This is Venice. A collection of small islands and a short stretch of coastline in northern Italy with a history enriched from the era of the Venetian empire. That which remains show signs of medieval riches and a city once busy with sea trade, with the Doge’s palace and the San Marco basilica standing as monuments of past prosperity. The heart of Venice is built on water and it is clear that sea trade was a simple means of sustaining the city riches. I’m stunned. A city on and around water with extremely narrow alleys that take the visitor through the heart of Venice, over small bridges, and into alleys that often turn out to be dead ends.
Today Venice is one of the European cities that can brag about incredible numbers of visiting tourists per year. One estimate is that on average Venice has 50,000 visitors on a daily basis. With this in mind as I was walking around, I noticed the signs of tourism even more so. Take for example the restaurants which have a special menu called menu turistico, which is usually a mix of pasta, pizza, soups and fries. It saddened me a bit to see a special tourist menu in restaurants, I was there to eat Italian food and experience Italian life after all. Although the Italian classics pasta and pizza are served everywhere, after having tried a few restaurants I still had the feeling that the food lacks in quality.
Prices are also set according to the tourism where simple meals can set you back 20 Euro.. It also shows in the souvenir shops that are everywhere. The signs of a thriving tourist economy are clearly visible, for instance the shops which sell Venetian masks of papier mache. Add to this the small Murano glass glass sculptures which are frequently seen in windows, standing on lit de parade for the passerby to admire, and of course, to buy.
Still, the city manages to take the breath away with the small and winding alleys, the gondolas and the cute little shops.
Four Star Italian Elegance
Still excited on the first day we checked into the hotel, a four star establishment with an aura of class and bygone times, an image that was obviously very intentional. With a nod and a cordial buongiorno from the doorman, I entered a world that is reminiscent of an age of class. So this was Italian elegance. All is not lost that has not been found, I remind myself, happy to be listening to the melodic Italian chatter in the reception. Neat, well dressed and most courteous staff crowded the entrance and reception. As I was observing the carefully dressed Italians, a statement came to mind: Fashionable is what we wear, unfashionable is what others wear, a statement that is well deserved for the majority of Italians. These proud people certainly care about the needle and thread.
The first day was spent walking through the winding alleys, quickly loosing track of which street lead where. To recover my sense of direction, a late lunch seemed suitable in a small and seemingly typical Venetian restaurant. Sitting there with great antiscipation for the three course meal, the starter arrived with a slight disappointment. A huge plate of oily pasta and the occasional piece of ansjovis. The main course that followed this was a tiny piece of lonely chicken drowned in lemon sauce and a side plate of french fries. Not really what I had in mind for a typical Italian meal. This tarnished the impression of Venice, but hey, this is a touristical hot spot so you have to count on a few typical menu turisticos *nudge nudge*. That being said, after the lunch the next stop was the McDonalds as the little piece of fried chicken just did not do its job. In McDonalds however, I knew what I could get to eat. This also served as a good reminder of how familiarity helps at times. Well, although I wish it would have been a Burger King as the Double Whopper with extra fries was what I really craved.
Alleys For The Adventurer
With five days at hand then, what are the highlights of the city and how do the impressions evolve from one day to another? Well, my stay was over Christmas which certainly affected the atmosphere. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the streets were pretty much deserted which you would expect in most western cities. This also enabled carefree strolling around the alleys in without bustling crowds and street merchants. The narrow streets in Venice are charming for sure! The network of alleys and canals is intense and one quickly gets lost, which adds to the fun since the surrounding buildings are old and eyecatching. Some alleys can be a meter wide with imposing buildings towering over them. Bring a decent camera, because you will have some excellent settings to take travel photos to show off to your friends back home. With this observation, one highlight is clear: Go to Venice to indulge yourself with photography and let your eyes feast on the interesting city layout! The neighbourhoods are as unique as spectactular, whether you want to photograph huge monuments or the city life in a city which has a layout pretty much exactly as it was in late medieval times and during renaissance.
While doing photography a couple of items usually make it onto the pictures. First off the Venetian masks and clothing to go with them. Second, the glass sculptures that are created with the Murano glass sculpting technique. These items are showcased in numerous souvenir shops all over the island. This is all fine and interesting and forms a different city atmosphere mixed with the sights of daily life, small cafes and the alleys that often take you on roundabout tours where you did not expect to go.
Give it a few days however, and you might start to mumble as you want to make your way from point A to point B, and all you seem to encounter are dead ends and souvenir shops in every street corner. Tourism certainly has a firm grasp on this city.
Venice On Foot
So many canals to see, so precious little daytime in end of December to enjoy the sights to the fullest. Having enjoyed a ride with Vaporetto to the Murano island the day before, the secrets of Venetian beauty are still to be found in the alleys, with the camera at a ready. With some luck with the weather, the stunning turqouise colour of the canals perfected any photo I wanted to take. Considering that my visit was in December it was great to see such a radiant water color, when used to the dark waters in the north of Europe.
In December it is quite easy to avoid tourist crowds as long as you stay away from the major sights, such as San Marco, the Doge’s palace or the bridges crossing the Grand Canal. These stand out both because of their design and the clustering of souvenir shops around them. The paths to the bridge open up from narrow alleys with very few traces of tourism, to colossal tourist hot spots. But the neighbourhood around the Grand Canal could best be described as tourist central. After a brief discussion with a local I found out that during the festival in February it is very crowdy. The prices for hotels were expected to triple which gives you an idea of the number of tourists that are expected in high season. Depending on whether you like crowds or not, choose the time for your visit accordingly.
One question that evolved after a few days in Venice was whether this is merely a living museum? Maybe it is more that than a city with thriving city life and commerce? In attempt to find reason, my mind wandered to places such as Ronda in Spain or Cesky Krumlov in Czech Republic. Both are standing monuments of grander times in the past, now functioning as the canvas of life throughout history, with the canvas being old buildings and museums stacking up loads of trinkets that tell of grander times, back then, far back then. It turns out that tourism does provide the city with a great deal of the business activity and I could only conclude that in many ways Venice is like a mirror glass into medieval and renaissance Europe.
Looking out over the Grand Canal in Venice in winter time one quickly notices that the gondola season is definitely not during the winter months. Everywhere there were parked gondolas with blue covers. Only a few were doing runs along the canals with tourists huddling close to each other, wearing thick sweaters and thick winter jackets. One astonishing experience came a late evening after one of the endless walks in the winding alleys. As I walked from San Marco I noticed a train of four gondolas parade underneath me under a bridge. A lady was singing an aria in the foremost gondola and the voice echoed in the darkness against the high walls towering over the canal. Closing my eyes and stretching my imagination thus, I could pretend what sounds, sights and smells would define Venice a long time ago. That singing and the sight made for a lasting experience from the trip. If this is common during the summer months, I can wager that many a visitor would be enamoured with the city.
So to fully appreciate Venice, take your time to wander the streets along the canals. They hold several surprises for those with endurance and happy to experiement with a camera. Although many cafes and restaurants are placed along the larger streets and more wellknown alleys, there are a few that are well hidden in narrow alleys some way from the central neighbourhoods. My best advice is therefore to avoid the neighbourhoods with the largest sights (the Doge’s palace and surroundings). Wander off with a map in hand, or not, depending on your fancy, into the alleys that seem inconspicuous, but hold a great deal of excitement for those who want to wander aimlessly around, sometimes coming upon a little cafe or restaurant. Sometimes faded signs on the buildings do not even give a clue of the name of the street which makes it even more exciting for the discoverer. Find street corners with a small bridge and let your imagination paint mental images of scenes that have played out there over the years. The fact that there are old streets signs adds to the charm of the city and allows for a visitor to really see a Venice that is made of a web of canals, alleys and little bridges. Bring your camera and a healthy appetite for walking and you are sure to find the city layout rewarding. Oh, and yes, Venice can be romantic if you allow yourself to immerse yourself with this city eternally set as a romantic backdrop in a feel good movie.
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