Floods, fashion and freezing in Venice
Venice -- Wading through freezing, thigh-high water and dodging sewage in the dark was the last thing on my mind as I packed a borrowed Prada outfit and red vintage handbag into my suitcase.
But in journalism you can never take a story for granted -- I had nipped up to Venice for a fashion feature and found myself covering one of the biggest floods in the city's history.
There we were on a Tuesday night, checking out the latest collection by designer Stefano Ricci in the spectacular Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the headquarters of an ancient confraternity which boasts one of the most important collections of Tintoretto paintings in the world.
I'd travelled up from Rome with video journalist Sonia and photographer Marco for the show and dinner with some 15 other journalists and fashionistas.
Perhaps the fact that we were surrounded by Tintoretto paintings should have served as a warning -- the man was a genius, and a tenacious one too, surviving in plague-hit Venice while all dropped dead around him, and refusing to let anyone stand in his way, earning him the enviable nickname "the terrible".
The night had unfolded beautifully -- we had admired the silk-suited models and sat down to eat, Sonia in a new dress she had bought especially for the occasion, me in my favourite jeans, a black jumper and black leather boots (I’d decided there was no need for Prada, black is elegance enough, surely).
A choir sang as we tucked into a tasty fish pie and lively debated the merits of velvet tuxedoes.
Then as the chocolate pudding was served, Ricci senior announced that the tide was rising fast and, with water creeping up the steps outside, we'd have to make a break for it.
A geographical aside: most people know that Venice is a series of islands built on wooden poles in a shallow lagoon, separated by canals and connected by bridges. What fewer realize is that the lagoon is connected to the Adriatic Sea, which has tides. And in the winter those tides, fuelled by the wind, can get quite large. When this happens, the water surges into the lagoon, flooding the city.
This happens regularly. Venetians have waders and tourists buy knee-high plastic boot covers that they can pull over their footwear on such occasions, so we weren’t overly worried. We tugged on the neon covers the Riccis handed out, chuckling at the fashion influencers trying to get theirs on over their stilettos without puncturing them, and headed into the wet and inky darkness.
We laughed riotously as we got outside and found ourselves splashing like toddlers in giant puddles. But now to work! Sonia and Marco began filming and snapping away while I played sherpa, holding the camera bag and tripod aloft and trying to keep the video camera dry with an umbrella that soon turned inside out. We waded on, past a man who was attempting in vain to pump water out of his shop as fast as it entered. A woman dressed in her finest toppled over in front of us, despite her friends’ best efforts to steady her.
Then all of a sudden, we realised we were lost. And that’s when it got a bit hairy. The wind was howling, the water was thigh-high, cold and strewn with garbage and sewer waste. The electricity was out, it was dark, we were in a random alley and the tide was rising fast.
We knew two things. We had to get to St Mark's Square on the other side of the Grand Canal to cover the story -- that, after all, is the lowest point of the city, and its beating cultural, historical and religious heart. And we had to stick together.
The water was at hip height by then. Sonia joked that she needed the loo and that she might as well just go there, as our pants were already soaked through and we were practically swimming in sewage.
We paused on a little bridge over a canal so I could try and call the office in Rome, and tell them the tide was apparently hitting a record high.
Of course there was no mobile reception. Oh crap, I thought (rather fittingly). How the hell was I going to get the news out? Being worried about that was a welcome distraction, for we had got separated from the rest of the press pack, meaning we had no boat ride back to our hotel and onto St. Mark’s Square.
We passed a park, the trees buffeted by the gale. Living in Rome has officially ruined trees for me, for every time there's a storm, dozens of poorly maintained pines are uprooted, inevitably killing some poor passerby.
Onwards we went, Sonia trying by now to protect the camera under her coat -- her new dress now floating around her waist as we dodged bits of debris and trod poo underfoot.
By a stroke of luck, we spotted the rest of our group from the restaurant at a water taxi station a bit downriver, and raced, or rather lurched to join them.
I was rather relieved to see them, as I hadn't relished the thought of trying to make it across the city on foot, in case the flooded alleys we courageously plunged into turned out to be canals instead. It appeared impossible in the dark to tell the difference.
I don't know whether it was becoming a mother 18 months ago, or just age, but I seem to have lost the gung-ho spirit of that younger me who hungered to be sent off to cover riots and warzones. If I could take a water taxi rather than doing what basically amounted to a front crawl through the smelly waters, I'd pick that option.
When we finally made it to our hotel, we saw that the terrace was submerged and water was gushing into the downstairs reception and bar. We'd have to go in through the window. I wasn't keen. Suddenly images from the submerged luxury Concordia ship, filmed after it capsized off the coast of Italy, flashed into my mind. And the stories I wrote about -- those who jumped as the cruise liner toppled over, and those who were trapped and drowned. The man who'd gone back for his violin. Five-year old Dayana and her father, neither of whom made it.
Get a grip! I snapped at myself, and grasped the hand of a nice hotel employee who pulled me to safety.
I went straight upstairs to write the story -- after a cold shower to get the slime off -- while Sonia and Marco finally made it across to St Mark's Square.
The next morning we were up with the larks to see the damage and speak to the locals. It was not a pretty sight. Shop windows smashed, Venetian masks lying rotting on the ground. Some frankly mad tourists wandering barefoot among the debris.
Sonia and I plunged into St Mark's Square and across to the sea front.
We'd been there dozens of times, but that morning it seemed weirdly off kilter. A large water ferry plonked on the sidewalk. Gondolas scattered about, just waiting for the tide to rise back up again and wash them back out to sea I suppose.
At first no-one wanted to talk to us, then for whatever reason they all did at once. They said the city has had it, and it's sad to think they might be right.
As I listened to them I wondered whether the marvellous Serenissima, as Venice is sometimes called, with its Carnival, film festival, churches, art and cocktails -- this is the land of the Bellini and Spritz after all -- may well succumb to the waves by the time my daughter grows up.
We made it to a rare island of dry land and wondered briefly about sitting on a bench in the rain to write and edit the images, but we were already soaked through and my teeth were chattering hard.
Sonia and I did some eyelash fluttering until a restaurant owner let us perch at one of his tables while he cleaned up the floodwaters around us.
We sent our copy through, then called Marco, who'd made it to the top of St Mark's Basilica to get some wide shots of the devastation. The famously ornate church was particularly hard hit, and we needed to film inside.
For the umpteenth time this trip, Lady Luck was on our side. Days earlier we'd set up an interview with the man in charge of looking after the Basilica.
The police initially tried to stop us crossing the square, saying it was too dangerous. But we're in Italy, so a wink and a plea talked them around and a female officer ended up offering to accompany us across.
Her radio crackled with a request from the control room to keep an eye out for a missing 87-year man and I offered a silent prayer to any gods that might be listening that the poor soul was ok.
We made our way inside to the crypt and interviewed the elderly procurator, who gamely stood in the water which still lapped around the marble tombs. He said he'd seen nothing like it, the flood rushed in with an unprecedented force, causing millions of euros of damage to precious mosaics and seeping into the 12th century walls.
I can well believe it, and it's hugely depressing, but I was too cold to type up the story, and we gratefully took up the offer of an instant coffee from a dispenser in the museum on the top floor -- the only part of the building with electricity.
There was no food though, and we hadn't eaten since that chocolate pudding. Bad form to think of our stomachs at a time like that? Probably, but being hungry makes me grumpy and doesn't improve my copy.
Once I could at least feel my hands again, we perched at the entrance to the Basilica to work, but with the wifi down we knew we had to head back to the hotel and file from there.
The seagulls were making merry as we squelched through excrement, and I confess I was cheered slightly by one stealing a piece of pizza right out of the hand of a tourist posing for the classic "disaster zone selfie".
The flooding was the worst Venice had seen since 1966, but I fear we won't have to wait that long for another. Plans to build new flood defences for the city have stalled amid bureaucracy and corruption.
Climate change seems to be wreaking havoc all over the world, so covering the high tides in Venice is likely to become a regular gig. It's time to invest in some waders.