So it was finally our time to visit the legendary travel destination of Venice. With increasing excitement we journeyed from Florence through Tuscany and finally over the long bridge to this island city. I usually try not to have ‘great expectations’ about big name travel destinations because I’ve often been disappointed by them; fortunately this was not the case with Venice. When we walked out of the train station it seemed that we were walking onto another beautiful planet named “Ocean”, not “Earth”. The sky was a mesmerizing blue color and there were no roads or cars — just boats cruising along the calm waterways of the Grand Canal, past elegant old buildings. If there’d been a few spacecraft floating by I could have believed we were on the set of a Lucas Star Wars sequel. It was fabulous! There’s nothing like it anywhere and its a place I’d recommend everyone try to visit once in their life.
A brief history of Venice
Part of Venice’s appeal is how improbable it is that this city should even exist. With the fall of Rome and invasion of barbarians into Italy during the Dark Ages, many Italians fled to the small sand islands in the Laguna Venita to try to eek out a living. The barbarians didn’t follow them into the lagoon and they slowly began building a society on these small sand banks. Islands were built up by sinking timbers into the sand and on this reclaimed land homes and churches were built.
Venice is quite an engineering feat, a coalescence of a hundred smaller islands into a functional city, separated by dozens of canals. With time, a great city emerged from the sand bars which a thousand years ago was the greatest city in the world — a leader in trade and commerce (and accumulating great wealth from trade between Asia and Europe). With the fall of its power and influence, Venice entered a state of “elegant decay”; the city seems locked in time, although it is slowly loosing its battle with the sea and elements. With the decline in Venice as the dominant city in the world came a rise in tourism, the wave of tourists still flooding the city centuries later and providing its lifeblood.
Given that it’s a city literally built on sand, a major problem Venice has faced for years is that it’s slowly sinking. Usually the water is not a problem but when high high tide rolls in there is significant flooding of the city and it’s walkways, including Piazza San Marco, the city’s main square. The high salt waters cause an undermining of the city’s foundations and a massive flood gate is being built (a multibillion Euro project) that will hopefully be able to control the water levels. Venice is certainly worth saving.
I’d like to throw my voice in with those who recommend staying in Venice, rather than making a day trip to it or staying on the mainland and just taking the train over for several days. Venice during the day is hot, crowded and can have lines that will test your patience. Venice at night is charming. The crowds are thinned by the departure of the tour ships and trains. St. Mark’s square becomes a center of live entertainment, as three bands compete for your attention and patronage. Rooms in Venice aren’t cheap but we found it well worth our while.
Things to do and see in Venice
1) Tour the Grand Canal. Venice has a main central waterway known as the Grand Canal, which is worth cruising several times (preferably once at dusk or early evening so you can see the lights of the elegant buildings that line it lite up). It’s only two miles long and houses dozens of former palaces that are fun to study. You can take a water taxi (expensive), gondola (very expensive and only will cover part of the canal’s length), or you can take the Vaporetto — the water bus. It is often very crowded and busy but it’s affordable and how the locals and most tourists travel so buy a multiday pass and enjoy the journey — and the elegance of this old waterway. An option to an expensive gondola ride is to take the traghetto — gondola shuttles that just ferry you across the Grand Canal at 8 set locations. Straddling the Grand Canal are four bridges, the most classic of which is the Rialto Bridge, about midway down the canal and definitely worth a few minutes of your time to explore.
2) St. Mark’s square is the main piazza in Venice and if you have only one day in town, spend most of your time here. The square is historic and lined by elegant old buildings (at least some of which are always undergoing refurbishing). The square is always busy, especially during the peak daytime hours and, as such, it’s a good place to people watch (and to watch out for pick-pockets).
The highlight of St. Mark’s square is its Basilica which is about a thousand years old and one of the most unique churches I’ve ever visited. The church was built to house the bones of Jesus’ disciple, the Apostle Mark (they were smuggled out of Egypt in barrels of pork — justification was that St. Mark visited Venice during his lifetime). St. Mark’s Basilica is decorated with items plundered from the known world including copies of the famous bronze horses atop the entrance. It’s architecture is an interesting hybrid of eastern and western, with distinctive Byzantine domes, Greco-Roman columns and dozens of absolutely incredible mosaics. Entry to the basilica is free but there are areas requiring small admissions (the treasury, lavish Golden Altarpiece and San Marco Museum which houses the original bronze horses; all are worthwhile). This church is an absolutely must-see attraction!
The Doge Palace sits beside the Basilica and was home to the ruler of Venice, known as the doge (pronounced dohzh). The Doge’s Palace was one of the most influential places in Europe for hundreds of years. The Palace tour takes you through the private home of the Doge, executive, legislative and judicial rooms, and you finish the tour by walking across the Bridge of Sighs to the prison. There’s great art throughout the Palace including works by Veronese and Tintoretto.
The Corrier Museum sits at the far end of the square and has a nice collection of Venetian art (with works by Titian, Canova) and offers glimpses of Venice’s history including armor, weapons and doge memorabilia.
The Campanile (bell tower) can’t be missed and offers elevator rides to the top, with memorable panoramic views of Venice from 300 feet high. There are a number of photos taken from the top of the Campanile in my slide show.
3) Churches and Museums. As with much of Italy, some of the best art you’ll see will be in churches where it’s displayed as the artist originally intended it to be viewed. If you have time visit the Guggenheim Museum, Accademia, Frari and Salut churches.
4) Shopping. Glass and lace, and beautiful Carnevale masks are traditional gifts from Venice. You’ll find lots of shops with fine fashion and crafts available through the city. As you might expect, the best prices are found in less frequented areas of the city.
5) Wander and try to get lost. Venice is a small island and as such you really can’t stray very far. The charm of Venice is the city itself and it’s kind of fun to wander canals and alleys and see some uncommon sights (eg. clothes on lines hanging out to dry over a canal).
Even if you only learn a few words of Italian, try to use them with a waiter or a clerk in a shop. They will almost certainly speak English but your efforts will be greatly appreciated and will endear you to them.