When we stepped out of the Venezia Santa Lucia train station, I was floored by the view in front of us. The Grand Canal lay before us, its waters translucent green in the sun, and marble, brick, and stucco facades of buildings side by side rising above it. I don’t know how else to say it – tears literally came to my eyes because it was so beautiful, and yes, a bit unexpected. We’ve traveled to many cities, and some places, you’ve really got to dig for the sights that you expected to see, whether it’s a trek up a mountain or building, driving for an hour outside the city, or walking all the way downtown to find yourself surrounded by neon billboards. Venice doesn’t make you work for it. Everywhere, it is completely unapologetically what it is: a very, very old city that is crumbling at some corners, with waves lapping at its feet, but bright and beautiful under the Mediterranean sun. Each corner is an Instagrammable combination of colored houses, shadows on water, and gondoliers plying their gracefully curving boats up and down. In this respect, Venice does not disappoint at all.
In other respects, Venice is very unreal, and that’s because it’s been hollowed out by tourism. When we checked in, our landlady told us this house had been owned by her parents, and that she and her sister now rent it out. She asked if we’d been here before, and Steve responded that he’d visited more than 15 years ago. She shook her head sadly, and told him it had changed very much because of the tourists. And it’s true – while we have seen villages and towns completely occupied by tourists in Grindelwald and Zermatt, Venice is the largest city I’ve seen which has very few traces of its actual inhabitants. It’s possible to hear every single language on the streets, from Russian to Chinese to French to Gujarati, not to mention the very flat American accented English, and little wonder at that: the city has about 58,000 inhabitants, but 20 million tourists come through every year. That means every single restaurant you can see has sprung up to serve the tourist trade. Every other store seems to be a compilation of tourist kitsch, selling you Venetian “masks” with feathers and checker patterns, marbled paper, leather or fake leather handbags, pashmina scarves, straw boaters (the preferred hat for men here) or white lace dresses (the preferred dress for women here), tiny “Murano glass” animal figurines, and endless nonsense along those lines.
The city is not gigantic, but it will take you some time to cross. Possibly the only pedestrian city of its size in the world, Venice is shaped like a flat oval, and the curve of the Grand Canal cuts a winding backwards-S through the oval from the northwest to the southeast. There are only a handful of bridges over the very large Grand Canal, like the Ponte Rialto, a graceful, white structure that has covered shops on top. Another one is the Ponte dell’Acaddemia, next to the Academy of Fine Arts, which is in red-hued wood. The train station sits to the northwest of the city, where the bridge to the mainland begins, and at the very southeast corner where the mouth of the Grand Canal spills into the Adriatic is the world-renowned San Marco Piazza, which is home to the Basilica of Saint Mark and the Dogal Palace of Venice. The smaller bridges are everywhere, because the smaller canals are everywhere. To get from our apartment to San Marco Piazza, we cross approximately four canals, so four little bridges which are all picturesque and provide a glimpse of a gorgeous little canal with houses, flower boxes, and reflections on the water. And yes, the obligatory gondola. The gondolieri are a proud, conservative bunch of men, whose licenses are restricted artificially by the city to around 400 or so, so that’s why each ride on the gondola is prohibitively expensive (80 euro). (Uber, here’s the market you should be disrupting!) Nonetheless, you see plenty of folks who are enjoying their time on the gondola with each other and their selfie sticks.
For our first full day, we made a trip out to the Doge’s Palace which is next to San Marco Piazza. We thought this might take about an hour, but it turns out sampling the cream of Venetian culture and political domination takes a while. The palace itself is where the doges of Venice (not related to the actual canine meme) ruled the Serene Republic for more than a thousand years (early 700 AD to 1797). One of the first fascinating things that we did was to wander through a small museum within that featured the original columns and capitals on the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of San Marco (Saint Mark’s Cathedral). These were carved in the 1300s and 1500s and replaced in the 1800s, so on one hand it’s amazing that it’s been preserved since then, but it’s also that they are made from marble so it’s not a surprise that they’re around. The history of these capitals were also well-preserved – we learned about the artists who were commissioned to carve them, and what I loved to do was poring over the capital and the figures or the animals which were carved between the acanthus leaves to figure out what they actually were. One had the letters URSUS carved above what definitely did look like a bear, actually biting a piece of honeycomb (shaped like honeycomb and also sprinkled with large bees on top). Sometimes the words were missing, and it was hard to figure out who or what was being depicted, but we enjoyed using the combination of allusions and Latin and signs to puzzle out that original art. Between my collection of Latin vocabulary and Roman history and Steve’s knowledge of religious history and Biblical stories, it’s usually a fun game.
When we finally tore ourselves away from that museum, we entered the Doge’s Palace proper, a set path which took us up and down through various stairs and hallways and down to the dungeons. We walked up the Golden Stairway, which was gilded with incredible amounts of gold leaf but also beautiful paintings, large and small. We went between different chambers and rooms, which were normally named for the council or the group who met there. In this way, we learned about people responsible for courts in Venice, military and naval powers, foreign policy and trade, and much, much more. In many cases, we were given details about the history of the artists and the commissions which led to the artworks that we were looking at. One of the things that struck me about them is that it was as much propaganda as it was decoration. Over and over again, we saw a lot of allusions to Mars and Neptune, the gods of war and the sea, in an allusion to Venice’s power and domination over land and sea. The religiously themed paintings often featured past doges of Venice paying homage to the Virgin or being welcomed into Heaven by the Son himself. The most interesting place was the Council Maggiore, which was the place where the largest council of between 1,500 to 2,000 noblemen would be able to meet. All around the top frieze were the portraits of the past doges, each circled by a banner which noted the most important achievements of his administration. One exception, though: Marino Faliero. In the place of his picture, there was instead just a black curtain painted onto the wall, noting in Latin, “This is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes”. He was actually the 55th doge, and he was executed for a coup d’etat, which failed due to poor planning. It was neat to see this actual example of damnatio memoriae, which is the punishment of being removed from history.
Though Venice has been beautiful, it has also been incredibly tiring. I don’t know why but we have taken to the habit of very late afternoon or almost evening naps, sometime between 3 pm and 6 pm. It’s proven necessary after so much sun, wine, and aperitifs which saps the body of all energy. At the same time, the summers in Europe also extend late into the day. Even after getting up at 6 pm, we get to enjoy three more hours of sunshine in which to maybe make a leisurely dinner or walk around and enjoy the views of the city at golden hour. It does make it difficult for us to get up earlier in the day, however. We look forward next to a short stay in Siena (3 days) and a longer stay in Florence (7 days). Maybe with a bit more time under our belt, we’ll be able to adjust a bit better.