It’s difficult to speak about Venice without resorting to time-worn clichés and over-the-top descriptions, blandly iconic images and heavily sugared tourist propaganda. The city is in many ways a victim of its own successful marketing, which has created an almost mythical image of an impossibly gracious, achingly beautiful, bejewelled city on the Adriatic. For many jaded travellers, the inevitable reaction to this incessant marketing is to dismiss Venice as an overly glorified, gaudily painted and altogether irrelevant carnival town.
It’s not difficult to see why so much cynicism is aimed at the city on the water. After all, Venice lost almost all of its social, political and economic prominence centuries ago. For the past 400 years, it has been the epitome of tourist traps, dependent on the camera wielding hordes of tourists that overrun the city at all times of the year. It’s expensive to visit, often horribly congested and to top it all off, the entire city is slowly sinking inch by inch every year. No, say the cynics, there are cheaper, more interesting places to visit than ridiculous little Venice.
And yet….there really is a certain magic to Venice that makes it difficult to dismiss so cavalierly. Underneath all the commercialism and congestion, the pollution and murky water, it remains a captivating city.
Beyond the more tourist-congested areas, there is an entire city of quiet lanes and empty canals; of dazzling little churches framed by wash lines flapping in the breeze; of ancient stone balconies garlanded with climbing roses; and a thousand other sights, sounds and smells which never show up in the tourism literature, but make up the heart and soul of Venice. More than the Piazza San Marco, or the Doge’s palace, or even the Basilica with its glittering domes, it is these quiet scenes that have captivated the hearts of the millions who visit, and made many of them return year after year.
A walk through the city
The easiest way to really capture the character of the city is to walk away from the major tourist attractions. Venice is a city made for walking — almost the entire city consists of little winding lanes running alongside the canals, punctuated now and again by open squares, and forming an elaborate labyrinth. Comfortable walking shoes, a detailed map and a good sense of direction are essential equipment for exploring the city.
Once you’ve left the crowds behind, it is almost like entering another world. Deep within the tangle of streets, there are colourful fish markets and little cafes where the locals go at the end of a long day. Along these shadowed lanes, you can see businessmen wielding laptops and mobile phones hurry away from houses straight out of the sixteenth century. Walking along these twisting streets, you’ll see Venice as the Venetians know it.
The obligatory gondola ride
Another way to explore the city is to take a gondola ride. Parked at almost every bridge is inevitably a gondola or two, with its strip-shirted gondolier waiting patiently on the canal side for passengers. For many, there is no more quintessentially Venetian activity than to take a gondola ride along the canals, complete with a charming rower who sings O Sole Mia as the boat glides along. There are also those who decry the high fees the gondoliers charge, or the sheer cheesiness of the entire experience.
However you feel about the gondolas, its true that is no more appropriate way to explore and appreciate a city built on water than to take to the water yourself. Gliding slowly along in a gondola allows you to see many of the smaller canals otherwise inaccessible by foot. Part of the appeal of the gondola ride is in passing under at least a few of the city’s 450 bridges and looking up at the streams of weary pedestrians, as well as thrusting out into the busy traffic of the Grand Canal, the watery boulevard that was once the main thoroughfare of the city.
Experiencing the Acqua Alta
In a city as unusual as Venice, even the most common occurrences are touched with a hint of the exotic and mysterious. Such banal things as the weather become an unusual experience, and there is no more uniquely Venetian phenomenon than the acqua alta, the high tide that can sometimes engulf the entire city. Built upon millions of pilings sunk into marshy ground along the Laguna Veneta, the city has been at war with the sea from the very beginning. In the worst of times, the waters from the Adriatic surge against the city, grinding away at the buildings and inundating many of the squares in the lower parts of Venice.
Many Venetians take the water in stride, keeping extra pairs of boots in the office and home and making their way on the wooden walkways swiftly erected during the inundations. For many visitors however, the sight of Piazza San Marco under a foot of water is a thrilling and confounding experience. On days when the acqua alta is really high, everything is affected: gondolas change their course as they can no longer pass under the bridges, the walkways are closed for fear of being swept away and people simply stay at home.
It’s easy to denigrate Venice as a tired old city trapped in a time warp, an anachronism that bears little resemblance to the rest of Italy. The criticisms are accurate, but then that’s not really the point. Venice isn’t supposed to be like any place else. It’s Venice, and for better or for worse, there is only one city like it in all the world. It’s important and attractive not only because it is part of a greater whole, but also in and of itself. Overlooking Venice while on a trip to Italy is rather like going to Indonesia and not visiting Bali, or going to London and not going to the Tower of London. You can give it a miss, and can be proud that you’ve managed not to do the ‘normal touristy thing’, but you’d also miss seeing something that can never be found anywhere else.