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Venice, the Floating City

All good things come to an end and we had to tear ourselves away from our friends Carol and Roy and the endless enigma of Rome. Our next adventure beckoned. Roy dropped us at the station in Rome to catch a train to Venice. The train route went through Florence and Bologna although we caught up on sleep most of the way until we arrived at 13h30.

Venice has to be one of my ultimate dream destinations. All my life I’ve heard about this romantic city that is built on water and is slowly sinking into obscurity. 

Venice has always experienced flooding when there are exceptionally high tides but the frequency of such events has increased. Experts say that the city recedes between 1-2mm per year, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but in 20 years that could amount to some 80mm. A recent climate change study blames global warming and suggests that due to this phenomenon,  the Mediterranean Sea is expected to rise by up to 140 centimetres (over four feet) in the next century. (Our oceans and seas continue to expand as a result of increased concentrations of greenhouse gasses raising the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere.😳)

I was very glad we were visiting before it becomes too late!

Picture courtesy of Boston Globe taken in 2008 floods

The first thing we noticed about Venice is the relative quiet. Because the only traffic is on the water, the sounds of the city are different to that of motor vehicles and trucks clattering their way across expansion joints and braking on tarmac. There certainly is an energetic buzz and lots of busy whooshing about as boats of all shapes and sizes slice through the water.

The Grand Canal snakes through the two islands Venice is built for 3.8 kms (2.4 miles). It links the access point to Venice (Santa Lucia Railway Station and Piazzale Roma where we alighted from our train) to St Mark’s Square where it finally spills out into the open ocean.

It was so much fun catching a vaporetta (water taxi) right down the Canal to San Marco. Fortunately our hotel was just a short trundle away, although the meandering streets, the steps up and down the narrow little bridges that zigzag across smaller canals, meant it was trickier than we had thought.

We were booked into “Hotel Bonvecchiati”, which is located halfway between Piazza San Marco and Ponto Rialto. A perfectly central situation.  It was also exciting to see that we overlooked the main gondola routes. So charming!

We were a little hungry so we headed out to the famous San Marco square to look for a sandwich and a macchiato. It’s hard not to be a little awestruck by San Marco’s intricate and beautiful basilica and the famous square overrun with tourists taking pictures and pigeons soliciting for a treat.

St Mark’s Square is one of the largest open spaces in Venice, a big contrast to the winding alleys and lanes where you are hemmed in by the buildings most of the time. In front of the square are the water bus stops and water taxi jetties, as well as being the most popular location for taking gondola rides.There are also (expensive) places to recline in the sun, have a coffee or gelato and people-watch.

We wandered through the little alley ways, admired the shops that seem to sell mostly Murano glassware, exotic carnival masks and expensive branded clothing. We were enthralled by the treasures of the theatrical mask shops and vowed to take a couple home.

After this unchecked meandering, we found ourselves to be completely lost and our map was difficult to orient as the streets are so tiny and not clearly marked. It’s a small area, but one wrong turn leads to the incorrect bridge which can send you off at a tangent. Exhausted, but fascinated by everything we observed, we eventually relocated our hotel and had a siesta before heading out again in search of dinner. 

There was a chilly wind coming off the water and we were glad we had warm jackets and scarves. We were surprised to see that the shops closed at 8h30 pm and were not pandering to the omnipresent tourists. 

We decided to have an aperitif at the legendary “Harry’s Bar”, which is known for its Bellini cocktails, carpaccio and celebrity clientele such as Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote. Of course we had to sample the exorbitantly priced Bellini (€14) made with Prosecco and pureed white peaches. Quite delightful and possibly habit-forming. We sat in our stylish chairs and savoured the retro atmosphere. It felt a little like stepping back in time. The bartender that served us was perfectly pompous and snooty as if to suggest we did not belong and he was merely tolerating our presence. This impressive cultivated air of distain made the experience even more enjoyable somehow. 😆

Historical accounts are that the bar was named after Harry Pickering, a young American student who moved to Venice with his aunt in the 1920s. After two months, Harry Pickering fell out with his aunt, who went away leaving him with her dog and very little money. Giuseppe Cipriani, who was the barman of the hotel where the American was staying, lent him money for his passage home. 

A few years later, the young man returned to Venice, and, as a sign of gratitude, not only paid Cipriani back the loan but also added an additional sum so that he could open his own bar. Cipriani decided to call his venue ‘Harry’s Bar’ in honour of his young friend, and Harry’s Bar opened on 13 May 1931. 🥂

We wandered out into the cold night and went in search of a restaurant. We vacillated between a couple and were crestfallen on making our choice to see them closing the door and turning their sign to “Chiuso” 😭.

The beaming waiter (not a contender for a job at Harry’s then) had a quick word with the chef and he welcomed us in. We were generously offered some complimentary tempura battered zucchini fries. I pronounced them my new favourite thing to eat! We also ordered prosciutto with pomodore; followed by spaghetti vongole and liver and onions (both Venetian signature dishes). After dinner, instead of edging us out as the last remaining diners, the waiter offered a “surprise” consisting of a basket of biscotti and a heavenly strawberry liqueur.  What a fantastic first night in Venice!

 

We reluctantly headed out into the cold but as we crossed the Piazza San Marco we were enticed by the band playing to the small crowd and paused to listen to the romantic tunes.

Getting back to our cosy room, we were amused to see that the chambermaid had playfully arranged Amalfi and Capri on the bed next to our PJs. I love these Venetians! (The following night, she had Amalfi swinging from the chandelier 😂)

We awoke to the watery sounds of a busy Wednesday morning on the Canal. After a delicious breakfast we headed out into the drizzly day. It was perfect weather for indoor sightseeing and we opted to visit the Doge’s Palace on San Marco Square. We hired audio tapes and we wandered through the huge rooms admiring the marble staircases and majestic carved wood and endless paintings and frescoes leading to the Doge’s apartments. More fascinating was the government chambers which included the prison cells and the famous Bridge of Sighs. This fully enclosed limestone bridge passes across the Rio di Palazzo connecting the Palace to the state prisons and was constructed in the late 16th century by Antonio Contin (who also designed the iconic Rialto bridge.)

The ‘sighs’ for which the bridge is named, refers to the despair of the prisoners who were led from to the execution chamber or cells in the prison, wistfully sighing as they took their last passage over the freedom of the canal below.

In the 19th century, the bridge became particularly famous due to romantic poet Lord Byron’s line: “I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand.”

After a quick rest at our hotel we decided to take a trip to the island of Murano, internationally acclaimed for its glassware. We took the Vaporetta to this picturesque and relatively peaceful island.

Murano is a series of 7 individual islands, all linked together by bridges. It has its own Grand Canal, fringed by endlessly enticing glass shops, and romantic sidewalk cafes. 

Glass is older than ancient Rome, but by the Middle Ages, Europe had forgotten how to make it. The Republic of Venice, though, with strong commercial ties to the Middle East and Byzantium, relearned glass techniques from its trading partners. Venetian glass became a coveted luxury, and Venice closely guarded the secrets of its production. After a series of devastating fires at glass factories in the 13th century, Venice’s ruler (the Doge) relegated all glassmaking to the lagoon island of Murano, isolating the glassworkers and their workshops to keep competitors away and protect the Venetian monopoly.

Artisans have been producing their glass on Murano ever since. It was apparently on Murano that glassmakers first figured out how to make pure, transparent glass and perfected the technique called millefiori — “1,000 flowers” using coloured glass (see jug that Geoff is holding on right).

Starving as usual, we selected a deserted restaurant on the water’s edge. We ordered a carafe of the house wine, carpaccio with Parmesan and rocket, and a caprese salad as primi, and for secondi we had the most outstanding linguine vongole and spaghetti carbonara . 🍝  We couldn’t have been happier in our food heaven – and then the sun came out too! Instantly people began emerging from buildings and boats and in minutes  the restaurant was packed. We were offered complimentary puddings with our macchiati. What is it with these generous Venetians? Such kind and friendly people!

After wandering past the pretty buildings and admiring some glass blowing and the expensive displayed of objets d’art, we took a boat back to San Marco and headed home for our routine siesta. We had reservations for a Venetian opera show that evening. It was so exciting taking a boat at night. The Grand Canal is even more romantic and enticing with lights playing on the waterways from the buildings and water traffic. The venue for our show was an exquisite old church with painted frescoes on the walls and ceilings. The performance was lovely, featuring powerful singing voices, a variety of musical instruments and striking masks and costumes.

Masks intrigue me. They provide an enigmatic aura of mystery. The concealing of one’s features gives us license to be emboldened as if we were someone else… Venice is the home of enchanting masks.

Some of the enchanting displays and variety of masks

The tradition of the mask purportedly started in the 13th century. 
The volto (Italian for face) or larva (meaning ghost in Latin) is the iconic modern Venetian mask: it is often made of stark white porcelain or thick plastic, though also frequently gilded and decorated, and is commonly worn with a tricorn hat and cloak. Venice’s ornately decorated masks are more than just colorful souvenirs — they come with a story. In the 1600s, masks were a practical tool in a physician’s medical bag. When attending plague victims, the doctor crammed the beak-shaped nose of his mask with herbs, hoping to filter the air and prevent the spread of the dreaded disease. (Venice’s position as a trade hub made it especially susceptible to plague.)

In the 1700s, when Venice was Europe’s party town, masks became a big part of Carnevale celebrations, the weeks-long Mardi Gras festivities leading up to Lent. Since everyone wore masks, all social classes partied together. The most popular masks were based on characters from the lowbrow comedic theater called commedia dell’arte: such as the trickster Harlequin, the beautiful and cunning Columbina, the country bumpkin Pulcinella, and the sad clown Pierrot. 🎭 

The central hub of Venice is the Piazza San Marco. There are always people milling about or sitting in at the tables that flank the sides of the square.

Within St. Mark’s Basilica there are supposedly more than 8,000 square meters of mosaics creating dazzling frescoes. Many of them are done in gold over 800 years ago!  Depending on the light at different times of day the various colours and scenes can look vibrantly different. It is such a beautiful building that you can simply admire it for ages!

The first Basilica of St Marco was built in the 9th century to house sacred relics—relics that had been stolen. 

In 828, merchants from Venice stole the body of St. Mark the Evangelist, one of the four Apostles, from Alexandria, Egypt. According to the legend, they snuck them past the (Muslim) guards by hiding them under layers of pork in barrels! While at sea, a storm almost drowned the graverobbers and their precious cargo, it’s said that St. Mark himself appeared to the captain and told him to lower the sails. The ship was saved, and the merchants said they owed their safety to the miracle.

The entire story is pictured on the 13th-century mosaic above the left door as you enter the basilica. 

Where the piazza meets the water’s edge, there are gondola stations where the gondoliers wait for their patrons to hails them. We wandered down to admire these exquisitely crafted boats as well as the gondoliers expertly manoeuvring their crafts in narrow spaces, or sitting around reading and chatting.

We were intrigued by the boats, their designs, their uniform appearance and the gondolier’s themselves, so I read up a little to find out some more.

Every few minutes, a gondola swept past us and we marveled at the skill of the gondoliers. Apparently a gondola weighs about 600 kg and measures about 11 m long. The boats are built to seamlessly navigate through the narrow canal system and beneath the footbridges. Interestingly, each gondola is made from eight different kinds of wood – elm, mahogany, birch, oak, lime, cherry, walnut and larch. Each serves a different purpose in ensuring the boat stays afloat and can carry maximum weight. To balance the gondolier’s weight, the port side is slightly wider and higher than the starboard starboard where he stands. Acting as a counterweight to the gondolier is the ferro, a metal piece that sits at the boat’s bow. It also helps keep the gondola level above water. The only adornment, other than the plush seating, is the risso, a seahorse-shaped ornament that is placed on the stern. 

The final part aspect of a gondola is the forcola or the oarlock that is attached to the stern. Made of walnut, the forcola is designed with an elegant curve and comes with several hooks where the oar can be placed, based on the gondolier’s requirement while rowing.

The "ferro" on the left, the "forcola" on the right
The intriguing workshop of a gondola craftsman

The origins of the gondola seems to be a little mysterious. Italy, Turkey, Greece and Malta all claim that it originated in their country. 

Historians trace it back to 1094, when Vitale Faliero, the Doge of Venice, mentioned a Gondolum in a letter to the people. To prevent a revolt at the time, he ‘gifted’ the people gondola-like boats with a view to easing their commute within the town.

Although there are gondolas featured in the 1400s in paintings by the artists Carpaccio and Bellini, it was only from the 15th and 16th Century that gondolas were officially built and used to navigate Venice. During this time period, gondolas looked different from what they are today. Used primarily by the town’s elite class, gondolas were adorned with ostentatious decor. In the 16th Century, the Italian government placed a blanket ban on increasing extravagance and ordered that all private gondolas be painted black, a practice that continues today to maintain uniformity.

The gondoliers are part of an ancient, noble profession; an impenetrable community. Earlier, from the 16th Century onwards, gondoliers were born into the profession. The title was handed down through generations of men in a family. They were more than tour guides — gondoliers were the city’s keepers of secrets and scandals. 

Today, to become a gondolier, one has to go through gondola school, where they study the physics of rowing, test physical strength, learn a foreign language and familiarise themselves with the city’s history. After the training, students are required to clear a highly competitive test administered by the Ente Gondola, complete an internship and then clear a final practical exam. Only on passing all stages is one given a gondolier’s license. 

On our last day in Venice we overslept because our shutters were closed! We awoke to bright sunlight and activity below. We had a quick breakfast and headed towards the Rialto bridge.

Built in the closing years of the 16th century, the Rialto Bridge is the oldest bridge across the canal and is renowned as an architectural and engineering achievement of the Renaissance. 

I read that it was designed and built by Antonio da Ponte and his nephew, Antonio Contino, following a design competition in the city (beating the likes of Michelangelo). It collapsed for the first time in 1444 under the weight of a crowd that gathered to watch a boat parade. It was rebuilt as a drawbridge but this collapsed once again in 1524! After that it was decided to rebuild the bridge in stone. The bridge that stands today was designed similarly to the bridge from 1255. It has two inclined ramps with stairs that lead to a central portico. It also has shops on both sides for a market and three broad walkways. The drawbridge allows for the easy passage of ships.

The market was in full swing on the bridge by the time we arrived. Everything from fresh fruit to souvenirs was for sale. We admired the goods, enjoyed watching the locals and tourists transacting and did some shopping ourselves.

We had fun choosing some masks as souvenirs, trying on the evil looking beaks and the seductive feathered eye masks 🎭. I also bought a couple of Murano glass earrings in deep jewel colours. 

Sadly, too soon it was back to our hotel, a quick packing up, a hectic walk through the crowded streets to catch a vaporetta to the station and on to our next destination – Florence!

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