Once Upon a Time in Venice.
Once Upon a Time in Venice.
It is still a bit of a head scratcher when I think about how little I’ve seen of Italy. Somehow, I never got round to sorting out that long, cross-country adventure I dreamt of in my early 20s. In fact, I even messed up the opportunity to go and live there. It was the autumn of 2004 and I was on the verge of putting pen to paper on an English teaching contract for a school in the city of Brindisi. However, it just wasn’t meant to be, a life chapter that I have detailed in my short stories Car Crash Girl Part I and Car Crash Girl Part II.
Happily, I did manage to sort out a brief visit to Europe’s old boot in January 2008. Based in Brussels at the time, I took a short flight to Venice for a wintry weekend in Europe’s famous floating city. With only three days at my disposal, I knew I had a lot to pack in. Thus I wasted no time in my guesthouse room, opting to head straight out into the highly atmospheric foggy Venice morning. My first stop was the city’s iconic Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), a dramatic space that Napoleon once called “the drawing room of Europe”.
Once Upon a Time in Venice.
The square was magnificent that day, despite the grey sky and hanging mist. On and off, shards of sunlight flickered across its expanse, dancing off the stupendous 15th century renaissance buildings. Much to my delight, there weren’t that many people around. Just hundreds of pigeons, who greedily gobbled up the seeds I bought from a nearby vendor. These days it’s illegal to feed the square’s birds. And if you’re caught, fines range from an irritating 60 Euros to a whopping 600 Euros!
Before coming, I had excitedly watched the classic 1973 horror movie Don’t Look Now, starring Donald Sutherland. Shot on location across Venice, it is a film packed with moody and mysterious angles of the city in winter mode. That morning, as I toured the square, it felt as if I’d been dropped into a scene. Not least with the sight of St Mark’s Basilica and its spooky, fog-engulfed western facade.
Dating back to the 9th century, this is Venice’s jaw-dropping centrepiece. Indeed there is nothing that scaffolding and fog can do to diminish its beauty. Here, within a niched portal above the main entrance, sits one of numerous mosaics depicting the Ascension of Jesus Christ.
According to historians, the mosaic was most likely brought over to Venice after the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. It is part of a huge collection of relics known, among other names, as the Byzantine Treasures.
St Mark’s Basilica.
Other decorations to the facade arrived later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as this dramatic cast iron sculptural gate. It stands at the foot of the bell tower, Campanile di San Marco.
Elsewhere, there are carvings galore, including angels, cherubs, serpents, priests and a host of saints and prophets. Wherever one looks, you are never too far from a winged lion. These creatures represent none other than Saint Mark himself, while a golden lion is the symbol of Venice.
Inside the basilica, they have a strict no photography policy. So hardcore, it turned out, that even crafty me couldn’t carry out my usual trickery. Which was a pity, as this has got to be one of the most breathtaking churches I have ever seen. I hardly knew where to look, from its soaring domes and giant bronze horses, to gleaming walls of Syrian marble. Oh, and Pala d’Ora, a stunning gold altarpiece fitted with sapphires, pearls, rubies and emeralds.
Photo courtesy of amberapparently.
It wasn’t until I got to the viewing balcony that I could get my camera out for a few shots over St Mark’s Square. This provided me with excellent angles of The Procuratie, a series of connected 16th century structures built by the procurators of Saint Mark. Important Venetian government noblemen basically. Employed as offices, meeting halls and even swanky apartments, the buildings, with their High Renaissance stone arches, fast became synonymous with the city’s wealth and splendour.
Once Upon a Time in Venice.
Furthermore, how about the adjoining St. Mark’s Clock? Its installation took place in the late 1490s by the famed Italian clockmakers Gian Paolo and Gian Carlo Rainieri. This concentric-ring astronomical clock was a revelation of its time, featuring the relative positions of five planets and a carousel with a trumpet-blowing angel. James Bond fans may recall 007 sending a villain smashing through the clock’s face in Moonraker. Fear not, the clock in the film was merely a stunt double.
Back down at ground level, I spent some time admiring The Procuratie’s stone arches close up. They are incredibly photogenic, especially when paired with one of the square’s pretty, pink-glassed Venetian lanterns. There are fifty three of these street lamps in total and at night they bathe the piazza in a cosy pink glow.
From St. Mark’s Square I embarked on a walking route that would take me past some of Venice’s most cherished canals and bridges. Some of the streets were utterly gorgeous, with rows of flaky homes set on pinewood piles planted into the clay lagoon bed.
Before too long, I found myself passing the iconic Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). Built in 1600, it served as a link from the Ducal Palace to the city prison. Local authorities would march convicted criminals from the courtroom to their cells, a route which took them over the bridge.
As legend has it, locals would hear the criminals moaning, groaning and sighing as they went, hence the nickname. Many years later I would see a bridge of the same name in the English city of Cambridge. Inspired, they say, by Venice’s famous structure.
The Bridge of Sighs.
The city’s most spectacular stretch of water lies in 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 belonged to Venetian nobility. They were so luxurious people called them palazzi (palaces) and families devoted much of their time to outdoing their neighbours. Today just a handful are private residences, most are hotels, museums and public/private offices.
The Grand Canal is of course tourist central. Historically, the summertime saw these waters stuffed with visitors gliding back and forth on private gondola tours. Luckily for me it was the off-season, so things were pretty relaxed.
Tempted, I found myself asking a few gondoliers for a quote. All I wanted was an hour or so, but I found the costs bandied around absolutely ludicrous. None more so than for a so-called luxury gondola (80-100 Euros for 40 minutes) which was bigger, shinier and more comfortable than your average boat.
Having given up on a gondola ride, I made my way to Rialto Bridge, the oldest of four beautiful bridges spanning The Grand Canal. Built between 1588-1591, this was the first structure to allow pedestrians to cross the canal in the heart of Venice’s commercial and financial hub. The celebrated Venetian architect Antonio da Ponte designed the bridge, which features a carved relief of guess who… Saint Mark.
Rialto Bridge is nearly always busy. What’s more, it feels like the entire city flocks here to grab their Venice sunset photos. In fact, it can get so horribly crowded local authorities have enforced a number of strict rules in order to try and reduce the chaos.
For example, it is illegal to drink alcohol on the bridge. Should you loiter too long, hogging a prime viewing spot, a policeman may ask you to move on. Finally, and I’m not even kidding here, they introduced a rule explicitly forbidding the use of portable stoves on the bridge. That’s exactly what a pair of idiotic German tourists did so that they could make themselves some hot coffee. They were subsequently fined 950 Euros and asked to leave Venice.
Seeing Venice’s iconic sights was great. But I think my favourite part of the trip was simply getting away from it all in some of the residential streets away from the canals. Here, I was able to leave virtually everyone behind and just breathe in the quietness. And fully enjoy the charming old buildings with their shuttered windows and hanging plants.
There were some wonderfully quaint letterboxes along the way. Most came with engraved names such as Moretti… Gianelli… Esposito. One of my favourites was this robot letterbox where the family’s names had been written onto the eyebrows.
Once Upon a Time in Venice.
This was also the Venice that most reminded me of Don’t Look Now. For an hour or so I felt a bit like Donald Sutherland, roaming the streets looking for the elusive childlike figure in the red coat. Creepy but fun, for a weird horror fan like me at least. In any case my wanderings produced no sinister sights, unless you count this fluffy black cat and her somewhat demonic eyes. She was actually really friendly.
Most of the streets were utterly empty. Every now and then though, I passed an elderly woman quietly going about her business. We exchanged polite nods and my heart skipped a beat. This was the Venice I had come to see, just as much if not more than the bridges and the gondolas.
One of the prettiest squares was Campo Bandiera e Moro, which has a coffee-roasting shop, a bakery, a traditional restaurant and a small church. Once again I could only marvel at how perfectly peaceful it was. That not even handful of the tourists I’d seen earlier could find their way here.
From the square I began piecing a route back to the commercial centre. A string of narrow streets and leafy squares came and went. In one of them, I stopped to browse a tiny second hand book market. The owner was asleep on a rickety wooden chair, his cat seemingly looking after things for him.
Once Upon a Time in Venice.
There were scattering of small stores open for business, but not receiving much attention. A hole-in-the-wall newsagents and a shop selling a huge variety of cheeses. In one arts and crafts store the owner had just finished tidying up the place and was now busy behind the counter making tea.
There was also a fabulous Venetian mask store. Which reminded me that the city’s famous carnival was about to kick off, just a day or two after my flight back to Brussels.
Back on St Mark’s Square, carnival preparations were in full swing. There were security barriers up and a network of scaffolding as a team of workers hurried around setting up a stage.
Before leaving the city, I thought what the heck and made my way back to Rialto Bridge for sunset. I had been running a little late but, despite the busyness, managed to squeeze myself into a free space and grab a shot before the sun slipped out of view.
Sunset from Rialto Bridge.
On my final evening I retraced my steps back to one of those quiet squares and wiled away a few hours with pizza, beer and some reading. Overall, I’d been disappointed by the food scene in Venice. For the most part meals had been hastily prepared and waiters were keen to rush you out of your seat before you’d even swallowed your last mouthful. But happily Pizzeria Ai Sportivi bucked the trend, inspiring me to honour it with a photo.
Venice has changed a lot I hear. Local authorities have gotten stricter with tourists, accommodation costs have spiralled and a there’s proposed fee for day entry in the works. Nevertheless, I would be open to going back one day. Though I suspect I should rather, at long last, do that cross-country trip I promised myself all those years ago.
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Great post. I can’t believe I haven’t even been here yet and have only ever been to Italy once for the day. I feel like there are a lot of rules I need to learn first before I even attempt to book a trip haha
Well, you have only seen a little less of Italy than I have, Natty. It’s never too late to change that! I’m glad you enjoyed this look at Venice.
Great post and wonderful photos, Leighton 🙂 With its 116 islands, winding waterways, cobbled courtyards, beautiful architecture and tiny back streets, Venice is one of the most picturesque and recognizable cities in the world. I’ve had a chance to explore it three times over the last two decades and always yearned to go back for more because Venice is one of those places that offers far more than what you see in photos and on TV. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx
Hey Aiva, I’m always happy to find another Venice enthusiast. Getting to go there three times is a privilege, I think.
We had plans to visit Venice … even booked a lovely flat close to the Piazza San Marco (but then the Camino in Spain won, because 5 weeks on foot in Spain was cheaper than 1 week in Venice)!
The street decorations, Basilica, (007) clock and the pink lanterns … all so beautiful! And of course, what is Venice without its canals and bridges … I had a giggle at the portable stove on the bridge (what were they thinking)? But I agree, I like the quiet streets more and seeing the locals going on with their everyday life. I don’t think we’ll ever see Venice … so, thank you for showing this to us!
Hey Corna, I think I’ve missed out on a few places over the years due to a similar decision. Opting to go for another location because my money would stretch further over a longer period of time. I’m glad you enjoyed this piece, it was a lot of fun writing it up and reminding myself of that long ago weekend.
I just LOVE these pictures! The grain in them or something gives them such character and they’re all so beautiful. It is sad how tourism is effecting the city so much. I guess everyone has to see it before it sinks.
Aw that’s great to hear Lyssy. These were analogue photos that I spruced up a touch in terms of light and a gentle, warm filter. Yes, do go and visit Venice before it sinks. Or before a general apocalypse engulfs Europe.
Venice really is a timeless city, it’s just so beautiful. I love that you’ve captured both the main sites and then small shops and bits of every day life as well. Gorgeous 🙂
Thanks Han, timeless is the right word I think. Appreciate you reading and commenting, as always.
I would love to see the art and architecture but the canals not so much. I guess that’s why we never went. Of course, I’ve never been to Disneyland either. Would like to walk through those back streets, negotiate book prices with a cat and watch the laundry dry on lines between second story windows. Thanks for including the Venice I would enjoy.
Something tells me that cat might drive a hard bargain. I think you might be the first person who’s ever told me you wouldn’t be fussed by Venice’s canals. I kind of understand, as (apart from one or two of the more understated ones) the waterways wouldn’t necessarily come top of what I loved about Venice. Cheers, Memo.
I enjoy your idea about the cat and watching clothes dry.
another classic instalment for the leighton vaults. venice looks every bit as characterful as i would have expected. lyssy is right about your photos, they have a very retro feel to them
Thank you Stan, I’m glad nobody except for me and Sladja got to see those photos as they were before I began editing!
Awesome post, Leighton! I loved following you around Venice and getting to see a place that Mike and I will probably never see in person. From St. Mark’s to the bridges to the fabulous pink lights, I hung on every word and studied each photo. I have also Googled St. Mark’s to see inside, and yes, it is as opulent inside as it is outside. I’ve said it before – I will never be able to wrap my head around the beauty of European churches until I see some for myself. It’s so great that you found your way to the quiet neighborhoods. That’s where you really get the feel for a city and its residents. My favorite picture in the post is the last one with the laundry.
Thank you Kellye, I’m glad to have been your virtual tour guide. I wonder how many European churches I have actually visited. Would love to get a number on that, but of course it’s probably impossible. Hope you are all well on your side of the pond and that you’re enjoying all those fall vibes as Halloween approaches.
A snapshot in time Leighton and shows how much has changed since our visit in 1984. Venice is a beautiful city and a victim of its own success. Our tour stayed outside the main city and that was likely for the best. We did manage a gondola ride that was included on the tour and enjoyed it. Like you, we looked for a way to escape the insanity in the main tourist areas and wandered down the side streets until we found a small pizza place. Great sunset shot. Thanks for sharing your visit here. Allan
Looking forward to Venice, a la 1984. A victim of its own success is an apt way of putting it I think. Thanks for your considered thoughts, as always Allan.
“Don’t Look Now”, one of my favourite films! The dark narrow streets and the quick glimpses of the red cape. I think we were both extremely lucky to have visited this fascinating place some years ago. Certainly it is now under great pressure from the ever-growing number of visitors.
Ah Geoff, that’s fantastic. Very few people I’ve talked to have heard of ‘Don’t Look Now’. When did you visit Venice?
Last time must have been about forty years ago. Wow, what a frightening thought. How time flies!
Ah, Venice…it gets a lot of flack for being too touristy and not representative of the “real” Italy. All the same, it’s still a beautiful city that’s worth a visit. It’s wild that it’ll start implementing an entry fee (slated for January 2023, according to a quick Internet search), but it makes sense given just how ridiculously crowded it gets with tourists. Thankfully, I visited before it’s to take effect, and I don’t think I’ll be returning anytime soon! PS I took a gondola ride during my first trip there, and honestly, it’s not what it’s cracked up to be; you weren’t missing out!
Hey Rebecca, I’ve often wondered if I dropped the ball that day by passing on the gondola ride. So your comment is definitely music to my ears ha ha.
Don’t shy off from going back, Leighton – the food scene is excellent away from the Grand Canal & St Marks (try both Misericordia and the Ghetto) and the same goes for prices of accommodation. Yes it’s not cheap but there’s always some deals. Anyway, back to your first visit. I think the moment you first set eyes on the Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal is truly one of those iconic travel moments, a moment you never forget. Venice will always be very special.
Hey Phil, like I said I’m open to going back. Though somehow, with all the places we want to get to, I doubt it’ll happen. I didn’t eat anywhere near the centre, as that’s obviously the tourist trap zone, but will note your recommendations should I ever find myself back in those neck of the woods. Glad you loved Venice, I agree that Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal have a genuine wow factor. Thanks for reading!
You have some really great photos of this iconic city. I love the one of you feeding the birds. Too bad that’s illegal now; poor birds. Like you, I enjoy getting away from the crowds and exploring the quieter side of a city. Great post!
Thanks Tricia, I have a soft spot for the pigeon photo too. Somehow black and white felt right for it.
Wow. It’s so cool you’ve been to Venice, Italy. I’ve never traveled out of my country. I plan on changing that soon.
Hey Zeal, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I hope you get to do some international travel soon, where are you thinking of going?
Well, the first place on my mind is Canada. Alberta to be precise.
I’ve never been, hope you have a blast!
Yeah. Years from now. What other places have you been to? Shock me
Oh, here and there, ha ha. Here is a clear overview. https://leightontravels.com/my-travel-reports/
Okay. I bet you’ve been to like 70 countries.
Not that many, yet. I spend too long in each place 😉
Yes. That’s traveling.
Fabulous place and the further from the main drag the better and cheaper it is. Though important to know when to go as last time it was like a bank holiday in Beijing could have happily drowned a couple of the ignorant shovers.
I think I would’ve absolutely hated Venice with the kind of crowds you describe Gary. But yes, a sublime place, especially when (as you say) you can seek out those more understated spots.
A great tour of Venice. I’ve visited a couple of times, the first just for a day and the second for five nights. Enjoyed our longer stay much more as the city is so much quieter when all the day trippers have left as you would have noticed.
Ah yes, the nights are so much better. Peaceful even. Thanks for stopping by Marion, hope you and your family are well in these chaotic times back in Blighty.
We visited Venice as part of our trip to Italy in August. There was something so nice about how the city is designed for people and that there are no cars. I didn’t know that it was illegal to feed pigeons in St. Mark’s Square now. It’s a shame that you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside St. Mark’s Basilica. They’ve changed the rules on that too as photography was allowed when we visited. We thought the cost of a gondola was outrageous and passed on that too.
Oh wow, that’s great about the photography inside St. Mark’s Basilica. Also good to know that I wasn’t being stingy regarding the gondola. #daylightrobbery
Your blogging is inspirational! Youhave done so much and written so many posts
Hey Gulab, that’s very kind of you to say. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. It’s always appreciated.
I’ve loved soaking up the Venetian atmosphere in your photos, especially the mistier ones and the back streets. This was the first place abroad that I went to with my now-husband, way back in 1980. Although we visit Italy a lot, we’ve never dared go back in case we find it too spoiled by the crowds, but I think I could be tempted by an off-season visit like yours 🙂
Hey Sarah, it sounds like Venice was a special place for you guys. I relate to that feeling of not wanting to go back in order to preserve great memories. Thanks for checking in.
What a lovely tour of this lovely city. Stunning architecture, carnival fanfare, and very imaginative letter boxes- sounds like my kind of place! Making note to visit during the winter and avoid the crowds. I will say though that I will never understand paying money to have a flock of birds surround you with anxious anticipation. If we learn nothing else from Hitchcock movies it’s that we should always avoid birds like that.
Hey Meg, thanks for taking a look at Venice. Ha ha, I love The Birds but never found it (or indeed birds in general scary). I think, if memory serves me well, I was keen on making up for those 1001 lost opportunities of doing the pigeon thing in Trafalgar Square. Venice was my ‘pigeon moment’ I think. And something I hadn’t repeated until this year when Sladja and I suddenly found ourselves mobbed (in a friendly way) by parakeets in London earlier this year.
Venice certainly makes you dream, all those monuments you know before you see them in person. Like you, I have passed through these small streets or side canals with ordinary motor boats to get around. I also like to think that I will go back one day, to take the time to get lost away from the crowds. Nice atmospheric article.
You make a good point that Venice is one of those places that is so familiar to us even before we arrive. So many iconic visions in our head along with certain romanticised contexts. I hope like me that there is one more visit for you in this life. Thanks for dropping by.
Great post! I loved hearing about your time in Venice! It is one of my all time favorite cities here in Italy — after 18 years of living here I still gravitate back to those misty canals and quiet corners that tourists don’t always find. So glad you got to see sunset from the Rialto! Beautiful.
Hey Jackie, what a privilege for you to have spent so much time in Venice over the years. I do feel that if it were a place I’d had regular access to I could have fallen head over heels for it. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, it’s always appreciated.
Wow, what amazing history there is in Venice! So many historical churches and buildings to see there, that is really neat.
Thanks for stopping by Allie!
[…] Once Upon a Time in Venice. […]
What a lovely “visit” that you shared with us. We are going for 4 days in early November— our first time! I love your pictures and writing style. And we certainly will be in tourist mode seeing all the main attractions, and will definitely wander into the residential quieter parts to see what else to discover. I enjoy your informative and breezy blog. Very helpful. Much appreciated 🙏🙏
Hey! Thanks for reading and contributing to the thread. I’m a little jealous that you’ll be visiting 😉 but I’m sure you’ll soak it all up and have a great time. Thanks for your kind words, hope you enjoy some more articles from my archives.
Hi again. Thanks for the nice send off:) I hope to report back our “discoveries”. And look forward to read your other posts. 🙏🙏
Oh, Venice! It is perpetually on my list, but somehow I still haven’t managed to visit it. Beautiful writing, Leighton, and your retro photos are full of charm and character. Old photographs always fill me with longing and nostalgia. Your exploration of the back alleys and quiet squares, and the off season visit, make me think that there’s a way of enjoying Venice without getting annoyed by relentless crowds. I am not sure that the entry fee will keep many tourists away. The second-hand book market with cats mooching about, now that sounds like my kind of thing.
Hey Amelie, it sounds like you have a lot in common with Sladja and I when it comes to travel vibes. Thanks for your recent comments and hope you get to Venice someday.
Always lovely. Hope they are not too far underwater these days to lose that charm. The photo in the fog is so dreamy. My son and I found our favorite restaurant in the world by accident in some hidden plaza, a three hour seven-course dinner but not too pricey, and he, with his expert sense of direction, was able to find it again before we left for another evening feast.
Aw, I could have done with that restaurant tip. I don’t suppose you remember the name do you? Do you recall what you ate?
I have no idea. I wonder if they are still there… My son was in high school then and is now in his 30s. I just remember classic fish, pasta, wonderful dessert, and a diffferent wine with every course.