Italy II – Return of the Sun

Tuesday was Venice day. This was one of the places I particularly wanted to visit, although I had set my expectations fairly low as I knew it would be full of people. There was also a lingering doubt about the weather, and I’d been told that it smelled quite bad. I guess with all those people crammed onto a few little islands, there was bound to be some odour issues. So it was with some trepidation that I looked out of the hotel window. The sun was shining on the mountains and there was a little haze which promised to burn off as the sun rose above the mountains.

Breakfast was early then we headed off in the bus towards Venice. I was fascinated by the countryside, especially in the bright sunlight, and spent most of the time staring out of the window. Most of the Autostrada (the equivalent of motorways) we travelled on have two lanes and the crash barriers are on both sides and quite high. It made me feel we were on some kind of track and that the driver didn’t really need to steer.

We approached Venice over a narrow bridge carrying road and rail and parked in the port, not far from a gigantic cruise liner. We took a ferry down the Canale della Guidecca to land just east of St Marks Square. The sun was strong and hot but I didn’t find it oppressive. We were led over four small bridges to St Marks square, from where we made our way to the Gondola Stazione and a short Gondola trip through the back canals. Gondolas are traditionally made of around 280 pieces of wood of 8 different kinds. The left side of the Gondola is slightly longer than the right side and this, coupled with the flat bottom, makes the craft manoeuvrable by one person. The Gondolier has to go through 5 years of training, including two years apprenticeship plying back and forth across the wider canals before he (and there is now one woman) can navigate the smaller canals. We were transported along nearly silent canals around 2m wide.

This was magical for me. I loved the peaceful nature of the narrow canals once we’d left the crowds behind. I can recall the gentle lapping of the water up against the sides of the buildings as we glided along. The Gondolier’s paddle made no sound and the high buildings either side of the water removed almost all of the city’s sounds. Birds flew over head and I watched one clinging to the vertical brickwork on my left. Several times our Gondolier had to make sharp turns, which he made look easy, and he guided the boat without once accidentally hitting anything.

Then we emerged onto the Grand Canal and we got our first look at the Rialto bridge. We headed off down the busy main canal, like any city street, with taxis, buses and cargo boats all bustling along and after a few hundred metres we dived back into the tranquillity of the back canals before making our way through a maze of a route to the stazione.

We had booked a walking tour of the city so we made our way to the starting point and for the next 90 minutes, we strolled around the piazza and through the alleys before finally losing the guide as she made her way back to the start point. We followed what we thought was the right route and we managed to catch up again. Afterwards, we discovered we weren’t the only ones to get lost. We were getting peckish so we found a nice cafe with a decent menu. We sat outside and had pizza and coffee in the shade, watching the beautiful people stroll by.

After food we wandered for a bit, heading towards the Rialto bridge and the famous view down the Grand Canal. We had been told to watch out for pickpockets as we stopped to take photos. I’d emptied my wallet anyway so I wasn’t too worried but we weren’t bothered by anyone. We crossed the bridge and made our way along the north bank, with it’s myriad of waterside cafes, looking for one where we could have a drink. Most wouldn’t offer us a waterside table if we were only drinking but one and we sat down and sipped Bellini – a refreshing mix of sparkling white wine (Presecco) and peach puree. Ours was served with a strawberry split on the side of the glass and it was delicious and certainly refreshing in the afternoon sun. We sat back and enjoyed the experience. It was one of the highlights of the whole holiday for me.

It was time to make our way slowly back to the square and there was time to stop off to get an ice cream to eat on the way. The square was still crowded and the queue to get in to St Mark’s Basilica was no shorter. On our right, the Museo Civico Correr was once the site of San Geminanio, which was demolished to build the Ala Napoleonica, a palace for Napoleon, in 1814. Today, the museum sells advertising space on the outer walls and this hoarding looks completely out of place in the square. It uses fake pillars and windows to try and hide it but they aren’t aligned properly, so it just looks haphazard.

We met our tour rep at the point where traditionally public executions were held, just by the waterfront between two columns possibly looted from the Greeks, one supporting the winged lion of St Mark, the other a statue of St Teodore on an alligator. St Teodore is the saint that almost became the patron saint of Venice. Perhaps he should have picked a better animal to stand on and maybe then he would have had a square named after him.

We walked past the Doges Palace. The Doge (duke) was the traditional ruler of Venice who held office until he died. Ideally, this should have been from natural causes but more often than not he was murdered by the next in line. The palace had three jails. One below the waterline for the common criminals, one under the roof for noble prisoners (Casanove is said to have escaped from this jail) and a newer one across a small bridge over a lesser canal. This bridge (Ponti de Sospiri), was named by Lord Byron as the Bridge of Sighs as he imagined that criminals being condemned to death would see their last glimpse of the city from the bridge, and sigh.

We passed signs that all is not well in Venice. Two towers that could be seen from the waterfront were visibly leaning as a result of subsidence and must be a constant reminder to all who live and work there that Venice is built on soft ground in a lagoon of constantly shifting water.

I was tired after Venice but it was a contented tiredness. There was so much to see and think about that I knew I couldn’t take it all in and I would have to rely on the photographs and my journal to fill in the detail. But I remembered my promise to myself after the first few times I travelled – to make sure I saw things with my own eyes rather than from behind a camera.

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