For centuries, this city has been standing tall on water, in a giant lagoon, set up over a hundred islands, all connected by hundreds of bridges. This car free, pedestrian city is nothing short of wonders. Yes…Venice it is. Once, the epitome of power, the city today lies in what has been termed as, an “Elegant State of Decay”.
Set up after the fall of Rome and tired of being overrun by barbarians constantly, the transformation of these islands into the most beautiful city and farmers into sea faring merchants, is as extraordinary a tale as it gets. At its peak, Venice was a maritime power to be reckoned with. Trade flourished and made Venice the first financial hub known to modern man. People lived lavishly and the more successful families had mansions facing the Grand Canal which, even today, look like floating palaces – an architectural wonder not only for its day and time, but the very fact that they are still standing, for this day and age as well. Known by many names – “Queen of the Adriatic”, “City of Wonders”, “Floating City”, “City of Masks”, “City of Bridges”, and my favourite – “The Most Romantic City” – Venice sits at the head of the Adriatic Sea in Northern Italy. With its numerous canals, bridges, gondolas and loads of history, Venice is one of the most visited places in the world. A lot of people have this city on their list and with the amount of people I saw, a lot of them are doing a good job, crossing it off.
A backpacking day trip introduced me to this city in the flesh. The city’s back lanes, alleys, and monuments, all have stories that can very well script a detailed digest. Ambling through the city on a destined Saturday, saw me mingling with hundreds of tourists, encountering an amalgamation of languages – all talking about the same thing/place/monument, jumping into the back lanes to bar hop and try the fresh produce of the day, and enjoying the Dolce Vita of Venice.
Weekends brought about plans of adventure and exploration. A lot of thought was put into Mount Titlis, Zurich, Jungfrau, and Lucerne in Switzerland, since I was stationed there for my work project. However, a day trip to these places was not possible and the cost was way out of budget. So, looking down south towards Italy for a day trip, Venice scored against Rome, Verona & Florence. Staying overnight in Venice is expensive, if you want to stay on the main island. The dorms and other hostels away from the mainland had limitations. Surprisingly all the AirBnBs were booked. Not being a registered user on couch surfing added to the misery. Experiencing Venice in the night was thus reserved for the future and a day trip was zeroed down on. An entire day on the island with a truckload of history and culture of centuries. Nothing could be more exciting!
Travel to Venice involved connecting trains. Riding the train from Chiasso, Suisse, to Milan Centrale and then from Milan to Venice. The train ride from Milan to Venice lasted about two hours. A cup of cappuccino accompanied by a jam croissant at Milan Centrale played its role of breakfast rather well. Venice is now accessible by road and train, along with water. Initially it could be accessed only through water. The causeway that connects the mainland to the lagoon holds the roadways and rail tracks and connects Venice. If you travel on a train make sure you get a ticket all the way till St. Lucia and not Mestre. The causeway connects St. Lucia to Mestre.
Gondolas bobbing up and down with the waves was one of the first sights of Venice. In the distance, I could see the bell tower (Campanile) of St. Mark’s basilica. On the other side where the Grand Canal opens up to the lagoon stood the Church of Santa Maria Della Salute – built as an offing to the gods to save the city from the “Black Death” (read plague) which ravaged a majority of its population.
As I took in the views and the air, I knew for certain that one day to cover the entire city would not be enough. Rushing through the day was not going to cut it for me, plus it’d be rather stressful, hence, note to self – go slow in the head, savor it and hold on to those memories. Not being so much of an art lover myself, I had ruled out the various museums the city had to offer, though in hindsight, I will recommend the Peggy Guggenheim collection. Venice attracts millions of tourists every year and so was the case that day. The city was dotted with tourists from everywhere and there was a sea of people just outside the train station. A lot of them were either booking their tours, assembling in order for their tour guide or were in the process of beginning their tour. Being a first timer in a pedestrian city has its cons. I’d recommend you learn a few words commonly used in Italian, to comprehend your options without being dependent on the internet translators. I completely missed the fact that you can get a day pass for the Vaporetto – more on this as we amble along down my memory lane!
The city experiences its peak tourist season during the months of August,-September; the time when I was there. You will experience hordes of tourists and multitude of souvenir kiosks. Almost all the gondolas are in the canals to make hay while the sun shines, along with – Water Taxis, Personal Speed Boats, Police Boats, Postal Boats, Ambulance Boats – So it kind of gets really crowded. Walking around, is the best way you can connect with this city. Walking around the city coupled with the tour of the Grand Canal in a Vaporetto is the best option according to me when you are on a day trip. Just outside the train station you will find places where you can register for a guided tour of the city. A guided tour will ensure you get to visit all the monuments and the tour guide will feed you with the history, culture and trivia of the place/monument. I was simply overwhelmed with the amount of people there on that day, though I must confess that the local train stations in Mumbai draw more people 😉. I decided to walk along and endure the merciless sun which was on a mission to cook our planet that day! Lacking a map and not having downloaded offline maps earlier, I decided to follow the crowd, onward to Piazza San Marco, not worrying of getting lost. Venice is an island and you cannot get lost – I had read long ago growing up as a child. Another thing I learnt, was that most restaurants have a miniature map on the rear of their business cards, with a very helpful, “you are here” on it. You can always use that if paranoia sets in 😉. There are helpful signs everywhere to guide you as well eliminating the possibility of getting lost.
Unless you are staying over in Venice for the night or a few days, don’t let the shops and their wares distract you on a day trip. They can quite easily bring out the shopper in you and more than the money, time is of essence. I found myself in the narrow alleys and streets of Venice heading towards Piazza San Marco, surrounded by many shops and honestly, I was tempted to step in. I did step in one, to quickly purchase a Venetian mask key ring (something I do for all the places I visit), but that escalated quickly. I wanted all of the variants there…and I saw a lot of other tourists with a dazed look in their eyes, trying to decide. I snapped myself out of it and stepped back out in the streets. Phew! Wasted precious 10 mins. With the helpful signs staying on the right track was a breeze and soon I found myself at Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s Square!
Piazza San Marco
The most visited site in Venice is Piazza San Marco. It is flanked by the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of St. Mark with one of the tallest bell towers in the world today. This is where the bus tour groups and the cruise ship passengers converge, making it by far the most visited tourist place in Venice. The touristy nature of the city, has it mobbed by tourists all year long, however, summer brings out the most – second probably only to the Venetian Carnival. If you want to experience a “Human Traffic Jam” then this is where you get to feel it! It was almost noon and the sun was directly above, hotter than before. Piazza San Marco glistened in the heat, with warm breeze flowing in from the sea.
Undeniably the biggest attraction of Venice, Piazza San Marco is the lowest part of the city. When high tide occurs, water flows in and sometimes it gets as high as 4ft. Gum boots are thigh high and battling the water is a way of life here. The first sight at the piazza was that of the Basilica of San Marco. The site is filled with loads of history and if you are a part of a guided tour, you will be fed with these by your registered guide. I was able to procure some of it and sharing it here.
Piazza San Marco was the most exquisite downtown imaginable in its day. Flagged by the Doge’s palace and the Basilica of San Marco, this was the city’s political and religious center. This was the first sight for visitors as they sailed in into the lagoon from the sea. Historians say that this was built here to show off royalty, power and might that Venice possessed back in the day. I agree. The architecture of the palace -Venetian Gothic as they say, the Basilica and the tall posts at the docks with the Winged Lion guarding and overseeing everything, was definitely imposing. The winged lion is the symbol of St. Mark and more on that when I talk about the Basilica! The square also has the 300ft tall Campanile or the Bell Tower of San Marco’s Basilica. You can ride the elevator to the top to get a bird’s eye view of this wonderful city. The touristy season attracts long queues though and you will have to be patient for your turn. I might add as well, that this is the same for all the places in the city – Monuments, Churches, Museums…et al!
The Doge’s Palace
The Doge’s or Duke’s Palace was the ruling center and residence of Venice’s Doge or Duke and was built as a show off of the power and wealth of the republic of Venice. Back in its days of glory, which lasted for about 4 centuries, this was the most powerful piece of land in Europe. The exterior design of the palace looked lacy to me for some reason, though its marble and there are workshops in Venice that maintain it to this day. And the architecture is a blend of east and west – a look at the arches of the palace say so!
The queue to enter the palace was long and winding, hence skipped entering the palace…I did, however waltz my way to the courtyard and clicked a few pictures. However, if you are the touristy type of traveler, you should step inside and experience the grandeur of this sprawling real estate. The Doge was like an elected king in the aristocratic republic setting of Venice. Technically he was a noble, elected by other nobles to oversee the administration. The nobles met in here to discuss, debate and delegate matters in the best interest of Venice.
The Doge’s palace is connected directly to the prisons by, “The Bridge of Sighs.” – A small connecting bridge with two tiny windows allowing one to look at the beauty outside.
Come to think of it, it’s the cruelest punishment possible. Prisoners would be taken from the palace after being convicted to the dungeons and while passing the bridge, they would glance out at the beauty one last time and sigh! Hence, the name! Apparently, Casanova did time here too!
The Basilica of San Marco
The Basilica was the first monument I encountered at Piazza San Marco. Legend states that St. Mark or San Marco visited this region and brought Christianity here. St Mark’s remains were smuggled out of Egypt by Venetian merchants and St. Mark became the patron saint of Venice.
The symbol of St. Mark – The Winged Lion became the symbol of the region as well. And its quite evident, you get to see the winged lion everywhere in the square. The Basilica though looked more of a mausoleum than a church. The regular spires – a regular feature in most churches in Europe were absent here. Instead you have domes which resonate with where the saint’s remains were smuggled out of – Alexandria, Egypt. One has to wonder though, why would you need to smuggle the remains? To gain religious importance and legitimacy of sorts (back in the day it was a serious affair) the city needed some “Relics” and nothing better than the remains of the man who brought Christianity to the region. St. Mark’s bones are in the basilica under the high altar.
You will encounter long queues to get inside any monument and I found one of the longest queues outside the Basilica. A day trip did not allow me to get inside and wonder at the beauty of this religious center, however, if time allows you, a visit inside the basilica is justified.
The bell tower or the Campanile stands along side the basilica. At over 300ft it is one of the tallest bell towers in the world and presents the city in a different view if you take the elevator inside and ride it all the way to the top. The structure actually dominates the entire real estate and back in the day must have served well as a watch tower too! A photographer’s delight to say the least. I was awestruck with its sheer size.
Along the square, you will find restaurants and I must admit that they present themselves as the perfect venue for a romantic dinner – if you can afford it – that is. Eating at Piazza San Marco is an expensive affair. The back lanes on the other hand are economical and if you decide to bar hop, you will find fresh food and produce of the day caught from the sea, and procured from the local markets, up for grabs.
Next on the list was the Rialto Bridge & The Grand Canal!
Rialto Bridge & The Grand Canal
As soon as you approach the waterfront at Piazza San Marco, you will notice two things – one, loads of Gondolas dancing with the waves and two, a human traffic jam! Hordes of people simply stop on the small connecting bridge that presents a direct view of the Bridge of Sighs!
Passing through hundreds of tourists, I made it past the jam. The sun was burning in all its glory that day, as if on a mission to have human barbecue for lunch. I started keeping close to the now uninhabited houses and buildings, making use of whatever shade was on offer. You should do that as well, or you can invest in a hat/cap/umbrella sold at the many kiosks that dot the Venetian landscape, if you don’t already have one. Climbing one bridge after another, each presenting its own canal and photo ops, I realized, walking along, you become one with the city and get to experience the “Elegant Decay”. The now empty houses look you in the eye and tell you stories of a glorious past. “Sentinels Of The Past” I thought to myself. Approximately 25 miles of canals zig-zag the city flowing like streams into the Grand Canal. The city is a car free maze of a hundred islands placed together by several hundred bridges and a vast web of alleys and canal side walkways. I had reached the walkway beside the Grand Canal and it was an endearing sight.
First it was the Gondolas, with couples and families maneuvering their way, along with a lot of different types of boats. Since there are no connecting roads, you have a lot of boats that swim by on the Grand Canal at the same time. The most exquisite sight on the Grand Canal though remains the Rialto Bridge. Elegant, royal and a memoir of a glorious past that took precedence over all the other cities of Europe – even today. I recommend you take a ride on the Grand Canal to witness the Rialto Bridge in all its glorious shape and form. Even better if you do it at night. If you cannot afford the Gondola then surveying the Grand Canal on a water taxi or the Vaporetto will prove to be one of the best decisions of your life. Just try not to get off the taxi in between stops! You may drown 😉 Venice is a city of palatial mansions and the grandest of them face the Grand Canal. Most of them now serve as hotels and while the bigger ones may seem alluring, try the smaller ones for a warm and personalized experience. The Grand Canal cuts the city in half and has four bridges only. The grandest of them all of course is the Rialto.
The Rialto bridge has a huge span & a big foundation and was an engineering marvel back in the day. Rialto was a commercial district and there are lots of shops you can indulge in on the bridge itself and once you cross over to the market. I bought myself an umbrella with Venice all over it and of course some key rings – collecting these is a hobby.
The heat took away my hunger that day and initially I spent money on water. I couldn’t spot any water fountains till quite later in the day. The back lanes have these water fountains with drinkable water, though please use your discretion. I tried several of these during my visit to Switzerland and Italy and did not encounter any health hazard whatsoever, but like I have said before – we are built differently. You can skim the back lanes for a break from the crowd and heat. These lanes offer bars, cafes & restaurants and you can bar hop tasting wine and eating finger food – Cicchetti as the Italians call it. This is an assortment of finger food and you can simply point out to what you want on your plate – pointing is not considered impolite here 😊. I jumped inside a pizza joint and had one of the biggest slice.
Time flew in the market at Rialto and soon it was time to head back to the train station for the ride back to Milan. In parting I was lost in thoughts of this city’s glorious past and how romantic it has been over the ages. Venice is definitely a place to fall in love. A city to get out early and stay out late. Of holding hands and making promises. Of lost gazes and mesmerizing thoughts.
Though I enjoyed my day trip, a stay in this floating city of wonders is definitely a must. Have you been to Venice? Drop your comments below and share your experience.