We drove from Paris. We looked at an atlas and saw Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp is in the middle of a straight diagonal to Venice. We arrived there at night to find the white stucco and concrete edifice lit like an orange slice. The monks were closed for business — a spike-topped gate denied access and obstructed our eyes, if not our lenses. I’d recently had a bad experience hopping a fence at the Dean Gardens and didn’t want to risk my chinos. We pissed in the forest surrounding the car-park built to accommodate Swiss-German caravans and went on to Belfour for the night, a town constructed of sandstone like Edinburgh and with a similar sort of hill-top fortress. (The only hotel in Ronchamp itself has its façade covered with off-putting patterns formed by pink, green and yellow neon tubes, its guests ironical architects from Basel.)
We made a slight detour to Colmar to see the Isenheim polyptych by Matthias Grünewald (1480-1528). Its central Christ Crucified is the goriest I’ve seen: nailed to a crucifix against a black background, his joints are dislocated, his flesh emaciated, feet gangrenous, skin not only pale, torn and bloodied, but pockmarked with awful disease. (The alarming quantity of mosquito bites I later accumulated in Venice—NB: it’s in a lagoon—led to some unflattering comparisons.) “It’s not very life affirming,” a museum-goer remarked at the time. “It couldn’t be more so,” Michael corrected.
We took the Gotthard Pass through Switzerland. The long tunnels are depressing and difficult to endure, but the landscapes between them are spectacular. We stopped at a road-side WC equipped with Wi-Fi to photograph the sunset at Sursee. The fluorescent glow of the toilet area juxtaposed beautifully with the pink in the sky. “Rest areas make for ambitious architecture,” Alan noted. “They are outside the parameters of society, beyond taboos.”
We spent the night in Campione, an erratic border town on the Lago di Lugano, officially Italian but surrounded by Swiss territory. It has a casino out of Atlanta and its banks were used as tax shelters until very recently. The cheapest place for four was a suite in the Hotel Campione with a terrace overlooking the lake; or rather, looking on to the hideous, grey 1980s stucco of the Lake View Hotel, which faces the lake more directly and spikes its charges accordingly (its balconies are equipped with steel blinds that prevent its guests from looking back at our own monstrosity—a possible homage to Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona, with its Nile Personified* shielding his eyes from Borromini’s Sant’Agnese in Agone). Looking down and to the right, there is a Fascist-era triumphal arch of black and grey stone. A little beyond it is a chapel with fine frescoes and stuccoes by Isidoro Bianchi (1581-1662).
The suite was clearly designed to accommodate Mafiosi: it had one master bedroom with a giant TV; a henchmens’ bedroom with two single beds opposite one another, foot-to-foot, with a smaller TV; a living room with a sofa bed for two further henchmen, another giant TV, and a table for doing business and playing off-hours poker by the balcony. A note on the wall implored customers not to take the linens. “I wonder how many floaters they get in a year,” Andrew considered, looking out at the docks.
The hotel provided breakfast, but the Swiss waitress was stingy with the coffee and hid the cheese knife so one had to use a plastic fork. We took the A4 through the Po Valley to Venice. This, the final leg, was the least pleasant part of the journey. Dust and haze from agriculture and heavy industry severely limited visibility. A truck’s cockpit exploded on the other side of the freeway: the flames were immense, the smoke very black. Aside from this, the scenery was dull and the landscape flat, which triggered a recollection of some lines from Noel Coward’s Private Lives:
Amanda: Have you known her long?
Elyot: About four months, we met at a house party in Norfolk.
Amanda: Very flat, Norfolk.
Elyot: There’s no need to be nasty.
Amanda: That was no reflection on her, unless she made it flatter.
We went by Mestre, Venice’s ugly neighbour and its lifeblood. It has a Palladio villa, but that was before it became industrial (now it’s postindustrial). We crossed the causeway, looking past where Turner painted his Approach to Venice when it was something really special and drove into the ten-storey car park at Piazzale Roma to deliver our rented vehicle to the local Avis branch.
* There is a terracotta bozzetto, or model, for this figure at the Franchetti Collection in the Ca’ D’Oro, Venice.