Posts Tagged ‘venice’

Venice

August 21st, 2017

Venice
 

In June after visiting Barcelona I took a flight to Venice and stayed for a few nights. I only visited the main island chain, though there are a handful of others that I would have liked to check out if I’d had more time.

From the airport — located on the mainland — I took a vaporetto (water bus) to meet my Airbnb host’s son. I was glad to have a local show me around because the layout is pretty confusing. These days Google Maps can help you get around Venice pretty well, although the location services and compass hardware on your phone are sometimes misleading due to the thick stone walls mixing the signals up a little.

Anyway, the Airbnb happened to be larger and more beautiful than it looked in the photos; much nicer than my own apartment in San Francisco.

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The location I stayed at was relatively quiet, but steps away there was always something unexpected around every corner: historic buildings, bustling canals, local restaurants, temporary art installations, etc. Venice is weird like that; you can walk from an ultra-crowded touristy street to a seemingly abandoned alleyway in well under a minute.

If you’ve ever seen photos of Venice, the photos are not a lie — the entire city is a maze of buildings lined with canals, walkways, bridges, and town squares. Just wandering around and marveling at the place was easily the best activity in the city.

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The most touristy thing you can do in Venice is take a gondola ride. It’s absurdly expensive with a fixed, regulated price of 80 euros for a 30 minute ride. At a price like that it made me question whether I should continue my career as a software engineer when I could potentially make far more as a gondolier. Time to learn some Italian?

Although riding in a gondola didn’t really interest me it was fun to watch them, especially when the gondolas got into sticky situations like tight turns, going under bridges at high tide, or simply getting stuck in a traffic jam like in the photo below.

Venice
 

Before embarking on a gondola ride apparently you can tell the gondolier where you’d like to go. For whatever reason, couples riding gondolas seemed to enjoy taking a trip under a certain white bridge, often kissing while under it.

Did they know this is the Bridge of Sighs where prisoners were taking from the Doge’s Palace to the jail on the other side of the canal? I can’t even begin to guess how this weird tradition originated, but come on folks, just stop already. The least you can do as a tourist is spend a few minutes looking up basic facts about where you’re going on Wikipedia.

Venice
 

The second most touristy thing you can do in Venice is visit Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square.) During high tides it tends to flood and become a pigeon birdbath, but it’s also home to three of the most famous buildings in Venice: Saint Mark’s Basilica, Dodge’s Palace, and St Mark’s Campanile — the big brick bell tower that stands over the square. The current version of the Campanile is a re-creation of the original, which suddenly collapsed in the early 20th century after standing for nearly five hundred years.

The plaza takes its name from Saint Mark from the gospels in the bible, and the basilica there is allegedly home to his remains. According to legend, Venetian traders stole these remains from Egypt and hid them from Muslim customs agents by covering them in pork. It’s a fun story but as to whether it’s true… who knows.

By the way, in the first photo below there’s a building with a giant clock on the facade. Several buildings in Venice have similar clocks, but this one is particularly impressive in that the lone hand points not only to the hour, but the current zodiac sign, planetary locations, and phase of the moon.

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As for practicalities, everything from cargo to deliveries to people with medical emergencies in Venice are transported by boat. Forget UPS trucks, in Venice they’ve got UPS motorboats. Local delivery and garbage workers have specially designed hand carts with two sets of wheels on either side capable of going up and down stairs.

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Venice doesn’t have a lot of traditional artwork — no fresco would survive the climate, obviously — but these days the city is lined with temporary art installations. From a flying car to lifelike statues of female swimmers, there wasn’t enough time to see all of it.

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There’s a quirky bookstore in Venice called Libreria Acqua Alta, which roughly translates to “High Tide Bookstore.” Since it sits on the ground floor of a building on a small canal, the store floods frequently. Rather than put up a flood barrier they’ve come to terms with the water, storing many of the books in bathtubs, high up on bookshelves, or even on an indoor gondola.

In the back there’s a small patio with a staircase made out of books. It’s not the most stable staircase, but at the top there’s a nice view of the canal outside. On the other side of the wall, there’s a “fire exit” which leads directly into the same canal. The bookstore is also home to a number of cats.

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I’d say the best time to wander around in Venice is at night, when the street lights come on and it’s getting dark. It goes from beautiful to surreal during that hour, to the point where I had this feeling like I was somehow walking through a painting of a place that couldn’t possibly exist. And yet, there it all was.

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Finally, on one evening not far from my Airbnb I heard live music echoing in the distance and took a short walk to find it. I pulled out my phone to record the journey, and while it struggled to stay in focus with the dim light I did eventually find a band playing outside a local church in a town square. See my video below:


 

I only went on two tours in Venice, but both are really interesting and available in English:

  • The Free Walking Tour has a starting point that’s difficult to find, but it’s otherwise very well organized and goes into a lot of detail about Venice’s history. The tour shuns most tourist attractions, focusing instead on how the island once operated, the constant restoration required due to the saltwater, and some of the historical quirks like men bleaching their hair with urine and why there’s so many stores selling masks. If you go bring questions for your guide and a few euros for a tip at the end. Advance booking is recommended.
  • Speaking of history, the Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries Tour grants you access to the Doge’s Palace along with a tour of the secret parts of the palace (many rooms are rebuilt from the original plans.) Back when Venice was an independent country, this was the seat of government and as such includes everything from jails to courtrooms to torture chambers to secret passages. A walk across the aforementioned Bridge of Sighs is included in this tour. At 20 euros it’s a bargain. Definitely book this one in advance to skip the super long ticket line.

For the rest of my photos in Venice, check out this Flickr album.