I’m so glad that I visited Venice with my friend Maria when we both had the chance to. She knew a smattering of Italian, much more than my meagre ‘Capuccino’ and ‘Pizza’ abilities anyway. So, she was in charge of booking accommodation at a modest three-star bed and breakfast family run hotel, and figuring out the transport basics to get us there by train from Marco Polo airport.
Venice was one of the top ten cities on my bucket list. Ernest Hemingway was a regular at the city’s popular Harry’s bar, author Henry James wrote ‘The Aspen Papers’ here and poet Robert Browning’s last home was a palace in this little lagoon. If that wasn’t enough for this writer to dream of rocking gondolas then watching movies like ‘Summertime’ and ‘The Wings of the Dove’ clinched it. There’s nothing quite like the beguiling backdrop of Venice to bring out the best in tragi-romantic storylines.
As our train slid past deluged sandbars scattered around the city before crawling into St. Lucia station in Venice, I couldn’t help wondering how such a tiny lagoon of a city, apparently drowning in the Adriatic Sea, had managed to become the seat of financial, trading and religious power for so many centuries.
With 160 canals running through and around Venice, one can’t help but realise that it’s the delicate latticework of its 400 or so bridges that keeps the city stitched together. Thank God for the solid foundation of larch pikes drilled into the muddy seabed, mounted by thick marble slabs on top of which the brick and wood structures of Venice are built. The candy striped and plain wood markers outside house entranceways and windows help residents mark the level of rising waters every year, when Venice has seasonal flooding. That’s how they keep track of danger points when they know they have to evacuate their homes to higher ground. I can’t even begin to imagine the level of water damage that ground floors in all homes and hotels have to suffer often during the year.
There are only two ways to explore Venice – by foot or by boat. Vaporettos, or water buses, are an effective way to get to all the major attractions and a much cheaper option than the black and blue Gondolas sliding their way up and down crowded canals. Venice is the first place where I learned that waterways get clogged up with traffic too.
You can buy a ticket on the vaporetto or get anything from a three-day to a week’s pass from one of the launch stops dotting the city’s main waterways.
Of course, the only way to see the city’s guts is to slip on your most comfortable shoes and traipse up and down those bridges of Venice, which will make you wish you had spent another half hour on the stairmaster at home. Right away, Maria and I decided to walk around the city and promptly got lost after an hour. But, it was only our first day there, and everything was sign-posted so we wandered around enjoying the atmosphere and the spirit of Venice all around us.
It’s a haunting city, besieged by a host of moods from melancholic fogginess to sun-drenched optimism. You’ll find yourself picking up the city’s ever-changing mood of the moment. Whatever you do, don’t miss taking photos on Rialto bridge…
…and the Bridge of Sighs (Ponti dei Sospiri). When we visited, unfortunately the Bridge was being ‘renovated’ and was almost entirely covered in tarpaulin with Chopard advertising on it. By the way, the reason for its name is because this bridge connects the Doge’s palace which was the seat of justice, to the prison. Prisoners convicted and sentenced at the palace court were led across this bridge into incarceration and legend says that their sighs were the result of their last view of Venice before they entered the prison.
Whether it’s agony or ecstasy you’re feeling, make sure you don’t miss the art and architecture of Venice that brings students and established professionals of the same over to this soaking city time and time again.
From the decadent Baroque folly that is St. Mark’s basilica to the neo-classical lines of the Doge’s palace, both at San Marco’s Piazza, you’ll be transported to a place that no picture postcard could have prepared you for. Track down Tintoretto’s ‘Stealing of the body of St. Mark’ in Venice’s museum of art ‘Accademia’ which illustrates the story of how the city of Venice came to adopt St. Mark’s Lion as its own emblem. If you look closely at the detail on one of the basilica’s entrances, you’ll find a painted etching of the story.
The story goes that in 828AD two merchants smuggled the body of St. Mark out of Alexandria by covering it with pork to get past Muslim custom officials. When the body arrived in Venice a chapel was built to house the saintly remains. That chapel was gradually built over into St Mark’s Basilica where the saint’s remains are apparently buried under the altar.
Paolo Veronese was brought before the Inquisition in 1573 to answer the charge of irreverence in a painting intended to represent the Last Supper. Instead he changed the name of the masterpiece to ‘Feast in the House of Levi’ which can also be found at Accademia.
This museum also has a great collection of Titians, Tintorettos, Canalettos and Canovas. If you’re an early bird who wants to avoid the jostling crowds, take advantage of the early morning opening hours of the museums and galleries. By 11am all of Venice is coffee-ed up and pounding the cobblestones in search of their own Muses.
A couple of interesting sightings for us included Tintoretto’s humble house along the canal in Canareggio and Canova’s tomb in the Church dei Frari.
If the inundation of Italian Renaissance art and architecture leaves you longing for something more abstract, expressionist, realist or surrealist instead– visit Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of 20th century modern artist’s works at her palatial home in Venice, now converted into a museum housing her own personal art collection of Brancusi, Picasso, Duchamp and Max Ernst (her husband). Peggy was a patron of Jackson Pollock – the American abstractionist most famous for his series entitled ‘One’ and you’ll find two rarely seen Pollocks on display here.
We even found Peggy Guggenheim’s grave in the palace garden where her ashes are interred, next to the graves of her dogs.
We were tired of walking around all day and through Peggy’s palatial home turned art gallery, so we refreshed ourselves at the museum café with home-made Tiramisu and freshly pressed Italian coffee.
If you’re looking for something special to buy as a memento beyond postcards of the incredible sights you will have already seen, the information point opposite the Vallaresso boat stop past the gardens facing the canal of the Piazza San Marco will have books on Venice aplenty, translated into English. You could grab a carnival mask to adorn your wall at home – they’re available to suit any budget, or pick up a wad of Venetian paper, famous for its quality and raw texture. Then again, you could easily take a boat trip from Piazza San Marco to the island of Murano to watch the art of glass-making and pick up a set of exquisitely blown, Venetian glass goblets for your dining table.
You can’t go wrong with Venetian coffee, keeping in mind that this is the real, full-bodied, sun-soaked flavour of Italy infused into every sip you take. But, you must have it Venetian style, standing up at a coffee bar.
If you must sit down at a cafe, then do it in style at Cafe Florian on the Piazza San Marco. Around since 1720, some claim it is the oldest cafe in Europe and was a favourite hunting place of Casanova. Be prepared to pay an exorbitant 10 Euros for a cup of coffee with more on top if the musicians are playing. For the cheapest and the best coffee, stand up at the St. Lucia train station’s bar for the best espressos and cappuccinos at 1.50 Euros (2009 prices) a pop.
While in Venice, we decided to stop and relax over long, leisurely dinners only, trying out some of the restaurants in Canareggio and Castello, and avoiding tourist traps as much as possible. Keep in mind that you’ll only find Italian food in this city – like a Panini lunch at one of the sandwich bars dotting the city. But infinitely preferable is a slice of pizza and a coke for all of 4 Euros (2009 prices) – not the healthiest option but definitely filling when you need to replenish all the calories spent waiting in lines to get into the Palazzo Ducale, the Basilica San Marco or the Campanile on the Piazza, which I was told has the best views of Venice from its bell tower.
We went in search of Venice’s five hundred year old Jewish ghetto, mostly because I wanted to see the seat of so much intrigue in medieval Venice. Shakespeare’s work was influenced by this Venetian community, which had a reputation of its own in his time. Read the ‘Merchant of Venice’ if you want to know what I’m talking about.
After visiting Academia, I finally understood why people make such a fuss about Titian, after seeing his grandiose, large-scale paintings on display. Here’s his first Venetian commission that forms the altarpiece inside the Church dei Frari…
…which incidentally also houses Titian’s tomb, grand-arch included, not far from Canova’s.
Venice is one of the few places that I’d love to visit again, along with Florence, Washington DC and Bali – all of which are on my list of top five places I’ve ever visited. I’m glad I got to go when I did, and the next time I’ll make sure to spend more than just 3 nights there, so that I can take in more of the city.
Visited in May 2009