A Slowing Sinking City ~ Venezia, Italia (Seconda Parte)

After taking the Venice Grand Canal tour, it was time to step inside some of the elaborate buildings we’d seen from the water.

We savored our early morning wanderings, a wonderful way to watch Venice wake ~ merchants getting products hand-carted to their doorsteps, children standing hand-in-hand with parents at vaporetto stops, waiting for their school ride, silent gondolier boats gently bobbing canal side, and fishermen casting out their first lines of the day.

Here is a glimpse at our excursions during our visit to this unique city:

1) St. Mark’s Square

This political and religious center of Venice turns into a giant dance floor at night and is said to be the place for romance, with orchestras playing and bodies swaying, but early morning it’s eerily quiet.

The Campanile (bell tower) sits at the edge of the square and guards the Grand Canal.  You can ride an elevator 325’ to the top of the tower for some of the best views of Venice, if you care to stand in long lines to do so.  We took a pass.

2) St. Mark’s Basilica

Before the basilica opens its doors, there is a side chapel available for those who wish to sit in silence. This was my main reason for arriving so early.  As we stepped through the door, mass was being said in another part of the church, in Italian of course.  Although I couldn’t understand the words, I felt their lyrical message being carried throughout the basilica, filling the gilded, mosaic dome.  I couldn’t imagine a more peaceful way to begin my day than sitting in silence in this holiest of places.  It was quite a humbling experience.

When the doors later opened to tourists, we were there to tour the most famous church in Venice, built in the 11th century to replace an earlier chapel.  Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside, which is just as well as I couldn’t begin to capture the exquisite beauty found inside this holy space.  The interior walls and domed ceiling, depicting Christ ascending into heaven, glow with gold mosaics and colored marble.

Venetians smuggled St. Mark’s bones into the city in A.D. 828, where they were interred under the main altar of the original church.  In the year 1094, when the present church was almost complete, the church officials were preparing to re-inter St. Mark’s bones under the new altar when they realized that during the long years of the church’s construction they had forgotten where they stored the remains…oops!  All parishioners bowed down to pray for help and, led by the doge, they soon found their patron saint.

Thanks to one of the lower points in Christian history, when Venetian crusaders looted the city of Constantinople and brought the plunder back home, we now can view the Golden Altarpiece.  Sparkling brightly behind the main altar, it is made of enamels illustrating religious scenes, all set in a gold frame and studded with sparkling precious gems from the year 1100.

3) San Marco Museum

Upstairs in the basilica, the museum offers a glimpse at some of the mosaic sections removed from the original church, along with the larger-than-life bronze horses that once graced the balcony of the church. Stone replicas now stand in their place.  As this was part of the basilica, no photos were allowed.

4) Accademia Gallery

This is Venice’s top art museum, filled with highlights of the Venetian Renaissance.  The artwork begins in the Middle Ages and runs to the 1700’s.

5) La Salute Church

Topped by a crown-shaped dome, this Church of St. Mary of Good Health was built to honor the Virgin Mary and thank God for delivering the people of Venice from the plague of 1630 that killed almost one-third of the city’s population.

6) Doge’s Palace

Built to illustrate the power and wealth of the Republic, the doge (ruling duke) lived with his family in this palace. It is also the place where the Senate met, deliberated, and passed law.

The grand staircase is well worth the visit, as are the many rooms filled with artistic treasures.  The Doge Palace houses the largest oil painting in the world, Tintoretto’s Paradise.

7) Bridge of Sighs

This small bridge spans a canal that connects the Doge Palace with the prison.  Legend has it that a condemned man would be led over this bridge on his way to prison, take one last look at Venice through the marble-trellised windows, and sigh.  Prison cells are eerie and three levels deep.

8) San Giorgio Maggiore Monastery

On a small island across from St. Mark’s Square, the white marble façade of San Giorgio Maggiore Monastery gleams brilliantly against the azure water of the Grand Canal.  This is another of Venice’s beautiful churches to explore and a great place to get a bird’s-eye view of Venice from the bell tower.

The monastic community of San Giorgio was founded in A.D. 982.  At one time you could rent rooms from the friars, but unfortunately they no longer offer this.

A large blessing hand, entitled “Together”, created by artisan Jaume Plensa, formed of 8 alphabets – Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, and Latin, hangs from the ceiling. It is meant to be an inviting and welcoming symbol of mercy.

“Today more than ever we must show that living together as brothers in total and mutual respect, cultural and spiritual, is the only way to live in peace.”

Getting deeper into Venice as the shadows lengthen
Getting deeper into Venice as the shadows lengthen

With all the elegant palaces to visit, the ancient works of art to study, and the history to soak in, some of our fondest memories of Venice will be our wanderings along the alleyways deep in the city. Try as we might to get lost so I could use my “City Maps 2 Go” app, we never did.

A batch of wine, waiting to be bottled
A batch of wine, waiting to be bottled
Terry found another furry friend in one of those alleyways.
Terry found another furry friend in one of those alleyways.

Surprises awaited us around every turn, across each bridge that spanned the canals.  Nondescript doors opened into tiny little wine bars and enchanting restaurants, and artisanal gelato shops abounded. Along with seeing so many fascinating sights, it seems we may have eaten our way through Venice as well. Ahh, la vita di Venezia!

Next Up: Cinque Terre

A Slowly Sinking City ~ Venice, Italy (Prima Parte)

Venice, situated in a lagoon in a calm section of the Adriatic Sea, is Europe’s best-preserved big city.  I had longed to see this romantic, elegantly decaying city since watching a documentary many, many years ago – gondoliers traversing the waters of the Grand Canal, singing Italian ballads to their paying passengers.

Park your car at the bus station just across the causeway (no cars allowed on this island) and come along with me as I give you a sneak peek into this urban wonderland.  Leave your 21st century mindset behind as we step way back in time (about 1,500 years).

Venice, a colorful kaleidoscope of people, 400 bridges, 2,000 alleys, and 177 canals, is made up of more than 118 small islands, joined in the shape of a fish.  What was once a refuge from barbarians is now a slowly sinking city filled with tourists.

Just one of the colorful canals snaking through Venice.

The sinking has not been caused by the hordes of tourists, although some locals may think otherwise during peak travel season.  Venice has battled rising water since the 5th century and the water seems to be winning.  A phenomenon called “aqua alta”, usually occurring mid-autumn until late winter, causes the city to flood about 100 times a year.  The aqua alta occurs when a large tide combines with strong winds and an incoming storm.

This grand deteriorating city sits atop sediments that are still settling and compacting.  Along with the forces of Mother Nature, some man-made events have caused the city to be more vulnerable to flooding as well – offshore pier work and the construction of a railroad bridge to the mainland. You will know the aqua alta has arrived when you step into a paved square and find water pooling in stone grates at the square’s lowest point.  Time to seek higher ground!

Silhouettes during an evening stroll along the alleyway where we stayed.

Since a serious flooding in 1966, officials have struggled to find a solution.  It has taken about four decades for all to agree to install mobile gates on the floor of the sea, where she enters Venice’s lagoon.  When the seawater rises to a certain level, air is pumped into the gates, causing them to rise and shut out the Adriatic.  The project is due to be finished sometime this year.  There are many skeptics.

Coupled with that “sinking feeling”, Venice is also losing her population.  There are 58,000 residents in the “old city” and this number is down to about half of what it was just 30 years ago. It’s an expensive place to live, as everything has to be shipped in and hand-carted to its final destination.  Locals are leaving at a rate of about 1,000/year and of those remaining, roughly 25% are senior citizens.

A more primitive water taxi perhaps?
A more primitive water taxi perhaps?

Even so, the city is thriving thanks to the tourist trade.  But her cultural heart is dying.  City planners fear that in a few short decades once proud Venice won’t be a city any longer, but rather a “cultural theme park”.

So, let’s visit this unique city before it’s too late. Take a deep breath; step onto the vaporetto (water taxi) with the locals and tourists; know you will pay an exorbitant price for some items; and yield to her magic.  It’s time to take a ride on the Grand Canal!

The Rialto Bridge, a major landmark of Venice, is lined with shops and currently being restored. This is the third bridge built on this spot, constructed in 1588. It closed the Grand Canal to shipping and made it a canal of palaces.
The Rialto Bridge, a major landmark of Venice, is lined with shops and currently being restored. This is the third bridge built on this spot, constructed in 1588. It closed the Grand Canal to shipping and made it a canal of palaces.

The Grand Canal is Venice’s “Main Street”.  It is two miles long, 15 feet deep, and nearly 150 feet wide, making it Venice’s largest canal, with some pretty impressive sights along its shoreline.  Nearly 25 miles of canals drain the city, dumping into the Grand Canal.

If you are waiting for your luggage to arrive, this is where you might find it.
If you are waiting for your luggage to arrive, this is where you might find it.

Dating from the days when Venice was the world’s richest city, palaces can still be seen lining the Grand Canal. Sadly they are slowly rotting as there are now very strict laws prohibiting changes to these buildings.  Many of these grand palaces now sit vacant, still with brilliant chandeliers gracing the space above watery, empty ground floors.  But in some ways this only adds to Venice’s charm.

Police, taxis, ambulances, garbage trucks, and gondoliers all travel the waters of the Grand Canal, although gondoliers do prefer the quieter canals.  This is where most accidents between the vaporetti and gondoliers occur.

There’s the bell tower at St. Mark’s Square, rising above the Doge’s Palace.  Ok, here is our stop.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, where the tourists and pigeons compete for space.
St. Mark’s Square and Basilica, where the tourists and pigeons compete for space.
Interesting bell on a building in St. Mark's Square, along with the symbol of Venice, the winged lion. Representing the evangelist St. Mark, it appears in both merchant and military naval flags.
Interesting bell in St. Mark’s Square, along with the symbol of Venice, the winged lion. Representing the evangelist St. Mark, it appears on both merchant and military naval flags.

Time to head back to rest up for a full day of sightseeing tomorrow.  Let’s get back on the vaporetto.

The Accademia Bridge near sunset.
The Accademia Bridge near sunset.

Here’s my stop, San Basilio in Dursoduro (the belly of the fish), where I have secured an apartment for us for the next three days.  See you soon for part two, where we’ll take a peek inside some of these beautiful old buildings.