Sighing At The Bridge Of Sighs

The English name of the Bridge of Sighs is attributed to Lord Byron and is taken from his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It’s based on the darkly romantic notion that the splendid view of the Venetian Lagoon from the windows of the bridge would be the final view for many a repenting prisoner. In truth, the bridge was built after executions had ceased at the palace, and so it would only be the sighs of petty criminals one could have hoped to hear (not the fiends and murderers one might imagine), as they made their way across the bridge and into the prison (not to the executioner as they may have done earlier), after seeing very little from the minuscule windows that are latticed with thick stone. But let’s face it, the vision of a man whose life would be spent either in prison, exiled from Venice, or before an executioner, gawping from a window with big sad eyes looking onto the Venetian lagoon is a slightly more romantic one than that of a petty thief sitting moping in a cell for a few weeks. But it’s a nice story….

It’s now more than four hundred years after the bridge was built and not so much has changed. The bridge, along with the prison cells and the Doges Palace still stands – though just as Byron noted, still Dogeless. People scurry over the bridge – and each time that I join them, I too let out a sigh. Not because I’m looking out at Venice for the last time or because I will never be free, or because I’m a moping thief, but because when I do look out of those tiny little windows, a throng of beady eyed tourists look back from the nameless bridge opposite (it’s actually The Ponte della Paglia or The Bridge of Straw), snapping pictures at light speed, crossing off yet another item from their “bucket list” and moving on to the next target.

The Bridge of Sighs a mere item on a list? How dare you?

Although common knowledge that the bridge is no longer linking a working prison – as the Prigioni Nuove is sadly now just a shell of its former self, I would argue that in many ways, it is still a pathway to confinement for many. For who are they who cross off their “top 10” sights for every city, but prisoners of routine and mediocrity? Someone confined to a breaded maze, stalking the corridors of palaces and bridges with no flexibility, no romance, no love but only the determination to leave and move on to their next destination, their next fix and indeed their next prison?  It is group thinking at its most ridiculous – travel in its least inspiring, monotonous form.

It was the incomparable Terry Pratchett who once wrote that:


Fitting that it was Pratchett’s character Death, who made this astute observation, don’t you think? But now to make it worse we’ve built countless wonders like those one finds in cities like Venice and Rome, which along with entire mountain ranges, grand cathedrals and entire countries we have somehow transformed into nothing more than mere numbers on a list. A list used to engage (mostly) in some wanton act of competitive travel – likes and reposts. Are we humans so bored that we can turn following the herd, and indeed the orders and same old itineraries of the flock into fun? It isn’t fun to me. It is a life mapped before it has even taken place.

I don’t understand the act of counting the countries that I’ve visited, but people seem to truly believe in turning a list of countries into a bottom line comparable then only to another meaningless number. Is 50 countries vs 60 really how the modern world measures travel’s worth? Fine if you just really enjoy sitting on an airplane – I can relate – I love train travel and could spend an eternity on a train. But how can one follow a guidebook like a roadmap when there’s just so much to see in the world? How do thousands of people manage to descend into the Louvre each day and see only the Mona Lisa, generally through the lens of their phones and cameras?

Photo of the crowds in the Louvre viewing the Mona Lisa, mostly through their phones by Alicia Steels on Unsplash.

How have we, as a race, managed to turn travel, the art of exploration, the science of discovery, into a structured, travel-by-numbers fad? I’m bored of that. Even the most typical city has its hidden secrets – and to the average traveller – it would seem that those secrets account for some 90% of the city – I can’t count the hours that I’ve spent losing myself, and sight of other travellers, in the streets and back alleys of Venice. Take a look around. Stop reading the reviews and take a chance on a wrong turn or two – reclaim your right to exploration.

Of course I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to see these places – merely that it’s wrong to either only see these places or only see them because you’re told to – Trip Advisors Top 10’s are now as boring as the UK singles chart! Do you not have interests? Are bridges one of them? Fine. There are lots of bridges, more intriguing histories – but does it occur to most to look? Maybe you’ll surprise yourself – take a peak into the abyss. I do however beg of you to pay heed to my warning, as you stand side by side with your travel doppelgängers, pointing your camera towards a jagged smile – remember you are barely different from the prisoners that Lord Byron spoke of, only you subject yourself to that same fate over and over again without ever noticing, until you’re just one more “item” away from the very end of your bucket list.

If you’re intrigued by the Bridge of Sighs and you think that the intricate baroque work of art is beautiful from the outside, then take a walk through the palace and explore it from the inside. Search out the Hall of Magistrates and walk your way across the bridge and through that hallowed walkway towards the cells of the New Prison. Peer and squint through the windows, and explore the damp stone walls of the prison corridors, each filled with the smell of ageing wood and metal. There’s plenty to see in the palace: there’s centuries old graffiti scratched into the cell walls, there’s Casanova’s former cell and the knowledge that inmates as notorious as Galileo Galilei were once there. You can tour the secret locations if you prefer, passing through the “wells”, the torture rooms and the Hall of the Council of Ten. One could quite easily spend a day lurking through the secrets hidden here…. but a photograph, though worth many words, will never replace the feeling of being somewhere – of truly knowing something, feeling it and learning it.

Stop “doing” places and start visiting them again!