Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Doge's Secret Dungeons

Today is turnaround day -- most of the passengers leave the ship, and a new group comes aboard for the next cruise. We're doing what they call back-to-back cruises, so we get an extra day in Venice.

We set out early, because we're doing the so-called "secret tour" of the Doge's Palace Dungeons. You have to book ahead for this one, as they only do them in the morning during summer months and there's only one English language tour per day. We go through the usual no-dogs-allowed rigmarole, but arrangements have been made and we eventually find ourselves in the Palace's huge, interior courtyard.

The dungeons are everything I ever imagined a dungeon to be, but lower, smaller and much, much darker. Prisoners arrived at a tiny landing by boat, to be hustled up dank, stone steps and thrown into a pitch-dark cell not much larger than a queen-size mattress. Two or three prisoners might already be there and depending on the time of year, the water might be up to their knees. Many of them never even made it to the torture chambers, much less to trial, because more often than not they went mad and killed one another.

We climb dimly-lit stone steps to more cells. Casanova was incarcerated in one of these, and actually allowed to have a bit of furniture. It wouldn't have been much fun, but at least it's not flooded. More steep steps lead to the administration offices, small cubicles with tiny windows. Further up, the interrogation area, where prisoners were questioned and tortured. Finally we reach "the leads" which were reserved for privileged prisoners, and tucked directly under the lead roof of the palace, not subject to flooding but stifling in the summer and freezing in the winter. Casanova escaped from one of these.

We also tour the Palace itself, one room after the next --and one room bigger than the next -- every square inch of wall and ceiling covered with oil painting by Venetian masters, and elaborate, gilded moulding sand carvings. It reminded me of Versailles and it was so endless that we got lost.

We retuned to the ship along the Zattere, where we'd walked several hours earlier. But now, the tide was coming in and it was flooding. The little cafes had moved their tables and chairs back inside as wavelets washed across the pavement. At several points it got so deep that I had to pick Xingxing up and carry him, wondering to myself how much longer Venice is going to be able to keep its head above water.

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