(First appeared in Jet Wings, March 2012)
When you are in Venice, you have two choices. You can follow the beaten track – becoming a Boy Scout once again and following the tour guide’s flag to hear what happened to the missing left toe of the lion, to the far right of the fresco on the church wall. Or, experience that tourist-friendly city by hitting its cobble-stoned lanes, armed with the excellent Easymap (with Easyguide, from Venice Tourist Board) and a daily pass for the vaporetto (waterbus).
Venice is ideal for the latter choice. Here is why:
Cutting through the fish-shaped archipelago of 117 islands that make up central Venice is the S- shaped Canale Grande. The Canale and Venice’s sea coasts are served by the vaporetto, virtually shrinking the 4 square km area where all the action is and placing all tourist attractions within walking distance. Though, chances are, en route, you will stop to admire the architecture, something else may catch your fancy and the detour could well become the tour. Venice is ideal for the footloose, for those who love getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow (some 3 feet wide) lanes and by lanes, its alleys and blind alleys, and discovering the unexpected. All this, sans the fear of being run over by a vehicle. Central Venice is 100% automobile-free.
One afternoon, I was at San Samuele ferry station, headed for Palazzo Contrarini dal Bovolo famous for its spiral staircases, but intent on locating Casanova’ s house en route. Most folks, especially the youngsters, had no idea where the neighbourhood’s most famous son lived – the Church shouldn’t be displeased. After hitting many blind alleys, finally I met a baker who seemed to know. “Casanova? I am Casanova, you are Casanova”, he started in Italian, as his family of five laughed without malice. The baker’s directions took me to Casanova’s house on a street called Galle Malipiero. In the relatively bland building with no trace of the famous world traveller, I strayed into an intriguing, laser-aided exhibition called Cinematographic sculptures. That was ample compensation for missing Palazzo Contrarini dal Bovono, which, I later heard, was closed for renovation. The next afternoon, I was again in luck when I noticed the “Entrata libera” (free admittance) board at a house and walked into an exhibition of kinetic sculptures by Tamara Kvesitadze, the Georgian-born “any-material” artist, of whose dexterous artistic genius the world is soon bound to hear.
Venice is a thousand- picture postcards, made up of its 171 small canals stitched together by 407 cute and varied bridges; of a wide variety of awe-inspiring, majestic architecture; of narrow passageways and by- lanes sandwiched by tall house walls featuring exquisite balconies that spread the cheer of flowers in bloom. Suddenly, you hear strains of Four Seasons from the keyboard in some house. Remember, Vivaldi was a Venetian.
Venice’s heydays were between the 13th and 17th centuries when it was a wealthy centre of trade and commerce, Italy’s fashion capital – and to the north, Arsenale was the centre of naval power, with Galileo as a consultant to its shipbuilding industry. A constant through centuries has been the magnificent Basilica de San Marco (St Mark’s Basilica) with its Romanesque carvings – and the adjoining Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace) an excellent expression of the Venetian Gothic facades and now an important art museum. The adjacent Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) has staged most important social, religious and political events for centuries and continues to be Venice’s number one Piazza (city square). Many tourists take the relaxing walk from the wooded promenade past Arsenale, around Giardini, visiting the International exhibition of modern Art , stopping at one of the scores of kiosks selling souvenirs, to end the day with a sit-in dinner at St Marks Square where life goes on and into the wee hours.
Another hotspot in Venetian nightlife is Rialto. The much-photographed Rialto Bridge has busy shops lining its central passage. The bridge leads to the centuries-old – and remarkably neat – Rialto market where customers drop in from 8 in the morning, for fresh fish, fruits, vegetables and flowers. As the day progresses, the bridge and the canal banks fill with tourists on shopping sprees, clicking photographs and searching for tables at the waterfront restaurants.
Within yards of Rialto bridge are a couple of churches including San Giocomo, considered Venice’s oldest, with a 12th century inscription exhorting merchants to be honest. Venice has over 100 churches, one for every 500 Venetian. The churches show up without warning, looming large and forcing necks to crane, since many of them share their walls with the narrow lanes and the canals. Their courtyards, called ‘campo’s, are daily meeting places for the commune in this close-knit community, with the odd shop, a few benches and, typically, a water tap that keeps running at quarter flow. On summer evenings, the piazzas come alive with cultural shows. Given their varying antiquity and successive reconstruction, the churches and their bell towers present varying styles of architecture. They are also treasure troves of art – sculptures, ornamented altars, columns and pillars as also paintings and frescoes on their ceilings and walls, by famous Italian artists across centuries. They also make the Catholic Church the owner of one third of Venice.
Grand views and a top-of-the-world feeling are on offer at all the four bridges across the Grande Canale including the Calatrava Bridge, the latest, and a steel and glass affair. The Ponde dei Sospin (Bridge of sighs) got its name as those headed for the prison, then housed in the Doge’s Palace, had to cross the bridge, where they got their last view of the beautiful city and they could only sigh. Today the mood is very different, especially at sunset, spurred by the belief that couples in gondolas under the bridge can ensure eternal love by kissing at sunset.
The gondola exemplifies Italian aesthetics and design sense, with more parabolic flowing lines than on boats elsewhere. A gondola ride, at € 80, is not just a boat ride from place A to place B. A honeymooners’ favourite, it is an affordable unit of time in luxury and self-indulgence, for keepsake memories. The gondolier is not just a boatman, he also takes your pictures, he also sings barcarole to the moderate beat of his oar hitting the water.
Venice’s boons – abundance of water and tourists – are also its bane. Rising sea levels have been staking claims with increasing frequency and intensity over this zero-altitude city built on wooden pile foundations. The economic foundation of present day Venice is tourism. Between July and October, on most days, there are two tourists for each of the 60,000 locals in central Venice. Not surprisingly, this July, separate queues were introduced for tourists at the ferry stations for the vaporetto. Tickets for tourists, at € 6 a trip, are six times costlier than for locals. But, 24/36/48 hour tickets work out cheaper and offer the best way to take breaks, feel the sea breeze and rest one’s tired feet. While at it, take a trip to Lido (venue of the Venice Film Festival and many luxury hotels), and Moreno (glass factories and shops). You can feel the waves from the Adriatic Sea, and on a clear day’s end, see one of the most alluring cities awash in the sun’s golden glow.
In many ways, dusk best captures the romance of Venice – not impulsive, nor impetuous, but mature, mellow and lingering.