They’ll tell you, never go to Venice in the summer. It smells and it’s hot. Well, they’re 50% right. It is hot. But really it doesn’t smell. It doesn’t smell at all.
On the other hand, let’s not burst the bubble that is the myth about Venice. In the summer the crowds keep away because of this supposed smell and the heat. The Americans, concerned about their olfactory sensitivities, stay at home or go elsewhere. The only tourists are a few Japanese and those who must clearly be mad.
And the mad have Venice to themselves.
Especially after dark when shopkeepers, and those who work in the city but who live on the mainland, leave for home and families. As a tourist, you’re free to roam silent and dark streets in a city with one of the lowest crime rates in Europe. Narrow passages lit only by weak yellow street lights guide you around between cafe and bar, over bridges and canals; weaving their way across the city.
Most people arrive in Venice by either car or by train. Either way, you arrive on the outskirts of Venice across the lagoon linked by either the Venice Railroad Bridge or the Ponte della Liberata. The city itself is built on a hundred islands across the glorious Venetian Lagoon.
You leave your car in a large municipal car park on the far side of the lagoon next to the railway station. Your first view of Venice is magical. It’s a film set. Every other view from then on just competes with it in glorious technicolor. The water taxis wait to take you to the right and down the Grand Canal, which must be the greatest public waterway in the World.
There are three imitations of Venice. One is in Las Vegas where the gondolas ride up and down a man-made canal and are just as expensive as the the real thing. The second is in the Villaggio Shopping Mall in Doha, Qatar. Here you can take your shopping bags and ride between Marks and Spencer and Michael Kors for a little under £2. The third is is Dalian, China, where gondoliers take tourists and locals in lookalike gondolas wearing rather incongruous ‘coolie hats’.
Have a look at all of three alternatives at:
Las Vegas : http://www.venetian.com/
They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Venice doesn’t need flattering. It is unique, despite this irritation of being copied. It is probably the most spectacular place I have ever visited. It left a deep, deep impression and its age, grandeur and uniqueness burnt itself into my memory.
We stayed at the Casa Pisani Canal (http://www.casapisanicanal.com/), a small hotel on a side street next to one of the tributaries that flow into the Grand Canal. Go in the height of summer and it’s a third cheaper than at the start of September or in the spring. That’s another reason for choosing your arrival date carefully.
The room was overlooking a minor canal and, with red flock wallpaper, Louis XV furniture and a four-poster bed, looked more like a whore’s boudoir than one might have wished. How could one have described it with a modicum of taste? Opulent, might be the word. The two large windows, complete with Juliet balconies, looked down on the canal. Each evening a gondolier would scull, row or steer (I’ve never quite worked out precisely how to describe it) various romantic couples who had hired his gondola to navigate up and down this strip of water, describing how Casanova lived in the house opposite to our hotel. The gondolier must have been laughing all the way to the bank with the prices he was charging for his services.
The romance of it all. Fancy staying in a room no more than twelve feet away from where Casanova himself stayed? Until, of course, you realise that every gondolier in Venice uses the same patter for every fare, down every canal and outside every house. No-one, unless they are multi-millionaires, will ever book a gondola twice! At 100 euros for forty minutes and then a further 50 euros for every twenty minutes, it’s not for those on a budget. It’s even more expensive that that on the Grand Canal itself.
Fear not, there are ways around it. I’ll explain how in a little while.
Venice is all about experiences. It’s about heading out to see something. You don’t need to negotiate yourself everywhere by vaporetto, the Venetian water-bus, or by water-taxi. You can wander the narrow streets, heading up and down steps and over bridges and most of the places you will be wanting to see are well signposted. So, we may as well begin…
The Rialto Bridge and Market
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
The Rialto is, and has been for many centuries, the commercial and financial heart of Venice. It’s a series of streets and piazza housing commercial buildings and market areas. Most were rebuilt in 1514 after a great fire, but the area still feels incredibly old. The most famous landmark is the Rialto bridge that spans the Grand Canal. It’s a covered bridge with small shops on either side, mostly selling gold.From either side, you have the perfect position for photographs. From the interior, having headed up the ramp and into the portico, it’s about very serious shopping.
Its interest, apart from the fact that even by the 16th century its fame had spread across Europe, is that it is the site of the first floating pontoon crossing in Venice. Business was so brisk and busy that it was replaced with a wooden Rialto bridge in 1255. Various other versions either burnt down or collapsed, one under the weight of 16th century spectators watching a boat race. The current one is far more modern, being constructed as recently as 1551!
You get used to dealing in such old numbers in Venice. Before you leave the area, head to the Rialto fish market. Now that is another experience.
Piazza San Marco and Florians
Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square always feels like the heart of city, even though it’s on the water’s edge. But then again, most places are at the water’s edge in Venice. In the summer, it’s usually very busy, especially during the day but again, in August, it quietens down after dark and becomes a beautiful square to wander around enjoying your passeggiata.
It’s the principal public square in the city. At one end is the church of St. Mark with its Basilica. To one side is the Clock Tower, dating from 1499 and the arcades that run around the square, house some of the most exclusive shops you’ll find outside of Rome.
And then there is Florians.
Cafe Florian has been on the site since 1720. It’s possibly the oldest cafe in Europe and was the hunting ground for Casanova. And I heard that from a reputable source, not a gondolier. However, they haven’t been tardy in ensuring the prices keep pace with inflation. It’s frighteningly expensive and is more of an ‘event’ than a quick coffee and a cake. Most days small instrumental quartets entertain the customers from their position on stage in the front facade.
Don’t let the prices put you off. If you want to be seen, book a table and enjoy the experience. If like us, and clearly there are considerable numbers out there like us, sit at the much more reasonably-priced cafe opposite, or on the arcade steps and ‘people-watch’ whilst enjoying the free entertainment. Your pocket will suffer less but you’ll leave with just as many memories.
The spring high-tides often mean that St. Mark’s Square floods. Ramps and make-do pontoons are erected and the people make their way to and from work via narrow foot-ways keeping feet dry and dignities intact.
St Mark’s Campanile
The Campanile is the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica and one of the best-known landmarks in Venice. It stands a little over 320 feet tall and dates from 1912 after the previous one collapsed and was irreparable. Like most buildings in Venice, it’s built on soft ground and on wooden piles. As a consequence, it is perpetually undergoing repair. They’re in the process of installing a titanium collar that should prevent it sinking into the saturated subsoil or leaning precariously one way or the other. The outside shows cracks but, even during restoration, it’s possible to climb the tower and gain some spectacular views out across the lagoon and the city.
While you’re making your way up the circular stairs, wondering whether you’re ever going to see daylight or even survive the ordeal, spare a thought for Galileo Galilei who hoisted his telescope all the way to the top to be able to demonstrate it to the Doge of Venice on August 21st 1609, which was incidentally, a Friday….
St. Mark’s clock
The clock, located on the square next to the Procuratie Vecchie, three inter-connecting houses, dates back to 1499, although it has benefited from a number of restorations since then, the latest being as recently as 1996.
If you’re a fan of Bond films and of Moonraker in particular, you may remember Bond throwing a bad guy out of a clock face and down onto a piano in Venice. This was a replica of the St. Mark’s clock.
Take a pair of binoculars to take full advantage of the journey of the Magi and the bell-ringing shepherds as the bells toll out the hours across the square.
A circular tour of Venice on a Vaporetto
If you head for the Ospedale, the main city hospital, you can take advantage of a crafty way to see Venice by water-bus. You could, of course, hire a water-taxi or a gondola and see the Grand Canal as a tourist. However, far more interesting, authentic and an awful lot cheaper, is to see Venice as the Venetians do on a daily basis.
The Ospedale is the grandest hospital you’ll ever see. It’s located in the Scuola Grande di Marco in the Campo Giovanni e Paolo. Remember that there are only three squares in Venice that carry the title of piazza. The rest are Campo, or ‘fields’. So many tourists pass by not realising that behind the most opulent of facades lies a fully operational 21st century hospital.
We waited outside one morning for a water-bus. You buy tickets from the stand just by the stop. Nobody ever buys a circular ticket and the man kept asking where we were going. Obviously totally confusing him with a reply of ‘Nowhere’, he then tried asking us where we we intended to disembark. ‘Here!’ I told him. That wasn’t particularly helpful. Eventually he gave up and sold me an open ticket for a couple of euros. This meant that we could get on the bus and stay on it until it returned to the hospital. Even more, it meant that we could go round on the port side and then repeat the experience on the starboard side.
Believe me, you see the whole of Venice. Not only do you see the outlying islands and some of the less picturesque industrial areas tucked away out of sight, you also get to ride down the middle of the Grand Canal stopping off at all the important sights and musing on the fact the Lord Bryon swam much of this route, in the nude, back in February 1821.
Of course, everything is transported by boat in Venice. Everything from fresh fruit to Coca-Cola has to be loaded on to barges and unloaded onto the canal side. From there, it’s transported by porters’ trolleys up and down steps, across canal bridges and into premises. Most porters now use double-wheeled trolleys with an articulated system that enables them to manage the many steps over the canals. It still looks like back-breaking work, especially in the summer heat.
One landmark is San Michele , the cemetery island of Venice. Bodies are interred in tombs, rather like chest of drawers, on two islands, now joined by a bridge and this has been a municipal cemetery since the 19th century. Vaporetto service 41 or 42 will take you here and you can combine this, if you wish, with a visit to Murano.
A piece of advice, don’t catch the motoscaffi, the more covered-up water buses. They are hot, stuffy and have poor views. You’re better catching the vaporetto which have large open spaces and easily accommodate bikes, prams and people with large parcels. .
Vaporetto routes can be found at http://europeforvisitors.com/venice/articles/vaporetto_routes2_table.htm. If you’re there for a while, you might want to think about purchasing a tourist card to save on fares. Alternatively, walk – you’ll see much more.
The three islands : 1. Torcello
Torcello is at the northern end of the lagoon and, whilst it is the oldest and once most heavily populated island, it’s now almost deserted with only a small population of ten, including a resident priest.
The main reason for visiting Torcello, however, is to visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. The cathedral dates back to 639 with some additional work undertaken in the 11th and 12th centuries. There is another ancient church and a small museum that tracks the history of the island. Both are worth visiting. One curiosity is a large stone chair, once a Bishop’s throne but now given the far more exciting, if fictitious, description of being Atilla the Hun’s throne. Well, it draws in the tourists for photo opportunities.
Hemingway was also drawn to Torcello and spent time here in 1948 writing parts of ‘Across the River and into the Trees’. It feels like a refuge and that’s the purpose it serves in the modern age.
The three islands : 2. Murano
Murano is invariably busier. Murano glass is sought after world wide and it attracts the crowds throughout the year. With a population of 5,000, it’s also far more developed and clearly aimed at the tourist industry.
Murano is, in fact, seven islands linked by bridges. You can walk the whole island in a couple of hours so combine it with a visit to either San Michele or Burano or Torcello.
It’s been a centre for glass making since 1291. The Venetian glass blowers were all evicted from the city for fear of fires and it developed its own little colony away from the main islands in the lagoon.
Much of the glass is ornate, dark blues and reds with interlaced threads of gold. It’s not to everyone’s taste but it is significant as an art form. And, let’s be honest, it’s been produced for long enough to stand the test of time.
The three islands : 3. Burano
Burano is built on four islands, again linked by bridges. It lies four miles from Venice and is easily reached by water-bus. It’s quite highly populated and tourists visit it for the brightly-coloured houses and the small fleet of fishing boats. It’s an artists’ and photographers’ dream.
It’s been the centre for lace-making since the 13th century. Leonardo da Vinci visited in 1482 and bought cloth from the local producers. Lace-making was revived in the 1870s but little is done these days due to the time involved and the poor financial returns. A lot of history flows through these places. Sometimes it’s hard to absorb it all.
Still, it’s an extremely pretty and photogenic place and more than worthy of a visit, if you have the time.
The Bridge of Sighs
Why so unforgiving
And why so cold
Been a long time crossing
The bridge of sighs
Such a romantic bridge with such sinister undercurrents.
The Bridge of Sighs is a covered walkway that links the interrogation rooms of the Doge’s Palace to the prison. It’s an attractive bridge built of white limestone and has barred windows. It was often the last view of Venice that the convicted had before imprisonment.
Romantically, if that’s the right word, it was never called ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ until Bryon came along in the 19th century and referred to it as ponte de sospiri. It was a suggestion that prisoners sighed as they took what was often their their last look at the city. In reality, by the time the bridge was built quick inquisitions and summary executions were things of the past and the cells under the palace roof were for only minor offenders.
As you stand and take in the view, you may be lucky to see lovers, with more money and romantic inclinations than common sense, drift by in a gondola and kiss under the bridge. Legend has it that if they do, they will be granted eternal love. Well, I suppose it’s an earner at the time and, when they petition for divorce in later years, they’re probably not going to remember that afternoon….
The Doge’s Palace
The Doge’s Palace must be one of the great landmarks of Venice. It’s part of the tremendous view you have of St Mark’s Square whether you’re coming to it by land or by sea.
It’s been a museum since 1923, but before that it was the residence of the Venetian Doges, the supreme authority in Venice. The first Doge was established in 810 AD and the last one was forced to abdicate by Napoleon as recently as 1797.
The museum houses the Doge’s apartments, various courtyards, the interior view of the Bridge of Sighs and the old prison. There is a significant number of classical paintings, statues and other works of art. The queues can be rather off-putting. If you’re going to visit, best make an early start one morning.
The Castello is the site of the naval dockyard. It’s on Isola d’Olivola and has been a naval dockyard since the 13th century. Known as the Arsenale, it was a series of workshops and armouries, at one time mass-producing galleys via an almost assembly-line process. By 1450, Venice had almost 3,000 merchant ships, warships and supply ships in the Mediterranean. Galileo was employed a century later as consultant and, linked to arsenals in Corfu and other areas of the Mediterranean, Venetian power and influence was secured.
The arsenal continued until Napoleon shut it down in the 1790s but what remains is a series of museums, gardens and some military offices.
It’s an easy walk from St Mark’s Square, or if the legs are giving out, a short ride by water-bus.
A little further afield lies a long seven mile sandbar that is home to 20,000 residents but numbers swell in the summer as holiday makers head for the Lido, Venice’s beach complex.
The Grande Hotel les Bains is situated at the north and buses run along the main street and along the Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta. Most of the beaches are either owned by the holiday homes for the rich or are part of hotel complexes. However, there is a small public beach at one end.Iit feels a little out of keeping with the rest of Venice, almost ‘land-locked’ if you know what I mean.
During the Film Festival, the Lido plays centre stage to the very rich and famous. Fans of Death in Venice will remember that Aschenbach struggles his way through writer’s block at the Grande Hotel des Bains with the added distraction of a seductive young boy in a sailor suit.
Still, it does give you ‘ a day out at the beach’ and that’s not something you really think you’re going to manage to have in Venice.
Of course, if you’re heading to Venice in the Spring, you may well be in time for The Carnival of Venice or Carnevale. But that is a very different experience and will need much careful planning in advance as the whole city gives itself over to celebrations and opulence, with a considerable hike in prices, of course.
Venice is more than a quick visit. It’s a dramatic experience that will stay with you for many years to come.
I’ve kept the photographs to a minimum for this posting. The key to Venice is, don’t over-prepare. Let it assault your senses.
It might be worth some advance reading of one or two of the many excellent guide and tourist books available. However, no matter what you read or watch, it will ill-prepare you for the impact of the first view of Venice from the station and looking down the Grand Canal. The Americans may well call it ‘awesome’, but we need to remember that ‘awe’ is an emotion comparable to wonder, but less joyous. The word diminishes the impact that Venice will have on you.
When we returned, we watched Francesco da Mosto’s history of Venice produced for the BBC back in 2004; we read Jan Morris’s guide to Venice and also thoroughly enjoyed a re-visiting of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the classic ‘Don’t Look Now‘ (1973). Sometimes, experiences are better put in context after the fact.
While we were there, we also had a short excursion to Verona, a little over an hour away by train. It’s a pleasant day out, despite the dreadful over-hype of a small balcony in a side street, dressed in false clothes to be the ‘balcony of Juliet’. What a lot of tosh!
The Grand Canal