Venice: Bravo La Serenissima
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.
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.
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
A Sinking Feeling
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.
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 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.
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
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
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
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
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
without saying that Venice is full of travel clichés—but do them
anyway, just to experience the ambiance.
- 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
- 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
- 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).
information on Venice:
Europe For Visitors: author Durant
Imboden has the best and most extensive guide to Venice anywhere on
Welcome to Venice:
Useful information on culture and tourism
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