Beyond the all too familiar tourist traps, the romance of Venice is still alive and well. If only you are ready to discover it in its back alleys and quiet spaces…
Long ago, a visitor to Venice said, “Other cities have admirers, Venice has lovers!” I understand what he meant the moment I walk out of the station and witness the traffic on the Grand Canal for the first time. I have heard about its dank canals and its touristy economy. But nothing prepares me for the sheer romance of boats replacing cars!
We start our Venice discovery armed with a Venice card, which enables us to recklessly jump off and on the sturdy vaporetto (the public water taxi) and float up and down the canals. Route No. 1 takes us down the Grand Canal, the ‘high street' of Venice which meanders in a big S. This city is a mosaic of 117 islands and there is a serpentine network of canals, cobbled streets and bridges to connect it! We see crumbling, moss-slicked palazzos with gold trim, tarnished by time, tethering on the water's edge and exquisite facades of faded churches. We pass the famous shop-lined Rialto Bridge. This used to be a wooden bridge and was destroyed several times due to floods and fires. Re-building the bridge attracted applications from the greatest architects of those times including Michelangelo, but the job finally went to the virtually unknown Antonio Da Ponte.
It's fun to watch the Grand Canal traffic from the bridge: Venetians going about their daily work, traghetti that ferry people across the canal, barges carrying suitcases, furniture and almost everything, police boats, even ambulance boats and, of course, the iconic clichéd image of Venice, the Gondolas with their stripy-vested navigators singing ‘O sole mio'! The chaotic market behind the Rialto Bridge selling fish and vegetables is the one we see for local colour and Italian ebullience!
The iconic Piazza san Marco is one of the most magnificent squares in the world. Napoleon called it the drawing room of Europe, but to me it looks like an overcrowded football stadium! Overfed pigeons colonise the square (there are an estimated 100,000 pigeons in Venice, nearly two for every Venetian!) which is chockablock with camera-totting tourists and tacky souvenir stalls! The Basilica Di San Marco, in a synthesis of Byzantine and Roman styles, has a multi-hued façade and opulent interiors: 4,000 square metres of mosaic running from floor to ceiling with the shimmer of the gold tiles in the sunlight streaming in! We walk to the Palazzo Ducale (the Doge's palace), a gothic pink and white fantasy, which used to be the seat of Venice's governing Doges. We take a ‘Secret Itineraries' tour of the Doge's Palace with an English guide, where we get to see hidden parts of this enormous complex! Our guide is a witty Italian lady, who regales us with the exploits of the notorious philanderer Casanova, who was imprisoned in a cell here under the piombior lead roofs (therefore extremely hot in the summer and freezing in the winter) and the only person to escape from here! As the Adriatic sunset turns the canals into fire, we see well-heeled Venetians enjoy their Bellinis (a famous mix of peach juice and champagne) at the famous Harry's Bar.
We decide to see the ‘hidden' Venice, the off-beat alleys and small canals and take the vaporettoto eclectic Dorsudoro (one of the six sestierior districts of Venice). This is the stop for the famed Accademia, filled with Renaissance art and American heiress Peggy Guggenheim's avant garde Museum of Modern Art. We, however, by-pass the known for the unknown and amble down the baffling labyrinth of foot bridges and alleys behind this gallery for some vignettes of daily life. One minute we are window-shopping and the next minute we are in a quiet piazza with a church. Going inside, I am amazed to see a painting by Tintoretto and a gorgeous ceiling! Venice has nearly 150 churches and almost all of them shelter at least one artistic masterpiece!
Passing a small square where some boys are engaged in a ferocious game of soccer, we stumble upon a Sequero(Gondola workshop). A tile roofed building bursting with geraniums encircles the gondola yard, where two partly built gondolas lie under a tin roof. We spend some time watching the exquisite workmanship. I remember reading somewhere that gondolas are built out of seven different kinds of wood as dictated by tradition: mahogany, cherry, fir, walnut, lime, oak and elm. The boats are painted black in accordance with a 16th century law which was passed to counter the extravagance of owners who tried to outdo each other with gilded prows and elaborate carvings!
We continue walking till we reach a wide quay filled with gelataria and cafes. This is Zatere, a popular marina and the closest thing to a seafront in Venice, a popular hang-out of the locals for their evening walk. We revive our flagging energy levels with a hazelnut gelato, and chat with Antonio, a young student who wants to ‘improve' his English talking to us! Yes, Venice is sinking…He talks about how the rising seas threaten the Venetians with aqua-alta (high tides) during the winters and the ambitious and controversial MOSE project, at a whopping cost of €4.6 billion which aims at inflatable pontoons, which could be released at high tides! Interestingly, the word Mose in Italian is the word for Moses, alluding to the Biblical parting of the seas. We also hear about how rising real estate prices have driven citizens out and the Venetian population has dropped dramatically (it's a predominantly grey population).
A different city
Venice by night is a different cup of tea! The day trippers gone, the deserted streets hold a special magic! The lights of the chandeliers inside the crumbling palazzos twinkle in the gently lapping black waters, street-lights drizzle gold and strains of Vivaldi waft from a palazzo. My well-honed navigating skills run smack as we lose our way several times in blind alleys searching for a Chinese restaurant recommended by our concierge. But getting lost in Venice is a rite of passage! Candles flicker on wayside tables as we have a late dinner overlooking an iridescent waterway. So much has been written about Venice that its difficult not to consider it a gigantic clichéd tourist-trap...but then Venice is not the over-priced coffee or the San Marco square covered with perching pigeons or even the teeming canals...it's a mind-blowing experience which is the sum total of its myriad parts! In the words of Hemingway, a city can only be known, if we devote enough time to hear its silence.
The writer is a Japanese Language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai.
Trains from Rome, Milan, Florence, Naples, Paris, Vienna, Prague, etc arrive at Venezia St. Lucia Station. Venice Mestre is the mainland station.
Accommodation in Venice can be steep and the rooms frightfully tiny! The cheapest is to stay on the mainland (Mestre), but if you can afford it you should definitely stay in `the real' Venice. A good alternative is to book an apartment. There are many sites on the Internet (http://veniceapartment.com, http://veniceapartments.org/).
Buy the Venice card (which costs around ?48 for three days) which gives unlimited use of local public transport, free admission to churches and museums.
Sample genuine Venetian cuisine at a bacaro or wine bar accompanied by cicchetti (snacks).
If you have the time, visit Murano, the Glass Island and Burano with the brightly painted fishermen's homes.
Buy Venetian masks, local art, Murano glass and pasta.
PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU SUNDAY MAGAZINE,2010