Venice had humble beginnings as a collection of small villages in a swampy lagoon. But by the thirteenth century, the Venetian Empire had become the centre of trade for the Mediterranean, which at that time meant it was the centre of the world. Today's Venice is no longer an empire of course. It is simply one of Italy's many glamourous cities. In fact, it is inaccurate to describe Venice as a city at all. It has for some time been merely an attraction, complete with long lines and outrageous prices. This attraction called Venice retired as a working city long ago. It is now strictly the domain of a handful of the super wealthy, who only inhabit their apartments a few weeks out of the year. The hotels are so expensive that most tourists come to Venice just for the day, and go elsewhere to sleep. This leaves Venice strange and uninhabited by night. As the workers that cater to the tourists also have to be on the last train out in the evening, there is virtually no nightlife to be found any more.
Our visit in September was arranged in this fashion by our Italian friends Rasha and Ugo. We stayed in the lovely city of Trieste, about eighty miles to the east, and took the train in to Venice for the day.
The grubby trains are packed every morning with eager tourists and bored worker bees crossing the lagoon to arrive at Santa Lucia. The drab station gives no indication of the delights that lie just outside the ugly 60's concrete box. But once past the shuffling masses we walked out into the sparkling sunshine and the jaw dropping magnificence of the Grand Canal. Described as "the most beautiful street in the world", the Canalazzo (as the locals call it) is the main artery through this gorgeous watery world.
The gondoliers are lined up looking smart in their tight black trousers, black and white stripped shirts and straw hats. Once upon a time, the gondola was the main form of transportation for both goods and people. Today they are strictly for the tourists. And at two hundred euros an hour, they are only for a certain breed of tourist. It occurred to me that only in Venice can a guy who's only skills are rowing a boat and looking good in tight pants can make $300 an hour.
We decided to skip this thousand year old tradition and board one of the water taxis instead. These boats travel the same gorgeous route down the Grand Canal for a mere six euros. There were about three hundred people waiting in line to buy tickets for the water taxis, and in typical Italian fashion, there was only one girl working the ticket booth.... And even she wasn't paying much attention. After a few scraps with some overheated American tourists, we staked a claim at the back of the boat as it quietly pulled away from the jetty and into the gentle flowing yellow-green waters of the Grand Canal.
When we were finally adrift, we could concentrate on the opulence of the Venetian palazzos that were slowly passing by. These private palaces had to be designed for a city without roads. As visitors would always arrive by boat, the facade facing the canal was decorated with lavish architectural treatments. Most of the palazzos were built with three stories, and served as the family home, warehouse and business premises. The mercantile Venetian families wanted to show off their immense wealth to the rest of the world, and the parade of palaces along the Grand Canal is nothing short of magnificent. All of them were built in the same way: Pine wood stilts are pushed twenty five feet into the thick clay under the lagoon, with water proof Istrian stone composing the foundations. This method has proven remarkably effective, as these robust buildings are all four to seven hundred years old!
Half way down the Grand Canal is the geographical centre of Venice, and the iconic Realto Bridge. The beloved bridge was also the commercial centre of the Venetian Empire. In her glory days, the bridge would have been packed with bankers, brokers and merchants conducting their affairs on what was certainly the most lucrative one hundred and fifty seven feet in the known world. From the open balustrades, today's visitors jostle with souvenir vendors for the best view of the canal. It is easy to see how this graceful span of marble has been in a constant swirl of activity since it was built in 1588.
The final stop of the water taxi is certainly one of the grandest and most recognisable places in the world: St. Marks Square. Entered between two massive thousand year old columns, the Piazza San Marcos has witnessed more history, more processions, and more pageantry than anywhere else in Europe. In days of old, it was the only entrance into the city, and it was built to make an impression.
The first thing you see is the Camponile, the three hundred and twenty foot bell tower built in 1503. This is the most familiar site in Venice and is indeed the symbol of the city. In 1609 Galileo climbed to the top of the tower to demonstrate that little invention of his: the telescope. The Camponile had been added to several times over the centuries, and in 1902 the top heavy tower collapsed under it's own weight. It took eight years to rebuild it, and an elevator was added in 1962.
Determined tourists are treated to the best views in Venice if they are prepared to wait four hours in line. Not having the time or will for such a commitment, I can't tell you what they charge for this, but I'm sure it ain't cheap! The star attraction of St. Marks Square is the awe inspiring Basilica San Marcos. The original church on this site was built to house the remains of Saint Mark the Evangelist. The body of this most famous saint was stolen from Alexandria by a group of brazen Venetians back in the ninth century. The huge basilica that stands today was completed in 1094 by an unknown architect. It is built on a cross plan with five huge domes with four incredible bronze horses marking the entrance to the great central doorway. Inside it is dark and mysterious. The spooky cavernous space is filled with the riches of nine centuries of plunder. The Pala d'Oro is a thousand year old altarpiece made of two hundred and fifty panels of gold, precious stones and enamel. The Treasury houses nine centuries of booty collected from all corners of the Mediterranean. The line for the Basilica was a much more palatable one hour wait. The queue of weary tourists zig zagged back and forth like those at Disneyland.
After the Basilica we were all ready for lunch and an adult beverage. We dismissed the idea of having a cold beer in St. Marks Square when we saw the price of a Heineken was $25. We quickly decided to leave the hub bub of St. Marks for one of the quieter allies away from the masses. We found a suitable establishment where local gondoliers where having their lunch. Ugo had harsh words with the waiter to make sure he wasn't planning to rip us off. Freddie and Rasha decided on Venice's signature dish: liver and onions. Pastas are on the menu in this part of Italy, but the cuisine in this region leans heavily towards Slavic influences. When we were handed our bill, the waiter true to his word had not overcharged us for the food or the wine. He did manage to slide in an $18 bottle of water though. Fair play to Venice.
After lunch we explored the narrow alleyways and small canals that branch out from the Grand Canal. It is easy to get lost in the labyrinth, but you are never very far from finding your way again. There are plenty of exotic little shops lining these passageways selling Venetian glass, carnival masks and objects d'art. Some of this is the highest quality with price tags to match, but there are truck loads of souvenir trash as well.
Our slow paced stroll back to Santa Lucia station gave us a broader impression of the city. There were still a few old ladies shuffling around the less glamourous buildings away from the Grand Canal. There were even a few restaurants that appeared to cater to locals rather than tourists. These last few inhabitants seemed lost in time and bewildered by the place of their birth. Venice itself is baffling. It was so unlikely that a city built in a swamp on sticks and dreams would survive at all. Against all odds, Venice has risen to the top and wears the crown of the most beautiful city in the world. The city that is no longer a city. She is delicate, decayed and decadent in equal measures. Her past has far more meaning than her present.
The Old Lady of the Lagoon may be long past her prime, but she continues to ignite the passions of all who visit her. So save up, get in line and pay homage to the grandest of the grand dames at least once in your lifetime.