Venice. The very name stirs up a plethora of images, emotions and romantic allusions in our minds. The city has been called ‘The floating city’, ‘The city of canals’ and ‘The queen of the Adriatic’, all of which allude to the striking feature that make Venice unique. Its numerous, meandering canals and vast lagoon containing a number of small islands. I have visited Venice twice, both in and out of high season, and the difference is stark. Getting lost in the winding maze of Venice’s streets remain some of my most treasured memories.
Venice is old. Once a great naval power and formidable player in Europe, Venetian influence can be found throughout history across the Mediterranean and beyond. Marco Polo was born in the republic, going on to become one of the most celebrated explorers in history. The Republic lasted until 1797, and took part in some of the most climatic events in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance such as the Crusades, and the sack of Constantinople.
Today, the Centro Storico is a UNESCO site and along with the Venetian lagoon stand as one of the most remarkable sights in Southern Europe. Although the city is facing tough times, with rising tourist numbers crowding the narrow streets, businesses and citizens abandoning the city for the main land, and creeping sea levels threatening its future, Venice is a must see for anyone visiting Europe and Italy. Choosing the right time to visit is key, and if you manage to avoid the claustrophobic crowds in high season, the magic of Venice will draw you in like no other.
The old city of Venice (Centro Storico) is divided into several different areas or districts. Each feel slightly different, with some given over to residential and communal complexes, whilst others house grandiose churches, piazzas and restaurants. Dosoduro lies to the south west of the city, its wide squares and cut through’s making it feel more spacious than the tourist heavy San Marco and Santa Croce.
The best way to experience Venice is to get lost. Whilst main pathways lead the majority o the crowds through the different areas, jumping off into the side streets and walkways proves infinitely rewarding. Whilst dead-ends and stair ways into water are many, the lack of crowds will transport you back in time, Venice’s crumbling facades a world away from London, Paris or Milan.
The Piazza San Marco forms the cities biggest square. The Basilica di San Marco dominates the northern side, with an accesible campanile offering pristine views of the city and lagoon. During high tide and ‘Aqua alta’ the square can become covered in water – don’t be surprised to see throngs of tourists lining up on makeshift tables to avoid the flood waters!
Known since antiquity as the Chiesa d’oro (church of gold), the Basilica is a fine example of he opulence of Venice in its glory days. Adorning the edifice, beside gold leave and exquisite marble statues stand four bronze horses, sacked from Constantinople during the fourth crusade. The interior is stunning, and despite the very obvious lean once you enter, perfectly safe! The Doge’s palace stands beside the Basilica, making for some great holiday photos. Whilst in the square, look for two columns. The column of San Marco and San Todaro. The famous winged lion, the symbol of Venice stands before the waterfront.
The Grand canal acts as the main road of the city. Running from the Bacino di San Marco through to the central station. gondolas, water taxis and small craft ply the water constantly, excessively so in high season. During the late Autumn months the Grand Canal becomes more serene, the Rialto bridge more manageable, and the boat ride from the station far more peaceful. if the crowds in summer become too much along the streets, take to the water and see the city from an entirely different angle.
Whilst here it is easy to forget that the old city of Venice also houses several thousand residents. At odds with tourist crowds, many residential areas of the city are eerily quiet, the only evidence of habitation being the picture-perfect washing lines hung up across streets and courtyards. Small hidden churches stand tucked away in forgotten corners of the city, so be sure to see as much as you can. Cannaregio hides many, along with the old Jewish Ghetto. Don’t miss the Basilica Di Santa Maria Della Salute which gives great views of the Doge’s palace, or the Basilica Di San Pietro Di Castello, which along with being the former official cathedral of the city is also rumoured to have mysterious links to a certain holy grail.
Venice today is a shadow of its former glory. A powerful republic throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the city ceased to be a republic in 1797 after being conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte. At its height, the city controlled a number of regions throughout the Adriatic, Mediterranean and Near east, vying for control with Genoa, The Italian States and the Ottoman Empire. The city funded and participated in a number of Christian Crusades, and was key in the defence the Ottomans in the east. With the fall of Constantinople and the end of the Byzantine empire in 1204, Venice asserted itself as the dominant force in the region, establishing trade throughout the known world.
Some areas of the city are crumbling and apparently in need of repair. Because of the dwindling number of permanent residents in the city, many buildings stand empty, falling prey to the storms, sea air and rising waters. Whilst this adds a certain other-worldly charm to Venice, it is Worth noting the detrimental impact mass tourism has had. For a city that largely escaped destruction of any kind during the Second World War, it would be a tragedy should it crumble and vanish beneath the waves in the near future. Do not be put off however, the effect of decay upon the city is magical. Photography enthusiasts may find it hard to peel their eyes away from the achingly perfect canals.
Alongside the main islands of Venice lie a number of smaller ones scattered throughout the lagoon. Perhaps the most frequently visited besides the Lido are the islands of Burano, Murano and Torcello. Located around an hour’s water taxi ride north of Cannaregio, all three islands offer something much different than that of Venice proper. Murano is largest, home to traditional Venetian glass making shops and craftsmen with many inviting cafe’s and restuarants in which to escape the heat. Colourful houses and quiet streets greet visitors to Burano, which lies further north, alongside Torcello. Quaint and simple, Burano feels more like a holiday island in the southern Mediterranean, and is mostly residential. Worth seeing is the leaning Campanile, along with the colourful houses lining the island. Torcello houses the Basilica Di Santa Maria Assunta, an impressive example of Byzantine-Venetian architecture. A hidden gem lies on the island of Mazzorbo, connected to Burano. The small Chiesa Di Santa Caterina is tucked away in a far corner, a glimpse into the past.
You can spend just as much time exploring the out-lying islands of Venice, as the main city itself. A number lie abandoned and inaccessible, but others house secrets all of their own. Despite the trip by water taxi seeming long, the serene waters of the lagoon and the promise of a plate of Fritto Misto are enough to leave the grandeur of San Marco behind. Most people conjure images of the Biennale or the Gallerie dell’Accademia when talking of Venice, but once you see the real Venice, you will fall in love with this magnificent city for good.
Venice may have declined in stature since its days dominating Europe, but the grandiose architecture, perfect vistas, bombastic churches and twisting streets cement it as one of the most beautiful and unique cities in Europe. There is so much history hidden with Venice, from the mysterious Scandinavian runes inscribed on the ancient Piraeus Lion, to the now quiet ship yards which once built some of the most powerful ships during the age of sail. Visit out of season, and avoid the crowds. Visit the Rialto, the palace and San Marco but also veer off the beaten track and uncover the real Venice. you just might discover something new and unique. And don’t forget to try the Cicchetti.