I absolutely loved Venice.
That’s not how I expected to feel following our first trip to the city. For quite some time I’ve been hearing from people connected to all parts of my life (personal, professional, seasoned travelers, first-time visitors), and they inevitably mention the number of tourists, the limited number of “things to see” in the city, the cruise-ship impacts, the obvious effects of climate change, and the food. (If I had a Euro for every time someone said, “You can’t get a bad meal in Rome and you can’t get a good meal in Venice,” I would have enough for at least one good meal in either city!)
Our experience was very different.
For one of the places on earth that can truly be described as unique, I went to Venice with relatively low expectations. We arrived a week-ago Friday after a three-hour and forty-five-minute trip on the high-speed train. What a luxury! Candice and I stepped out of the terminal and were only a five minute walk from our hotel. Thanks to some savvy internet work by Candice, we found a small boutique hotel that was “near” the heart of the city, but a short way off the beaten path. We actually smiled when we passed a barber shop a half block away. Real neighborhoods have barber shops!
Andrew wasn’t arriving via plane until later Friday evening, so Candice and I decided to wander the streets (and canals) and leave the bucket list items such as San Marco until Saturday. We spent a little bit of time walking the tourists-themed streets and looking at the Grand Canal, but we quickly found our way into the neighborhoods that don’t have all the shops and street vendors.
In our walking, we surveyed several neighborhood restaurants, and finally ended up in one for dinner where the English was limited but the tapas and wine were plentiful. Good meal in Venice #1.
We started early the next morning – now with Andrew in tow (or truth be told, in the lead) – and we headed down to the Piazza San Marco, to see this world-famous piazza and to visit the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale.
I can say this is a place that lives up to its hype. We spent the better part of our day in the Piazza, and even with thousands of tourists flooding the area, it never seemed crowded.
With its five domes, the basilica is one of the most amazing structures — sacred or secular — I’ve ever encountered. To hear it described as one of the greatest buildings in Europe hardly does it justice. The basilica blends eastern and western influences — as befits the major trading port between Europe and the Orient — and the splendor comes from the Republic’s overseas empire. (Once again, there is little or no interpretation of the empire’s impacts on those countries who contributed — unwillingly — to this magnificent building.)
As we toured the basilica, Candice and I received a musical history lesson on the Venetian School of Music from Andrew. Due to the acoustics of this incredible space as well as the split setup of choir lofts, composer Adrian Willaert began writing music for cor spezzati (or split choir) in the early 1500s. As Andrew notes, “While polyphony and canons (so both high and vernacular forms) had multiple parts for a long time, this structure of writing for two distinct and complete choirs was new.” Wikipedia picks up the description from here:
Aware of the sound delay caused by the distance between opposing choir lofts, composers began to take advantage of that as a useful special effect. Since it was difficult to get widely separated choirs to sing the same music simultaneously (especially before modern techniques of conducting were developed), composers such as Adrian Willaert, the maestro di cappella of St. Mark’s in the 1540s, solved the problem by writing antiphonal music antiphonal where opposing choirs would sing successive, often contrasting phrases of the music; the stereo effect proved to be popular, and soon other composers were imitating the idea, and not only in St. Mark’s but in other large cathedrals in Italy.
Andrew’s interests are wide-ranging, so the three of us also talked a great deal about the architecture of the basilica. There is a small museum on a balcony at the rear of the church (leading out to the loggia), and we were delighted to find detailed models showing how the building was built and how it was restored. Well worth the 5 euro (and that’s not counting the view of the plaza once you step outside).
After wandering away from the tourist area to find lunch (which really did fit the prevailing description of food in Venice), we came back for round two: the Palazzo Ducale. The Eyewitness Travel guide has a pretty good summary of what we were about to see.
The Palazzo (Doge’s Palace) was the official resident of each Venetian rule (doge) and was founded in the 9th century. The present palace owes its external appearance to the building work of the 14th and early 15th centuries. To create their airy Gothic masterpiece, the Venetians broke with tradition by perching the bulk of the palace (built in pink Veronese marble) on top of an apparent fretwork of loggias and arcades (built from white Istrian stone).
The courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale – with its views of the basilica in the background and the Giants’ Staircase as a main feature – provide the first glimpse of what is to come.
The Palazzo is a succession of richly decorated chambers and halls, each more glorious than the one you just left. It helps to understand that this building served as the seat of Venetian government, and so was where courts were held. The artwork and architectural detailing is extensive and you’ll just have to be satisfied with a few photos I’ve chosen from the dozens in my files.
As we left the Palazzo, we wandered off the beaten track and into neighborhoods in various parts of the city. This introduced us to more of the places and piazzos that represent the day-to-day Venice. We also came upon a neighborhood bar, where we had a wonderful dinner surrounded by tables filled with locals. (Good meal #2.)
Sunday morning we were up again bright and early to catch a boat to the nearby islands of Burano and Murano.
Burano – known for its colorful houses and lace – was first up and we were there as most shops were just opening, before the influx of tourists. We took in the time to wander the streets, explore the local church as parishioners were entering for mass, and relax over a caffè and pastry. It provided us with a great start to our final day in Venice.
Mid-morning we caught the water taxi to Murano, the larger island nearer to Venice that is known for its “Murano glass.” I wasn’t expecting much here, but the island is full of interesting views, well appointed shops (when you skip the ones designed for the crowds), and a Michelin-guide restaurant on the main piazza where we had good meal #3 of the trip!
With the satisfaction that we had experienced a wonderful taste of Venice, we boarded our train and headed back to Rome after this lovely introduction to an amazing — and amazingly fragile — place.
More to come…