I was aware before I came to Venice that the stereotype of navigating the city primarily by boat was inaccurate. What I did not realize was that one navigates the city primarily by foot.
It's all narrow stone streets -- most narrower than a one-way street in America, and many no more than eight feet wide. Some are narrower than a sidewalk. The city is made up of over a hundred little islands, separated by narrow canals and joined by hundreds of bridges. All the bridges are arched, to a greater or lesser degree, to allow boats to pass beneath, and nearly all have stone steps leading up and down the sides. It is the least handicapped-accessible city in the world. It's just a couple of miles off the northwest coast of mainland Italy, and one corner of the island has a train station. The train runs on a narrow landbridge across the lagoon, and a road runs parallel to the tracks, so technically there are cars in Venice. They don't leave that corner of the island, though. 90%+ of the city is only negotiable on foot or by boat. Nearly everyone travels by foot, because you're rarely more than a mile from where you want to be. Even if you owned a boat, it'd still be quicker to walk in most cases than it is to get to the canal where you'd tied up your boat, travel to the canal near your destination, and then find somewhere to leave it. Docking is a real problem -- few of the canals have convenient docking places (many are so narrow that tying up at the side might block traffic) and there aren't "docking garages" or anything like that. Watertaxis weren't especially common either -- you could go to a watertaxi stand or to the waterbus stops to get one easily enough, but such stands were relatively rare. Waiting at a random point on a canal for a watertaxi to happen by would be a VERY long wait.
We took a walking tour on our first full day in Venice, and Simona, our tour guide, stopped at one point to indicate a boat tied to a wall, with no sidewalk on that side of a canal and no doorway near it. (Many buildings that are right against a canal will have a first-floor door that does open onto the canal.) "How do you think the owner gets to it?" she asked us.
We made several wrong guesses, and then I joked, "I know! You take another boat to get to your boat."
... which turned out to be the right answer. The owner would probably wait on the sidewalk opposite the wall his boat was tied up to until a boat came past, then hitch a ride to his own boat. It is not convenient.
There were many interesting historical features, some of them astoundingly beautiful. The Basilica Santa Maria Glorioso dei Frari was awe-inspiring in its magnificence. When I'd been looking at the Parthenon sculptures in London, I'd thought what a shame it was that I couldn't see them in their original context. From the outside, Santa Maria Glorioso dei Frari looked like a rather plain building. But from the inside, it had all the sculptural and architectural details of a structure like the Parthenon. There were great paintings by Titian and other artists. But it was the sculptures that really spoke to me: friezes of saint after saint ornamenting the walls surrounding the sanctum, the amazing tomb to Titian (with a sculptured background that was a relief version of his painting of Mary & Christ from over the altar), even the tiny details worked into each stall for the choir. Well worth seeing, probably the highlight of the trip.
The doge's palace was also magnificent: gorgeous frescoed ceilings with elaborate gilt framing between panels, beautifully detailed sculptures, in room after room that was open to public (for an admission fee. Every museum/historic site we visited in Italy had an admission fee.) The Venetian Republic went back to the Middle Ages; it began when people fleeing the Visigoth hordes who were pillaging the remains of the Roman empire, in the 8th century or so. Assorted fires and disasters over the centuries meant that most of the architecture and art we saw was 16th century or later, though.
It was the most beautiful city I've seen.
It is not just the well-maintained brick streets, or the charming 16th-19th century buildings, or the beautiful old stepped stone bridges. The lack of greenery was surprising: where an ordinary city might have green strips between sidewalk and building, or cutouts for trees, 90% of Venice has NOTHING green. There's the occasional tree peeking out of someone's walled courtyard, and there are a few trees along the southern most road, and two parks. At least one of which was built by Napoleon, who basically told Venice after their surrender: "Dang, you guys need some bushes and trees and stuff. Seriously. I'm tearing down these buildings over here and putting a park in." I'm surprised Venice kept it. The rest of the city is almost all adjoining buildings edged by brick streets or canals. In an ordinary city, this would make it ugly, but Venetian architecture is harmonious and ornamented enough that it takes a while to even notice the absence.
But here's the thing: you don't realize how ugly and unpleasant cars make a city until you've seen a city without them. It's such a pleasure to walk through these elegant streets, without the constant roar and rush of cars, the broad grey and black pavement, the smell of exhaust, the honking of horns. It's so relaxing. I loved walking in Venice. Even at the end of our last day there, when everything was closed and I was tired and footsore, I still wanted to go for one more walk through this lovely city. I wanted to stay longer, not to see more, but just to exist in Venice. It is a great place to be. So worth the trip.
We arrived in Venice after sunset on Monday, after an hour-long waterbus from the airport. We were staying in a rent-by-the-night apartment for the trip, and the owner, Luca, met us at the dock. He spoke excellent English with a slight Italian accent, was charming and pleasant, and showed us to a beautiful apartment in the Rialto district, just a block from the Grand Canal.
We didn't do much in that first night besides wander the narrow city streets, admire the architecture, and get groceries. We ate in the apartment. I got fresh gnocchi from the grocery's deli, and pesto from the refrigerated section. M had brie and ersatz challah: "pan treccia" (braided bread), branded Mulino Bianco, from Barilla. I mention the brand because it was surprisingly good bread. M bought lots of different breadstuffs on this trip, and the pan treccia was the best. Like, we packed the heel from the loaf in my suitcase, and when I was leaving Rome, that squashed four-day old bread was still better than any other bread we'd tried that trip.
The next morning, we started the day with a walking tour conducted by Simona, a Lithuanian woman who'd lived in Venice for 15 years, "because there is no other city like it in the world." You hear that about cities a lot, but with Venice, it's true.
The walking tour was more about the city's history and famous people (Marco Polo, Casanova, and Leonardo da Vinci) than about specific noteworthy places. I liked that aspect about it, since the touristy places like the doge's palace and the Rialto bridge are easy to find without a guide.
The wells in Venice, for example, are more like cisterns. They'd dig a big pit, line it with clay, fill it with gravel and sand to filter the water that went in, cover it with stone with drainage slits, and then let it fill with rainwater. There'd be a covered well at the center of the square/cistern. In times of water shortage, people would bring water in by barrels from the mainland to refill the well. You weren't allowed to sell water in Venice unless you belonged to the guild, though. Yes, they had a guild for that. And for bakers. Simona pointed out a stone plaque with a law to prohibit non-guild bakers from selling bread.
At the end of the walking tour, Simona recommended a cafe to us, and we all elected to eat there. The other members of the group were Peggy, a medical student from Australia who was going on to Parma the next day, where she'd be doing her elective, and Alan and his wife, whose name I've forgotten (dangit, I can remember names for several hours, but they still don't go into long term memory) so I'm going to pseudonym her as Samantha. Alan & Samantha were international tax law advisors from Texas. We talked about travel, mostly. Peggy had grown up in Malaysia before moving to Australia and her parents were Hosin. So she was bilingual in Mandarin and English (equally comfortable in both) and fluent in Cantonese (picked up from Cantonese soaps) and Hosin (from her parents, though she said they hated her accent in Hosin.) After four weeks in Parma, she was going on vacation to Paris and London. She was nervous about her time in Parma, because she spoke no Italian at all. I am a little sorry I will never know how it goes for her, though I'm sure she'll be fine. And maybe fluent in Italian before she leaves. :D
Samantha and Alan went on yearly overseas vacations, and told us about their first one, to New Zealand. They covered 8 cities in 11 days. "At the time," Alan said dryly, "we didn't know to build in rest time in the schedule."
"Also, these were small and recent cities, so there'd only be one or two tourist attractions in each. But I scheduled far too much," Samantha said. "And I had no one to blame but myself, because I planned everything. I planned whitewater rafting on a river that was mostly five."
We looked blank at the number, so Alan explained that it's a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the hardest.
"And we'd never been before! And I planned blackwater rafting, which goes through caves and had some drops. And I don't like water, or the dark, or heights, or enclosed spaces. We'd get started and all I could do was say to myself, 'What was I thinking?'"
She had a harrowing story of jumping off a ledge at the instructor's direction, and being the only one unable to navigate over to the rest of the group. "I got water up my nose and in my mouth and couldn't breathe, so I was flailing and trying to stand up, and the first thing they tell you is 'don't try to stand up', so that wasn't working. Eventually, the instructor threw the 'football' to me. That was a packed bundle of rope. Then he reeled me in."
"He was like a linebacker. Expert thrower. He was more effective at rafting than the entire rest of the boat. He'd tell us to turn or steer or go in a particular direction. We'd all whale away, ten or twelve of us, making no progress. Then he'd shake his head, put his oar in the water, and the boat would go exactly where he wanted it to," Alan said.
After lunch. Alan and Samantha planned to go to dei Frari, which we all thought sounded good, so we went en masse. Then we split up afterwards: Alan and Samantha wanted to go to San Marco square, which Peggy had already seen. Peggy wanted to walk around the southwest side of the island, just to see it. We went with Peggy, for no particular reason except that I thought she might want English-speaking company.
We stumbled across an exhibit on da Vinci and went inside, where they showed models based on various of his sketches. Then we walked some more, before I needed a break to sit down. You don't know how depressing it is to be able to bike 30+ miles in one day and still be the least-fit person round. In the US I'm average weight, maybe a little lighter than most people I see. In Venice, almost everyone was thinner. They all looked slim and healthy. We found a little cafe and bought cookies, paying the slightly higher price for the privilege of sitting while we ate them. This is common in Venice -- it's a half-euro or a euro extra for food or drink if you want to sit while you have it. They don't chase you off after you finish, though, and we sat talking until the place turned the lights out. Then we walked back to the Rialto area, picked up some more groceries, and parted ways when M & I got back to our apartment.
Rialto is one of the main shopping/tourist areas. The Rialto bridge is one of four that spans the Grand Canal, and it's in my opinion the grandest. There are shops on it! Actual working shops! Stuffed full of touristy gewgaws, but still. A double row of shops with doors and shop windows opening to the street down the center of the bridge, with more street on the outside so you can walk up and down the outer edges to look at the canal. Magnificent.
Later that night, we walked over to San Marco square. Everything was closed by 7PM except for restaurants, but Venice is a nice place to walk.
The next day, we saw the naval museum attached to Venice's armory and shipyard, which dates back several centuries. To our surprise, the museum ticket counter said it's still a working military facility, so we couldn't tour the actual site. We only spent 45 minutes in the museum, because we wanted to catch the 11am tour of the doge's palace. There wasn't a lot we wantd to linger on at the naval museum, or we'd've come back. I looked over the artillery and cannons to see if I could find any ones comparable to those mentioned in the Aubrey/Maturin books. They were all much larger or smaller pieces, though. I took a photo of a galley model, complete with models of the rowers, just for the sheer scale of it.
The tour at the Doge's Palace was already full when we got there, so we just walked through it on our own. It's part museum, and part tour of the grandeur of the building. They had exhibits on several rooms on each of three floors, and even so most of the palace was closed to visitors.
Then we went up to the top of the nearby belltower for its view. It wasn't that high -- eight or nine stories? -- but most of Venice is three-five stories, so it afforded a good view of the city.
After that was a late lunch/dinner. We finally went to a mobile phone store to try to get a prepaid SIM card for my phone. We tried the sim in it, but my phone came up with an "enter SIM unlock code" message, and the salesperson said this was a function of the phone, not the SIM, and meant my android was locked to T-Mobile. I'd never heard of an Android being locked before. I am still not convinced it is, as opposed to salesperson error. But it wasn't that important, so we got me a prepaid phone to use for emergencies, and in case M & I decided to split up at some point, and left it at that. For actual dinner, I went to the grocery for gnocchi again, this time cheese-filled. :9 I had pasta for pretty much every meal except breakfast while in Italy.
We left Venice around 9:30 the next morning, so we pretty much just got dressed and went to the waterbus after waking up.
I just realized that I omitted the tale of "setting a new low for American tourists: cannot operate doors." If you want that, you can ask for it in comments.
(This entry was written partly while I was in Venice, and partly during the plane trip from Munich to Toronto on December 14.)