Ian Belcher’s fiancée fancied a weekend of canals, culture and Chianti. So, naturally, they headed up the M6…
It wasn’t a threat. More a wistful longing. A gentle reminder that our engagement shouldn’t be the end of the wine and roses. ‘The Seychelles would be nice,’ sighed my fiancée Becca, setting the bar at an imaginative height. ‘Or Istanbul. I’d love to hear the cries of the imam caressing the Bosphorus. Or even Venice. Yes. Venice. What about La Serenissima?’ What indeed? I’m all for romance. Whose heart doesn’t melt at gracefully ageing palazzi, astonishingly grand squares and canals softened by winter mist.
But I also appreciate the appeal of the staycation; of a trip without airport security, budget flights and grim exchange rates. I understand the finest things in life are often right there on our doorstep.
‘I’ve got it,’ I announced, partly in triumph, partly in hope. ‘Let’s try… Birmingham.’
‘Birmingham? Birmingham near Wolverhampton?’
‘Spot on,’ I was surfing the waves of disbelief.
‘Grab your Gucci shades and La Perla lingerie. We’re off to Brum.’
My choice wasn’t entirely random. Britain’s second city has definite echoes of Italy’s dreamy tourist honeypot. As any pub-quiz bore knows, its 35 miles of canal are seven more than Venice. It also has gondolas. Or it did have. Eight years ago, the owner of the Don Salvo Restaurant bought a beauty from Venetian boat builder, Gianfranco Vianella Crea. Powered by Ricardo, or rather retired sales manager Richard Bailey, I navigated the serene waters of the romantically named Birmingham New Mainline Canal. It was rather lovely, although listening to multiple renditions of ‘Just One Cornetto’, courtesy of builders with hard hats and Brummie twangs, was more endurance test than Renaissance thrill.
Sadly Don Salvo’s restaurant and his gondola are long gone. So instead of the gentle Ricardo, or a macho Venetian with a hooped top and unfeasibly long pole, Becca and I find ourselves listening to the crisply knowledgeable Gill Smith, who offers dining cruises and narrowboat holidays on the canals of Central England. Today she’s steering us past Birmingham’s locks, basins and bridges. As with La Serenissima, the waterways hark back to a more glorious role as the arteries feeding the heart of the Industrial Revolution. They’re now spearheading Birmingham’s regeneration – if Venice was a city-state, Brum was a city in a state – and are drizzled with pubs, cafes and visitor landmarks.
Old nuzzles new. After the cutesy Canalside Café – an 18th-century tollhouse – we pass under the sturdy Broad Street Tunnel. To our left, above the Handmade Burger Company, Brindleyplace’s sparkly offices and restaurants loom like vast ducal palazzi, topped off with a very modern Italianate tower.
Floating on, the International Convention Centre and its Symphony Hall, a state-of-the-art venue any Italian city would kill for, and National Sealife Centre – the nearest Birmingham gets to Venice’s Lido – are punctuated by the old brewmaster’s gaff , Malt House Pub, and a Victorian signpost: ‘Wolverhampton 3 locks, Worcester 58 locks.’
It doesn’t, even with eyes closed and optimism fully engaged, hold a tealight, let alone a candle to the Renaissance and Baroque feast of the Grand Canal. And you’re more likely to see empty beer bottles than Tintorettos. But there’s a gritty beauty to our industrial past, an epic solidity to the disused brick stables for the horses that once towed barges through the morning mist, and to the white and black iron bridges stamped Horseley Ironworks, Staffordshire 1827.
If canals stir the heart, they also boost the appetite. In Venice that means bacari, the cosy bars serving wine and cicheti bar snacks. Our upmarket equivalent is Selfridges’ Moët Bar, where several customers sport the suspicious sheen of footballers’ wives. It’s fast, convivial and has sensational homemade mushroom soup, followed by spinach, chickpea and avocado salad, washed down by Chianti. Magnifico. Truly magnifico.
The store, however, is about more than food and shopping. Far more. Next to its Italian rival, Birmingham has little iconic architecture. But in Selfridges – designed by the visionary Jan Kaplicky – it has a radical, startlingly contemporary masterpiece. The vast globular blue mass, sprinkled with 15,000 reflective discs, rears above the urban clutter like a super-sized bug’s eye, morphing and shifting in the changing light.
We stare. And stare. It’s mesmerising. Yet Becca’s clearly not convinced of the city’s romantic charms.
‘Gosh, the wind’s savage today,’ suggests a heart freezing, not melting. I need help from the heavens. Venice’s ace in a generously endowed pack, is the Basilica de San Marco, dominating the piazza that Napoleon dubbed the ‘drawing room of Europe’. Brum’s answer? St Philip’s Cathedral, surrounded by a square with a nice bit of Victoriana.
The British cathedral may lack the gold domes, 4,000sq metres of mosaics and looted treasures from Constantinople, but it’s still a Baroque gem, laced with marble columns, decorative parapet urns and a striking bell tower. It reeks of Midlands’ modesty, not Italian flamboyance – the first Bishop of Birmingham chose an existing church over a grand design, channeling the savings into his industrial flock.
We enter its galleried interior to find a lunchbreak crowd listening to Canon Nigel Hand discuss Psalm 136. There’s none of St Mark’s smells, bells and hypnotic chanting, but it’s still marvellously serene. The crowning glories are the east and west stained-glass windows by local boy, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, all blood reds, rich pinks and exquisite skin tones. Becca seems utterly entranced. At last, La Brumissima is working its magic.
Keen to drive home the potential of the city’s artistic heritage, we stroll to the nearby Museum and Art Gallery. I immediately do a double-take. To one side, linking the sturdy colonnaded façade to its 1911 extension is Birmingham’s reply to Venice’s Bridge of Sighs. Yes, it’s a tad lumpen, lacking the original’s delicate glass windows – a Bridge of Groans perhaps – but the influence is obvious. It continues inside. The museum has at least nine paintings of La Serenissima, including Francesco Guardi’s breathtaking Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana.
Nearby there’s proof that Venetian master Canaletto travelled to the Midlands – his extraordinary draughtsmanship of Warwick Castle. And the magnificent industrial gallery explains the influence of Venice’s 16th-century glassmakers on British craftsmen, displaying vases by Union Works of Birmingham and Richardsons of Stourbridge.
But the gallery’s trump romantic card is its world-renowned Pre-Raphaelite collection. Not familiar with the Brotherhood? The name suggests a bunch of hedonists, partial to the odd romp with Venetian courtesans, but in reality they were a gaggle of English painters, poets and critics determined to return to the detailed, vivid, complex art before Raphael. Cue walls of languid women with lustrous hair, strong faces – think Nicole Kidman in The Hours – and hints of goddess, rife with precisely rendered flowers and dresses. They set a suitably dreamy, exotic tone. But we’re not finished with the museum yet.
Its Edwardian tearooms with their ornate tiling, intricate friezes and huge conservatory roof are Brum’s reply to the cafes around St Mark’s Square. Today, with just three customers, they’re no match for mirrored, stuccoed, frescoed Caffè Florian with its resident orchestra and past clientele including Goethe, Byron and Rousseau. Then again, the tearooms don’t charge ten quid for a hot chocolate. After a stonking antipasto and fritto misto at Carluccio’s – right on the canal – Birmingham throws another hot coal on the fires of amour.
The Art Deco Electric is Britain’s oldest working cinema, dating back to 1909 and now offers squidgy sofas and text service drinks. Our movie choice is tricky. Neither a stuttering monarch nor a hiker who amputates his own arm are classic romcoms. George VI wins and Colin Firth, I’m reliably informed, is a walking cinematic aphrodisiac.
At this point in Venice we’d retire to Giudecca Island in our mahogany Riva launch and gaze across the moonlit lagoon from the Hotel Cipriani. Brum is a tad less showy. Still, we arrive at BEST WESTERN PREMIER Moor Hall Hotel & Spa in Sutton Coldfield, a wood-panelled Edwardian pile built by a scion of the Ansells’ brewing dynasty, in my Fiat 500 – at least it’s Italian – and, after a solid night’s kip, wake to panoramic views of the wooded golf course.
Next day, Birmingham’s romantic flow continues with custard. Or at least the Custard Factory. The old Bird’s plant is now at the heart of a dynamic 15-acre city-centre site of workshops and towering railway arches teeming with arty types, creatives and live musicians, alongside indy retailers and budding entrepreneurs. The latest building to be tarted up, Zellig – all light, bright and white – exhibits a doppelganger for the ubiquitous cherubs in Venice’s Renaissance frescoes. The sculpture, the portliest of seven male nudes suspended in midair, is modelled on a naked Clive Dunn from Dad’s Army. Take that, Pietro Lombardo.
It’s not the only similarity between the cities, stresses Custard Factory marketing manager, David Peebles. Both need to hark back to past glories. Venice for the tourist euro and Birmingham – through small business hubs such as Zellig – to its days as the ‘City of a 1,000 Trades’.
One has never gone away. The Jewellery Quarter –the equivalent of Murano glassworks – might be past its peak but still employs 2,000 people. They produce and sell 40 per cent of the country’s handmade jewellery in an area of 200 listed buildings spanning three centuries, peppered with restaurants, pubs and cafes. We amble past the old (Thomas Fattorini,1827) and the new (Diamond Heaven), bathing in the warm light of history before ending at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, where the workshops of Smith and Pepper have been pickled in aspic, tools still on benches, since the company closed its doors in 1981.
‘It’s one of the most romantic parts of Birmingham,’ says guide, Clive Heeley, who has worked in the trade since 1976. ‘Not only because people come for engagement rings, but because of the sense of community. It’s changing but there used to be a fantastic camaraderie. Everybody trusted everybody.’ It’s an idyllic past I’m happy to exploit to underline Brum’s credentials as a city of love. I take Becca to Vittoria Street where we gaze at a magnificently solid building with a cool brick and glass extension. ‘The School of Jewellery,’ I explain. ‘My grandmother was a student in the 1920s. Grandpa collected her here every day when they were courting.’ Becca’s eyes look suspiciously watery – as do mine – and for once it’s nothing to do with the cold.
In Venice, we’d toast their memory with an overpriced Bellini at Harry’s Bar. Not today. Instead we head to the Old Joint Stock, overlooking the cathedral, a strikingly beautiful pub, hewn from a Grade II listed banking hall dating back to 1864.
‘Can you do a Bellini?’ I ask the waitress, Sarah Corcoran.
‘Nah. What’s that. A cocktail?’
‘Prosecco and peach juice.’
‘Ooof, two of my favourites. Sorry. You prefer a pint?’
So no Bellinis for us, then. But instead we had pints and homemade pies. Pies of the type that Venice can only dream about. As Becca tucks into organic pork, Honeydew beer and caramelised pear with the vigour of Casanova in a convent, I contemplate our honeymoon. La Serenissima or Brum? I couldn’t. Could I?