Venice is a dream but it can also be a nightmare. I will never forget the tide of humanity that greeted me when I first stepped off the vaporetto into St Mark’s square many years ago. It was not a pleasant experience. There is no doubting the unique beauty of the city but it is hard to appreciate when crushed into the armpits of your fellow tourists.
This time I wanted to discover more about Venice, its history and culture and notice the details that make the lagoon city so special.
Unique details of Venice
Venetian legends and symbols
Venice, like all great cities, harbours captivating legends and tales. The islands and six sestieri or districts within the Venetian lagoon form the shape of a fish where the Arsenale is the tail. The theme of the sea and its fishy bounty is never far from the Venetian psyche.
Another instantly recognisable symbol of Venice, the gondola is loaded with symbolism. Look closely and you will notice the six districts and the Grand Canal are represented on the beautiful metal design on the front of each vessel.
The winged lion symbol of Venice is everywhere. It appears on corners, flags and monuments. This is the symbol of St Mark the patron saint of the city whose remains were stolen from their resting place in Alexandria later to be interred in the grandeur of San Marco.
Fresh water wells of Venice
While Venice sits on the sea, before modern pipelines there was no reliable source of fresh water. Once every Venetian campo or square and each courtyard featured a cisterne or well topped with an often ornate ‘vera’ or wellhead. These stone structures were an ingenious way to provide fresh water to the inhabitants of the lagoon city. A filtration system using sand and clay ensured collected rainwater and water brought from the mainland remained fresh and drinkable.
Today there are around 600 wells surviving from a peak of 6,000. None are in use but they are often beautiful and provide an important link to the city’s past.
A Venetian breakfast
Enjoy a piece of traditional lemon and almond cake for breakfast with your cappuccino. It is delicious and not too sweet.
View of the Venetian lagoon from San Giorgio Maggiore
This panoramic view of the lagoon city is taken from the tranquility of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore a short vaporetto ride from San Marco. Take the lift to the top of the church tower and enjoy the scene of boats zigzagging across the lagoon and beyond. As an added bonus the church is home to several Tintoretto masterpieces. Enjoy the views from dawn to dusk when you stay with the resident monks on the island.
A remarkable bookshop
Bookshops are often romantic but I defy you to find one that stirs as many emotions as Libreria Aqua Alta. Books are stacked haphazardly in shelves, guarded by resident cats and piled high in two gondolas. Step outside into the courtyard and climb the book staircase for a special view of one of the smaller canals of the San Marco district. Address: Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa 5176/B, 30122, Venice
Seafood plays a starring role in the small morsels called ‘cicchetti‘ found at bacari (bars) around the city. At between €1 – 2 per snack you can sample the local cuisine slowly, bite by bite. You must try the creamy subtle baccala – smoked whipped cod, marinated polpo (octopus) and tuna polpette (rissoles). If you are not a big seafood eater there is still plenty to try. We ate local olives, cheeses and cured meat as well as pasta at several bacari. I would hate for you to be thirsty. Your grazing should be accompanied by wines such as valpolicella varieties from the Veneto region.
The enduring sight of shiny black gondolas weaving their way along the canals is thanks to the hard work, skills and tradition of the artisans who build these unique vessels. Watch them at work at the Squero San Trovaso in Dorsoduro. You can also enjoy a spritz and excellent cichetti from Osteria Al Squero opposite the boatyard.
Palazzos and paintings
The art and history of Venice are inextricably linked. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the quiet but magnificent baroque palace Ca’ Rezzonico. This palazzo is home to beautiful frescoes by Tiepolo, works by Canaletto and a wonderfully restored pharmacy including fittings in Murano glassware from the 18th century. Peek out the windows for stunning views of the Grand Canal.
Spritz in the campo
Find yourself a beautiful campo or square and relax with a spritz. This refreshing aperitif is served in a large wine glass and includes prosecco, a bitter liqueur such as Aperol or Campari and is topped with soda water. I suspect it would not taste the same out of the fresh sea breezes of the Venetian lagoon. We spent some hours people watching in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in the shade of the impressive Renaissance basilica and hospital over a spritz or two.
Gondola ride in the side canals of Castello and San Marco
When in Venice you must take a ride in a gondola. Yes it is an expensive treat at €80 for half an hour but it is a once in a lifetime experience. A gondola ride along the Grand Canal will be spent dodging the vaporetti and water taxis. Instead, enjoy floating along the side canals of San Marco and Castello and listen for the language of the gondoliers. Their lilting dialect is unique and evolved as a way to help them navigate the canals. Even on a busy weekend afternoon in early October we enjoyed quiet moments on the canals with only the sound of the oars gliding through the water.
When you visit Venice, whether it be for the first, second or third time, make sure you notice the details. We went on a food and market tour of the city and learnt many things from our guide but we also learnt much from talking to the locals and watching their unique way of life.
Have you been to Venice? What little details and perspectives did you discover when visiting the city?
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