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Venice: Bravo La Serenissima

(January 2001)



Venice is called La Serenissima, meaning the most serene and most lovely. It’s a dramatic city rising from the sea. When you arrive, you realize that nothing you have ever read in books or seen in pictures could have prepared you for the mesmerizing eccentricity of this place. When you see your first canal, the gondolas, or St. Marks Square, you suddenly realize that there aren’t enough adjectives to describe it.

Its beauty, appearing untouched despite the modern world, is all around. Venice stands on 118 islands seamlessly connected by a maze of more than 100 canals that are spanned by more than 400 bridges. In its famous canals, water gleams with a magical crystalline glow. Approaching the Grand Canal, Venice’s main street, by water taxi or cruise ship is one of the most galvanizing travel experiences.

Fishy Beginnings

Venice began as a fishing village in the early 5th century, when refugees of the Roman Empire fled the Lombard invaders of Northern Italy. The origins of Venice’s canal system began when these settlers built huts on the mud banks and dug deep ditches to secure their boats. The port grew rapidly. By the 12th century, Venice was an empire that secured strategic islands in the Ionian, Aegean, and Eastern Mediterranean seas, and it became the world’s leading maritime port.

With the onset of the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, the city moved in a more cultural direction and reached its artistic glory with the massive construction of churches and palaces. Venice also built the world’s first public opera house and instituted the first publicly funded musical education system. Not surprisingly, Venice was able to refine the lives and works of countless creators, including Bach, Handel, and Wagner, who came to Venice to perfect their craft.

A Sinking Feeling

Despite its architectural achievements, much has been made of the fact Venice is slowly sinking. The city is built on sand, silt, and hard clay, which together have compacted over the centuries. The lowering of the underground water table has exaggerated the problem.

If Venice does sink, it might be due to the weight of the invading tourists. However, the Venetians I spoke with don’t seem to be too worried. There used to be an off-season, but not any more. Even in November when it rains and mists, the city gets crowded. Although the spring and summer months are the most hectic, people are drawn to Venice no matter what time of year.

Getting Around Venice

Getting around Venice is a fun-filled adventure. Because cars are not allowed in the city confines, all travel is done by boat or foot. The various modes of water transportation include vaporetti and motorscafi, and to a much lesser degree, the legendary gondola.

Vaporetti, or large water taxis, make up the heart of Venice’s mass transportation system. They travel the city’s main waterways and can seat well over 100 people. Like buses, vaporetti allow passengers to hop on and off at various dock stations around the city. Tickets can be purchased at the dock stands or at various tabacchi (tobacco/convenience stores) around the city—they usually run around $5 per ride.

Motorscafi are smaller and faster than vaporetti, but are much more costly—you could compare this service to limo service. These boats hold up to 15 people and cost over $100 an hour on average. If you were traveling with friends or in a group, this would be a great way to see the city.

Gondolas

The gondola, Venice’s signature boat, has its beginnings in the 10th century as a form of transportation for residents. In accordance with the Sumptuary Law of 1562, they were, and still are, exclusively painted black. Today, these boat are mainly tourist attractions.

One of the highlights of my trip was an evening gondola ride with my husband. We traveled in a gondola with another couple from our Renaissance ship. The cost was $69 per person and included round-trip transfers from the ship via vaporetto, champagne, truffles, and of course, a musical serenade complete with accordion. Our gondolier, Marco, was very nice; however, like most Italians, he was addicted to his cell phone. It rang several times throughout the ride. We found it humorous, and wondered how he could guide the gondola while holding his phone. Nevertheless, it was a truly magical hour as we glided along the quiet canals (sans cell phone ringing) amongst the shimmering water. Venice is pure romance by night.

One word of advice, always negotiate the exact fare, what sites you would like to see, and the duration of the trip before floating off. One couple on our ship didn’t do that and was literally taken for a very expensive ride when they took a two-hour gondola excursion.

If you don’t want to go with another couple or group, you can spring for your own gondola. The cost is around $85 for 45 minutes, but that doesn’t include the transfers (if you are on a cruise ship), champagne, or other goodies.

St. Mark’s Square

Much of Venice’s history is centered around St. Mark’s Square, which Napoleon dubbed as the “drawing-room of Europe.” The centerpiece of this piazza is the Basilica di San Marco, a Cathedral that dates back to the 9th century and reflects the Byzantine architecture of Constantinople. The walls and floors inside the basilica are covered with beautiful golden mosaics. For a few lira, you can climb up the steps to a balcony and have a fantastic view of the piazza below.

The Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, is adjacent to the basilica and overlooks both the water and the piazza. This palace, filled with extravagant sculptures, frescoes, and tapestries, is also rich in art and history. It is the largest and most famous in Venice and was the original house of government for the Venetian Empire. It was first built in 814, then was destroyed by fire four times until it was eventually rebuilt in the Venetian Gothic style during the14th century.

Adjacent to the Doge’s Palace is a former prison and the famous enclosed “Bridge of Sighs,” so named for the “sighs of pain” from prisoners crossing from the elaborate palace to the dungeon-like prison. It was from here in 1756 that Casanova, that world famous ladies man, made his famous escape.

The Campanile (bell tower) is another building to explore. Built in the 10th century, it once served as a watchtower and lighthouse protecting the city. Towering up at 325 feet, it now provides a beautiful view of the city and the surrounding water.

St. Mark’s Square is also well known for its pigeons. Vendors sell pigeon food, while brave people feed the hundreds of these birds in the courtyard. It’s quite a sight to watch and provides opportunities for great photos of swarming birds sitting on people’s shoulders, arms, and heads while eating out of their hands.

Things to do

Since Venice has become a popular port of call for cruise ships, many more people will have an opportunity to sample the ambiance. If you are there only briefly, here are some suggestions, in addition to the aforementioned excursions.

  • Just get lost, it’s fun to go off the beaten track and walk the canal-side alleys of Venice.

  • Take time to visit the other islands of the lagoon including Murano, famous for its glass factory; Burano, with its multi-colored buildings and wonderful lace; and peaceful Torcello, where you can always escape the crowds.

  • The beautiful stone Rialto Bridge, which is lined by vendors selling postcards, masks, jester hats, glass, and paper.

  • Explore the Jewish Ghetto, Venice’s Jewish enclave, which is the world’s first having been established close to a city ironworks. Synagogues and Jewish schools, as well as a handful of Jewish shops and restaurants, survive in the neighborhood to this day.

  • Have a cappuccino in St. Mark’s Square. It’s expensive (15,000 lira or $8), but where else can you listen to an orchestra in these surroundings?

  • Grab a panini (tomato, basil, and mozzarella sandwich) and sit on a bench in front of the Basilica di San Marco. My husband and I had a great time eating our panini while fending off hungry pigeons. It was much cheaper than the cappuccino at 11,000 lira (about $6) for two (including bottled water).
It goes without saying that Venice is full of travel clichés—but do them anyway, just to experience the ambiance.

For more information on Venice:

Europe For Visitors: author Durant Imboden has the best and most extensive guide to Venice anywhere on the Internet.

Welcome to Venice: Useful information on culture and tourism


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