An Adventure in Venice
This was a trip to treasure and has been recorded as one of the most interesting and entertaining birthday ‘treats’ ever. So by way of introduction, we two intrepid aviators set off in our long-winged bird of paradise, a Grob 109B to be precise – and for those aficionados not familiar with this elegant mode of flying apparatus, this is a motor glider built lovingly in Germany some 30 years ago, with an impressive glide angle of 1:28, an average cruising speed of 100 knots and a range of 8 hours – which means we can travel a fair distance.
To arrive in the beautiful historically wealthy city of Venice, with its plethora of sighing bridges over waters rippled by singing, gesturing gondoliers, we first had to navigate the 550 miles from Popham to Lausanne, Switzerland LSGL and thence a quick pop over the kidney-shaped Lake Leman at the opposite end from Geneva, towards the aeroplane’s summer resting-place at Bex in the mountainous, traditional Heidi-like landscape of the Swiss Canton of Valais, right in the middle of the Alps.
Navigation wise, we generally skip over the West Sussex downs and then straight over the Channel – and I am always grateful to remember at this point that the Grob floats. The background to this may be covered in a sequel at some stage. By this time, we are in the friendly hands of French air traffic, with their growly “r’s” – rrrr…roger! Our direct route would be directly over Paris, which is a definite “non-non”, so depending on weather and wind – and of course we always aim for one to blow right up our backside, we either go East via Abbeville, Albert, CTL and Dijon – or West via Deauville, Chartres, and then Dijon. Just a mention of the latter route of the beautiful gothic Basilique Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Chartres with its heavy flying buttresses and double spires - a UNESCO world heritage site standing so proudly since the 12th millennium.
The French countryside we pass over on either side is mainly flat ad I have to add, fairly uninteresting except one’s imagination is stirred by reflections on the lives of the people who inhabit the frequent villages. It’s a landscape of huge fields with very little to separate them in terms of hedgerows. Such a shame, I always think, that the French have dispensed with such niceties, which very much characterize the vital stitchwork in the patchwork quilt of the British countryside. Not only does the French version appear somewhat characterless, it is also must have been rather a tiresome jolt for the diverse wildlife whose habitats have been stripped away so completely, forcing birds and small animals to flee to pastures new.
Eventually the ground beneath becomes more visibly contoured and we feel that we are finally ‘getting there’. We so welcome our first distant outline view of the elegant, renaissance city of Dijon, capital of the Côte d’Or, where the Dukes of Burgundy held court – here you can rely on excellent wines and ‘genuine’ mustard. Our slightly flagging spirits perk up wonderfully as we will reach the foothills of the Alps within the hour. The picnic has probably been consumed by now, so now our enthusiastic willpower aids the propulsion of the aeroplane onwards until we start to see the peaks and troughs of the true Alps. On a clear day we can see the gleaming majesty of Mont Blanc rising 4,810 metres above sea level and ranked eleventh in the world in topographic prominence. Sometimes known as La Dame blanche - "the White Lady" or Il Bianco - Italian for "the White One" she is stunning in every language.
We talk to Geneva air traffic control and we are almost suddenly over the Jura mountains – high point is around 7,000 ft but we snuck over at about 4,500ft, usually with no cloud, enabling us to take our first peeks at the alpine lodges, huts and little villages which dot the green pastures beneath us. Landing on the hard runway at Lausanne is usually a breeze and we’ve already listened to the ATIS which tells us the runway in use, fortunately in both French and English, as my ear by this time is not quite acclimatized and French ‘air-speak’ is about as clipped and challenging for me to interpret as some Brits in full voice. This is a non-controlled airport so it’s a case of working out who’s coming in with us and where they are and as that is conducted in French, we do need to be absolutely certain that we’ve reached the correct translation. On landing, we usually park right in front of the control tower, much to their amusement and to that of the frequent diners in the restaurant who watch us somewhat bemused at our arrival - you came all the way from England in THAT? - and consequent swift departure. Usually the customs people are there to greet us and ask us the usual questions about ‘have we brought cigarettes and alcohol with us?’ No, we have a few clothes, our computers, the end of a picnic and we don’t smoke. And why on earth would we bother to bring wine to Switzerland? Following this fairly rapid exchange, we pay our landing fees and depart for the final leg of our journey to Bex. If Monsieur le Pilot has managed to plan this effectively, as he normally does, we will have made the most of the tail wind which has helped to blow us here – our best time is 4 hours – worst almost 6 …. As of course the weather has an independent mind of its own, the best of forecasts can sometimes be overturned, but not that often. Once we arrive at the grass airstrip at Bex, which lies in the Rhône valley between the Lake and Sion, with its medieval chateaux and strategically-placed fortresses, we pack up the plane and jump into the Jeep which is parked right behind one of the hangers and head for our sweet little bijou residence within a marina with access to the Lake.
But this story is really about the trip we took to Venice, but it was necessary to set the scene first.
We took off from Bex to Sion for re-fuelling on a thankfully windy day with very little luggage, necessitated by what’s at either end of the extremely short 550 metre strip – a selection of rather high electricity pylons with rather live-looking connecting cables or the other perspective, which offers a healthy growth of fairly high trees, amongst which we have been known to weave, in my view, somewhat erratically, though the Pilot would never agree to that opinion – as the Grob has valiantly attempted – and succeeded- to rise like the beautiful bird she is, up up and away. It is however a fairly tense few moments as we gather enough speed, 50 knots minimum, then hold her down a bit to gain more speed and then pull up. Dry-mouthed stuff.
On this occasion, we then gathered more and more height, sometimes by circling in the thermals, sort of in tandem with the enormous birds of prey who are obviously very good at this sort of thing. We needed a height of 12,000ft or so to navigate our way over the mountains which separate Switzerland from Italy and then what a thrill, as we had our first glimpse of Lake Maggiore in all its tranquil, serene beauty, a real jewel nestling and sparkling in the sunshine. The Alps here are naked, hostile and mainly bare of greenery. We are very much aware of how privileged we are to feast on literally a bird’s eye view of some of the most beautiful scenery known to man and God. And it goes on and on interspersed by stunning outfalls of water constantly cascading hundreds of feet, and in contrast, gritty-looking winter white glaciers that are locked solid for thousands of years. As we emerge out of the mountains, we fly over Northern Italy at 5,000 feet; the lingo has now transferred into loquacious sing-songy Italian. Goodness me, how they chat for England. Over the medieval city of Padua with its marketplaces and Fascist-era facades, probably still echoing with Mussolini’s speeches. Then Verona, immortalised by its star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet and its world-renowned opera venue.
Now we were aiming at the Lido de Venezia, a finger of land facing the island of Venice itself, one time home to the Doge of Venice and the renowned hotel “Des Bains” – the setting for Thomas Mann’s classic novel, transformed into film via Luchino Visconti’s tender and exquisite ‘Death in Venice’. Just to add for interest; in 1857, the first ‘sea bathing facility’ seen in Europe was set up there and so "The Lido" became a byword for a beach resort. We intended to land at the Lido Venezia on the North East side, a small airport with an ideally long 994m grass runway, with, so our Aerad book told us, with customs facilities. This we discovered later was no longer the case and hence the small difficulties we were about to encounter which I shall now relate, attempting, probably inadequately to echo the linguistic intricacies of the communications that ensued.
Pilot to air traffic control at the Lido airport: “Bon Giorno, Lido, GOLF, SIERRA, ALFA, GOLF, ALFA, we are a Grob 109 with 2 on board, inbound to you from LSGS in Switzerland with 10 miles to run. Joining instructions please.”
“Golfa, sierra, alfa, golfa, alfa, Bon Giorno. NO! NO! THEES EES NO POSSEEBLAY – NO POSSEEBLAY, COMPRENDE? You-a not-a come-a here-a. NO. You-a not-a land-a here-a. NO POSSEEBLAY. You-a must-a go back-a. Padua, Verona. Where-a you-a going to land-a?”
This was transmitted at an almost hysterical pace and considerable volume.
Response from somewhat bemused pilot. “We come from Switzerland, a part-Schengen country, surely we can land with you, at the Lido, you have customs?”
Reply from Lido air traffic control, volume rising… “NO! NO! NO! You-a go-a land-a somewhere-a, NOT-A HERE-A. You-a stay-a where you are-a now. I-a call-a you-a back-a.”
Having never been to Venice before, I now had the delightful benefit of a guided tour of the city from the air, which was even more enjoyable as normally aircraft are NOT allowed to circle overhead, BUT we were doing as we were told and staying where we were ! So the wonderful sights of Venezia were brilliantly identified in all their full technicolour glory. As Truman Capote wrote, ‘Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go’ - from the Piazza San Marco with its stunning Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and Torre dell’Orologio – the world-famous Clock Tower designed by architect Maura Codussi; the quixotic Bridges of Sighs and the Rialto, the shimmering canals, the islands — Murano, famous for its glass-making factories, Burano, with its centuries-old lace-making houses, and we could just discern the outlines of Torcello's Byzantine churches.
We flew over the Isola di San Michele, the cemetery island dedicated to the dead, located in the lagoon close to Venice, which has been the city's ‘cimitero’ since the early nineteenth century. Peopled by long ranks of tombs including some famous names like Stravinsky and served by a collection of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches, this is not a traditional visitor centre but it was fascinating to see from the air. Whilst on terra firma, we actually viewed a specially constructed Gondola with its rather grim coffined cargo and sombre mourners leaving the jetty for that rather ‘final’ destination. A real-life ‘Death in Venice’.
We also viewed from above and thank goodness from afar, the reputedly haunted island of Poveglia, one of the many islands in the lagoons. Established in Roman times as a dumping ground for plague victims and centuries later during the Black Death which rampaged through Europe, the “dead” victims were often unceremoniously deposited into large death pits, often before they had actually expired. Then in 1922 the by then discarded buildings were converted into an asylum for the mentally ill - the now infrequent visitors have reported hearing the tortured moans of unquiet souls. At this point, I had no idea of the terrifying tales that abound about this now-deserted place but I was totally fascinated when I read up about its violent history. Riveting stuff.
We remained in our hovering circular motion for probably around 25 minutes, snapping gaily and very much appreciating the opportunity to view at our leisure.
“Golfa, sierra, alfa, golfa, alfa, Bon Giorno. Marco Polo.” A rather resigned, tired-sounding voice. “We-a take-a you-a. We-a spoke-a to the Lido. Wait-a for the Alitalia plane – you-a come-a next-a”.
This was air traffic control at Marco Polo, the main airport for Venice, where all the tourist jets land. What relief, as we really didn’t want to have to fly backwards at this point, as it were. We had places to go, things to see ‘close-up’. So we duly followed instructions and finally Signor Pilota made an absolute perfect landing down a runway with a welcoming ‘gangway’ of substantial passenger jets from the likes of Alitalia, Lufthansa and Easyjet. We were then preceded by a van with an illuminated back panel, ‘follow me’. We thought we should - so we did.
By this time, Mike was looking distinctly peaky as we sat in the office listening to all the smartly uniformed pilots asking politely for a take-off slot. He ruminated out loud - “We’ll be here all day waiting for this lot and oh boy! The landing fees will probably bankrupt us.” But no such thing – thankfully they didn’t have any details of an aeroplane of our size and comparatively miniature status on their computer so we ended up parting with just 10 euros for the privilege of landing amongst such august company. Mike rather tentatively enquired as to how long it may be before we would be allowed to fly. By this time, they had given us permission to fly into the Lido itself, they had checked that we were not traffickers of any kind, just ’normal idiots’ in their book. There came an expansive shrug and a magnanimous waving of the hands.
“You go-a right-a now-a. Right now-a”.
They clearly wanted us right out of their hair and certainly out of their traffic. Probably not their intention, but we felt like royalty as with a similar “guard” of impressively rumbling jets, we taxi’d past them, each and every one, and took off into the blue yonder, amusingly enough passing right over the centre of Venice yet again!
A beautiful few days ensued in that so romantic of cities until we took off again for our Swiss retreat, with a million memories, some quite unexpected - to cherish.