Venice is like no other city on earth. It is basically a city built on water -- or more accurately on muddy, marshy swamps. After the sack of Rome 1,500 years ago, a group of people moved into the lagoon as a natural protector. There they pounded more than a million trees into the muddy swamp, put stone over the top of the trees, and built a city. Really, who thinks of doing that? The result is a beautiful car free city with a maze of canals and tiny alleyways.
I was quite happy to return the rental car at the entrance to Venice -- without any scratches, accidents or injuries to any of the passengers! We hopped on a vaporetto (a large boat that is the equivalent of a city bus in Venice) and wandered our way around until we found our hotel. It took several stops to ask for directions. Venice is known for being a confusing city, and I can see why. People navigate by landmarks, not by city streets (because really, there are no streets!). But we did find it and it was great! Wendy had booked the hotel online, and it ended up being in the perfect location. It was just off Campo Santa Maria Formosa and right on the fringe of the San Marco neighborhood. That meant we were a short walk from all the tourist stuff, but a little out of the way of all the tourists. We were right on a canal, and frequently saw (and heard) gondoliers taking people down the canal. We didn't take a gondola ride while we were there, mainly because there are really expensive and the gondoliers love to rip off tourists. But we did take several vaporetto rides and got a good view of the city from the water.
Venice is really an endless maze of tiny little alleys. We wandered around a lot, sometimes knowing where we were going, sometimes not. It all seemed to work out in the end. The first evening we wandered down to St. Mark's Square and saw some of the nightlife. The Square is really quite pretty, with St. Mark's Basilica on one side, the Doge's Palace next door, and the rest of the rectangle filled by lovely buildings. For some reason I had always imagined the square bigger, but standing in it, it really didn't look that big. It may have been because of all the tables from the sidewalk cafes. The cafes have tuxedoed waiters and small orchestras playing music all night long. It felt very much like James Bond.
The next day we toured St. Mark's Basilica. After seeing so many different churches on my trip, it is still amazing to see how different and beautiful each one can be. St. Mark's has a very distinctive style -- part European, part Byzantine and middle eastern. Venice was once the world's biggest superpower -- funny to think about today when Venice is mainly a tourist stop on a tour of Italy. But for 400 years (about 1,000 years ago) Venice was the place to be. The main reason is that Venice controlled all of the trade routes from Europe to Asia. Traders and merchants would meet in Venice, and subsequently the city got rich. It really was the first global, cosmopolitan city. Europeans could find spices, cloth, and other things unavailable in Europe. People of all ethnicities shared the canals and alleys. Numerous religions were practiced. And ideas, art and culture all blended. The numerous palaces that line the canals of Venice are a reminder of the wealth of the city and the merchant families. Unfortunately, many of the palaces are in disrepair, because it is so expensive to keep up the huge buildings, and the constant toll that water takes on structures.
One of the most beautiful parts of St. Mark's are the mosaics on the walls, ceilings, and domes. The mosaics have a definite Byzantine feel. Most of the tiles are covered in gold leaf, and it is really stunning. I also loved the horse statue that is on the terrace inside the church. It is a full-size statue of four horses trotting that initially sat on the outside balcony. Now there is a replica on the terrace to protect the original statue, which was made in the 4th century B.C.!
The Doge's Palace next to St. Mark's Basilica has an even more Byzantine feel to it. The outer walls are characterized as ˝Venetian Gothic˝. According to our guidebook, this palace was the most powerful half-acre of land in Europe for 400 years. The interesting thing about it is that the Doge (basically the head of state) really had no power. Venice had what could loosely be called a democracy -- except it was only the aristocratic families that counted. They had a Senate and numerous judicial councils, and the Doge was just the figurehead of it all. He was the leader, but had no executive or legislative powers. The Doge's Palace is an interesting place because it combined all of the functions of the government. The senate hall, the Doge's apartments, the judicial courts, even the prisons were all within these walls. The prison's were interesting -- there was even graffiti carved into the stone by prisoners from over a thousand years ago!
We spent the afternoon on the island of Murano, one of the numerous islands in the lagoon that make up Venice. This is known as the glassmakers island. Venice has long been known for it's glass -- mainly because they learned glass making techniques from the east. Because most of the city is made of wooden structures, the glass makers were forced out of the main islands due to fire risk and given their own island. This is still the center of glass making today. We visited the glass museum and looked around in a lot of different shops. Wendy and Steven even found some beautiful candlesticks that will be a great souvenir of their trip!
Saturday the tourists were out in droves. Since Venice was at the height of its power, it has been a tourist draw. Europeans used to come here to party -- much like modern day Vegas -- and many of them still do. Plus Saturday was a national holiday (liberation day) and a city holiday (St. Mark's day). Because the streets are so small and everything is compressed by bridges, it makes it feel very crowded. The highlight of Saturday was a visit with our old friend Lele. Lele was an exchange student from Italy when we were in high school. He graduated with my class from Naches. Wendy and Lele were good friends in high school, and have kept in touch over the years. Wendy and Steven saw Lele in L.A. about 5 years ago, and so when we decided to go to Italy, Wendy emailed him. He came to Venice for the day from Milan and we spent most of the day just chatting and catching up, sitting at sidewalk cafes. It was really great to see him and to reminisce about high school days.
Wendy and Steven left early the next morning. I was very sad to see them go -- it has been fun travelling with them. But I am also looking forward to being on my own again and heading out of Italy to other parts of Europe.