April 5, 2020

Venice, Italy

Aug 2006

Venice is a lot more than a city full of canals, and gondolas.

One, Venice was a super power of the world at the end of XIII century thanks to (a) its trading and mercantile systems bringing in money; (b) its powerful fleet protecting its trade; and (c) its governance as a republic respecting citizens and protecting their property.  If ever you wondered who paid for all the artwork (of Michelangelo or Raphael for example) during the Renaissance centuries, it was money inherited from Venice.

Two, Venice remained a republic for 1,110 years from 697 AD to 1797 AD in a "Post Roman" Europe with powerful monarchs and an ambitious Catholic Church.  Venice inspired the political thoughts of Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hamilton!  Then Venice was taken by Napoleon.  It became a part of Italy a hundred and fifty four years back in 1866.

Three, Venice encouraged diverse thoughts.  Authors chose Venice as the location when writing about sensitive issues such as prejudice or persecution.  Venice would take it and not send law enforcement to your door at midnight.

Four, Venice was way ahead of rest of the world in gender equality.  The first ever woman graduate, who graduated in 1646, was from Venice.

And then, Venice is a city full of canals and gondolas.

Venice is actually a collection of 118 islands, mostly submerged under water, all in an archipelago in a lagoon adjacent to Adriatic Sea.  Millions of logs (from water resistant Alder trees) were brought from nearby Slovenia and Croatia and driven into ground and buildings were constructed atop the logs. 

One broad canal (the Grand Canal) divides the city of islands into two.  And about 170+ canals serve as roads and streets for the city.  About 400+ bridges help pedestrians to move from one place to another. 

All transport within the city is by boat.  Vaporettos for public transport.  Gondolas for recreational transport.  Special boats for moving cargo, moving home, collecting garbage etc. 

Venice is sinking at 1 to 2 mm each year and may vanish at some point in future.  The water levels rise up and down; and in November and December this can be 4.5 feet above normal level flooding the city even hundred times during the season.

Venice is 415 square km in size (about same as Chennai) with just 60,000 residents.  However, it receives over 20 million tourists a year (twice the number that visit India in a year!).  The resident population is shrinking (was 120,000 just thirty years back; apartment prices are getting out of reach for most residents and all spaces are taken over to build hotels for tourists).  By 2030 it is estimated that Venice would be a city populated by tourists alone!

If you arrive from Rome by train (as we did on a day trip taking the first train at the crack of dawn), you arrive into the Santa Lucia railway station.  When you get out of the station, the plaza gives you a taste of what lies ahead:  a canal with water taxis offering to take you to your destination, an elegant footbridge to get to the other side of the canal and an imposing church, San Simeone Piccolo,  across the canal; often the first sight for most visitors!

San Simeone Piccolo Church, built in 1738 right across the station with a canal in between!

The first thing we did was to take a water taxi and do a tour of the canals, starting with the Canal Grande, the four km long, S shaped, principal boulevard with about 170 buildings on either side.  The Grand Canal has just four bridges connecting the two sides.  For the last fifteen centuries, Grand Canal has been a prestigious address in Venice.

Water taxi: Tour of Canals

Water Taxi:  The Grand Canal

Water taxi: The Grand Canal

Water taxi:  The Grand Canal

Water taxi: A narrow side street.  One of them, Calle Varisco, is just 53 cm wide!

The water taxi dropped us off at Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square; the city centre). 

As you step off the water taxi boat, you are welcomed to the Piazza by two tall columns:  The one at the western end has St Theodore on top.  The one at the eastern end has the Lion of Venice on top (a winged lion that symbolises the city).  Our guide told us that it is bad luck to walk between the two columns.  It seems all the executions of death sentences were carried out in that spot and the dead ones could have left a curse on the spot.  A more practical explanation  is that this was the only place (between the two columns) where gambling was permitted in Venice; and those who lost money against the house (as most gamblers do) could have left a word of wisdom to first timers.

Column with the Lion of Venice at top (tail alone visible) and the Campanile bell tower

The Piazza to the left of Doge's palace is full of pigeons.

Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square).  Doge Palace and Basilica at right

To your right is the Doge's palace.  Doges are Chief Magistrates and leaders of Venice Republic who are elected by people and who hold their office for their lifetime.  Doges ruled Venice from 726 AD to 1797 AD (a thousand and seventy years; probably the longest continuous duration for one protocol of governance and that too a democracy).  The palace houses Tintoretto's Paradise, the largest oil painting in the world.  The palace is connected to a prison by the Bridge of Sighs.  Our guide told us that when prisoners were transferred from Doge's court to the prison, they get one last glimpse of Venice and freedom when they cross the bridge and emit a sigh; and therefore the name!

Inside Doge Palace:  Expansive courtyard and Byzantine mosaics

As you walk further, you see the tall Campanile bell tower to your left and the Basilica de San Marco (St Mark's Basilica) to your right.  The bell tower is a modern day replica of the old structure and fortunately has an elevator to take you to the top for a spectacular view of the city.  The Basilica was built in 1092 AD and the altarpiece is adorned with a few thousand gems and precious stones.

Bell Tower

As you step out of the Piazza you see several colourful shops.

Shops by canal side at Piazza San Marco

A short walk along the canals, crossing the various bridges, gets you a deeper look at the city's innards.

Canal Walk

And finally we got into a gondola.

On a Gondola in Venice:  At Targhetto Gondola Molo next to the Piazza

On a Gondola in Venice:  At Ponte della Paglia bridge.  Bell Tower in background.

On a Gondola in Venice:  Residence of Marco Polo

The Gondola returns us to the base.  Time to get back to Rome.

As the evening arrives, it is time to take the three and a half hours train ride back to Rome.

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