The most beautiful bookshop in the world

Today we’re going to try a different style of blog post. Exciting, I know. This week I’ve been on holiday in Venice (as you likely already know if you follow me on Instagram), so I figured I’d share a few tips for getting the most out of the beautiful floating city.

I actually didn’t have many expectations as I arrived in Venice on Monday evening. While I had scrolled through some pictures of the place on Instagram, I didn’t have many ‘must visit’ locations on my list – other than the city’s notoriously Instagrammable canal-side bookshop, obviously (more on that later). I should have known I would fall head over heels in love with the place.

The one thing I did book before I left was a couple tours with Venice Free Walking Tours. I am a massive fan of a free walking tour. They operate on a tips-only basis whereby walkers pay what they feel the walk was worth according to what they are able to give, with the idea being that wealthier participants will pay more to allow those with less money to come along too. They are also very ‘off the beaten path’, which works for me. You don’t need a walking tour to lead you to a city’s famous landmarks. Those, you can find yourself. What the Venice Free Walking tours do instead of showing you the landmarks everyone else is already visiting is give you the confidence to get lost – really the only way to explore Venice.

I did two tours – those exploring the Southern and Northern corners of the city. Both of the guides were wonderful, telling fascinating stories about the history of notable people and places in Venice. Maybe my favourite story was that of Ca’Dario, the house that kills. The house is cursed, with all its owners doomed to lose everything and die a violent death. Seriously.

Beware the house on the right…

Okay so, the house was built by Giovanni Dario, secretary of the Venetian Republic Senate. The Gothic mansion was supposedly built on a burial ground, and as each of its residents met their mysterious and tragic demises, locals began to speculate that the house was cursed.

[insert evil laughter here]

After Dario’s death, the house then passed to his daughter, Marietta and her husband Vincenzo.

But not for long.

Vincenzo drove the family into financial ruin before being brutally stabbed to death in an alley. Shortly after that, Marietta hurled herself into the canal, drowning herself, and then their son Vincenzo Junior was murdered by assassins on the island of Creta.

In an attempt to lift the curse, the house was completely redesigned and then sold AGAIN to another wealthy merchant… who promptly lost all his wealth and then died. The next owner, Radon Brown was found dead inside the house shortly after he purchased it, his lover also dead beside him in an apparent murder-suicide.

Fast forward a few years (and a few deaths) later into the 1960s, and famous singer Mario Del Monaco decided to purchase the house. He died in a car accident on the way to make the sale.

A decade later, Cristopher ‘Kit’ Lambert, manager of The Who, took his own life a few years after taking ownership of Ca’Dario.

In the 1990s an incredibly wealthy and well respected businessman, Raul Gardini bought Ca ’Dario. A few short years afterward he found his reputation in tatters and his money gone after getting caught up in a political corruption scandal. Gardini also took his own life.

These days,  it’s owned by an American company who vowed to renovate the house, which having been abandoned for many years has fallen into a state of disrepair. But, for some reason, years later, renovations are yet to begin…

Another reason I absolutely loved the Venice Free Walking tours was their emphasis on sustainable tourism. While in Venice I learned that tourism has actually had an intensely negative impact on the city. On any given day there are disproportionately more tourists than residents staying in Venice, and as this change has occurred, trade native to the city has been pushed out by shops filled with products designed for tourists – you know what I mean, those shops full of city-themed tat ubiquitous to all European cities where tourists gather. Because of this, Venice has lost 70% of its traditional trade, and with it, a huge slice of its identity. Similarly, the city has been completely overrun by Air B&Bs. Unlike other cities like Amsterdam and Rome where government restrictions are in place, there is no limit on the number of Air B&Bs in Venice, meaning it is all but impossible for locals and students of the city’s four universities to find accommodation within Venice itself. Not only that, but many Air B&B hosts operate illegally, not collecting the city tax owed by tourists and taking further from the resources of the city without giving anything back.

Yes, this is really depressing news, but it’s not all doom and gloom. What both my walking guides instilled in all of us was a sense of empowerment to explore the city conscious of the ways we were helping and hurting in how we decide where to spend our money. They recommended businesses to visit and educated us about supporting real Venetian trade rather than knock offs – a genuine Venetian mask, for example, will cost you upwards of 40 euro. Buying one for less will likely mean buying a fake, and with that participating in the destruction of a craft native to Venice for hundreds of years. Choosing how to spend our money is one of the greatest powers we have. Choose well, and consciously!

MUST STOPS

Liberia Acqua Alta

Calling itself the most beautiful bookshop in the world, Liberia Acqua Alta is a necessary trip for book lovers. Packed floor to ceiling with books – as well as the book shop’s five resident felines – look out for your favourites in various different language editions. Out back of the shop, climb up its towering staircase of books for a peek at one of the most beautiful canal views in the Castello district.

St Mark’s Bell Tower

After you’ve checked out the Basilica, don’t miss the opportunity to visit St Mark’s Bell Tower, which offers one of the most extraordinary views of the city.

Dorsoduro

The artsy district of Venice, in Dorsoduro you’ll find amazing museums Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, both of which I really recommend visiting. Filled with great cafes and restaurants, art galleries and the occasional vintage boutique, you can spend hours wandering the streets here.

The islands

The islands of Murano, Burano and Mazzarbo are about an hour away by very busy boat, but absolutely worth the trip. I spent hours wandering these characterful and fascinating islands. Enjoy the brightly coloured fishermen’s houses of Burano, cross the bridge into the quiet tranquillity of Mazzarbo (for some reason the Instagrammers in Burano don’t seem to have found this place yet, so it’s a lovely retreat from the crowds. The day I went it felt as though I had the entire island to myself) and enjoy the traditionally made glass in Murano (not to go on another rant about sustainable tourism, but ask one of the glassmakers in Murano how to identify genuine Murano glass. A lot of companies are selling fake ‘Murano’ glass on the internet and it is, again, destroying the trade that has sustained the families of the island for decades. The government won’t do anything to help the situation, so it’s up to consumers to act.)

Just wander

Venice is a really busy city – like I said, it disproportionately houses tourists rather than residents and so there are a lot of crowds everywhere, all the time. That said, I found that tourists tended to congregate around landmarks and boat stops, and that walking only a short distance away would produce quiet, beautiful streets that I could explore practically uninterrupted for hours. Venice is a very safe city, so please don’t be afraid to get lost. It’s also very small – more of a town than a city – so however lost you get (I didn’t know where I was like 80% of the time), you’re never that far away from an orientating landmark.

VENICE READING LIST

I mean, I had to make this vaguely bookish, right?

[summaries from Goodreads]

Out of This Century: The Autobiography of Peggy Guggenheim
This is the fascinating autobiography of a society heiress who became the bohemian doyenne of the art world. Written in her own words it is the frank and outspoken story of her life and loves”

Stone Virgin by Barry Unsworth
A mysterious sculpture of a beautiful and erotic Madonna holds the key to the Fornarini family’s secrets. When Raikes, a conservation expert, tries to restore her, he is swept under the statue’s spell and swept under the spell of the seductive Chiara Litsov, a member of the Fornarini family now married to a famous sculptor. Raikes finds himself losing all moral grounding as his love for statue and woman intertwine in lust and murder.”

The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato
“Venice, 1681. Glassblowing is the lifeblood of the Republic, and Venetian mirrors are more precious than gold. Jealously guarded by the murderous Council of Ten, the glassblowers of Murano are virtually imprisoned on their island in the lagoon. But the greatest of the artists, Corradino Manin, sells his methods and his soul to the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, to protect his secret daughter. In the present day his descendant, Leonora Manin, leaves an unhappy life in London to begin a new one as a glassblower in Venice. As she finds new life and love in her adoptive city, her fate becomes inextricably linked with that of her ancestor and the treacherous secrets of his life begin to come to light.”

The Dead Ladies Project

When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding. A way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender.

The Dead Ladies Project is an account of that journey – but it’s also much more. Fascinated by exile, Crispin travels an itinerary of key locations on its literary map, of places that have drawn writers who needed to break free and start afresh. As she reflects on William James struggling through despair in Berlin, Nora Barnacle dependable for James Joyce in Trieste, Maud Gonne fomenting revolution in Dublin, or Igor Stravinsky starting over from nothing in Switzerland, Crispin interweaves biography, literary analysis and personal experience into a meditation on the interactions of place, personality, and society that make escape and reinvention such an attractive, even intoxicating proposition.

Personal and profane, funny and fervent, The Dead Ladies Project ranges from nineteenth century to the present, from historical figures to brand-new hangovers, in search, ultimately, of an answer to a bedrock question: How does a person decide to live their life?

deadladiesproj

If that summary hasn’t sold it to you, I don’t know what will.

Through this blog I have been casually putting together a list of books you should read in your twenties. This one shot right to the top. It’s required reading for any of us who ponder the possibility of getting on a plane and abandoning our lives on a semi-regular basis.

I know that is quite a few of us.

‘I was tired of being the person I was on an almost atomic level. I longed to be disassembled, for the chemical bonds holding me together to weaken and for bits of me to dissolve slowly into the atmosphere.’

I spend a lot of my time searching for models on how to live. I think we all do it. I’m not even just talking about scrolling through Instagram and admiring all the #lifegoals either. Sometimes it happens in the briefest of encounters. A few weeks ago at work, a lady walked over to me and my colleague and gave us a pep talk on how we shouldn’t let the world get us down, and the advantages of not giving too much of a shit (there are many) and when she was done she left and we’ve never seen her again, but behind her stayed this impression. All I could think was: that lady is doing life right.

In her travels through Europe and her various deep dives into the lives of the artists whose adventures took place there, Jessa Crispin is doing the same thing. She’s searching for comfort in other people’s struggles, for self-acceptance if not actual happiness (because what even is that, anyway?).

‘We both sit quietly, drinking the dregs of our tea and feeling the long expanse of years before us. The weight of uncertainty. Whether it’ll be a late blooming or whether the soil will prove to be infertile.’

She looks through that acceptance by studying a litany of delightful weirdos from history. This book is a fascinating study of characters we all know – William James, W. Somerset Maugham, Stravinsky – and those most of us might not – Nora Barnacle, Claude Cahun, Margaret Anderson.

They aren’t all stories of escape, although those are the ones I enjoyed the most. I like the optimism involved in escape. Some of them are tales filled with misery, or of betrayal, whether that’s by your own inability to leave a shitty situation, or the people of the island you live on selling you out to the Nazis (yes, I am being specific).

One the aspects of this book I truly loved was how Crispin looked into the idea of being a bit of a social reject as an adult. When you’re a teenager (and if you’re reading this as a teenager, I’m sorry), and kind of a strange one at that, all you’re told is that it gets better with age and by the time you’re a grown up you find your people and it’ll all make total sense.

Thus far, this has not been my experience.

(again, teenagers, ignore me. It gets better. You’ll be fine.)

So to read of a lady floundering at thirty, and not in the self-conscious I’m-such-a-weirdo non floundering-floundering with the perfect rom-com ending way, either, was both comforting and painful to read.

‘…it would be nice if a god did come down and say, This is that thing, stupid. The thing you have stared at the horizon waiting for for years now. It is standing right in front of you.’

At the end of Breakfast at Tiffanys, after Holly has decided to ditch the cat and her entire New York existence, Paul, exasperated yells at her that running away is pointless ‘Because no matter where you run you just end up running into yourself.’

The Dead Ladies Project is an entire book about that phenomenon. Jessa Crispin, William James, Margaret Anderson, Jean Rhys… all of them, they all had the same problem.

Some of them were okay, some not so much.

Which is just sort of what life is.

This book will make you inspired and depressed and introspective.

But, like, in a good way.