By Marilyn Jones
I sat with my friend, Cacinda, at a sidewalk café enjoying a Margherita pizza. The pizza was good, but my surroundings were divine. Before me stood ancient buildings, including a church and apartment buildings, and a gondolier in a red-and-white striped shirt talked on his cell phone waiting for his next passenger.
I am in Venice. This moment is forever etched in my memory as is my entire visit to the city of canals; a destination I’ve waited decades to visit. Luckily, I am travelling with a woman who has visited Venice several times and is an excellent guide.
Venice is situated across a group of 118 small islands that are separated by canals and linked by some 400 bridges. The islands are in the shallow Venetian Lagoon that lies between the mouths of the Po and Piave Rivers. Renowned for its beauty, architecture and artwork, portions of the city are listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site.
In charge of booking the hotel, I made the mistake of finding a hotel in neighbouring Mestre across the Venetian Lagoon. Although it wasn’t in Venice, it was only a bus ride away; not idyllic, but certainly doable.
After arriving by train in the afternoon, we took the bus to Venice and began our exploration. Over the first bridge Cacinda asked, “Which way?” I chose right. As it turned out we found ourselves in a more residential area and one she had not been in before. I would soon learn that Venice is a big city and confusing with its twists and turns.
Our destination this afternoon was San Marco Square, but we stopped often to take photos of gondoliers piloting their gondolas along canals, interesting architectural details and the city’s ornate bridges. Past street performers making giant bubbles, violin and flute players, and singers, we wandered. Cacinda spotted signs pointing towards the square high up on buildings, and we stopped in little shops to ask directions when we temporarily lost our way.
The city’s beginning point came when refugees fled to the marshlands from the surrounding Roman cities to escape marauding barbarians in the 2nd century. Three hundred years later more arrived to escape the Visigoths and the Huns. In the 6th century others sought safety from the Lombards.
At the same time, with the Western Roman Empire destroyed and Lombardy threatening from across the lagoon, Venice welcomed help from the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. But because of the distance and isolation of the islands, the Venetians sought autonomy. In 726, a rebellion broke out, and the Byzantine exarch was murdered. Elections were held. The Venetians re-submitted themselves to the Byzantines under this new leadership, perhaps to avoid papal or Lombard domination.
In order to have their buildings on a solid foundation, the Venetians first drove wooden stakes into the sandy ground. Then, wooden platforms were constructed on top of these stakes. Finally, the buildings were constructed on these platforms. For example, when the Santa Maria Della Salute church was built, 1,106,657 wooden stakes, each measuring four metres, were driven underwater. The wood was obtained from Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro, and transported to Venice.
When the wooden supports are submerged under water, they are not exposed to oxygen, an element needed by microorganisms to survive. In addition, the constant flow of salt water around and through the wood petrifies the wood over time, turning the wood into a hardened stone-like substance.
SAN MARCO SQUARE
The sun was beginning to turn everything a golden red as we entered San Marco Square. Saint Mark’s Basilica dominates the square as well as the grand 98-metre-tall Bell tower of St. Mark and the Clock Tower completed in 1499.
All around us were musicians playing at outdoor restaurants, children playing and tourists taking photos; it was a festive atmosphere as the sun began to set.
Close by is the Bridge of Sighs connecting New Prison to the interrogation rooms in Doge’s Palace. Built in 1600, legend has it that prisoners would sigh as they walked to their cells because it was their last look at Venice.
As the sky darkened, we started our long walk back to the bus terminal. Here is where things got tricky. It is very easy to get lost. The sidewalks twist and turn around centuries-old buildings and over bridges. Between the two of us we fortunately only took one wrong turn, but quickly realized our mistake and carried on.
THE GRAND CANAL
One of the best bargains in Venice is the vaporetto (water bus) down the Grand Canal. For a few euros we had a magnificent view. Before us in panoramic beauty was the busy canal alive with gondolas and small boats framed by amazing architecture.
We got off at the Rialto Bridge. Except for in the centre of the bridge, the rest of it is a market lined with all manner of souvenir shops including high-end jewellery. Today’s Rialto Bridge was completed in 1591. From the bridge we wandered through neighbourhoods and stopped at an out-of-the-way restaurant for lunch.
We decided to forgo Murano Island that is famous for its art glass. Instead we took a water taxi across the Venetian Lagoon to Burano. Here we found brightly painted houses and businesses without the crowds.
Historians believe the island was settled by the Romans in the 6th century. Most agree the houses were painted brilliant colours, so fishermen could see their homes when they were far out to sea.
From the dock we wandered past several open-air booths selling traditional souvenirs. Along a narrow alleyway we came to a shop specializing in lacework. Burano is famous for its needle lace. A woman sat in the centre of La Perla Gallery surrounded by elegant lace tablecloths, lace-trimmed linens and other finery. She meticulously created a piece of lace artwork. Handmade lace is labour intensive and very expensive.
It was in the 16th century that women began making lace here. The lace was exported across Europe. Although the trade began to decline in the 18th century, in 1872 a school of lacemaking was opened. Lacemaking on the island boomed once again.
After watching the lace maker for several minutes and admiring her talent, we headed out along the canals and into neighbourhoods to photograph the pink, red, blue, plum, yellow, peach and golden buildings; many trimmed in contrasting colours with flower boxes adding to their charm.
We ambled along boardwalks lining the canals and stopped for gelato before heading back to the dock to take the water taxi back to Venice and make our way back to our hotel.
Venice is an enchanting destination. With only two days, the always present crowds and exploring on foot, I saw only a fraction of what Venice has to offer. I will definitely be back.
IF YOU GO:
For more information: www.venice-tourism.com/en
For more information about Italy, click here.