Venice Stole My HeartPosted by in Travel
Our two week trip to Italy began in Venice. It was love at first sight for me. This is hands-down the most romantic city I’ve ever visited. Venice is like something out of a fairy tale. It’s like a mystical kingdom: an island set off the shore where there are no cars, buses, taxis, or scooters. The only way to get around the city is by boat or on foot. What this means is that Venice is supremely quiet. There are no engines, horns, or tires squealing. When you are facing a canal, boats go by, but they are quiet (the Grand Canal is the exception – there is a lot of traffic there). The rest of the city is made up of quiet alleyways and calm squares (called campos, which mean fields in Italian). It was this beautiful silence that first struck me. And all the streets are very, very narrow, not more than 4 people across.
The second thing that captivated me was the architecture. Venice was most definitely
Italian, but because of its unique historical position as a gateway between the east and west, it has architecture that reflects French and Turkish styles. It’s an incredible combination of the most beautiful styles from all over Europe and it made the city feel very welcoming and inclusive. The buildings lining the Grand Canal were all originally palaces and the Grand Canal was their Main Street, so their elegant facades face this canal. All buildings situated on canals have doors that open (or once opened) to the canal. This was the front door. You can transport yourself to another time when you look at these palazzos. The buildings have many window boxes with flowers and this is the only greenery you will see in the city. There are no parks, no trees, no grass (except in some private courtyards). You also see a lot of laundry hung out the upper windows of buildings, which felt very Italian to me. And
then there are the doors. The city is filled with unique and wonderful doors. I took photos of many of them. I was hoping to find a poster of them, but didn’t see one.
The top tourist attractions in Venice are the Rialto Bridge, the biggest and most beautiful bridge spanning the Grand Canal. It is filled with souvenir shops. Climbing to the top of the bridge allows an excellent viewpoint of the Grand Canal. Either end of the canal is also filled with street stalls selling souvenirs. The bridge is pretty to look at, but is choked with junky stores and tourists.
Piazza San Marco
The other big attraction is Piazza San Marco, home to a huge open piazza. It is surrounded on 4 sides by buildings. There are hundreds of pigeons in this square. One end of the square is dominated by the stunning San Marco cathedral. We took a tour inside this beautiful church. The inside of the domes and many of the walls are covered with intricate stone mosaics. The amount of work that went into this art is mindblowing. The church also has a beautiful exterior with many statues. The marble pillars around the front of the building were fascinating because each is different – and
each was stolen from somewhere else in the world. The view from the balcony is remarkable because it allows you to look out over the lagoon to the Adriatic Sea. You also have a stunning view of the piazza.
Next door to the church is the Doge’s Palace. The doge was the ruler of Venice, but he was not like a king. Our guide told us much about the forward-thinking government of Venice which was a republic ruled by nobles. The palace itself is not very exciting, although the maps painted on the walls were of interest because of how wrong they were, but also because they showed the travels of Marco Polo, native son of Venice and the man credited with opening China to trade with Europe.
We walked over the famous Bridge of Sighs which connected the prisons to the government rooms. Our tour allowed us to skip the lines to get into the church and palace and I highly recommend doing so (the lines were long and stood in the hot sun). I also think it is a good idea to take an actual tour so you can learn what you are looking at and why it is important. Our tour began with a little walking tour of Venice that included the area where Marco Polo was believed to have lived and our guide provided us with much background information that helped me understand the city.
We had lunch in the piazza, at the oldest cafe in Venice, called The Florian Cafe. You sit at a table in the open piazza and an orchestra plays. You, of course, pay through the nose for this experience, since there is a seating fee added to your bill and the food (which was absolutely fine but not amazing) is grotesquely overpriced. It is a once in a lifetime thing though, so we did it.
The shopping in Venice was overwhelming. I have never been in a place with so many shops. There was simply hours of shopping on the main pathways to the bridge and to the piazza. There’s lots of Murano glass to be bought and I did buy some here, but tried to wait for our trip out to Murano itself (an island a short boat ride away).
There are several types of boat transport in Venice which I carefully read up on in advance. We took water taxis to and from the train station and airport. These are small wooden boats that reminded me a lot of the classic wooden boats you see on American lakes. They have an enclosed portion with benches. They can hold up to about 8-10 people it seemed, but our guides always took us alone in them. When we left the airport, our water taxi traveled on what was essentially a road through the water. It was a specific channel tightly enclosed by wooden pillars, that led the way from the airport to the city.
The rest of the time we were in the city and were not walking, we used vaporettos, which are like water buses or subway lines. You buy a ticket from an automated machine and get on when the boat comes to your stop. There is a specific line with stops listed so it is relatively easy to manage. We heard about, but did not ride in traghettos, small rowed boats that will take you across a canal. We had no need for them since there were plenty of bridges.
We also took a private gondola ride. Our gondolier did not sing (fine by me!) and we
traveled over part of the Grand Canal and many smaller canals. When we were on the smaller canals, it was a quiet, serene ride and was something to check off my bucket list!
All the guidebooks warned me that it is very easy to get lost in Venice. If you are going to the main tourist sites, they are signs on the corners of buildings with arrows and you just follow them without issue. If, however, you are trying to find a specific restaurant, good luck. We had both a paper map and a digital map that tracked our location in real time and couldn’t find anything, ever. We saw a lot of interesting little alleys and campos this way (and as an aside, I have to say I never felt unsafe, even though most of the alleys and campos off the beaten track are as empty as ghost towns).
My overall feeling about Venice was that it is a very European city and not a typical Italian city, particularly when I compare it to the other places we went in Italy. It made me want to see more of Europe, however. The people were all very friendly and spoke very good English, making it easy for us ignorant Americans to communicate. I felt very welcomed and comfortable in this city. Venice is the perfect city to wander in. Go see the top tourist sites, then allow yourself time to just explore. Venice is now on my list of my all-time favorite places (the list also includes Maine, Savannah, Scotland, Hawaii, Sedona AZ, and the Bahamas). Someday I hope to go back to this mesmerizing city.