In a little nook on the north-eastern side of the Adriatic Sea is a city composed of 117 small islands separated by a series of multiple canals and crisscrossed by narrow walkways. Each island is interconnected to the others by a series of beautiful and unique bridges (more than 400) which evoke the romance of a past era and astonish the viewer with their intricate details. The colorful buildings of this island cast their reflections on the calm waters in a vast display of Gothic, Byzantine and Ottoman styles. Everywhere you look you will see people from all over the world walking to and fro, taking in everything this city has to offer. I am speaking, of course, about the rich and diverse islands of Venezia… or Venice to us potato eaters.
As a city, it is the capital of the region of Veneto. It’s name comes from the Veneti people who lived there since the start and is believed to mean “sea blue” in Latin (Venetus). During the 7th century, a group of Byzantine people who were sick and tired of being invaded and pillaged by the Huns and the Lombards (Germans… yeah, again… *rolleyes*) decided to group together as a community and started the Republic of Venice. By this time, the Romans had lost most of their power in the northern region of Italy and the Veneti were left to fend for themselves. So unite they did, and they chose their first Doge (leader).
Less than 100 years later, Venice became a very strong military power. So strong in fact, that they held complete control of the Adriatic Sea, launching many attacks during the Crusades and practically wiping out piracy in the area. This advantageous position allowed them to also control the most important trade routes of the time between Europe and the East. Very quickly, Venice became a cultural hub as its population became more diverse and educated. Over the centuries, the influence and power of the city grew more and more… at least until the Turks came around in the 18th century and did what the Turks did best at the time. There were battles and strife and blood… and by the time the Turks were done with them, the Republic of Venice had greatly diminished in power (to be fair, it wasn’t just the Turks… the black death plague struck Venice hard and killed off over a third of its population also) which allowed Napoleon Bonaparte to force the last Doge to abdicate and the former proud Republic was converted into a provincial municipality of France. For the next ten years or so, the territory was bounced back and forth between France and Austria until the Italian war of independence occurred and made Venice a part of the new Kingdom of Italy.
Venice is also known as one of the main cities of the Renaissance. Yes, that cultural awakening that brought Europe out of the middle ages and into an age of knowledge and culture. After many years of being kept in the dark (the dark ages, to be more precise) by the Catholic church, a group of free thinkers and artists decided to say “To hell with all of this. Let’s party!” and a cultural movement of science, technology, art and knowledge was born. This magnificent city was also the home of illustrious people such as the Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi, the magnificent artists Titian and Tintoretto, and the writer / merchant / world traveler (my mentor and figure of inspiration, so to speak) Marco Polo.
So anyways… my Partner in Crime and myself thought it would be a romantic idea to go see Venice in February. It was perfectly timed with St. Valentines and with the world famous Carnival of Venice. I was deeply intrigued with the idea of seeing the Carnival first hand and I just love seeing the world with the Partner in Crime so we took the trip.
First things first… If you have never been to Venice allow me to make one very quick (and important) recommendation to you. Do not get a hotel inside the actual historical center. Yes, it is beautiful and yes, you would be right smack dab in the center of everything which in any other city would be a very good thing, but I cannot stress enough the fact that Venice is a pedestrian city with very narrow walkways. You will be dragging your luggage for a very long time, among a very large amount of people, through very narrow and very numerous alleys and bridges. I cannot begin to tell you how badly I felt for those poor people I saw with their luggage rolling behind them, wheels falling apart and getting stuck in cobblestones and their faces which clearly stated that they were never returning to Venice as long as they lived while pulling a heavy bag up some stone stairs on one of the many bridges. I, on the other hand, stayed at a very nice apartment (and when I say apartment, I mean APARTMENT) close to the airport on the mainland for half the price of a hotel room on the islands. There was a bus that passed right in front of the apartment and after 15 minutes and 1.5 Euros, I was standing in the historical center of Venice, light as a feather and ready to explore. Do yourself a favor and do the same. You will thank me for it.
Our bus dropped us off at Piazzale Roma which is as far as motorized land vehicles can go. From there we decided to take a walk heading southeast towards L’ Accademia and cross the bridge to Piazza San Marco where the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) is. On the way there we encountered very few people which was odd given that it was the first day of Carnival and Venice is well known for its crowds. Some of the people we saw were walking hurriedly in the same direction as us and wearing elaborate costumes and masks. It wasn’t until we arrived to Piazza San Marco that we realized were everyone was. Tens of thousands of people were all around a gigantic stage where people in masks and costumes were parading. It was breathtaking.
Turns out that we arrived just in time for Il Volo dell’Angelo (The Flight of the Angel) which officially started the Carnival this year. This tradition goes way back to the mid 16th century when a Turkish acrobat walked a tightrope that ran from a boat anchored in the Schiavoni River all the way up to the top of St. Mark’s Tower. That’s a whopping 323 feet (98 meters) up in the sky folks! After this, every year an acrobat would do this feat again and they began to name it “The Flight of the Turk”. This went on until eventually one of these acrobats did the walk dressed up with giant angel wings and the event was renamed “The Flight of the Angel”. Then in 1759, the acrobat who performed the tightrope walk that year fell to his death. After this, instead of humans, wooden doves were strung up on a wire and released to slide down into the crowd and the event was renamed “The Flight of the Dove” and so it remained for centuries until recently, in 2001, the wooden doves were once again replaced by humans but this time, tied to a wire instead of walking on it, and the event was renamed again back to “The Flight of the Angel”.
Thousands and thousands of people looked up to the tower to see the performer. This year, a woman in a brightly colored dress stepped off the edge of the 323 foot tower into the open sky. Slowly, over the next five to ten minutes, as orchestral music played in the background, she hovered over the crowd suspended by a wire and made her way down onto the main stage. It truly was a magnificent sight. The crowd burst into thunderous applause as she lightly stepped onto the stage and waved. Giant confetti canons were fired and the crowd went wild. What a show!
Already at Piazza San Marco, we decided to go into the Doge’s Palace for a little sight-seeing. The original building was erected in the year 810 but the Gothic style palace that stands today was constructed in the 1400’s. The Palazzo Ducale used to be the seat of government in the ancient city but today it is home to a vast museum that displays the old government halls in all their splendor and the catacomb type prison cells across the river and reachable by crossing the Ponti dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) that connects the two. The palace is elaborately decorated with incredibly life-like statues and giant archways. In the center of the palace is a large courtyard with a staircase made of Istrian stone and Verona marble called the Giants’ Staircase because of the two large statues of Mars and Neptune on either side by the sculptor Jacopo Sansovino. These statues symbolize the superior power of Venice by land and sea at the time.
Upstairs on the second floor of the palace are the Senatorial rooms. These immense chambers were used by government officials for passing laws and assembly. The ceilings are lavishly decorated with golden carved trims which frame beautiful and colorful paintings by various renowned painters such as Tintoretto, Antonio de Ponte and Titian among many others. Standing in these halls you feel humbled by such beauty and such detail. Everywhere you look is something fascinating and magnificent.
One of these halls (one of the smaller ones, in fact) is called the Quarantia Criminal and was where criminal trials were held. Past this room, behind a door and around a corner is the Bridge of Sighs. This bridge is entirely enclosed except for two small windows on each side that overlook the canal below and it leads to the dark and narrow prison cells. Its name refers to the sighs of prisoners as they caught a last glimpse of San Giorgio Maggiore through the tiny windows before serving their sentence. The prisons themselves are ominous and dark. Old graffiti of former prisoners is still visible on the walls of the cold stone cells and it is very easy to see how someone could abandon all hope after being placed there. Inside you can find all kinds of exhibitions displaying this graffiti in more detail along with historical accounts of the prison during various times in history. If you are OK with being in enclosed places and you don’t completely freak out and lose it in a raving mad, claustrophobic fit of the crazies then I recommend seeing this exhibition in detail. It is very informative and surprising.
Another way of seeing Venice is navigating through its 400+ canals aboard the traditional and romantic gondolas. The gondola is an 11 meter long, flat bottomed boat that is steered by a single person (Gondolier) with one single row. It is a sophisticated craft that glides silently over the calm canal waters providing its passengers with an almost surreal view of the city. The construction of the gondola is very traditional (hand made with specific types of wood) and every single detail of it has a specific meaning and/or purpose. For example, at the very front of every gondola is a comb-like protrusion facing forward with six teeth. These represent the six sestieri (sections) of Venice. There is a seventh “tooth which faces the back and it represents the island of Giudecca. This “comb” is part of a heavy iron piece curved like an “S” that serves the purpose of creating weight in the front to counter the weight of the standing gondolier in the back. Its “S” shape signifies the twists and turns of the Grand Canal. The port side of the gondola is longer than the starboard side in order to resist turning towards the left while rowing on the right, thus keeping the gondola moving forward in a straight line. The Gondolier is no slouch either. By guild law every gondolier (only 425 of them can exist at a time) must pass a comprehensive test after years of extensive training. This training includes vast knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, proficiency in multiple languages and the ability to navigate a gondola with utmost precision through the tightest canals. After knowing this, the high price of a gondola ride (can be anywhere from 80 to 100 euros per half hour ride) doesn’t seem so high after all. However, if you are on a budget, you can still ride a traghetti (a larger version of a gondola which carries many more passengers and is navigated by two drivers) and get the experience of seeing Venice from the water for about 20 or 30 euros.
Other must-see’s in Venice are the Ponte de Rialto (Rialto Bridge) that connects the San Marco sestieri with the San Polo sestieri by crossing over the Grand Canal and constructed in 1591, the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute which displays artwork referencing the Black Death Plague because it was built in 1631 as an offering after the city was cleansed of the deadly plague the year before, and the Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli (Church of the Saint Apostoles) built in the 7th century and one of the oldest churches in all of Italy.
In terms of gear, just a camera body and one lens attached to it. Nothing more. You will be walking a lot and there are thousands of people everywhere. The last thing you want is to weigh yourself down with heavy gear or have somebody snatch your bag with all your precious glass and equipment in it. Keep-it-simple applies here in every way so just one 35mm or 50mm lens on a body hanging safely around your neck or in a sling is all you will need. Anything else will just be cumbersome. Also, a word of advice… Selfie sticks are for idiots. Don’t use them. You look like a dork. ’nuff said.
In the end, the best thing to do in Venice is just walk. Yes, take a map with you and see specific sites but if you get the chance to just get lost it is definitely worth it. This is a city that will provide you with memories and experiences that you will treasure for your entire life. Every corner you turn will astound your senses. Perhaps it is the uniqueness of this city – no cars anywhere, only boats and gondolas; no streets anywhere, only canals and walkways, the fact that is sinking at 1 to 2 millimeters per year (no, really… it IS!) – that entices and entrances people from around the world and makes them come by the millions every year to marvel at the architecture, the food, the culture and the experience that Venice has to offer. Do yourself a favor and visit it at least once. God knows I am not one to condone and support tourist traps but as far as tourist traps are concerned (and yes, Venice is quite the tourist trap), this is one that you truly must see. At least before it sinks.
Happy trails my friend…