The magic of Venice

Like an ageing temptress who paints her face to hide the dilapidation, Venice can be outrageous, somewhat sinful, beautiful, and charming. 

We saw Venice for the first time last summer. In the few steps it takes from the train station to the banks of Grand Canal, the world changes. Exotic buildings, rambunctious boat traffic, and colours so sharp they almost hurt the eyes. This city shimmers. Nothing prepared me for its heart-stopping beauty. 

We could take a water taxi to my hotel on the Grand Canal, a station information clerk told us, but why would we pay 60 euros when we could take our luggage on a vaporetto for a tenth of the cost? The waterbus won the argument. 
The best way to see Venice is to get lost among its labyrinthine lanes (some only one person wide) and crossing countless bridges spanning ubiquitous canals. Few photos do justice to the reality. 

My first quest after checking into the little hotel by the Rialto Bridge was to find St. Mark’s Square. What an unforgettable sight, as we emerged from a narrow alley into the vast expanse of San Marco, where the setting sun illuminated the Basilica’s fabled murals and lit the Doge’s Palace with pink and gold. Here’s the bell tower, and there’s Harry’s Bar, and upmarket cafes and restaurants charging a fee just to sit there, before you even think of coffee. But splurge, why not? Napoleon dubbed this square “the finest drawing room in Europe” and it’s not just for tourists. This is where the Venetians congregate. 

A walking tour is a good investment, and we joined The Original Venice Walk. Our diminutive guide Rita, a Venice native, was full of information and entertaining historical anecdotes. 

“It’s a difficult city to live in,” she told me, “and many residents move to the mainland. But those of us who stay, love it — and at times hate it — with a passion.” She wove a path for us through the crowds in the square. “It’s easy to lose the crowds, even in August,” she assured us. And we did. But not before Rita dispelled a myth … that Venice is sinking. 
“They’ve been saying that for centuries, and it’s true that St. Mark’s Square, the lowest point of Venice, is often under water, but it depends on the tides (which change every six hours), and the pull of the moon. And if the Sirocco is blowing, it prevents the tide from flowing out of the lagoon.” Many hotels provide gumboots, just in case. 

Venice’s fascinating history is the subject of many books, and I won’t attempt to describe it in this limited space. Suffice to say, the city began as a sanctuary for people fleeing the Barbarians. 

“Why would anyone build their home on marshland? Because it was land that the conquerors wouldn’t be interested in taking,” says Rita. But Venice eventually became an enormously wealthy power, conquering by commerce. 
“Venice was, for a couple of centuries, the Las Vegas of Europe,” she explained. “The annual carnival attracted refugees from the law, because under the mask and cape, they couldn’t be recognized. In the 18th century, the city fathers decreed that carnival would last six months. You can imagine — it was a haven for outlaws.” It was at this time that the arch-seducer Casanova and his numerous illicit liaisons made Venice notorious, and the city’s risqué, pleasure-seeking image lingers still. 

Rita led us through lanes which burst into bustling squares, invariably dominated by a grand church. At one time, Venice’s six districts were autonomous cities, hence the rival churches. Each district vied with its neighbour to build bigger and grander. 

Watching Venice come awake is a good start to the day. Grab a coffee in one of the markets, and watch fresh fish, vegetables, and meat being unloaded from canal barges onto market platforms. Explore the town, and you’ll find the world’s most tempting jewelry, art, and fashion shops, some down the most unlikely little alleys. And masks are sold everywhere, from dedicated stores to casual street vendors. 

End your day, if you like classical music, with a visit to I Musici Veneziani, a costumed operatic concert in an old church near the Grand Canal. Or simply hop on a vaporetto. The older vessels have open bows, and while it might take a few stops, you can eventually worm your way to the bow seats. We did this on the No. 1 bus, the workhorse of vaporetti, stopping at almost every mooring place on the Grand Canal and in the Lagoon, and a bargain way to see the sights. The city’s lights at night, illuminating the water and the stately old buildings, work some serious magic. 

A 24-hour pass covers all public transportation, including rides to the Venice Lido with its beautiful beaches and classical casino, to the glass-making island of Murano, and the 90-minute ride to Burano, an island famous for textiles. (The boat passes swamps inhabited only by birds, swamps that offer an image of what Venice was built on.) 

Burano is charming, a small-scale Venice with canals and bridges and colourful buildings, and famous Burano lace is for sale in every store. It’s a dream for photographers and shoppers, and if you happen to be both, you’ll be in paradise. 

We can say the same of Venice. We want to visit again, earlier in the year. And we’ll even take our own gumboots. 

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