Venice: The Diary of an Awestruck Traveller

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Gillian Angrave

Gillian Angrave has seen quite a bit of the world. She sailed as a purser on two famous vessels, the Canberra and the Oriana, at a time when ships were becoming cruise ships rather than vehicles to get from A to B.

After that, having joined the civil service she saw service in the Philippines, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Chile and Hungary. Yet despite have seen large chunk of some of the most desirable tourist destinations in the world the place that she has captured her thinking is one she only saw for the first time just two years ago. It’s Venice, a city that has had admirers stretching from Proust, Ezra Pound, Peggy Guggenheim to Donna Leon who lives there and bases her crime thrillers in the city.

It was the place that had to be included in eighteenth and nineteenth century grand tours and seems to have exerted strong feelings amongst the British. And that same feeling has been caught by Gillian who, since that first visit has written two successful books (about to go into a third printing) and has another on the way.

Gillian’s first glimpse of Venice in 2015

Just about Travel caught up with Gillian Angrave just as she was writing her third book on Venice.

Why Venice given that you have spent time in so many places?

I used to go cruising and tended to holiday much further afield. But my sister told me that she was going to Venice and I joined her. When I got there the impact on me of the history and culture seeped into my pores and I became converted. Venice quickly became part of me. I joined Venice in Peril and almost as soon as I had come home I planned for another trip there.

Where did the travel bug come from?

“Canberra” in her heyday. Image © P& O Heritage

I think it must have been because of my uncle. He worked as a wireless operator largely on tramp steamers and he inspired me to go to sea. After his voyages he would visit us in Leicester where I was born and brought up. It’s nowhere near the sea so the tales of the places he had been and the stories of his travels made travel seem romantic and I decided that was what I wanted to do – travel.

How did your travelling begin?

I joined P&O and moved up the ranks in the purser’s office. I served on the Oronsay, and two of the most recognisable ships of the time – the Oriana and the Canberra. It was at the time that ships were becoming less used as a means of travel and were becoming cruise ships. I bridged the gap so I sailed to Australia with the £10 migrants and on the South Africa run and then, when cruising began to grow, I visited places like Auckland in New Zealand, Honolulu in Hawaii, Pago Pago in the South Pacific and dozens of other places. In all I was on the Oriana for four years and the Canberra for three.

Gondolas – one of the iconic images that people have of Venice

But you worked for the Foreign Office as well. How did that come about?

At P&O in those days, female officers could only work until they were forty and there was no pension scheme so I decided to leave sooner than when I would be compelled to leave. I still wanted to travel so I decided to that I would try for a job in the Foreign Office thinking that I would be bound to see a good deal of the world. And there was a pension scheme!

What was your first posting?

That was Manilla in the Philippines. I was there for four years which was quite a long stint in Foreign Office terms. It was quite a difficult posting for a single female but I adapted and got on with it and explored parts of the country during my stay.

And after that?

Guatemala may have been more eventful but is venice that captured Gillian Angrave’s heart. here is another iconic site, the Rialto at night

I was sent to Peru and, in fact, it was South and Central America where I sent most of my time for the next twenty years. I was in Peru for a short time before being sent to Guatemala in 1981. Our travel was limited to within a radius of twenty kilometres of Guatemala City. The country gained independence in a short while and embassy staff were given just three days to pack up and leave the country!

Next was Chile where I spent three years in the early and mid-eighties. Spending longer than in my previous two postings meant that I could see much more of Chile and other parts of South America during my periods of leave. Having spent so long abroad I then had a home posting for two years before being sent to Mexico for a four year stint in the late 1980’s. I was there when Hurricane Eugene struck parts of Mexico so I was concerned with the fate of British holidaymakers there at the time. The Mexican authorities cleaned up the affected five states so quickly but even then, places like the modern popular resort of Pueta Vallarta were badly affected although you wouldn’t know it today.

My final posting was in the Hungarian capital of Budapest where I rented a flat owned by Dr Ernő Rubik, the man forever linked with the cube he invented. This was the only posting I had in my career which was so close to home. And then at the end of my posting I reached retirement age and I took up travelling to see those parts of the world I had missed during my careers.

One of Gillian’s favouite places – the jesuit church of Santa Maria Assumpta

Even then, it was some time before you went to Venice.

It was; almost a decade. I used to go cruising and tended to holiday much further afield. But my sister told me that she was going to Venice and I joined her. When I got there the impact on me of the history and culture seeped into my pores and I became converted. Venice quickly became part of me. I joined Venice in Peril and almost as soon as I had come home I planned for another trip there.

Although many people in the past have written books about Venice such as John Ruskin, John Julius Norwich and Thomas Mann but lots of people visit Venice without writing a book. What influenced you?

a closer view of the ceiling of Santa Maria Assumpta

After I returned home,  I was looking at all the photographs I had taken and I realised that, in sequence, they told a story. I had written for my own pleasure and thought that a photographic diary would be something that I could do. It soon became apparent that publishers had different ideas to me and I decided that I would write and publish it on my own so that I could produce the book as I saw it in my mind. I also wanted it to be in a format to fit into a bag or coat pocket and also be a souvenir of a holiday there. I chose a landscape, A5 size and on glossy paper so that the photographs would appear at their best. It was also important to me that it be affordable so I could control the pricing if I published it. As it is both hardback and paperback editions are under £20 which is far less than most glossy books are these days.

“Venice: the Diary of an Awestruck traveller” has been published in two volumes so far and there is a third in the pipeline?

St Marks properly known as the Campanile di San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, and Libreria Sansoviniana

Since that first visit in 2015, I have been back many times including this month. Not only is a third volume on the way but a third printing of the first two is happening. Each of the books looks at a different part of the city and nearby islands that make up what many call Venice. I deliberately wanted it to appear as a diary of what I saw and the things that appealed to me like the Jesuit church of Santa Maria Assunta with its mass of white marble. It is off the tourist trail and slightly hidden away because the Jesuits were never that popular in Venice when the church was built.

What would you recommend a visitor sees in Venice that they might not otherwise see if they follow the tourist trails?

In walking around Dorsodouro, I came across this gem, Il Squero di Tramontin

Personally I like walking around the Dorsodouro part of Venice. Although you have tourist high spots like the Guggenheim and the Accademia  Museum here as well as the fish market, there are lots of walks through where people live that are charming to see. This is where working and living Venice can be seen rather than tourist Venice.

I would also warn people about St Mark’s Square. Whilst people are drawn to this tourist heart of Venice, anybody wishing to enter the Basilica must get there early otherwise you’ll just stand in a queue for hours.  And what a waste of time that is where you could be seeing so much in this city.

How are the books doing?

I think I underestimated the work involved in writing and publishing the books myself. But I have enjoyed every minute of it. Every author hopes that their books will do well but when you publish yourself you can only afford to print what your resources allow. So I have printed in hundreds rather than thousands and it is encouraging to know that I have to print them for a third time and that people are appreciating them.

Your books aren’t travel guides in the normal sense of the word. How would you describe them?

The best way to see anywhere is to wander around. Following a travel guide will take you where every other visitor goes. My books are different. they are a personal reflection of what I found and what I hope other visitors will enjoy.

Images unless otherwise stated ©  Gillian Angrave

Venice: the Diary of an Awestruck Traveller  Volumes I and II are published in hard back by Angrave Publications of Chichester and are available from bookshops and Amazon.

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