It’s the height of Europe’s summer but I haven’t swum for weeks. My itinerary has left me landlocked, and the heat and crush of urban centres are becoming oppressive.
Midway through a stint in Padova, I make a day trip to Venice. Having spent time in the city years ago I don’t feel obliged to rush from pillar to piazza to cover off the must-see attractions. Instead I plan to idle my way around, and pack my swimmers in case I find time to visit the Lido for a swim.
Upon arrival in Venice I forego a map and slowly intuit my way towards the Doge’s palace, through near-identical streets with shopfronts dedicated almost exclusively to souvenirs, trattoria, shoes and gelato. Eventually I get to San Marco square. The concentration of people is astounding — tourists move in flocks, their shepherds wielding brightly-coloured umbrellas and mascots on sticks to guide them from one attraction to the next. Entry queues snake around corners, and shade is closely guarded. It’s not the escape from urban crush that I’m in need of. I spot a nearby ferry stop with services running to the Lido and make a snap decision. A few minutes later, the crowds are receding into a welcome blur.
It’s a short walk to reach the Lido from the nearest ferry stop, and gloriously there’s space for me to swing my arms without fear of accidentally groping someone. Upon arrival at the beach I’m accosted by a hawker selling thin-looking cotton towels. Usually I wouldn’t engage him, but my microfibre towel seems insufficient for an afternoon of beachside lounging, so I haggle. A stretch of blue cotton emblazoned with sun and moon faces is soon mine for the bargain price of €8 (down from €12!).
I traipse past rows of umbrellas towards the water. The sand is grainy and brown — a contrast to the smooth, white stones that lined the Hvar beach where I last swam. I find a space to lay out my new acquisition (surprisingly free from post-purchase regret) and lather myself in offensively apricot-scented sunscreen. As I do so, a cart rolls up the beach selling drinks and ice creams. Most of its customers, and the crowd of beachgoers generally, seem to be English speakers. I assume Venice proper is equally dominated by English-speaking tourists, but there each voice coalesces into a collective hum of indecipherable commentary. Here, I can make out individual conversations.
The dialogues around me aren’t exactly revelatory, but they make for amusing listening. A young English couple take would-be candid photos of one another walking towards the water, but a painful mosquito bite prompts their departure soon after. Meanwhile, a woman in front of me sits with her legs folded gingerly on an uncomfortably small towel. Every few minutes a new peddler attempts to upgrade her to a medium-sized alternative, but with no success. Between these interactions the woman rearranges her hair.
Half a dozen American dudes stand calf-deep in the water throwing around a football. They soon tire of this activity, opting to stand stoically around a pile of their belongings. Hands on hips, caps on backwards, they chug through beers. When each bottle is emptied it is shoved neck-first into the sand to distinguish it from its yet-to-be-finished mates.
The group’s apparent alpha takes pleasure in bargaining with peddlers. He seems intent on securing the best possible price for a Louis Vuitton handbag (“is it real?”), but reneges on the deal. He does, however, fork out for a large cotton towel, which subsequently serves as a mat for the dudes’ mound of stuff. I assume he’s a either stockbroker or a used car salesman.
The sellers are only too happy to oblige his appetite for haggling. Each trader — clothed in full-length shirt and trousers despite the sun — is intent on engaging as many potential buyers as possible, even if the conversion rate appears low. Specialisation is de rigeur; so as to minimise direct competition, each peddler specialises in either towels, handbags, sunglasses, umbrellas, wallets or bracelets. Those hawking the latter product have the least luck — I see one English teenager spend ten minutes mulling over several arms’ worth of tacky jewellery before deciding she doesn’t want a bracelet after all. Clearly used to such last-minute changes of heart, the seller proceeds resiliently on to his next prospective customer.
I envy the stamina of the fully-clothed hawkers, regardless of their success (or lack thereof). Even with something resembling a breeze I need to take regular dips to cope with the heat at the Lido. I wade in slowly; where the clear blue waters of Hvar relieved a severe hangover upon entry, I’m not sure whether the murk here would be a help or a hindrance if I found myself in a similar state. I open my mouth underwater and immediately regret it, but a swim is a swim is a swim.
My first dip is followed by a nap. When I wake, the American dudes have divided into sub-groups. Some of them have moved a few metres over, and are chatting and smoking with two Italian women. The alpha, reclining with his elbows dug into the sand, seems to direct the conversation. His aborted Louis Vuitton bargaining has obviously been forgotten.
One dude remains as sentinel over the group’s belongings. Cap-less, he lies on the towel and tries to shield his face from the sun. He appears grumpy and refuses hawkers’ offers of sunglasses, but is eventually compensated for his vigilance in the form of more beer, retrieved by a fellow dude from the ever-rolling cart. The top-down bottles surrounding the group’s towel now easily outnumber those retaining alcohol. A new source has also been tapped — as well as the cart, the dudes are making trips to a bar set further back in the sand.
I take another swim, grimacing and unsure of whether to fully submerge myself. I’m sure there are lice. When I return to my towel, the alpha and his mates have stopped conversing with the Italian women and returned to the water. Each dude has one hand on a hip, and cradles a beer with the other.
I leave the Lido at four o’clock. I’ve collected some unexpected souvenirs: my blue cotton towel (its dye stained onto various other possessions) and some sunburn on my back. As I depart I consider shoving my own emptied beer bottle neck-first into the sand, but I end up binning it instead.