We barely scratched the surface of Florence and its treasures before we had to leave. But that is the risk of travel. Even in those places we have stayed for six or eight weeks, we had to leave unable to see or visit everything we wanted. You can’t see it all. And as I have said before, “Embrace every experience looking forward, not looking back.” That doesn’t mean you can’t return.
So, not looking back, we pulled our luggage to the Firenze Santa Maria Novella Stazione to catch the train to Venice.
None of us had ever been to Venice. My brother Mike and his wife Kathy, visiting on their holiday, certainly hadn’t, and Jeannie and I, during our four previous trips in Italy had never been either. Venice is one of those places that has such strong, preconceived images that one fears that it might not be able to live up to the expectations.
In spite of that, Venice was everything that we had ever imagined, and so much more.
The two-hour, high-speed train to Venice from Florence was indeed fast. You could not watch things in the foreground zipping past else you might get sick. I saw 250kph (155mph) on a display at one point.
We approached from across the lagoon, about 3.7 k (2.25 mi) from the mainland, and shortly pulled into St. Lucia stazione. Once we emerged from the station, we were standing right on the Grand Canal. It was a cold, beautiful day, the sky was blue and the winds were light. There were all kinds of boats, gondolas and vaporetti or waterbuses (singular vaporetto) crossing back and forth in front of us. The good news was that our hotel, Hotel Antiche Figure, overlooked the Grand Canal directly across from where we were standing, and a bridge was nearby.
We quickly checked in to our rooms, assisted by the friendly, helpful staff. Inquiring about someplace to eat lunch, we were directed to a small local place just around the corner (“just keep the water on your right” they said.) The food was delicious and just right to energize us for the afternoon’s excursions.
Setting off in the direction of Piazza San Marco, we wandered for quite some time remembering the words of the hotel staff, “Venice is an island, and you can’t get lost for long”. Those words were of little comfort as we crossed small canal after small canal, went down tiny alleys between buildings that ended abruptly at the side of another canal.
Venice was much larger and far more of a labyrinth than I had pictured. And in spite of the decline and deterioration over the centuries, it was also far more beautiful than I had imagined.
Every turn of every corner is a feast for the senses. The architecture is quite unique in our experience, and extremely beautiful. It is a combination of Gothic, Byzantine, and Moorish styles and influences.
The colors of Venice are also very distinctive – Italian Sky Blue, Schiaparelli Pink, Paolo Veronese Green, Sienna, Naples Yellow, Pompeiian Red, Valentino Red, Ferrari Red, Venetian Red, Titian Red, and Copper Orange – but they are colors that, like fine wines, have mellowed with age, the sharpness of their hues have become softer, however they have also become deeper and more complex with the essences of time and memory.
The surfaces of the buildings and structures, ravaged by time, weather, humidity, and use, are just as complex. Plaster, wood, iron, and even stone, have a character that while hard or rough also develop a softness. These textures covered with color reveal a beauty that is timeless. It is like a costume that while worn and tattered in nonetheless compelling and interesting.
The only means of transportation in Venice is either by foot or by boat. Fortunately, when not during high water, it is relative easy to get about on foot. Otherwise, the vaporetto or waterbus system is easy and efficient; quickly docking and tying up, as their passengers disembark and embark, and then just as quickly moving to the next “bus stop”.
It is remarkable watching the numerous work boats, cargo boats, water taxis, private boats, waterbuses, ambulances, police boats and gondolas all moving quickly and so smoothly under such crowded conditions; and to think that their roadway is a moving fluid. It is like a dance.
Just as people move by foot or by boat, so must all of the goods that are used in Venice; from the food and wine, to the building materials and supplies. Though much is brought in by train or by truck from the mainland, it must then be put onto boats for distribution throughout the city, and then moved by hand, on wheeled carts to its final destination. It is an incredible logistics undertaking, and obvious one that works smoothly and well, based on our observations.
When we arrived, preparations were well underway for Carnevale the annual party that coincides on “Mardi Gras”. The amount of goods that must be brought into Venice for the million or so revelers that will descend on this rather small town must be staggering. Then too, so must the strain on all the staff, services and infrastructure.
The Carnevale begins two Fridays before and ends on “Mardi Gras” the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The city welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors to Venice each day during the 10 day festival. We were in the city the week prior to the start of Carnevale and with the impending crowds and higher prices that would come with them, it was a good time to be there.
One cannot think of Venice without thinking of the gondole (singular gondola). These sleek, black icons of the canals can be seen almost everywhere. Elegant and graceful, they are propelled by equally iconic gondoliers dressed in their straw hat and striped shirt. Except in winter when a heavy coat and a wool cap is more appropriate.
Gondole are vessels of distinct beauty. Weighing over 400 kg (880 lbs) they are constructed by hand using over eight types of wood. Each boat is custom built taking into account the weight of its gondolier-to-be.
Research has shown that the amount of energy for propelling a gondola is the same as that for waking on level ground at the same speed for a 70 kg (154 lb) person.
Besides the images of the gondola itself and the gondolier, there are two other components of the boats that are generally well recognized. One, is the steel fero da prora, the distinctive metal ornament at the bow that is used to balance the weight of the gondolier at the stern of every gondola. It is “S” shape symbolizes the winding of the Canal Grande, while the lunette, represents the Bridge of Rialto. The six teeth symbolize the six districts into which Venice is divided and a seventh tooth extends back toward the center of the gondola representing the island of Giudecca. Often there are three embellishments placed between the six teeth that represent the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello.
The fórcola, the beautifully graceful oarlock, has evolved over the centuries from a simple, flat piece of wood into the elegant device carved from a single piece of walnut.
To take a ride in these beautiful craft is not an excursion for the thrifty, as a 35-40 minute tour can set you back 80 €.
We chose to utilize the waterbus services to augment our walking, and to take us further afield. We purchased the 48 hour pass that, while not inexpensive, proved to be a good value.
Besides the local “bus” stops, up and down the Grand Canal, we also went to three of the nearby islands for brief visits. San Giorgio Maggiore, is the easternmost offshoot of the Giudecca Island where we visited Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore (1565). Murano, a place synonymous with glass-manufacturing, where glassmakers were exiled in 1291 after too many fires in Venice were blamed on their furnaces. And Burano, famous for its lace production as well as for the colorful houses painted in pinks, blues, greens, and yellows.
Sadly, however, it was time to leave Venice, though we were leaving at a good time. Carnevale would bring massive crowds and high prices, and the soon-to-be full moon was bringing high water.
In many places in Venice I had seen, what appeared to be, platforms 45-60 cm (18-24 in) high in stacks. I had thought they might be small stages for street performers or something. But it was when high tide began to lap over the bulkheads and onto the walking areas that I realized that these were walkways to carry pedestrian traffic above the flooding.
There were places that were flooding on the day we departed, and news reports later showed that the high water filled many of the popular areas including San Marco’s Piazza as well as many of the primary walking routes. As we dragged our luggage the short distance to the stazione, we had to make small detours to avoid the slightly inundated areas. It was then I realized how to tell the Venetians from the tourists – the locals were wearing tall rubber boots.