There’s no escaping it: Venice is unique. For a start, this is a pedestrian’s city on a very human scale; cars are almost nonexistent, and beguiling narrow paths take the place of ugly city roads. The harmonious architecture seems to have sprung uniformly from somewhere between the 12th and 16th century, its secretive walls and enticing balconies sparkling with flashes of water glimpsed through cracks and windows. Dark paths suddenly emerge into the clear, bright daylight of a pigeon-packed piazza or cross the city’s myriad canals by way of numerous and wonderful little bridges. The atmosphere is magical and inexplicably festive.
The city is built on 117 small islands, and is linked to the mainland service town of Mestre by a road and rail causeway. The Grand Canal insinuates itself around the city, emerging at the unforgettable vista of Piazza San Marco, boasting its campanile, Doges’ Palace, St Mark’s Basilica and elegant piazza. The Bridge of Sighs links the palace to the gloomy old prisons, and the bobbing gondolas are overlooked by the stunning Santa Maria della Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore and del Redentore churches. It takes only half an hour or so to walk from the train station to San Marco – if you can resist the temptation to take one of the many paths that diverge from the main drag (Lista di Spagna).
To appreciate the fine palaces that line the Grand Canal, swallow your ‘but I’m not really a tourist’ phlegm and take a gondola. Below are pictures I took at a local Gondola shipyard (Squero) and Gondola school. Although I was on the hunt, I never did find a Gondola sandwich…! The Accademia Bridge leads to a quieter Venice and the Galleria dell’Accademia, with its collection of Venetian masters. The nearby Peggy Guggenheim Gallery updates your walk through history and art, with its fine collection of early-20th-century works.
As you weave through the “streets” of Venice on Vaporetto (water bus) or Gondola, be sure to admire the many interesting buildings built on the canal edge. In particular, don’t miss Ca’ D’Oro’s “Wedding Cake”Facade and Venetian Blinds. For a quick drink, you can stop by the major tourist joint, Harry’s Bar, or you can do what we did and travel to the other side of Venice that is less touristy. There we found an authentic wine store where locals brought their vats for red wine refill. I forget the exact price of the wine but I do remember is was in the single digit francs per liter!! A word of caution – if you end up staggering to your hotel room, don’t be surprised if your face is immortalized on a police camera. They seemed to be everywhere.
This is a nice museum on the banks of the canal (although everything I guess is on the banks of the canal). There was an interesting exhibit on DaVinci while we were there that demonstrated the breadth of his innovation and spirit. I took a picture of gears that he designed.
Piazza del Duomo
The remarkable Duomo, with its pink, white and green marble façade and characteristic dome, dominates the city’s skyline. The building took almost two centuries to build (and even then the façade wasn’t completed until the 19th century), and is the fourth-largest cathedral in the world. The enormous dome was designed by Brunelleschi, and its interior features frescoes and stained-glass windows by some of the Renaissance-era’s best: Vasari, Zuccari, Donatello, Uccello and Ghiberti. Take a deep breath and climb up to take a closer look, and you’ll be rewarded by fantastic views of the city and an insight into how the dome was so cleverly constructed – without scaffolding (though there’s plenty of that propping the dome up now!). The dome still defines the scale of the city, and no building in town is taller.
Giotto designed the cathedral’s Campanile, and Pisano and della Robbia contributed bas-reliefs. It too is clad in white, pink and green marble. The Baptistry is adjacent – it’s one of the city’s oldest buildings, and was originally a pagan temple. The building is most famous for its gilded bronze doors. Those on the south are by Pisano, but it is the doors facing east (and in the direction of the cathedral) that are most talked about. Created by Ghiberti, they are known as the Gates of Paradise (a moniker believed to have been dubbed by Michelangelo). Created between 1424 and 1452, their beauty and sophistication mark them as one of the first products of the Renaissance.
The Baptistry’s ceilings feature gory 13th-century mosaics of the Last Judgment. Behind the cathedral is the Duomo Museum, which features original panels taken from the doors of the Baptistry, Brunelleschi’s death mask, equipment used to build the dome and an impressive sculpture collection, including pieces by Michelangelo. The mosaics illustrating the life of San Marco are particularly spellbinding in their wealth of iconography and richness of materials. From below you can also admire the symbols of Venice, the Winged Lion and St. Mark.
The Basilica houses the gallery and the Marciano museum which contains the original Bronze horses, copies of which are now on the terrace, and the golden altarpiece, a masterpiece of the gothic goldsmithery, displayed behind the altar. This can be seen from the whole of the lagoon, and, once you have reached the top, the whole lagoon can be seen from above. There is a splendid panoramic view from the tallest belltower in Venice. Even though today’s tower was erected at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was rebuilt exactly like the fifteenth century belltower. In 1609, Galileo Galilei exhibited his telescope here, and during the carnival the belltower used to serve as a stage for the tight rope-walkers who entertained the Doge with their acrobatics.
If you have time, I also suggest you check out the Doge’s Apartments. They really lived in style. I’ve included pictures of the interior and some interesting amenities including a Lion’s Mouth Mailbox for denouncing your neighbors!
Piazza San Marco Piazza
San Marco (or ‘St Mark’s Square’) is an optical illusion. When you’re at the bottom of the piazza, facing the basilica, the piazza itself seems immense.
It is actually only 175m long. The reason for this is that on the same side as the basilica it is 82m wide whereas on the other side, it is only 57m wide. So, what appears to be a rectangle is in reality a trapezium, and it is this that makes it seem larger than it actually is. On both sides of the piazza are the ‘Procuratie’ buildings which are where the procurators of San Marco were housed. They can be divided into: old buildings, more recent buildings, and most recent buildings.
On your left hand side as you face the basilica are the old buildings, probably built by Codussi, and on your right hand side you will see the more recent buildings, built by Longhena in 1640. The most recent buildings – commissioned by Napoleon in 1810 – are behind you.
Ponte dei Sospiri / The Bridge of Sighs
For a long time, it was said that this was a place where lovers met. Actually this isn’t strictly true. The bridge, which was built from a design by Antonio Contino, is a Baroque construction and was intended to link two parallel passages: one for prisoners and one for magistrates. One of the passages led to the newly built prisons and the other to strongholds, which were known as wells. However, these were never underground as was commonly believed, but at street level.