The deal seemed a little too true to be good, so to speak. Via an online mail shot (or whatever the Apps age now calls it) from agents Iglu, I was offered an eight day Mediterranean cruise including individual flights to Venice and back from Athens, based on single occupancy, for a little over £1,200 including $750 onboard spend. Now I have to say that this seemed like a pretty good deal especially for a single passenger who is usually charged 70-100% more for the privilege of sleeping alone. This seemed to be a case where they were paying me to give it a go, and this is precisely what I did (particularly when informed that the $750 kickback offer expired that very day). The icing on the cake was the additional three days I managed to arrange to stay in Venice prior to the ship’s departure, so this is where my story begins.
A Venice Virgin, that’s me all right. Almost akin to wearing a Never Been Kissed hat. How can it be that I hadn’t made it to the “streets flooded, please advise” city, I asked myself? As Geoffrey Rush says memorably in Shakespeare in Love, “it’s a mystery”. I did get to Padua once, a mere stone’s throw away, to attend a screening of my film on the great American director, Sam Peckinpah. However, the combination of various luminaries including James Coburn, and the beautiful Katy Haber, Sam’s assistant (and mistress), contrived to keep me firmly within Padua’s city walls. “Ah well,” I sighed back in 1999, “Venice will just have to wait.” And wait it did, gently crumbling all the while, until now.
Hold on. Something must be wrong here. Either the ship itself will resemble the rusty hull of the Patna from Conrad’s Lord Jim, or the food will be inedible, or I will end up in Youth Hostel bunk beds, or being steered by a genetically challenged crew – or maybe something even worse and as yet unimagined? But no, even as a diehard pessimist all these gross expectations have been entirely confounded. But let’s begin at the beginning.
Flight to Venice a mere 100 minutes. Twenty minutes more from airport to bus / vaporetto (public water bus) terminus, thence a stately ride down the Grande Canal, eyes agog, to the pier stop just five minutes walk from the hotel. Ah yes, the hotel, and here’s the rub. As the hotel stay was a departure from the Iglu itinerary, this required a Google search and sundry TripAdvisor advice some days prior to departure. Under ‘Venice’, 400 hotel options presented themselves in ascending (or descending, your choice) order of both popularity and price. Finally I chose one on the basis of its proximity to the Grande Canal and to my guides-to-be (more about them in a minute), tucked up a tiny linking waterway boasting a single lonely gondolier and the city’s most photographed fruit and vegetable stall. One Hotel Pausania. An internet booking of €150 for two nights appeared reasonable on the face of it, at least until I arrived.
After a severe scramble up thirty-two drunkenly positioned stairs, an extremely narrow and stuffy room confronted me, boasting one slim and unyielding single bed. Not at all what I had in mind. So down the stairs to open up negotiations with the battle-axe on the desk, who said that there would be no problem about an upgrade, just a matter of additional dinar. (Funny how a language barrier seems to dissolve away when it comes to matters of money.) Well we opened negotiations at around €300 and ended up nearer €200 after a lot of continental hand-gestures from myself, and this was finally agreed by the desk-bound harridan, from whom, believe me, you would definitely not wish to accept any kind of injection. Screwed by an Italian! Well, fair’s fair. I suppose from the Grand Tour onwards, we have been doing that very same thing to them for over three-hundred years.
All I will say additionally about this particular watering hole is that after stumbling on and off planes, coaches and river boats with two substantial suitcases, the ‘delightful’ Hotel Pausania presented you with one final and inescapable obstacle: the wonky step assault-course for the knee-challenged. True, I had been up and down these same thirty-two steep and crooked four-hundred-year-old marble steps twice already, but not with the burden of two large cases. So I politely inquired of the now considerably richer personage behind the desk if there might possibly be someone who might assist with maneuvering my baggage in an upward direction? Towards my recently negotiated larger room? A slight head movement: no; nyet; nein, a negative whichever way you cut it. So with teeth grinding on an assortment of ageing dental work, I struggled twice more (one journey for each case) up the highly polished and undoubtedly lethal marble risers. Arrival at the top step for the third time felt akin to a successful assault on Annapura. But do check out the accompanying photograph and be warned, and if like me and other ex-hill walkers and long distance runners you have a touch of gyp in the knee, avoid the Pausania at all costs. Even with forewarning, and the invocation of doctor’s advice on four continents, the result was still the same on departure three days later when asking for help with the cases: no, nyet, nein!