There is a small town up in the Tyrol, in that mountainous ridge that straddles the Southern reaches of Germany and Upper lands of North Italy, called Vipiteno (in Italian) and Sterzing (in German). It sits right on the frontier between the two countries and is divided by more than language. Some treated you better if you spoke in Italian, others , if you spoke in German. You couldn’t tell till you’d tried one of each. Things may have changed since I was there with my parents.
We stopped off there for a few nights, and, on the recommendation of a friend originally from the town, we stayed at the oldest inn in the place; I think it was called something like Das Krone – but whatever its name, it had been standing there, as a wayside inn, up in the mountains, for five hundred years – and in the same family for all that time. This seemed an impressive fact to a child who had spent no more than three or four years at a time in any one country, and, combined with a family love of history, made me curious to know more; over dinner in the timbered restaurant on the ground floor, I looked up at the portraits on the wall over the fireplace at the far end. A man and a woman, early to mid-nineteenth century – possibly even earlier …surely they were ancestors of the present inn-keepers. What might have been their history? What their names ?
The inn had expanded, there was a modern building across the road, only three years old, built mainly to accommodate coach parties. We were staying in the old building, my parents in one room nearest to the stairs, I in another a little further on.
The upper floor had a narrow winding corridor, with the rooms leading off from it – lit with warm, glowing lights, comfortable and welcoming.
Full and glowing after a (probably over-rich) hearty dinner, I drifted off happily; we had spent a fascinating time in Venice, had chatted and giggled at dinner and were anticipating a couple of days exploration of Vipiteno. All was light and cheery. I slipped into sleep in a haze of comfort.
I awoke a few hours later,suddenly, in the dark, and petrified. That over-used expression ‘paralysed with fear’ comes to mind; yet how else to describe the sheer impossibility of movement owing to the cold terror that has taken hold of your whole body ?
Indigestion, I hear you suggest. Over-excitement, says another. Pooh, over-active imagination, from the gentleman at the back there.
It may well be so – yet those three are no strangers to me, and I think would have resulted in similar effects often enough for me to have already drawn such a conclusion, if such indeed were the case. I had not before, nor have I since, experienced such a sensation, such a terrifying feeling ; – of someone sitting on the end of the bed.
My feet were tilting – in the unmistakable way that feet do when the mattress is sat on; and this I believe was what had awoken me.
It can only have lasted a few seconds – yet it seemed an eternity before I could stretch my hand out to switch on the light. Finally, I managed to do that – and kept my eyes tightly shut. That welcome glow, through my eyelids , was not enough in itself to reassure me. I had no intention of opening them – I felt most strongly that to do so would be a serious mistake, that my very sanity would be at risk if I dared to open them.
Gradually – oh, relief! – gradually, the weight lifted and dissipated. My feet returned to a normal position as the mattress lightened. But dear heavens, it was slow in going – and still I kept my eyelids tightly shut. I did not want to see, I could not bear the thought of what I might see, at the end of the bed – until finally, all sensation of weight had gone completely. How long did that take ? Again, probably no more than a matter of seconds – yet how interminable even seconds can feel, dragging on as a plough through thick mud ….
Now I could open my eyes – only because I was finally convinced that the room was empty. Not before. Now. You see, there was that sensation, powerful enough to convince me that there was a presence, a presence I did not wish to see, and that I would be unable to move until that same presence had withdrawn.
I looked at the clock. Close on three. There was no prospect of going back to sleep that night. I got up and crept down the corridor as far as my parents’ room, then peered about, loath to wake them. There were comforting small night lights on. The corridor remained lit all night, which was a blessing. But I did not see how I could wander up and down the corridor all night. Nor had I any wish to remain in the bedroom.
I got dressed and went downstairs. By that time it must have been nearly four in the morning. I sat on one of the old wooden chests in the hall; I felt unafraid downstairs. I looked about me, at the furnishings, the great dark shiny floor, the stairs. I waited until the light changed, when dawn, so very welcome, finally broke, and the cleaning ladies came into the hall and started vacuuming, dusting, chatting …
I do not know if they commented on my being in the hall at such an early hour – I don’t know if they even saw me. That same day however, we were moved to the new building across the road. Perhaps that had been part of the original arrangement; it was certainly a surprise to me. I was in a sense sorry not to be in such a wonderfully old building – but I was also relieved. I slept well that night, as far as I can remember. I certainly was not troubled by the feeling of someone – or something – sitting on the end of the bed (mind you, I think I left the bedside light on!)
As I have already mentioned, I have never had such an experience anywhere else before or since.
The inn (or hotel, I suppose it should be called) was later converted; I believe there are shops now on the ground floor; the upper floor all shut up.
I have since wondered, when researching Elizabethan travel , as to how many might have passed through those inn doors – and how many passed out again. Did one or two of them disappear overnight? In those times , highway men, robbers and thieves roamed the area, and attacks on travellers in lonely inns were not infrequent. How many secrets might such a building as that mountain inn hold ?
And then I look at a painting by Fuseli, and wonder again ….
Venice has often seemed strangely empty of phantoms to me; there used to be ghost tours but these I believe faded with time. I
certainly haven’t seen their posters in a long while.
Yet talk to those who work in old buildings …
There is one shop in Venice, filled with beautiful fabrics and silk lanterns; its large windows offer glowing, vibrant colours of the velvet and silk items displayed within – with prices to match. It commands a restrained presence on a busy tourist thorough-fare, more suggestive of pragmatic commerce than spooks and spirits. And yet …
A quiet day, off-season, very few people about and ‘Clara’ was on her own.
So she thought.
It started with the sensation of somebody standing behind her. Turn and turn again as she might, there was never anyone visible. But the presence was very strong, and, she said, definitely male. What made her think that? The smell of tobacco, for one thing. Not from a cigarette, either. That sweetish smell of a pipe being smoked.
Again she turned to see who else was in the shop, and again, there was nobody to be seen.
She shrugged it off as imagination and set to work sorting out one of the cupboards.
‘There wasn’t a breath of air,’ she said, ‘a warm day, too, and I had a pile of cushions to store away. I was sorting the things, still trying to ignore the sensation of somebody standing behind me when puff! There was a breath on my cheek – quite distinct. Made me turn round pretty sharpish – but not a soul to be seen. That shook me. I couldn’t wait to finish that day, I can tell you.’
Later on, (there always is a ‘later on’) she discovered others working in the shop have had similar experiences. Guesswork suggests the original owner from when the company started up in the 1900s. Then there is a female presence on the fourth floor – nobody cares to venture up there alone after dark, and one of them always makes sure to ‘greet’ the presence on entering the room ‘otherwise she plays tricks’ – such as moving or hiding objects.
Can all this be put down to imagination, an overly sensitive reaction to the suggestive force of an old building? These might perhaps be termed urban or contemporary myths; I am only puzzled not to have encountered many more. There is for example a house in Cannaregio whose inhabitant claims two presences are often to be seen: one human height, the other small (she thinks it might be a cat); her dog often refuses to go indoors, apparently sensing something not quite right within. Awkward if it’s raining, I should think.Walkies takes on a whole other aspect then …
More ‘classical’ ghost tales and legends dating from the time of the Republic, can be found collected together in a smart little volume by Alberto Toso Fei : Venetian Legends and ghost stories
( TosoFei Mysterious Venice on Youtube)
- Masquerade at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, by Giuseppé Grisoni, 1724, Victoria & Albert Museum
The ball is arrived. Long live the ball. With its laces and petticoates, and fans and bows, and powder and masks . . . no one knows who is who (or affects not to know) and as the evening progresses, no one much cares. Not to be outdone by the fine gentry of Vauxhall, the local gentry of Lichfield have chosen to compete even in this area of fashion.
Enter a large red Cabbage (Mrs Rotundity with trimmings), followed by a purple Pencil (Lord Withered) and a green Peacock (Lady Withered). A quadrille commences, and the Peacock is engaged by a grey Spider, (Mr Lucrative), while the Pencil makes do with the Cabbage.
The room is already half-full, with many coy guesses as to identity being tossed about; there are various innocent looking Turtles, a few Kittens and Puppies, a white Hen or two (probably Mrs Glass and Mrs Rawnsley) all jostling and slipping and capering. It is well past nine before another carriage of any significance arrives, producing one up-turned purple Tulip and one Beetroot (Lady and Lord Puffball respectively), who linger a while to adjust themselves in the court yard before joining the revellers within . . .”
From Tom Jones, Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison to Faulkner’s Lost Stradivarius, the masked ball offered more than flirtatious subterfuge. The poor, the rich, risk-takers and gamblers could intermingle at leisure – although not always to their mutual benefit, for the same function also provided ample opportunity to thieves, thwarted suitors and assassins. Ladies’ pockets and ladies’ virtue were both besieged, warned of by writers and cartoonists alike; it was the place for seductions, elopements, kidnappings (as Fielding and Richardson illustrate) and even murder (as in Faulkner’s Lost Stradivarius).
Vauxhall, Ranelagh, the Pantheon and Carlisle House were among the most popular resorts for such unexpected excitement and pleasantries, ready for those bored with their lot in life to wander about, whispering invitations, offering, informing, discovering . . . agents and spies could benefit as much as anyone else at these gatherings : for about the time that Tom Jones was ploughing fields of petticoats and Clarissa and Grandison were verbally mortifying themselves, the ‘sbirri’ of Venice were going about their business very comfortably in their bauté and tricorni – because virtually everyone else was similarly disguised. For six months of the year the Carnival in Venice allowed the domino to throw a convenient veil not only over social distinction, allowing gamblers both poor and rich alike to scrabble for their coins on the ridotto tables, but over informers, intriguers and spies too. The same masks that sheltered their identities travelled as far as England where the idea of disguise appealed mainly for its piquancy. The loose behaviour at the public functions caused various condemnations, yet public demand saw to it that these licentious affairs continued well up nigh to the end of the 18th century.
The masquerade ball goes on all the time now, costumes have become avatars or profile pictures, offering the user an identity as mysterious as the domino ever was; covering up, transforming, offering total metamorphosis : ideal as ever for flirting, gossiping and sadly some not so innocent mischief-making. The bauté and tricorno sit hovering in the ether, their variations many and manifold, to be plucked at a moment’s notice . . . kittens and puppies, bears and baubles, wine bottles, corks, koalas with berets . . .
Aether user : “Well, what have you for me today ? Mind, I am to attend Lady HaHa’s forum this very evening, and wish to make a splash !”
Website costumier : “A splash? Why, I have the very thing – take this image of a great pool, with a fluorescent penguin adorned in grass skirt raising a cocktail in his left flipper !”
A : “ Yes, I think when I said ‘Splash’, I did in fact intend something a little less literal – have you not some fine picture of an antelope with feathers ?”
W : “But of course, I have many – look here – and here – and here : flamingo pink, with a pineapple, or celestial blue with a drunken dog, or what about a little sparkle, an explosion of fireworks with an apple peel judiciously displayed in the foreground ?
A : “Drat, I have no more time – I’ll take it ! No, wait, what is that drunken unicorn doing with those bananas ? Excellent ! I’ll have that one instead !”
(And another final vestige of sanity bites the dust . . .)
And yes, I have a kidnapping or two going on in Greenwood Tree as well . . .should I have mentioned that earlier ?
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