When my husband and I decided to tour Italy, I didn’t want to go to Venice. Friends told of the brown, stinky water in the canals, piazzas flooding and an unpleasant pigeon problem.
We encountered none of these during our visit — a visit that at three days was not long enough.
Venice charmed us from the moment we crossed the causeway onto the group of 118 islands set in the Lagoon of Venice.
Arriving in Venice by boat, motor vehicle or airplane is the norm. The Port of Venice moors gigantic cruise ships, tour buses dot the parking lot and the Venice Marco Polo Airport is just a few miles from the islands. These modes of transportation end as soon as you cross the causeway.
Then, there are only two ways to move — by boat or by foot. For a few euros, you can ride the vaparetto, the public water taxi that rumbles through the Grand Canal, the main waterway.
Or hoof it, but allow enough time to get lost (the most pleasant of diversions) and enjoy crossing some of the 400-plus bridges that connect the islands and shopping in stores that feature colorful Venetian masks.
Most tourists think of a romantic gondola ride with Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) flowing and a singing gondolier dressed in black pants, a striped shirt and the distinctive hat. The reality of your gondola ride may depend on weather conditions. Unless you spend the money for a private ride, you can expect four other passengers.
As the last on the boat, my husband and I didn’t get to sit together, which was disappointing until we got out into the canals and focused on photographing the amazing sites from the water.
Consider reserving your gondola ride in advance. On the fly, you may wait a long time for a gondola, especially if the weather is agreeable. Groups often get a singer, who will offer Italian songs American tourists want to hear. (You’ll be sick of “Valore” and “That’s Amore” after a few days in Italy.)
Gondolas, small rowboats, originated more than 1,000 years ago in Venice. The gondolier uses one oar to maneuver through the narrow canals. Most gondola rides last 30 to 40 minutes, so you’ll see bridges across the Grand Canal, such as the famous Rialto Bridge, and those just as lovely in smaller canals.
Piazza San Marco
Don’t let the horror stories about divebombing pigeons keep you from Piazza San Marco, a place Napoleon Bonaparte called “the finest drawing room in Europe.”
The L-shaped piazza is flanked by two large pillars that face the sea, each representing a Venetian patron saint — St. Mark and St. Theodore. The winged lion, a familiar symbol in Venice, is a tribute to St. Mark.
Across the piazza from the pillars is the Bell Tower, called Campanile in Italian. People cross the piazza in all directions. There are vendors hawking everything and cafes offer high-priced fare for the privilege of sitting in on the action. Consider having a drink or a gelato and finding dinner in a less-touristy place on a less-crowded area.
Basilica de San Marco
St. Mark’s Basilica, inspired by the Byzantine style of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, is unlike other famous churches in Italy such as the Duomo in Florence. St. Mark’s interior, pictured above, rivals the marvelous facade. While many Italian churches kept the bling on the outside, St. Mark’s has beautiful art and a gilded altar known as Pala D’Oro (golden cloth).
Admission to the Basilica is free; be prepared for long lines.
In the San Marco area is the Doge’s Palace, Palazzo Ducale. The Doges (meaning duke or leader) ruled the city-state, independent of the rest of Italy, from about the sixth century.
Turkey is commonly referred to as the place where “East meets West.” Because of Venice’s location in the Adriatic Sea, it was an important historic link between the ancient cultures and heavily influenced by both. Thus, buildings in Venice often reflect Eastern and Western styles.
Another Byzantine building, the Doge’s Palace, was several buildings, including a prison, and has been altered by fire throughout the years.
Today’s remaining structure, built at the height of the Renaissance, reflects a number of influential masters.
The end of the Doges’ rule came about with the collapse of the Republic of Venice at the hand of Napoleon in 1797.
You may want to pre-purchase tickets, as this is one of Venice’s most popular tourist attractions.
Outside the palace, there’s an impressive courtyard before entering the public buildings. Look up as you climb the ornate marble staircase to the public rooms; don’t miss the gilded, ornate ceiling that lines the staircase. The public rooms are filled with Renaissance-era frescoes, all magnificent.
Most tours cross the small canal between the palace and a notorious prison that once housed Casanova. The hometown boy, Giovanni Jacopo Casanova de Seingalt, went by many names and spent 15 months in the dank prison for the crime of “impiety.”
Lord Byron dubbed the link between the Doge’s Palace and the famous prison the “Bridge of Sighs,” because it was often a criminal’s final look at freedom.
While the museum in not free, a single ticket entitles the bearer to visit other museums, including the Museo Correr at the opposite end of the piazza as well as the Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.
The Museo Correr regularly hosts wonderful exhibits; the lesser-known artist Francesco Guardi’s beautiful 19th century paintings were featured during our visit.
A day in Venice is never enough — though many tourists spend only hours there as cruise ships come into port for only a day. If given extra time, take a boat trip to Murano Island where the famous Venetian glass is blown.
Published September 2013 in the Evansville Courier and Press.