Few cities capture the spirit of romance like Venice. Enchanting and quaint, the city is a work of art in itself.
Written by: NAVEENA ISRANI
Photos by: SATYAN ISRANI
It was love at first sight. It was everything we had imagined and more… Boarding our private water taxi outside Aeroporto di Venezia Marco Polo and gazing for the first time at the Venetian skyline is a memory that will stay with us forever. The buzz of the place, sparkling water, numerous boats, quaint buildings – all combined to create an image like nothing we had seen before. Venice is enchanting, romantic and iconic, bustling with life yet crumbling and ghostly. Everywhere we looked, it seemed like we were inside a painting or a film set arranged around picturesque canals.
Built on an archipelago of 117 islands formed by 177 canals and connected by over 400 bridges, Venice captures the imagination more powerfully than any other city in Europe. Though the city is old and creaks at the joints, this is part of its historical charm and modern vitality. Its fabled canalled thoroughfares and gilded palaces possess a beauty unsurpassed anywhere on earth. Venice is a work of art in itself. The inter-play of sky, sea and a shoreline of grandiose buildings in fabulous colours creates a unique and fascinating landscape, that casts a spell on all visitors. We were no exception.
And so it was that we arrived in a dreamlike state at Palazzo Schiavoni, an exclusive hotel located in a quiet corner of the city, overlooking a typical Venetian canal. From outside, it looked more like a quaint three-storey house.
In fact, most hotels in Venice look exactly like this, as we were to discover later, but their USP lies in their homely ambience. Another interesting observation was that one staff member performs multiple roles, viz manager, concierge, bell boy and liftman! At our hotel, Nasir Haider, a Bangladeshi whose family had settled here 20 years ago, donned these multiple hats with a smile… and even gave us a few touristy tips as we set off to explore the sights and sounds of the city.
Venice isn’t a huge city, but it’s full of mysterious mazes, pathways and bridges over canals. Narrow, sunlit alleyways lead into darkness. Back streets circle away from deserted squares.
The ideal way to see Venice is to cross its labyrinthine lanes and several bridges on foot. There is not a single car, bike or bus in Venice – the terrain of the city is impossible to navigate with anything on wheels. And that is essentially the mystic charm of Venice. We enjoyed getting lost in its myriad bylanes as we scurried along the stone walkways, soaking in the early Renaissance architecture, leading into walled squares containing Gothic churches and enclosed courtyards. Even though we had a map, we seemed to be going around in circles and passing the same shops and cafes each time!
As we navigated our way through dark alleyways and over green mysterious water, I realised what sets Venice apart is its everyday art so accessible to anyone who wanders by. Almost everywhere we looked, there was something beautiful or graceful – a statue here or a painting there – on the street, at an intersection, or atop a building. Even the numerous shops, especially the mask shops, lined along the cobbled pathways held beauty and mystery – they enthralled us with their enticing wares. And we succumbed to their lure, purchasing around 10 different masks of varying sizes and colours!
And of course, the Venetian architecture is art in itself. This is a city that has unfolded over centuries, but the architecture seems to have a thematic consistency – grandiosity through the ages.
A case in point is the Piazza San Marco, or St Mark’s Square, Venice’s most spectacular landmark situated in the heart of the city. It is the only place we could find with our eyes closed and which, as we discovered, is a good base point when wandering. The eclectic energy present ere was impressive as we watched the crowds of tourists thronging the Square, bands playing at streetside cafes and various stalls selling fancy wares.
The Piazza, by far the largest open space in Venice, is ringed by stunning buildings like the Basilica di San Marco (housing the Marciano Museum), Doge’s Palace, Clock Tower (Bell Tower), Correr Museum, Procuratie Vecchie (Old Law Courts) and Procuratie Nuove (New Law Courts). The architectural splendour of the Basilica, grandeur of St Mark’s huge ornate doors and intricate Gothic carvings of Doge’s Palace took our breath away.
As the setting sun’s rays lit up the murals on the monuments, we could fully appreciate why St Mark’s Square is called “the drawing room of the world”.
And if you get bored staring at the mesmerizing beauty of the monuments, you can amuse yourself by watching the hordes of pigeons that descend upon the Square, pecking at seeds scattered by generous visitors or landing on the heads of unsuspecting tourists!
After viewing the antics of our feathered friends, we proceeded to Rialto Bridge, which is famed as the place where the first bridge over the Grand Canal was erected.
One of the architectural icons of Venice, Rialto is a high-arch bridge flanked on either side by rows of high-end shops. Gucci, Valentino, Prada, Fendi, Salvatore Ferragamo, Chanel, Bvlgari – you name it, and it was there. And proudly rubbing shoulders with them was the ubiquitous ‘Bata’, considered a must-have in most Indian households!
All this window-shopping had made us hungry, so we decided to grab a bite at one of the many Trattorias lining St Mark’s promenade. But what we didn’t bargain for was that we would have to share our Marinara pizza and Gnocchi pasta with pesky seagulls, who swooped down from the waterfront and grabbed a few bites from our plate right under our nose! So much for a nice, romantic dinner…
The next day dawned bright and clear, perfect for a ferry trip to Venice’s outer archipelago.
We sailed over calm, listless water and picture-perfect blue skies towards our first stop, Murano island, famous worldwide for its glass manufacturing industry. On a special tour of the glass factory, one of the artisans gave us a glass-blowing demo, carving a beautiful glass horse with superb precision in two minutes right in front of our eyes. It was sheer magic!
We followed this up with a visit to the curio shop selling glassware of exquisite forms in varying swirls, patterns and colours – every single one made by hand. Like most tourists, we gave in to temptation and purchased an impressive multi-coloured glass horse, as we had been told that souvenirs are cheaper in Murano than Venice.
Our next stop was the picturesque Burano island, famous not only for its artistic handmade lace, but also for its fishermen’s houses painted in bright colours.
At one of the shops, we were given a live demo of lace-making and were intrigued to learn that it involves seven different stitches by seven women, because each woman knows only one stitch. Talk about team effort!
Our final halt was Torcello island, the first centre of civilisation in the estuary, whose population decline from 20,000 to just 20 is palpable.
Instead of bustling canals and streets, we were greeted with an almost deserted island where lone houses stood out of marshy grounds amidst a green, romantic setting. The main square houses a stone throne in derelict condition, said to be that of Attila the Hun; the Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral, known for its Byzantine architecture and magnificent mosaics; and the church of Santa Fosca – all testimony to Torcello’s glorious past.
After soaking in the island’s old world charm, we returned to the mainland to round off our trip with the most romantic symbol of Venice – a gondola ride. But our hopes of an intimate ride for two were dashed when we were allotted a gondola in which four senior citizens were already seated! To make matters worse, my husband and I had to sit in two separate corners to maintain balance. Well, we decided to make the most of it and admire the spectacle instead. And what a spectacle it was –a group of six gondolas with six passengers and one gondolier each, navigating through the back canals of San Marco, where time has stood still for centuries, punctuated only by the sound of an accordion and Italian love songs being sung by one of the locals.
After traversing through these narrow dim-lit canals for 15 minutes, we emerged on to the Grand Canal and felt like we were in a different world altogether. About 3.8 km long and up to 90 metres wide, the Grand Canal is the largest canal in Venice and a hotbed of activity.
Exotic-looking buildings, shops and houses line both banks of the Canal; numerous gondolas, vaporetti (water buses), water taxis and private boats make their daily trips up and down the waterfront; everything is colourful, busy and ‘grand’!
As we glided through these enchanting waterways, lined with majestic Venetian palaces and punctuated by delicate bridges, I discovered the Venice of my dreams – dazzling yet simple, romantic yet busy, quaint yet forward-thinking. The setting sun’s rays played on the water, creating a restless magic of light and shadow. And all borderlines were eradicated somewhere between dream and reality as we wrapped up our stunning fairytale with a promise to visit this unforgettable city again some day…
TIPS FOR TOURISTS
* Flights land at Aeroporto di Venezia Marco Polo, 7 km north of the city. A special airport shuttle bus connects with Piazzale Roma near
Venice’s Santa Lucia train station. Alternately, you can take a ferry from the airport to Piazza San Marco or arrange for a private water taxi to your hotel.
* Trains from Rome, Milan, Florence and all over Europe arrive at Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia.
* There are two main areas – Venice Island and Venice Mestre. All the tourist attractions are in Venice Island and most sightseeing starts from St Mark’s Square. So it’s better to stay in Venice Island though the hotels here are more expensive. There are no cars; all transfers are by private boat or ferry. Venice Mestre is a town on the mainland, connected to Venice Island via bridge. From Mestre, regular bus, taxi or private transfers can take you to the port from where you can take a ferry (vaporetto) to St Mark’s Square. Budget travellers can stay in Venice Mestre since the hotels are cheaper here.
* The best way to see Venice is on foot. Wear comfortable shoes because you will be doing a lot of walking through back alleys, narrow streets, over bridges and steps.
* Vaporetti (large motorboats used for public transportation) are an ideal and inexpensive way to travel to the surrounding islands. You can buy a single ticket ride or a day pass, depending on how long you will be in Venice.
* Gondola rides are pricey and even more so in the evening. A single ride of around 45 minutes can cost 100-150 euros per person. It is cheaper to opt for a group ride that costs 30-40 euros per person.
* There are numerous dining options such as Ristorantes, Trattorias, Osterias, Pizzerias, cafes, bars, etc. A Ristorante generally offers a high-end full-service eating experience, but if you want good value for money, try one of the Trattorias on the side streets near Piazza San Marco or on the promenade. Must-have: Gelato.
* Venice is very crowded during the day, but it’s not too safe in the evenings as the streets are secluded and not well lit. Be careful of your personal belongings; it’s easy to get robbed.