Can there be anyone in the UK who hasn’t heard of Venice? With a rich, unique heritage there is nowhere quite like it. It is ideal as a short break being compact and it allows you time to decide what you should come back and see at greater length. This is not for those of you that like beach holidays. Those of you can stay on the Lido, if you want but, in fairness, the beach is like any other. For those with children who would prefer the beach than you can combine the two by spending one day in Venice, the next at the beach on the Lido to please the kids and so on.
But most of you will go there to see the spectacular Grand Canal which meanders down through the middle of Venice, and the sights around it. Three things attract tourist above all else: the Doge’s Palace and St Marks in St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Mtrarco) and the Rialto Bridge. Other sights such as the Bridge of Sighs (currently surrounded by hoardings), the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and a countless number of palazzos are other draws. Just catching a vaporetto (water bus) down this canal can show you the outside of most of these sights. To complement them are what the guidebooks often call hidden Venice, with churches, statues and old buildings with links to legendary figures. Marco Polo, for example, is claimed by gondoliers to have lived on the site of what is now the Palazzo la Residenza, and John Law who developed the theory of paper money, the National Bank of France and the venture that became the Mississippi Bubble is buried here.
Painters like Titian, Tintoretto, the Bellini’s and Canaletto have left their stamp on Venice as have hundreds of others who painted Venice as they traveled. Today I see the same painters near San Marco that I have seen for 20 years. They are not just pavement artists plying the same paintings to tourists. Some like Ugo Baracco has had exhibitions in New York and elsewhere. The words culture and Venice are synonymous. It was here that the last great single patron of the arts in Venice, Peggy Guggenheim, created what is now the museum named after her. Supposedly she had the last private gondola. Behind her museum, you will find art shops and galleries including that of Loris Marazzi who creates tactile wood sculptures of briefcases, underwear and coats just to name a few. When I was there last week there was a package addressed to Alan Alda in New York. There can’t be two such named people can there?
But culture isn’t just limited to painters and sculptors. This is the home of Carlo Goldoni, the greatest Italian writer of comic plays, often in the Venetian dialect. Over 250 plays are credited to him and today, his statue in the Campo San Bartolomeo and the theatre named after him both indicate the eminence in which he is held here. La Fenice, the famed opera house, which was badly damaged by fire some years ago, has been restored and attracts sell out houses both for the performances and its architecture. In churches there are concerts almost every day of the music of Vivaldi and in particular, The Four Seasons. Everywhere you will find CD’s of his and he almost has become the composer of Venice. The Film Festival and the Biennale Art Exhibition widen the cultural offering but, of course, there is one other event for which Venice is known.
In February, it’s carnival time. Reminiscent of the time of Casanova (another born Venetian) people don masks and fantastic costumes. When Napoleon invaded Venice the carnivals ended and were only resurrected in the last century. But the costumes remain dedicated to the century before Napoleon. During the Festival, hotel rooms are hard to come by and prices are high if you can find them. Don’t be surprised if the nearest hotels are on the Lido, in Mestre or even further afield.
You could start your tour along the Grand Canal by walking from Piazzale Roma over the bridge to the station.
Apart from the palazzo in various states of repair that you will see as you go down the Grand Canal, the Rialto is the first stop for many. Today people think of the bridge, not quite so beautiful as it could be since the local council never quite seems to remove the graffiti from the wooden shutters on the outer parts of the bridge, but in the thirteenth century, it was the official name for Venice. There are market stalls all around and up the bridge selling glassware, pictures, clothing and ice-cooled fruit in summer. Nearby is the vegetable and fruit market. The restaurants can get packed at the busy time of the year and there will be so many people you might have difficulty getting a place on the bridge to take photographs. It is also one of the places where bag sellers try and interest you in fake designer bags. Don’t buy them. A law exists whereby anyone buying fake products can be fined up to €10,000. One minute you will see them. The next, a lookout warns them that officials are coming and they pack up and move on. But they still exist despite the efforts and it is you, the visitor, who can be prosecuted just as easily as they can.
Continuing down the canal, on the right, you’ll see the Guggenheim, completely different from the architecture around it, and then St Marks will come into view. The cathedral of St Mark and the Doge’s palace are in the Piazza San Marco. The original St Marks was consecrated in 832. The church we see today goes back to 1094, the same time as Richard the Lionheart, but most of the architecture comes from the golden age of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The queues begin early to see inside so don’t expect to turn up at 11 am and expect to get in under 20 minutes, unless you go in winter.
The Doge’s palace goes back even further. A wooden building existed as long ago as 814. The present building goes back, once again, to that golden age. The palace was also the seat of the government as well as his home so. Although Napoleon’s troops destroyed most of the furniture, the architecture is still there to amaze and indicates the wealth that Venice once had. Again, if you want to go inside, prepare for queues unless you get there early.
If you are traveling to Venice soon, add another place to visit; the Church of St Barnabas. Here in the Campo San Barnaba, this church has an exhibition of models made from the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. There are gliders, an air screw which people have called the first helicopter, a bicycle plus examples of weapons he developed such as a machine gun. Many of the models work (not the weapons!) and you can operate them yourself. It’s strange to think that some of his drawings were only found in Madrid only 36 years ago. Without that find, we wouldn’t have drawings of the bicycle for instance.
It’s possible to do all I have suggested in a long weekend. But most will find they want more time. To all those other places that say they are the Venice of the north or wherever, forget it. There is only one Venice. Everyone should see it at least once. I’ve been there 7 times and it’s still not enough to be able to enjoy it all.