Venice is a dream. You feel transported to another time, a time of merchants and aristocracy. It is a labyrinth of lanes and canals. Justly, Venice is a unique city in the world and other water cities and towns are compared to it.
Much has been written about Venice. She is immortalised by the likes of Byron, Shelley and Hemingway. It is probably one of the most written about cities in the world. The golden culture of Venice dates back to the Byzantine era, through to its rise as a powerful maritime nation in its own right. Venice is a story of how a swampy lagoon was transformed from a fishing village into one of the richest trading powers in the world. Yet, for all her history, Venice is not a museum. From within this labyrinth of narrow bridges, cramped laneways, twisting canals and open squares, she is a living, breathing city.
When we first walked out of Santa Lucia station, we smiled broadly. We immediately recognised why people can’t deny the beauty of Venice. It is so fantastic with the blue colour from the Grand Canal, the paved and cobbled walkways and the sights of water traffic, which is so unique to Venice. It has been attracting travellers for ages.
Venice, La Serenissima, is such a unique place that you remind yourself that you actually are in a functioning city. The crumbling house fronts, the broken shutters, the quiet canals…it is hard to believe that this city is meant to be lived in.
Serene vistas unfold before you with its canals and inter-connecting bridges which, once crossed, lead you to another campo around the corner. Venice is a great place to get lost in. The city can be expensive, especially on the main island. But it needn’t cost a fortune as well priced restaurants in out of the way calles and self-catering options abound, such as the Rialto markets as well as local markets in the squares.
Living on the lagoon comes, I suspect, with its own set of challenges. There are the high tides sounded by the aqua alta sirens and the waves from motorised craft that roll through the canals and eat away the stone foundations. Everything has to be done by foot or by boat. But all of this adds to the charm of Venice.
Visiting in summer was tough to explore the Piazza San Marco and its surrounds due to the throngs of visitors. We did get into the Basilica and Doges Palace, having arrived early and purchased tickets in advance . The visit to the Basilica was, whilst not awe inspiring, noteworthy for its glittering mosaics that line the inside of her grandiose domes and the Pala d’Oro, a golden wall encrusted with pearls, sapphires, emeralds and garnets. The mosaic depiction, on the outside of the basilica, of the stealing of the body of Saint Mark from Alexandria, is also noteworthy.
In the Palazzo Ducale, we were surprised at the magnificence and opulence of the building. The enormous stairs outside were decorated with statues of Nereid and the God of War. Inside, the building is sophisticated and beautified by big paintings and wooden sculptures on the ceiling and vast rooms and auditoriums. In sharp contrast, the dungeons gave a glimpse of how prisoners were treated by the powerful rulers of Venice.
As the day progresses, queues get longer and seem endless, especially for the Campanile in Piazza San Marco. But this forces you to find your own niches to explore. San Giorgio Maggiore is one such place. This is a simple church but would be one of the most photographed churches in Venice – people standing in Piazza San Marco, looking out over the lagoon at the swaying gondolas, will have this church in the background.
From the San Giorgio belltower, you get a superb view across to Venice and the lagoon. You can admire the Piazza San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, which would be more difficult from the San Marco campanile. You will also see Grand Canal, Punta della Dogana and the Arsenale in the east.
From Piazza San Marco, it would only be natural to follow the yellow signs (and crowds) to Rialto. While the bridge is impressive, the fish and vegetable market tucked away to its side is far more interesting. Here, you witness Venetian life and realise that Venice is a functioning and lively city. Chefs, Venetian housewives and tourists alike come here to shop. The market is awash with colour, noise and the smell of the sea. The produce is fresh and well priced and the stall holder will even clean your purchase for you. This is the largest and most popular of the markets in Venice, but smaller stalls are scattered across Venice, in local squares and on the canals.
While the Rialto market is a favourite for Venetians, developers want to get their hands on this prime piece of land by the Grand Canal. They say that the population is dwindling and the market can do trade at a cheaper location. Defiant flags state how the Venetian’s feel – “Rialto do not touch”. It would be a shame if this is to occur.
In a city like Venice, almost every home is rendered fascinating by the remains of ancient arches and peeling render and windows juxtaposed with flowery window boxes and strings of washing above canal-side restaurants and cafes.
Staying in Dorsoduro, our ‘local campo’, Campo Santa Margherita, is considered the heart of local life. It is near to the university and visited almost only by locals, who like to gather here in the evening to eat, drink and relax.
What better way to rest your feet than enjoying a Venetian spritz (aperitif made with prosecco and aperol) and a beer. Ideally, choose a terrace with a view on the lagoon or a canal where you can watch the crowds – and we did, by the Grand Canal and a seat by the grill. This is the perfect moment to reflect on your day and enjoy the moment in Venice.
Thankfully, the day trippers and cruise tours disappear after sunset. Venice becomes incredibly quiet and evocative from dusk. Dusk in Venice is best seen from the water – the perfect excuse for an evening trip to see the buildings illuminated. Few cities are as still as Venice at night. No street vendors, few tourists, and much quieter – only the occasional splashing of oars in a canal or the sound of the water craft making their way to destinations unknown.
Venice is a place of outstanding beauty. We could have easily spent another week here, just walking the quiet lanes, peering into courtyards and sipping coffees in tiny squares. You can experience Venice in many different ways, with a bit of a history lesson or simply by drifting and walking. The real beauty of Venice is getting lost. Venice can be described as a tourist trap, yet for all the crowds and souvenir shops, Venice is still a living and working city. From the quiet laundry-lined streets of Castello and the Arsenale to the more populated Cannaregio, from the quiet squares of the Dorsoduro to the bustling markets and canal-side workshops, you can glean a picture of real Venice if you look hard enough.
But don’t try to see everything at once, leave something for your next visit.