Venice and water are synonymous. This Italian town consists of around 117 islands connected by 400 bridges. Instead of roads, there are water canals, and water buses are the primary mode of transport. The earliest reference I had of Venice is thanks to the Bollywood movie ‘The Great Gambler’. A deeply in love Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman, are enjoying a romantic Gondola ride on the Grand Canal in Venice, singing “Do lafzo ki hain dil ki kahani…” Another time when we had a taste of this city’s charm was while visiting the Venetian hotel in Macau, modelled on Venice.
A super-fast 3 ½ hour train ride from Rome took us to Venice. The train ride was enjoyable as there were comfortable seating and air-conditioning. A pantry in the middle of train served beverages and snacks. Large windows ensured that one could enjoy this scenic ride and regular announcements helped us keep track of the various stations. On arrival, we engaged a porter, since we were a small group of colleagues and spouses, who helped carry our luggage. Space is a premium in Venice with buildings almost touching each other, and so hotel rooms and washrooms can be small which we soon realized when we checked into our hotel. After a quick wash, and not wanting to waste time, as we had only an evening in Venice, we set off to explore. We purchased a daily pass which allowed us to use the water buses on all routes for the next 24 hours.
The Grand Canal in the shape of giant reverse S is the primary waterway that runs through the city and connects key points of Venice. Four bridges cross its length, the most important being the Rialto Bridge. As one takes a ride along the canal, one can see magnificent palaces and facades of buildings in Venetian Gothic architecture. After alighting from the water bus on the deck that leads to the buzzing St. Mark’s Square, the first thing that grabs your attention is the shops that sell souvenirs and colourful and ornamented masks in baroque style. One can see artists at work engrossed in painting the various sites and scenes of Venice and its landmarks.
The St. Mark’s Square or Piazza San Marco is the epicentre of Venice which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The excitement and energy here were infectious as historical buildings one after another had us spellbound. Arcades of shops and cafes frame the three sides of this square. Bands of musicians played melodious tunes as couples cosied up for romantic meals near the cafes. Italians describe the St. Mark’s square as Venice’s living room where people gather and meet up with family friends, unwind and have leisurely meals over extended conversations and unwind.
Situated on the open end of the square is St. Mark’s Basilica or Basilica di San Marco. It is the focal point of the square, and its arches and dooms and gold-backed mosaic images depicting various events from the Bible are spectacular. The Basilica is best viewed and photographed from a distance as one is then able to see its dooms and capture its sheer magnificence as a picture-perfect postcard. The Basilica houses a collection of the Byzantine art treasures that were brought back by the Venetians after the fall of Constantinople. We were short of time and couldn’t enter the Basilica. We were told that the artwork on the facades was only a small fraction of the grand interiors which had a richly decorated altar adorned with precious gems and stones. Gold mosaics cover the interior walls and domes while floors have marble inlay. Located in the corner of the square in front of the Basilica is the 99 meters tall bell tower called St. Mark’s Campanile.
Located on the periphery of the square was the clock tower Torre dell’ Orologio built in Renaissance style. Two moors situated on the terrace strike the bell on the watchtower. Another significant monument near the St. Mark’s square is The Doge’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale. The former residence of the Doge or chief magistrate of Venice it was later converted into a museum. The Palace is known for its Venetian Gothic style of architecture and is home to works of major Venetian artists of that time.
The Bridge of Sighs connects the Doge’s Palace and the new prisons. Its name signifies the sighs of prisoners who, exiting from the courtroom in the palace to the prison cell, took a final look at freedom as they saw the lagoon through the small windows. Giacomo Casanova, the infamous womanizer, was also a prisoner here but managed to escape to freedom. The local legend is that if a couple kisses under the bridge, on a gondola at sunset, as the bells of St. Marks Campanile ring they shall enjoy eternal love and bliss and live happily ever after!
It was now time for our Gondola ride, and we headed to the waterfront. The gondolas are flat-bottomed, narrow rowing boats that are propelled by a gondolier using an oar. No trip to Venice can be complete without experiencing the gondola ride on the Grand Canal as you sail past stunning buildings, palaces, and bridges serenaded by a local musician. Rather than wanting to capture this moment on camera, it’s best just to experience the magic and romance in the air and make priceless memories that one shall cherish for a lifetime.
The water levels of the canals were low when we visited. The growth of green moss at the base of the building walls touching the canals was an indication of the extent to which the water levels had fallen. The smaller canals had a peculiar smell of decay. Coastal cities, like Venice, are always at the mercy of natural elements, and if we are not sensitive to the environment, we may lose them to either floods or droughts.
After the Gondola ride, we headed to one of the Italian restaurants near the waterfront for an early dinner. The sun was on the horizon, and there was a nip in the air. We savoured soups, pasta, and spaghetti cooked with delicate and aromatic herbs, grilled vegetables accompanied by some native Italian red wine. Post the gastronomic experience; we had a choice to take a water bus and head back to our hotel or continue exploring Venice by night. We were told that the St. Mark’s Square looks stunning at night when illuminated. But I was eager to see the Rialto bridge, an iconic monument of Venice. Since we had already seen St. Mark’s square, we headed to the Rialto bridge. Venice with its narrow lanes and bylanes and numerous squares can be very confusing, so it’s best to take help of the GPS on your cell phones.
Rialto bridge has been restored recently after parts of it collapsed in 2011. It is a single-span bridge that has no support in the middle and anchored on either end. Many engineers felt the bridge was a disaster and would crumble, but they were proved wrong, and it is considered as a feat in human engineering during the Renaissance period. The sun had set, and the streets, shops, and cafes were now lit up. The white marble bridge provided a perfect backdrop to the enchanting dance of the waters and lights reflected from the piazzas, as gondolas sailed by.
It was now time for us to leave somewhat reluctantly and we headed to the waterfront to catch a water bus. As we walked through the narrow lanes, we passed by several upmarket branded wear stores and shops selling colourful glass items made in Murano island. Before we knew it, we were back in the St. Mark’s Square, though we hadn’t planned it, thanks to the GPS giving confusing directions. But we had no reason to complain as the sight that welcomed us was stunning. St. Mark’s square illuminated at night was like a bride on wedding day decked up in jewels and bridal finery. And as if that was not enough the bells of the clock tower began to ring like the band which plays energetically on sighting the groom and baraat! Love and razzmatazz were in the air!
After a long but enjoyable day, we hit our beds tired and sleepy. The small hotel room was stuffy, and the air -conditioner was not working well. Even our colleagues had a sleepless night as they opened their windows for some fresh air and in the process, mosquitoes entered too. The stagnant water of the canals can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and the small rooms can make you feel claustrophobic. The other option we had was to stay 40 km away, at a more upscale hotel in mainland city, but that would mean we would lose out on time and the charm of a canal facing the room. It was perhaps for this, that in the movie Yeh Jawani Hain Deewani when Kalki Koechlin tells Ranbir Kapoor that she is going to Venice for her honeymoon he describes Venice as “Europe ka Dharavi!” For those not aware Dharavi is one of the largest slums located in Mumbai.
The next morning, we checked out and bid adieu to Venice. There is a lot more one can do in Venice. A water bus can take you to the Murano island known for its glass blowing and glass museum. The glass blowing trade was a secret trade and a Venetian Monopoly for several centuries. If the glass blowers shared this secret technique with foreigners, they and their families were sure to face prosecution. Burano, another colourful island, is known for its delicate and intricate lace-making craft.
There are various ways you can explore Venice; from candlelight dinner cruises for the romantic and young at heart to exploring Venice by running- where local professional guides organize running tours. For families with children, treasure hunts, workshops, and role-playing games are held to experience the vibrant city. There is something for everyone. All you need to do is surrender and experience it!
Nearest Airports: Venice has an international airport. Trains are also available from Milan, Florence. Rome or any major city in Italy to Venice.
Where to stay: You could explore options on the net depending on your comfort and budget.
Travel Tip: You should make bookings in advance for the Gondola Ride and entry to the Basilica and other monuments on the net, to avoid long queues. Viator is what we used. A 45-minute Gondola Ride cost us $ 45 per person.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, Feb 2018.