Captivating Venezia (Venice)

I first read about Venice (Venezia), Italy when I was in high school in Tanzania. We were reading William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I never thought that one day I would get a chance to visit Venice, described by some to be the most beautiful and the most captivating city in the world.

It was last summer, we arrived at Venezia Santa Lucia train station on a Wednesday at 4.00 p.m. We had left Geneva at 9.05 a.m. So it was a long day. But traveling first class with prior reserved seats made the journey very comfortable.

As soon as we came out of the platform, we were approached by several “hotel agents”. We had booked our hotel which was supposed to be a walking distance from the railway station. But, in which direction? As we tried to make our way through these agents, a middle-aged man stopped us and said he was there to help us (i.e. tourists).

We gave the name of our hotel and he gave us the direction. The hotel was on the other side of the Grand Canal. As we came out, we could see the hotel from the railway station. But we had to carry our luggage and walk over a bridge which had lots of steps! I knew it would take more than five minutes to get there.

Venice is one of the most unusual places on earth. It is divided by a 1.8-mile-long waterway called the Grand Canal (Canal Grande). The canal is a magical highway – never fades. It divides the city in two and is crossed by three bridges.

Along the banks of the canal are the palazzi, or palaces, which were built by wealthy merchants and their families. Most of these were built between the 12th and 18th centuries. The owners decorated these palaces as a dazzling display of their power and wealth.

No cars, taxis, motorcycles or trucks are permitted within the city of Venice. If you arrive in a wheeled vehicle to Venice then you have to leave your vehicle in a parking lot on the outskirts of the city. From there you enter Venice by boat or on foot.

Venetians use boats instead of cars to travel through the town, because there are more waterways than walkways. There are water taxis and water buses. Instead of streets, there are 120 canals. There are traffic lights as well. And there is water police, enforcing law and order and traffic control. Docks and bridges connect the canals to the land.

Water bus, water taxi or gondola drops you off to the landing point nearest your destination then you have to walk. There is lot of walking to do.

To build houses and office buildings is not easy. First, you have to drive wooden poles, called pilings, deep into the firm clay of the lagoon. Then timbers are attached to the pilings and buildings are constructed over them.

What did we do?

Out of our three weeks in Europe, we had kept two nights for Venice. That came down to one evening and one full day. We knew that would not be enough. But we wanted to have a glimpse of the city and see what it is all about – how do people travel and work and live in this unusual city.

After we checked-in in our hotel, we decided to explore the surrounding areas by foot. The canal is like a busy highway during the day time. As the darkness arrives, the city gives an aura of romance as reflected lights twinkle on the water. There are multitudes of shops and restaurants catering to the tourists who flock this place like birds. Of course, nothing is cheap. Even pizza is expensive!

Next day, after breakfast, we were offered free water taxi (compliments of Murano Gallery) to visit the island of Murano and the Murano glass factory. We took up the offer and spent couple of hours at the gallery. Glass is a true Venetian specialty, made for centuries (since 1291) on the island of Murano. The furnaces were moved away from the city as a fire precaution.

There were eye popping, breathtaking colorful glass pieces from very small to giant size glasses, stemware, bowls, vases, chandeliers and other artifacts. No photographs were allowed inside the gallery. Nothing there was within my prize range! The sales person, who gave us a guided tour, was very persuasive. But we resisted the temptation.

From Murano, we took a water taxi to San Marco square. It was full of tourists. It is a beautiful open space. We took a stroll around the square and saw many monuments which have played important role in the development of Venice. The important monuments are: a 15th century Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) and its zodiac clock, the beautiful Libreria Sansoviniana (Sansoviniana Library) and two columns near the waterfront, topped by the lion of St. Mark and St. Theodore with his crocodile emblem.

We took a day pass for the water bus and did some more site seeing of our own. There are many guided water-taxis and walking tours available. For example, Casanova and the Age of Decadance focus on the life and times of Casanova. A time of illegal gambling parlors, of masked courtesans and spies, of corruption and political intrigue.

Other tours show you the Jewish Ghetto and life of Marco Polo. Rialto and Merchant of Venice and Venice Ghost Walk, where the ghosts of the past and present day will keep you company as your guide will tell the stories as you walk along the dimly lit deserted streets of Venice – as your shadows get longer, you can hear the foot steps coming behind you!

We managed to cover a lot of Venice walking and using the water bus pass – very economical way to do it if you go with your family. It was a hot day. After a brief afternoon rest at the hotel we took a Grand Canal Boat Tour at 5.30 pm (there is another one at night at 9 pm). That was great fun – maximum of eight people in a luxurious motor boat lasting 70 minutes. It takes you through the Grand Canal and some lesser known canals.

As the darkness fell, we went on our walk along the canal near the railway station. They are open till late in the evening.

After a good night’s sleep, it was time to pack and walk to the railway station. Our next stop was Florence. We felt we needed more time to enjoy this beautiful and unusual city. A day and a half was worth it but not enough! One day, we hope to go back.

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