Travel Report: Venice.
January 2008. It’s still a bit of a head scratcher for me when I think about how little I’ve seen of Italy. Somehow I never got round to sorting one of my signature, month-long adventures, but rest assured it’s definitely on the list. Equally baffling is that my only visit to the land of Michelangelo and Botticelli was nearly twelve years ago. S was turning 24, so I secretly arranged a birthday trip to Venice for a long weekend in late January. I wish I could say the whole idea had been inspired from my well-developed sense of romanticism. But I’d actually been influenced by the brilliant 1973 horror-thriller Don’t Look Now, starring Donald Sutherland. Large chunks of the movie had been shot in Venice, a city so moody and mysterious I was moved to propel it to the top of my hit-list.
January 2008. As fate would have it, Venice was admirably foggy and ghoulish that weekend, which felt a bit like we’d been dropped into one of Don’t Look Now’s foreboding scenes. Our first port of call was the striking St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), Venice’s largest and most famous public square that an impressed Napoleon once described as “The drawing room of Europe”. St. Mark’s is home to (and named after) the hulking 9th century St. Mark’s Basilica, almost completely shrouded in mist that morning as we made our approach.
January 2008. It wasn’t until we got right up to the basilica’s main door that bursts of colour came into focus across the facade and its dramatic stone arches. This amazing mosaic above the main entrance depicts the ascension of Jesus Christ. There are more incredible mosaics inside, but photography of the interior is strictly forbidden and in those days I was nowhere near as rebellious as I am now.
January 2008. Photos or not, it’s impossible to forget the splendour of St. Mark’s Basilica and its soaring domes, gold statues and gleaming walls of marble imported from Syria and Egypt. It wasn’t until I got to the front balcony that I could switch the camera back on for a shot across St. Mark’s Square and the unwavering expanse of the Procuratie Buildings and their stone arches. Tucked away in the right hand corner of this photo, almost cut off by my clumsy hand, stands the elegant St. Mark’s Clock Tower, added to the square at the end of the 15th century as a symbol of Venice’s unparalleled wealth and glory. Basically, Venice got bling. For up to date information on a visit to the amazing St. Mark’s Basilica, head to the official website.
January 2008. The Procuratie Buildings (governmental offices dating back to the 12th century) are even more impressive down at ground level, especially when taken in with some of St. Mark’s Square’s pink-glassed Venetian lanterns. There are fifty three of these street lamps in total and its very cool to come here at night when they bathe the square in a cosy, pink glow.
January 2008. Before leaving St. Mark’s Square, S and I took a moment to feed the pigeons, which was still allowed back then. In fact, I remember a vendor with a mobile wagon selling cheap bags of seed. There were hundreds of pigeons on the square that day, a sight to rival even my childhood memories of London’s Trafalgar Square. Amazingly, several articles on Google inform me that the local authorities made it illegal to feed the pigeons in late January 2008. So it looks like I was among the last tourists to feed Venice’s unwanted population of birds. If you’re caught doing this today, fines range anywhere from an irritating 60 Euros to a whopping 600!
January 2008. From St. Mark’s Square we were keen to dive straight into Venice’s ridiculously quaint canal streets. There was no grand plan, we simply followed our noses to see where the day took us. At the height of the off-season, it was a mere matter of minutes before we left people behind altogether and found ourselves in our own Venice wonderland. These streets are amazing, with row upon row of intricate canals home to wobbly, flaky buildings set on pinewood piles embedded into the clay lagoon bed.
January 2008. A big part of Venice’s canal-street-appeal is its charming collection of stone bridges. This is the famous white limestone Bridge of Sighs, constructed in 1602 as a link from the Ducal Palace to the city prison. Convicted criminals would be transported to their cells directly from the courtroom, crossing the bridge as they went in shackles. It got its nickname as locals would hear moans, groans and sighs from those condemned men trudging towards their new life of incarceration. The Bridge of Sighs is said to have inspired the bridge of the same name in the English town of Cambridge.
January 2008. Venice’s most iconic stretch of water is The Grand Canal, which forms a snaking, four-kilometre S shape through the city’s central districts. Most of the buildings here date from the 12th to 15th centuries and are owned by Venetian nobility.
January 2008. With chilly temperatures and a pervading gloom, Venice’s Grand Canal was pretty quiet that weekend and indeed many of its shiny black gondolas sat dockside bobbing around sadly. S and I had been talking excitedly about the prospect of being ferried around by a gondolier, but when push came to shove we decided the going rate of €80-100 for forty minutes was just…. crazy. With each gondola holding up to six people, it’s not such a bad deal if you’re with a group. But as a party of just two, we figured on having just as good a time exploring on foot. For the latest news on all things gondola in Venice, this article from tripsavvy.com is a good starting point.
January 2008. Rialto Bridge is the oldest of four beautiful bridges spanning The Grand Canal. Built between 1588-1591, this was the first structure to allow foot traffic from one side to the other in the heart of Venice’s commercial and financial hub. Rialto is the place to come for sunset photos, but be ready for an irritable number of people to share the moment with you. Actually, Rialto Bridge gets so overwhelmed by tourists that local authorities have taken to enforcing strict measures to ensure people behave as respectfully as possible. So don’t drink alcohol on the bridge, don’t cross it wearing skimpy swimming costumes, don’t loiter on the bridge too long and, in the case of two foolish tourists from Berlin, definitely DON’T unpack that portable stove you brought with you and start making your own coffee right on the bridge’s steps. Yes that really happened, click here for the story on how those guys were fined €950 and forced to leave the city!
January 2008. Venice’s main sights were undoubtedly cool, bu my best memories of that trip were away from the canals exploring the city’s twisting, atmospheric old backstreets.
January 2008. Weirdly, nobody seemed to be doing this and we were treated to a private window into everyday Venice life as we walked through silent residential neighbourhoods with mooching cats, hanging laundry and plodding old ladies.
January 2008. The old houses out on Venice’s backstreets are a delight. Windows are usually laden with flowerpots and the doors are decorated with quaint family name signs: Moretti, Gianelli... Esposito. One of my favourite shots is this robot letterbox, where residents’ names engraved into the brass eyebrows.
January 2008. Every now and then these narrow Venice backstreets open out into the most picturesque squares, some of which are home to nothing more than private residences and maybe a sleepy tavern. One of the most significant is Campo Bandiera e Moro, which has a coffee-roasting shop, a bakery, a traditional restaurant and a small church. It’s a lovely spot to sit and rest for a while away from the buzz of mass tourism.
Have you ever heard of the Venice of China? Check out my detailed travel guide to the city of Suzhou.
China also has its very own version of St. Mark’s Square. You can find it in The Venetian Hotel in Macau.
For more on my Italian adventures, have a look at my article on Burano Island.
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