Naked statues, getting lost and visiting an insane asylum island. We spent out birthday in style! We got up at 6:30 a.m. to take Lesley to the Vaporetto. And found our apartment building’s settee (the settee of despair) on the other side of Pont San Caterina, the next street over, looking like it was contemplating throwing itself into the canal. This was the settee we’d spent hours sat on as we waited for someone to let us into our apartment. Had our soul crushing despair seeped into its fabric? Could it no longer live with the burden of our sorrow? Or had someone just nicked it and dumped it for a practical joke? So long, settee, you were there for us in our hours of need and we will never forget you.
Finally, the fog we were promised had arrived. The Vaporetto arrived at 7:30 so we scurried back, only to discover the boiler had broken so we had no heating and no hot water. Not a great start to our 34th birthday! It’s the first birthday we’ve ever spent away from home so it felt a bit strange. Though our mum and sister did video call us and we opened the presents we’d brought with us so we’d have something to open on our birthday.
We set out and went to Museo Correr. It was cool and massive, taking up half of St Mark’s Square. There were a lot of Greek statues, but half of the men were missing their penises. Now we know that in Ancient Greece having a small penis apparently meant you were highly intelligent, but we’re not sure why these statues were castrated. Were they geniuses maybe? Had Cronus snuck in and hacked at them with his sickle? Though knowing Greek myths, their lack of penises was probably a good thing, seeing how many tourists there are in Venice. Have to say, Ares has a better arse than Poseidon. When we see the statues, especially the ones posing melodramatically, we like to make up what they’re saying. In Paris, we immersed ourselves in culture by imitating the statues. In Venice, we ad libbed for them.
Museo Correr, like Doge’s Palace, had stunning ceilings. There was also a large library with beautiful engraved books. You certainly don’t get those covers on Amazon! There were also large coin collections and two Egyptian mummies, which we hadn’t expected to find. We particularly liked the handmade cabinets. They’re much fancier than our Ikea cabinets, though probably took longer to make.
We left there at 12ish and had lunch by the Grand Canal again. It’s now our spot. It’s like recreating our last day in Paris of picnicking by the Seine but without the smell and Lynx jumping in after her phone. It was really cold and foggy. To be fair, we’d requested fog for our birthday. And whilst we were happy that Venice looked suitably gothic for our birthday, we were less than impressed at the cold. At 12:30, we headed to the Vaporetto stop while Tom and Amy went shopping and returned to the apartment to chill out. While our feet were still agony, we were determined to shove as much adventure into our holiday as we could. Our feet would recover but we can’t make up for lost opportunities. Birthdays are made for adventures!
There was only one place where we wanted to spend our birthday: San Servolo insane asylum museum. It opened in 1725 and was run by the religious order San Giovanni di Dio. All insane men were relocated there and in 1798, women were admitted as well. Over 200,000 patients were admitted and most would never leave. It closed in 1978 following a change in Italian law and the Venice government created the “Istituto per le Ricerche e gli Studi sull ‘Emarginazione Sociale e Culturale’.” In other words, the Institute for the Study of Social and Cultural Marginalization. This was to preserve documents related to the history of the hospital.
In 2006, it opened in its current form as a museum. There are nine sections: laboratory; ambulatory; didactic products; sickness therapies; straitjackets; the sick; lodgings; pharmacy and anatomical theatre. Archives house photos of patients from 1874 to the 20th century. The rare trees on the island once supplied the pharmacy.
It was foggy on the way over to San Servolo so was really atmospheric. This is the side of Venice we wanted to see. We like to peel back the skin of a beautiful city to watch its dark heart beat below the surface. We wondered whether we should be concerned that unlike other vaporettos where there was barely room to sit, this one had four passengers on board. We were two of them. Our horror brains warned us this was bad. Like we were being unwittingly shipped off to an abandoned island to be sacrifices. Our writers’ brains tingled at the possibility of a story being created from this eeriness. And our anxious brains just loved the peace and being away from people.
We landed at 12:45 so wandered the island filming and taking photos. The island now houses a university and a hotel. The Venice International University opened in 1995. But we were here for a different form of education. With all the fog surrounding the island and the silence it created, it felt like we were the only ones on the island. And the only island in existence. It was perfect. It’s rare to experience feeling so isolated in the world. We then decided to head inside to hide from the cold. We should’ve worn our big coats but vanity overruled sensibility and we wanted our outfits to be seen. According to overpriced magazines, beauty is worth suffering for.
At two, the guide appeared. There were only two other girls on the tour. They were Czech and university students so the guide just pointed to the information and did his best to talk to us in English. We visited the 18th century apothecary first. That was fascinating. All the medicines were kept in pretty porcelain jars as they were herbs. It’s so different from the plastic bottles and blister packs we have today. The museum is inside the university. After the apothecary, we went to the anatomical theatre. It had the examination slab, real skulls who looked like they were in gurning competition and real preserved brains. We could’ve stayed in there all day. It was interesting to read how they preserved the brains. Might come in handy for future…writing. Definitely future writing.
In another part of the university, we saw patient admittance records, patient photos of before they were admitted and after they were discharged. The difference was incredible. They went in looking like how asylum patients are usually photographed and came out looking healthy. They’d gained weight. One looked suspiciously like Tom. There were also things the patients had made and a room filled with various restraints – some, like the leather muff and lock gloves, were new to us – and information on the hydrotherapy, where they would be blasted with cold water or put in a bath for up to 12 hours. We get wrinkly after thirty minutes! Another room contained medical equipment.
The guide asked us how we knew of San Servolo. It seems tourists don’t tend to enjoy visits to insane asylum museums. We know. How do these people have fun? We explained about our interest in psychiatric hospitals. If a tourist destination has anything remotely unusual or creepy, we will find it. Research is part of our job. We also explained how usually, the hospitals we visit aren’t exactly open to the public. He looked nervous, like we might use our urb ex skills to hide out there. Not today, sir. But next time…
We caught the ferry back and decided to explore parts of Venice we haven’t seen before so we went through San Marco a different way and walked through Dorsoduro and San Polo before heading back over the Rialto bridge. Only went wrong a few times and that was when we encountered streets that weren’t named on our map. We can get home from Rialto now. We were wandering for two hours! Our feet were not happy. We stumbled across the shop of the guy who made masks for the film Eyes Wide Shut.
We headed back, put our feet in cold water, like we’ve done every day then went out for chips with Tom and Amy. We’d been gone five hours! We tried some of Tom’s vegan pizza. We’ve never eaten pizza before, not even in our pre-vegan days, but we figured as we were in Italy, we should probably be brave and try Italian food. It was covered in tomato sauce and herbs. And nothing else. We could smell the herbs as Tom walked past us with the closed box and when we saw the pizza, we nearly backed out.
But we’d vowed we’d eat an Italian pizza so damn it, we were doing it. If we can hold a tarantula, we can eat a tiny bit of pizza. It was officially the most disgusting thing we’ve ever put in our mouths. It took a lot of chips and Red Bull to rid ourselves of the foul taste. Even now, in quiet moments, it haunts us. Tom and Amy went back to eat the offensive pizza in the apartment while we headed for the vegan gelato place. Us “Due vegano per favore.” He responded in English. Damn it good sir, we’re trying to be cultured here!
We finished the day with uploading photos, writing this blog and doing our squat challenge. 150. Happy birthday to us.