truly memorable afternoon feeling that I had walked straight into the film. Like Gustave von Aschenbach, I hired a beach hut with my own deckchair, sun-bed and canopy – all set, as in the film, by a bathing attendant, or bagnino, called Tomaso.
It didn’t take much imagination to feel oneself a part of Thomas Mann’s and Luchino Visconti’s world.
I didn’t die in that deckchair, phew, but I did feel like whispering, “ready for my close-up, Signor Visconti.”
I’m home again in England and the doctor says I’m well on my way to recovery. Ciao!