The Lido. A thin strip of land that stretches for twelve kilometres alongside the invisible line that separates the Venetian lagoon with the Adriatic Sea. An island that divides and connects, acting as a natural barrier for the salt water that moves in and out of the lagoon as much as a metaphor for a place halfway between reality and dream.
I reach it on a hot Sunday in August, not for the first time. On the waterbus, I summon the opening scene from Luchino Visconti’s movie Death in Venice, where the protagonist is unwillingly boated to Lido on a gondola. I wonder how many hours of rowing it used to take to do the crossing from Venice’s Giardini to Lido’s main dock in Santa Maria Elisabetta: likely long enough to make it feel like a real journey to a different space – the space of the villeggiatura. Now, a twenty-minute ride gets you out of town. I am up for some Riviera time.
The shiny mosaics of the Ausonia Palace. The Palazzo del Cinema. The sand dunes of the Alberoni. The quaint village of Malamocco. The tennis and golf clubs, the lifestyle of the wealthy. The liberty villas built during the golden age of the Belle Époque. And then, decadence. The splattered walls of the murazzi. The spectre of the grand hotels – like the now-abandoned Hotel des Bains – that were once microcosms of rituals and ceremonies and networking and book plots. All around these, you have modernity. An explosion of real estate that makes it feel like so many other places alongside the Venetian coast, with the ugly sixties rational apartment complexes and the rows of umbrellas and the gelato and pizza parlours that seem stuck in the Nineties.
Oleanders – pink, white, bright magenta – and salt cedars. Boxwood. Hibiscus. I stroll along the tree-lined Gran Viale that runs East to West and connects the lagoon side to the seaside under the spell of a million cicadas. The air is fragrant and typically marine, the sun dappled yet strong. A light breeze welcomes me at the crossroad between the Lungomare Marconi to the right, and the Lungomare D’Annunzio to the left.
I think of the time I biked South all the way to the Alberoni to catch the Ferry to Pellestrina, what I saw in fast motion along the way. Beach number eleven, beach number twelve. Striped umbrellas and cabins and glimpses of blue water. Then, in the distance, the Moresque domes of the Excelsior and its ornate towers. I stopped then to take a good look; I stepped onto the balustrade to admire the oh-so Dolce Vita view, imagining the movie stars arriving in their water taxis to take part of the Venice Film Festival that every year turns the Lido into the heart of something bigger than its usual life. Construction work on the Palazzo del Cinema had already started. Red panels piled on the side of the road, waiting to be installed on the existing, less-than-chic architecture of the building to make it more picture-pleasing. Still, the glamour, the red carpets and the after-parties are as seducing and sparkly as they’ve always been. The magic of those days is undeniable. It lives in the old pictures exposed at Casa dei Tre Oci on la Giudecca, in the archives of Camera Photo Epoche. It lives in black-and-white images of Sofia Loren or in recent photos of Tilda Swinton.
La magia del cinema.
I turn left and head North towards San Niccolò – a part of the Lido I find pleasingly quiet. My walk is shaded by tall maritime pines heavy with resin and pinecones. Walkers, bikers. Life at the seaside as it happens pretty much everywhere – lounging, snoozing, playing bocce, splashing in shallow water, buying ice-creams from the cart on the shore, a coffee from the shack at the back of the beach.
“You’re an absolute nobody in Venice if you don’t have a cabin at the Lido” a friend told me once. No matter whether one rents the fancy ones of the Excelsior to the quaint ones of the Miramare, a cabin is a quiet claim on a slice of lifestyle that is unique to this island. It makes you belong – the rituals of belonging having hardly changed since Thomas Mann’s times.
The air is heavy with humidity now, and pearls of sweat run down my back. I decide to move closer to the shore and continue my walk barefoot with salty water splashing at my feet. A pavement of sea shells makes the walk somewhat arduous, but also beautifully reminiscent of a natural mosaic. Without a cabin, or a boat, I am by all means an average person walking and this sense of anonymity turns me into a more keen observer of the mores and rituals happening before my eyes. By the time I reach San Niccolò’s free beach, I’ve already made a note that the Pachuka Beach – just as much as Bagno Marconi – is the place to be for lounging as much as for spritz-drinking once the clock strikes 6.
What makes the Lido, the Lido I wonder? What’s the charm? Is it its heritage, its history? Its closeness to Venice? Most definitely. Is it the vintage car that drove past earlier, bringing back scenes from a mythicised past? Is it the dappled light of summer that suits it so much, that’s so flattering? What happens here when the fireworks of the Redentore and the bonfires of Ferragosto and the footlights of the Film Festival give way to fall, then winter?
I must return then.
I set down my towel and join in the joy of summer – a season that feels almost unbearable in Venice, but that seems suddenly beautiful here, full of possibilities, pleasantly mindless. Again, scenes from Death in Venice dawn on me as I lay in the afternoon sun, eyes closed. They speak of the summer of life, of living in the moment in a bubble of pleasure, of a malaise that could hit at any point. The parallel feels eerie, but also poignant.
That’s the charm: time suspended. Even if only for the time of a holiday, or a short escape from the city when you most need it.