by Kristi Nelson Cohen
Photos by author
One thousand five hundred years of recorded history, and the magic of Venice, Italy continues to captivate our hearts and please our artistic eye.
Venice was built on the water, and this love-hate relationship has challenged the city from her beginnings. She reaps the rewards of the sea (salt, fish, trade and now tourism) but suffer from this same sea lapping at her front steps, eroding the foundations of this architectural marvel. Venice is a beauty, simply fascinating and mysterious, she is the “Queen of the Adriatic!”
Venice was founded in 421, a result of residents of the Veneto (now, northern Italy) who were fleeing the wrath of the Goths. These Goths systematically looted and destroyed cities en route to Rome. The refuges set up villages in a marshy lagoon, on tiny uninhabited islands, where they were safe from invasion. This settlement became known as Venice.
Due to its location on the sea, trade links with Byzantium were created, exporting salt, and importing exotic spices and fabrics from the Orient. Ships were able to dock right at the city’s front steps, and Venice began to grow in importance and wealth.
Although known as a trade center, Venetian merchants wanted to capitalize on the tourist traffic of Christian pilgrims traveling from Europe to Jerusalem. In 828 two brave merchants traveled to Alexandria, Egypt where they stole the body of Saint Mark, the evangelist. A massive cathedral dedicated to Saint Mark would be built, placing Venice on the map for Christians.
The first cathedral completed in 832, was built of wood, and, sadly, burned in 976. A second cathedral was built, and then torn down to make room for a third, massive, brick, marble and stone structure.
Construction on Saint Mark’s Basilica began in 1063 and was consecrated in 1094. This is the very cathedral whose intricate glass and gold mosaics, hand-carved stone pillars and impressive domes welcome visitors today.
Saint Mark’s Cathedral frames the western end of the Piazza San Marco. The Correr Museum (partially housed in the newest wing of the square called The Ala Napoleonica -built by Napoleon in the 18th century) stands on the eastern end of the square. Once completed, this building framed in the piazza.
After building his new wing, Napoleon Bonaparte said “Now, this is the most beautiful drawing room in all of Europe!” The Piazza is open to the sea on one portion of the Southside, adjacent to the Doge Palace, where two massive marble columns stand at the original entrance to the city.
These two columns were erected in 1172 but originally stood at Constantinople. Atop one column is a carved statue of a winged lion (the symbol for Saint Mark) and atop the other, is Saint Theodore with an alligator (Venice’s earlier Patron Saint.)
Today visitors to this magical city built on the water, arrive via the Ponte della Liberta, a two and a half mile long bridge from the mainland. The original bridge, built in 1846, accommodated train travelers only, but an auto bridge adjacent was completed in 1933.
When arriving in Venice by train, passengers disembark at the Santa Lucia Train Station, built in the mid 19th century and remodeled in the 1950’s. Don’t make the mistake of getting off the train at the Venice mainland station, as it is an expensive cab ride to Venezia.
The train station’s front steps open up to a breathtaking view of the Grand Canal. The San Simeon Piccolo church (1718-1738) with its green copper dome, sits directly across the canal from the station. It is here, a visitor realizes, just how unique this city is, as you watch all the boats busily traversing the waterways.
There are Vaparettos (water buses) carrying visitors, locals and commuters around the city. There are trash boats, UPS boats, grocery delivery boats, personal boats and, yes, the famous graceful and elegant black gondolas with gondoliers sporting their time-honored black-and white-striped shirt and wide-brimmed straw hat.
All commerce and travel around Venice depends on these waterways. Venice is built of 117 tiny islands, connected by more than 400 walking bridges and more than 150 canals. There’s only one small area of Venice that is even connected by the Ponte della Liberta for auto traffic, parking and drop-off.
A visitor to Venice can explore the tiny streets boarder the small canals, without the distraction of noisy scooters and fast driving Italian automobiles. The city consists of a labyrinth of tiny streets and canals, and exploring these areas away from the primary tourist stops is calmingly quiet, romantic and simply enchanting.
THREE MILES WIDE
It’s safe to walk in Venice, and getting around is easier than you might think. Yes, you can get lost, but watch the street signs pointing to landmarks like the train station (Ferrovia), Saint Mark’s Cathedral or the Rialto Bridge, or even the Grand Canal, which will help you find your bearings. The entire city is less than three miles wide, and getting away from the most popular tourist sights will lead a visitor to explore this city’s numerous historic cathedrals, museums, parks and palaces.
The Vaparetto (water bus) is an excellent way to see the city. An all-day ticket (12 Euros) allows you on and off passage for a 24-hour period. Multiple day (3 and 7) or single excursion tickets are also available. There are Vaparetto stops all around the island and down the Grand Canal.
The Vaparetto routes also take passengers to the lagoon islands of Murano (known for Venetian glass) and Burano (known for its colorful houses and lace making). From the train station, take Line #1 or #82 for a leisurely two mile ride down the Grand Canal, as it snakes its way through the middle of Venice.
Lining the Grand Canal are impressive palaces, that offer a glimpse into life as it was from the Renaissance time to Casanova’s day. Remember, access to these palaces was primarily by water, so the highly-decorated front entrance was always along a canal, rather than the sidewalk in the rear.
How could these early residents build such impressive structures on a swampy lagoon island? Pinewood piles were driven 25 feet into the solid clay ground before building work began. These pilings were closely packed, free from oxygen which inhibits decay.
Above the pilings came brick and then stone creating damp-proof foundations. Mortar on the exterior of buildings is a special Venetian style, which is porous enough for moisture to evaporate. (Keep in mind, the canal tides rise each day and canal boat traffic causes waves to lap onto these foundations.) Of course, there is decay, but it all adds to the beauty, history, the weathered Bettina.
Everything in Venice is worth a picture! A camera is a must to record your memories, but most importantly take, the time to stop at one of the many outdoor cafes, where you can sit in the sun, sip an espresso, listen to the water and immerse yourself in this historic time capsule. It’s a memory you will never forget! ET
Kristi Nelson Cohen is the owner and operator of Bella Italia Trips, leading guided tours to Italy. She has visited Venice numerous times.
WHERE TO STAY IN VENICE
Hotel Gardena 3 STARS
Phone: 39-041-220 5000
This hotel is conveniently located near Piazzale Roma (auto taxi and bus service for the airport). The hotel is only a 5 minute walk from the train station on a small and relatively quiet canal. This is a small hotel (14 rooms) with an exemplary staff.
Hotel Principe: 4 star
Phone: 39-0410220 4000
This hotel is conveniently located adjacent to the train station (to the left northeast) and this former palace hotel borders the Grand Canal. This is a larger hotel with numerous amenities and a full-service restaurant and piano bar.
Both of these hotels have easy access to Vaparetto or private water taxi service. To purchase multiple day Vaparetto tickets or the Venice Card, (combination Vaparetto and Museum admission) log onto www.venicecard.com.
To see a complete time table of rail schedules in and out of Venice: Venzia Santa Lucia, log onto www.raileurope.com.
For travel tips, packaged trips to Venice and photos, log onto www.bellaitaliatrips.com.