Every now and then we get a chance to scratch something off of one of our bucket lists. Visiting Venezia was one of those opportunities. It’s even possible that this wonderful “City of Canals” had been a tiny sore spot in our otherwise flawless relationship. Okay, flawless isn’t perfectly correct, but we’ll call it that anyway – for effect.
I had the good fortune to see Venice on several occasions while working in Italy in the ’90s and couldn’t help but gush on about its beauty and charm. Veronica, being only human, may have harbored some speck of jealousy, but now we can live out our days in unhindered bliss. Whew.
Even though Venice is a city without any roads, it can be reached by car or train across the three-mile Liberty Bridge. There are two big parking garages by the train station and cruise ship port. Once parked, we had two choices for getting around – foot or boat.
We walked – passing through Piazza Roma, the bustling plaza that serves as the entry point to “The Floating City,” and over the first of countless bridges, the Ponte degli Scalzi. On the other side we found ourselves in a whole new world. A world where water rules.
In many ways Venice is laid out like an “ordinary” ancient Italian city. Tightly packed old stone buildings line the cobblestone sidewalks, but where the streets would be… water.
Over fifteen hundred years ago, people came to live on the marshy islands in this lagoon of The Adriatic Sea to escape the hordes of Huns and other such invaders that were constantly causing chaos. The plan worked like a charm, but the swampy outpost proved unfit for real growth, so a new plan was devised that allowed these innovative people to become one of the dominant powers in the Mediterranean.
Around the year 800 the Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta was formed, translated – “The Most Serene Republic of Venice.” The name was to reflect the desire to avoid war and instead focus on trade. Under this philosophy The Republic of Venice stood for nearly a thousand years, making it the longest lasting republic in the history of the world.
Amazingly, this incredible city was built on huge wooden pilings, cut from the mainland, that have stood underwater for so many centuries that the minerals in the sea have petrified them. These footings hold the foundations for all of the buildings in one of the world’s great engineering marvels.
Unconcerned by whatever might have been supporting us at the moment – our stomachs were growling – we were hungry and needed to find food. Now, Italians have a saying, “If you ever have a bad meal in Italy, you’re in Venice,” but we were determined to prove that false. Even more important was finding the perfect setting.
Rounding a corner, we walked right into an amazing view of the remarkable Rialto Bridge. After a bit of gawking we realized we were standing, bovine-like, in the middle of an outdoor cafe. We pretended we knew what we were doing and asked for a table on the water.
Antico Caffè Ristorante “Al Buso” might have the best location in all of Venice, we were ready to see if the food could compete with the view.
Veronica wanted something traditionally Venetian, so she ordered Spaghetti alla Veneziana. The translation said spaghetti with small cuttlefish. We were reasonably confident that this was a squid-type sea creature. What we weren’t aware of was that in Venice it is traditional to use the ink from the cuttlefish in the sauce. What? Yup, her pasta came covered in an sepia concoction that turned out to be slightly off-putting visually, but to the ‘buds – delizioso.
I noticed Spaghetti alla Carbonara on the bill of fare and went for one of my favorite Italian dishes. Sometimes called “coal miner’s spaghetti,” legend has it that the recipe stems from bartering with American GIs during WWII. The soldiers usually had bacon and some powdered milk and eggs to trade. Today fresh eggs, heavy cream, Italian bacon (guanciale or pancetta) and cheese are used to create this heart attack on a plate. Oh yeah, but what a way to go!
This may not have been the best Carbonara we’ve ever had, but gazing across The Grand Canal while consuming it moved it up toward the top of the list. We washed it all down with a perfectly passable Pinot Grigio and topped our repast off with Spuma di Banana dal cuore di Fragole (a fancy way of saying banana ice cream with strawberries).
Properly fortified and happy to have avoided the old “bad meal” expression, we were ready to march on to the Piazza San Marco. The plaza is dominated by the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco, commonly known as Saint Mark’s Basilica (if you speak English, that is). There has been a church on this site since the year 832, the current version, which dates back to 1063, is considered one of the best surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.
The facade is highlighted by multicolored marble columns brought from the far off lands that the Republic of Venice dominated for centuries. Griffins are also prominently featured, not only on the basilica, but throughout the plaza. These winged lions are a symbol of St. Mark.
Another great thing about this piazza – no traffic. This may be the only large public square in all of Europe with no noise from cars, buses and especially scooters. Two sounds did carry over the muffled din of voices though, a small combo playing at an outdoor cafe and the bells from the famous clock tower.
The Torre dell’Orologio was built at the same time as Columbus was sailing around the new world. Two hammer wielding human figures, one old and one young to symbolize the passage of time, bang the bell every hour on the hour.
Below the clock is a winged lion and a twenty four hour clock, marked off in Roman numerals and is designed to track the phases of the moon and signs of the zodiac. As beautiful as this tower is, it is dwarfed by the bell tower directly across from it.
The Campanile of St Mark’s church stands 323 feet high. We couldn’t help but notice that this tower looks downright new compared to its surroundings. That’s because maintaining the height has been a centuries-long battle. Fires, earthquakes, stones falling off randomly down to the square below and finally a complete collapse in 1902 have led to this current version that’s only a century old. A mere infant in this ancient city.
With the sun falling in the western sky, the time had come to find our way back to the Piazza Roma and back to the mainland. Wandering down a myriad of tiny pedestrian streets and alleyways that make up the interior of this “City of Bridges” in an effort to see the “real” Venezia.
There’s not much of it left. Because of high property prices, relentless throngs of tourists and rising water levels the city’s population is less than a third of what it was fifty years ago. Many of the once grand homes away from the tourist areas lie boarded up and empty, often with the lower levels underwater.
Still this is an amazing place at every turn. Tiny dead end bridges over secluded canals lead to hidden architectural treasures. Miniature gardens grow in overhanging window boxes and clotheslines span across the waterways. We tried to tread lightly so as not to disturb the remaining native Venetians.
When darkness fell and our feet had about had it for the day, it was time for Venice’s other mode of transportation, a boat.
There were several choices of watercraft available for hire, the classic gondola was just too touristy, not to mention exceedingly pricey, and it turned out the water taxis wanted to sell us tours of the entire city instead of just a ride back to the square (I guess we looked like suckers to them), so water bus it was.
That was fine with us. For a mere handful of Euros we got to cruise The Grand Canal and get dropped off right where we started our day. Dusk was perfect time – streetlights were just coming on and there was still enough daylight to see Venice in all of its romanic glory.
We drifted down the canal by the Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia or Natural History Museum and, near the end of our ride, two impressive churches, the Chiesa di Santi Geremia e Lucia and The church of Santa Maria di Nazareth also known as chiesa degli Scalzi.
As we stepped off the bus, with water lapping at the edge of the sidewalk, we realized that Venice has a problem. One might even say they are in a Venetian bind, except it’s no laughing matter. The city has noticeably descended into the Adriatic Sea since wells were dug around the lagoon early in the twentieth century. Once it was realized that removing water from the aquifer was causing the city to sink, wells were banned. But now, just when they think this situation may have been solved, the sea level is beginning to rise.
The latest plan to protect the “Queen of the Adriatic” involves seventy-nine inflatable pontoons that will block high tides from washing over the city, or so is the hope. Sadly, for many buildings these efforts come too late. The ground floors, well, sea level floors, of many beautiful architectural treasures have already been inundated by the seawater and are no longer usable.
The abandoned levels steal a tiny tidbit of Venice’s charm, but certainly not enough to remove her from every traveler’s must see list. The sooner the better though, because it’s entirely possible that in the not too distant future, Venice will be the kind of place that tourists visit as an historic sight, along the lines of ancient ruins, instead of an active, vibrant city.
Let’s hope those pontoons work.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com