OF GOLF AND GONDOLAS
It was a great empire centuries ago, the master of the Adriatic and a swath of Italy. Now it’s an open air museum. Tourists from Russia, Germany, China, Brazil, the Ukraine, and, of course, the United States tramp through like an invading army. Some three million visitors a year come to see the Grand Canal and other iconic sites, and yet there are only about 80,000 Venetians left. Tourists outnumber natives by more than three to one on most days. It’s hard sometimes to find a shop that sells something besides carnival masks, plastic model gondolas, and the latest Italian novelty souvenirs like joke kitchen aprons with the penis of Michelangelo’s David.
And, as almost anywhere on this 21st century golfing planet, you can find golf in Venice, or at least the greater Venetian lagoon. At the very tip of the barrier island of Lido lies the Circolo Golf di Venezia. The course is a pleasant enough track built in the 1920s, though nothing extraordinary. It doesn’t say much for Italian golf if the Circolo is really among the top ten in the country as one ranking has it. But it’s nonetheless always interesting to see the local twists to the game abroad, and what they reveal about that particular society and culture. To paraphrase the great French sociologist Roger Caillois, how we play always discloses much about who we are. Italians, as we know, love to eat well, and that’s certainly evident at the Venice course. You can sit on the club terrace and have a delicious cold seafood salad washed down with the Veneto’s good white wine. It’s a far cry from the proverbial greasy hotdog, Powerade, and bag of potato chips at the American golf course grill.
And consider the greeenskeeping. Italian landscaping, like the food, runs to a calculated yet unforced simplicity.The Italian gardener does not share the American lawn nazi’s horror at the stray weed. The Circolo has the archetypal Italian mix of cypress and pine, and, though maintained well enough, it’s a bit shaggy, no effort made to keep every blade of grass in place as at a high-end American club. A Renaissance fountain lies just next to the 18th green in a reminder of just how much Italy remains a land of ancient and jumbled chronologies where Etruscan burial grounds, Roman ruins, Medieveal churches, Mussolini-era train stations, and new McDonald’s jostle and crowd up against one another. The fountain at the Circolo, it should be noted, plays as an immovable obstruction with no relief if your ball ends up next to or behind it.
I feel much the same way. Once I navigate the alleyways out to San Zaccaria, I climb aboard the Number 20 vaporetto, these boats being Venice’s only form of public transportation. It heads out to the university on the island of San Servolo with a view opening up back to the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark's, and the grey-blue water of the lagoon. It’s a view straight off the postcard rack and yet no less stunning for that fact.