Venice is the only truly amphibious city in the world. For one thousand years, water has been the city’s lifeblood and means of defence. The original Venetians came here as refugees in the fifth century and turned a boggy marshland into one of the most powerful civilizations in Europe. On the surface, the city is little changed from a time when it dazzled the world with its wealth and pageantry, magnificent naval fleet, cunning merchant princes, splendidly luminous art, debauchery and unique means of governance.
Venice lies in the Veneto region, the northernmost part of Italy which stretches from the Dolomite Mountains in the north to the mudflats of the Venetian Lagoon in the south. Venice is situated at the heart of a tidal lagoon, around 30 miles long and 13 miles wide, which connects to the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea. A strip of land separates the lagoon from the sea.
The city is built across over a hundred small islands. The city’s historic center, the size of New York’s Central Park, is divided into six sestieri (quarters): San Marco, Dorsoduro, San Polo, Santa Croce, Cannaregio, and Castello. Greater Venice also includes the towns of the lagoon islands, the Lido, and on the mainland, Mestre and Marghera – Italy’s version of the New Jersey Flats where many Venetians live today. A three-mile long rail and road bridge, built by the Austrians in 1846, links the center of Venice to the mainland.
For most of its history, the former Venetian Republic – with its immense web of trading connections, political alliances, and strategically intelligent use of the sword – continued to grow in economic status. Venice’s strength lay not just in its beautiful glass, its magnificent silks and wool, or indispensable salt, but also in its ability to acquire and transport necessary and desirable goods – like spices – from distant lands. Demand for spices in Medieval Europe was great and people were prepared to pay extortionate prices for something to flavor the monotonous dishes of the day and combat infections. Spices were even used as a means of payment when currency was in short supply.
Nowadays, Venice enjoys a different kind of merchant trade – mass tourism. Over fifteen million tourists visit Venice every year and many are worried that in years to come it will become a living museum. Since 1946, the city’s population has plunged from around 170,000 to 65,000 today. Many native Venetians can no longer afford to live here and have shut up shop, moving to the mainland in search of a higher standard of living.
Aside from migration, the future of the city is under threat from natural hazards. The islands of Venice, made of sand and mud, have been sinking since the city was established. The islanders made foundations by hammering wooden piles into the lagoon so all the city is built on a wooden maze. Even today, Venice is engaged with its own private battle with the sea. Acqua alta (flooding in the city) is nothing new – it has been recorded since the thirteenth century – but it is getting steadily worse. In 1782, Venice completed the famous murazzi, two-and-a-half mile long by 20-feet high sea walls, to protect the lagoon.
Since 1900, Venice has sunk by at least ten inches but some of the worst damage to the lagoon took place in the 1960s when a large canal was dug in the nearby industrial town of Marghera to allow oil tankers access, which changed the currents of the lagoon and caused Venice to sink at a much faster rate. In November 1966, a deadly combination of wind, torrential storms, high tides, and giant waves breached the murazzi, wrecked the Lido, and left Venice under record acque alte (high waters) for 20 hours with disastrous results to the city’s architecture and art. The catastrophe galvanised the international community’s efforts to save Venice.
The Venetians have survived for a thousand years by manipulating the lagoon to suit their own needs. Nowadays an enormous amount of restoration is taking place in Venice to preserve the city’s treasures, starting with the canals – the very first masterpieces of Venice. They were triumphs of great engineering and every year two to three miles of canal is dredged of silt so that the wood piles and wall foundations can be repaired and the level of water flowing through can be reduced.
It’s almost always high season in Venice so if you’re looking for a place to stay, make sure you book well in advance. Summer is oppressively humid and polluted, with temperatures often excelling into the 80s Fahrenheit (over 26 Centigrade) and risks of storms to break the humidity. Spring and autumn are the most pleasant times to visit, although rainfall can be high in May and June and many come in February or March for the famous Venice Carnival. November and December sees heavy rain and flooding; January and February are very cold months. September is probably the busiest but liveliest month of the year with great weather and heaps of fun festivals to take in.
Getting around Venice
There was a time when the only way to get around Venice effectively was by boat, but nowadays the best way to explore Venice is to don a good pair of walking shoes and pound its antique pavements. You will undoubtedly end up caught up in the never-ending flow of visitors tramping the narrow main thoroughfares. You’ll need a map as the city is a warren of over 2000 alleys (calli) for Venice’s pedestrian-only traffic. Venice has some 150 canals and 409 bridges, although only three of these cross the Grand Canal. A word of warning: when hunting for an address in Venice make sure you are in the correct sestiere (quarter) as quite a few streets share names. Also beware that houses in each sestiere are numbered consecutively in a system logical only to a postman from Mars – numbers up to 5000 are not unusual! Even if you do get lost in a deep dark corner of Venice, don’t worry as there are shrines everywhere to protect you. Centuries ago the Venetians put them there to supposedly stop people getting mugged. Pedestrians should remember that this a living breathing city – Venice’s foot traffic can be the epitome of hell, especially for the Venetians, so try not to stop on bridges or hold up the flow of people.
If you want to save your feet, hop on Venice’s answer to the London bus – the vaporetto. The cheapest way to do it is to buy an orange Venice Card, which is available in different versions. If you’re over 30, a seven-day Venice Card will set you back around 70 Euro, but this includes all public transport and gives you access to many of the cities major museums as well as a series of reductions on attractions, historic sites, shops, and bars. The No. 1 vaporetto route provides a ride down Venice’s bustling and splendid main artery. Departing from Piazzale Roma it zigzags up the Grand Canal to San Marco and then on to the Lido. If you’re not in a rush it’s a great introduction to Venice. The Grand Canal has always been Venice’s status address, if not the greatest high street in the world, and along its looping banks the Venetians built a hundred marble palaces with their front doors opening on to the canal, framed by peppermint-colored stick posts where they moored their water carriages. Spot sights like the Renaissance Palazzo where Richard Wagner died in 1838, now the winter home of the casino.
Cruising Venice’s canals by gondola has got to be the most romantic way to travel. In the sixteenth century, when there were 10,000 gondolas traversing the city’s canals, the Venetian Republic saw decorations on gondolas as a shameless flaunting of conspicuous wealth and ordered them all to be painted black. Nowadays there are only 400 gondolas, but at over 60 Euros for a 50-minute ride it’s a lucrative business. Hard-up travelers can take a short ‘traghetto‘ gondola ride, acting as a shuttle boat to cross the Grand Canal, for just 40 cents ($0.50).
Gondoliers are part of the symbolism and mythology of Venice. They were first recorded in 1094 and have become a Venetian institution, inspiring writers, artists, and musicians. Once the nobles of Venice got into the habit of travelling about the city in their own personal gondola and employing a private gondolier, he often became something of a confidante since he accompanied his master to even the most private rendezvous – and so the romantic connotations of the gondola began. Gondoliers use a form of rowing called ‘voga ad un solo remo‘ (one-oared rowing), a technique taught from father to son in this profession handed down through the generations. Venetians believe that Gondoliers have webbed feet as they are such natural seafarers. It can take months to make each boat and they cost upwards of $35,000. In theory, a gondolier uses no more energy rowing a half-ton gondola with three passengers than the average person expends walking, though that doesn’t quite explain how Venice’s best looking drivers acquire their bodybuilder-like biceps.
Where To Stay
Demand exceeds supply for accommodation in Venice, so expect to pay huge tariffs of up to 100 Euro ($130) per night for a double room in a one star hotel, or 200 Euro ($250) per night for a three star in high season. In fact, the only times that don’t constitute high season here are mid-November to mid-December, and after New Year until the carnival season in February or March.
Scare stories say book three- to six-months in advance, but you could just do as the Venetians do and ask around but then you could end up out in the sticks in a resort like Jesolo or Cavallino.
In recent years the hotel monopoly has been challenged by a small army of alternative lodgings, from bed and breakfasts to affittacamere (guest houses) and residenze d’epoca (historic residences) and rental apartments. Or you can try camping – there are several reasonably priced camp sites near the airport and sites located elsewhere which can help take the sting out of a visit.
The most traditional place to stay is a palazzo, a traditional Venetian house, which evolved to meet the needs of a city without roads. Visitors usually arrived by boat, so the façade facing the canal was always architecturally lavish, while the land-facing side, accessible from a square or alley, was rarely ornate.
Most houses were built with three-storeys, with kitchens located on the ground floor for ready access to water or in the attic to enable cooking smells to escape. Typically a palazzo served as a warehouse and a business premises as well as a family home, reflecting the city’s merchant character.
Prices are usually around 150 Euros per night for a room.
Where to Eat
Venice is a phenomenally touristy city and there is a dearth of quality, mid-priced places to eat but heaps of slapdash and overpriced eateries catering for the churn of tourists’ feet passing through town. Look out for somewhere where local workmen eat. You will need to pay at least 30 Euro ($40) for a reasonable quality meal per head. If you’re on a real budget, order a pizza – best bet is a pizzeria rather than the takeaway variety.
A delicious and cheap afternoon snack is of course the great Italian ice-cream served from a gelataria, or buy your own picnic from a market stall like those in Rialto. The Venetians never eat or have a drink at a table because you will be charged double the price for taking up that seat. You should also always keep your receipt – by law you have to keep hold of it until you’re 100 meters (300 feet) away from the establishment.
The division between bars and restaurants is slight in Venice. A bácaro is a cross between a bar and a trattoria (cheap restaurant). The long established ones are typically stand-up or bar stool only, the more modern bacaro born out of a recent revival may have a seating area. In a bácaro you can sample cicheti – small finger food snacks such as stuffed olives, vegetable deep fried in batter and an endless array of seafood items – basically the local version of Spanish tapas. Sandwiches are often served at lunchtime. Wash it down with an ombra – a glass of wine. The word ombra, meaning shade, comes from the days when people would go to stands set up in the shade in the local square for an afternoon tipple. Locals often bar hop from osteria to osteria munching cicheti as they go. It’s a great way for visitors to experience a more down-to-earth side of Venice.
Two centuries ago, St. Marks Square was overrun by coffee houses but today only two of the originals survive and the most famous of the pair is Florians. Its hand-painted décor, unchanged since it opened its doors in 1720, was designed by Floriano Francesconi under the pseudonym Venezia Trionfante (Triumphant Venice). While the finest coffee from the Orient, Cyprus, and Greece were served, history unfolded within the café’s stained glass windows – the magnificent rise and fall of the Republic of Venice. People surreptitiously plotted to end the French and later Austrian rule within its walls and the wounded from the 1848 uprising were treated in the coffee house’s room. Florians clientele were both prestigious and notorious - Lord Byron, Goethe and Charles Dickens used to come here. In the early eighteenth century, this was the only place in Venice to admit women. Today the café has retained its open door policy but be prepared to pay for the privilege with a coffee costing 11Euro ($13). Who said the days of Venetian decadence were over?
A short ten minute boat ride from St. Marks is the Lido where Venetians decamp in the summer months to hang out on the beach. It’s a great place to savour Venice’s most famous cocktail – the Bellini – only in Venice could a drink be named after one of the world’s most famous artists! If you’re feeling really decadent, try one at the luxurious Excelsior Hotel but this level of style doesn’t come cheap – the sun lounger here alone will set you back 9 Euros ($11)
St. Mark’s Square is the centre of Venetian civic life, what Napoleon dubbed ‘the finest drawing room in the world’. It’s a showpiece for pageants, processions, political activities, and countless carnival festivities. Inside and outside the piazza’s elegant buildings there is plenty to entertain with elegant cafes, open air orchestras, and smart boutiques. The relics of spiritual figurehead of the former Venetian Republic, St. Mark, were plundered from Alexandria in Egypt and are housed in St. Mark’s Basilica, one of the greatest treasures of the Western world yet with an eastern flavour: it was first constructed in 828 AD and modelled on Constantinople Church of the Twelve Apostles in present day Istanbul.
The Rialto Bridge is often considered to be the most famous bridge in the world. In the thirteenth century it was a wooden bridge, then when it was near to collapse the Venetian Republic held a competition for the design of a new stone structure. Antonio da Ponte‘s design was the most audacious, proposing a single arch spanning 157 feet. Built in 1592, it defied all the dire predictions of its day and still stands, even withstanding the additional weight of two rows of shops.
Step off the main drag and breathe in the subdued, shabby charm of the real Venice in Getto Novo, where baroque backstreet churches are framed by lines of washing flapping in the breeze. The first Jews arrived in Venice in the tenth century, however, it was not until 1516 that all Jews were forced to live in one particular area of the city. Most Jews who lived in Venice then were moneylenders, medics or book printers. This area was named the Getto Novo (where the modern word ghetto comes from) and the people who lived here were only allowed to visit the rest of the city if they wore a yellow cap or badge. The buildings are taller here than anywhere else in Venice because conditions were cramped and the Jews had to build upwards. Around 500 Jews still live in Venice, but only around 30 of these are in the ghetto.
The Lido is by far the most glamorous of the lagoon islands, one that has lent its name to countless bathing establishments and clubs all over the world. On its eight miles of beaches, poets, potentates and plutocrats at the turn of the century, spent their holidays making the lido the pinnacle of Belle Epoque fashion. But style doesn’t come for free: all of the beaches are private except for Venice’s one free beach, Spiaggia Comunale, which is on the north part of the island, a fifteen minute walk from the vaporetto (boat) stop.
Venice is jam-packed with famous artwork, from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo and Canaletto are all great Venetian artists whose works can be found in many of the churches, arts schools and museums throughout the city. Modern artwork is well-represented at the Guggenheim Museum in Dorsoduro, with works by many twentieth century greats like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollock.
Doges Palace is a bona fide ornate palace where the real aristocrats of Venice lived in splendour and co-ordinated the conquest of an empire. Built in the fourteenth century, the palace is a wonderful mix of Gothic and Classical, East meets West, in a marriage of styles that would come to define the architecture of Venice. It was the seat of the Venetian government, the home of the Doge – the elected head of state – and the equivalent of London’s Downing Street, Parliament, Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London all rolled into one. Its impressive sights include the Maggior Consiglio (Grand Chamber Council), a giant room to house up to 2,622 noblemen politicians where you will see Tintoretto’s Paradise – the largest oil painting in the world.
Ponte di Tette
The name translates quite literally as “Tits Bridge” because this was the red light district of Venice. In the early sixteenth century some 11,000 prostitutes were registered in Venice. Apparently they were encouraged to hang out of windows bare breasted to encourage business – no wonder Byron called Venice ‘the revel of the world’! The city fathers were worried about Venetian men adopting eastern habits of sodomising each other and overt prostitution was their solution.
Fiorella Mancini Shop
The art of Fiorella Mancini has no boundaries – neither figurative nor material – and no taboos. She generously uses sexual references, modern fetishes, and she even adopts the symbol of the city – the lion of Venice. The creations of Mancini, a costume maker and designer, amaze, shock, and invite viewers to reflect, from underwear with ‘f**k your life’ written on them to printed jackets adorned with gigantic plush rats parading in the Venice Carnival. In the 1980s she funded a Turkish bath as a gathering place for intellectuals and movie directors.
Fiorella Mancini is as well known in the city for her outrageous personality as the outrageous clothes she sells in her shop. Doge mannequins display hand printed jackets, dresses and shirts in a very camp style – a sharp contrast to the mainstream Italian designer shops a couple of streets away!
Fiorella herself is a non-conformist, large personality. She is well known for protesting against certain elements of Venice: in 2005 she held her own anti-Biennale art display in her shop; under a ‘B&B’ sign two gay men shared a bed in the shop for five days as a kind of alternative reality show. Many of Mancini’s ‘happenings’ are outlawed by the authorities, but that doesn’t stop her unique spirit.
Telephone: 00 39 041 5209228
Sights outside the city
Cremona is Violin City, the most famous centre for the production of stringed instruments in the world. Cremona claims to be the birthplace of the violin and it has been the champion of the violin since 1566 when Andrea Amati invented the prototype modern violin from the viol – the Medieval fiddle. They are so mad about violins in Cremona that they’ve even set up an International School of Violin Making to keep the tradition alive. Visit the Palazzo del Comune – the world’s greatest collection of violins including the 1715 Golden Cermonese by Antonio Stradivari, and visit the great luthier’s grave.
The old walled hill town of Asolo – often known as the town of ‘one hundred horizons’ – was the consolation prize given in 1489 to Queen Caterina Cornaro by Venice after demanding her abdication from the throne of Cyprus. It could have been worse – Asolo is one of the most enchanting spots in Italy and the jewel of the Veneto region. It was also a beloved retreat of poet Robert Browning and explorer Freya Stark lived and was buried here. Visitors to Asolo could be forgiven for thinking they had suddenly found themselves transported far inland to Tuscany as the rustic town, with a tiny population of 8,000, nestles in beautiful rolling countryside. The third Sunday of September sees the six differing factions of the town battling against one another in a bid to have their girl crowned queen. At the Palio Asolo festival, participants dress in Medieval costumes and race brightly painted Roman-style chariots.
In the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, Venice’s wealthiest families would escape the oppressive heat of the city and decamp to their summer residences on the mainland. They could be gone from June until mid-November, so these second residences were as opulent as their Grand Canal palazzos. Some 100 villas are left standing and follow the line of the Brenta River. The gardens and open space you can see on a river cruise are a welcome relief from the crowds in Venice. Many of the villas now lie derelict, but a few are open to the public, the most outstanding being the Villa Foscari and the Villa Pisani.
The Villa Foscari overlooks the River Brenta at Malcontenta. Designed by Palladio, its façade of ionic columns gives it an elegant, Classical feel. The villa also goes by the nickname of the Malcontenta (unhappy woman) after a female member of the Foscari family was exiled there for being unfaithful to her husband.
The Villa Pisani in Stra is even more magnificent, with its extensive gardens designed for Doge Alvise Pisani. When Napoleon ruled Venice in the nineteenth century, he used the villa as a temporary residence and the villa was also the setting for the first meeting between Hitler and Mussolini.
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