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Venice and its timeless streets of water

Tourists arrive in Venice by ship, by train or by plane. For my three visits there I have arrived each time by train. On my most recent trip to the famous city, I arrived at the Venezia Santa Lucia train station just after 6:30 a.m. It seemed as if the city were asleep, but the sun was alive and bright. There were very few people in the station at this hour. Thankfully there were no tours blocking my way and yelling in my face about “cheap” tours and “special” hotel rates! So I made my way out of the station, down the steps to the water’s edge where, even at this hour, many water crafts of varying sizes and descriptions were waiting. Visitors may catch a private water taxi or the more crowded “water bus” known as a vaporetto. Venice’s water bus system is the city’s major form of public transportation along its many canals.

Rialto Bridge

Taking either method of transport from the train station affords the visitor stunning views along the Grand Canal. This ride into the heart of Venice is a thrilling experience in its own right. As my water taxi made its way along the canal, I imagined myself an ancient merchant who traded in Venice centuries ago – a merchant who would have traveled along this very waterway. The sights are absolutely marvelous. The architecture is impressive, and it is not typical of the structures in other parts of Italy.
The traffic on the canal was not very heavy at this hour. My boat seemed to just crawl along but that gave more time to look from side to side and see the incredible sights: the many smaller canals that run off from the Grand Canal and the many beautiful churches. It is as if you are in an amusement park for adults. Everywhere you look there is something fascinating to see. Honestly, the scene very much resembled what you see in the tourist brochures about this famed city.
I exited the water bus at the station serving Saint Marco’s Square, and, after walking a few hundred meters, I passed through an archway and there stretching out before me was the most famous square in all of Venice. Just as it is often pictured, there were countless pigeons and a fair number of tourists were already on the scene. There were cloth-covered tables at the outdoor restaurants than ring the square. I walked around the square trying to take in all I was seeing. My camera was very busy! Then, all of sudden, I heard music. I discovered a trio playing in front of the Caffè Florian whose outdoor tables seemed inviting, so I decided to be a typical Venetian and I took a seat at one of them. My waitress was so friendly and cheerful. I did not want anything alcoholic, so she suggested a specific drink – I cannot remember the name of it, but it consisted of various fruit juices and was precisely what I needed to help me re-hydrate. It was a moment – seeing the hundreds of pigeons and being serenaded while seated in Saint Marco’s Square. I am glad the ambiance of the moment came through for me because my bill for that fruit drink with tip amounted to $18.50.

St. Marco’s Square

Saint Marco’s is the largest and most important square in all of Venice. It is the widest swath of flat, open land in this water-locked city and has long been a popular meeting place for Venetians and visitors alike. Long ago this square was home to the city’s aristocracy. Napoleon is said to have once referred to this square as the “drawing room of Europe.” Saint Marco’s Square was named after the beautiful Basilica of the same name that dominates the east end of this rectangular square. The Patriarchal Basilica of Saint Mark, commonly known as St. Mark’s Basilica, is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice. It is easily the most famous of the city’s churches. One of the four gospel writers, Saint Mark was Venice’s patron apostle. His likeness is shown above the church together with a winged lion, the symbol of this saint. The basic structure of the church dates from roughly the 11th century. The equally stunning bell tower adjacent to the Basilica is one of the square’s most recognizable landmarks.
Later in the day when I decided to venture outside Saint Marco’s square, I did what virtually every tourist does in Venice – I promptly got lost. But the thing is, being lost in Venice is a genuine joy because you cannot walk but a few feet before you stumble upon yet another fantastic sight. The island is such a maze of small streets, alleys, bridges, and canals that getting routinely disoriented is a central part of the “Venice experience.” Venice is one of those cities where you don’t have to do anything specific except take in the spectacular views. The streets are narrow and winding. I passed over so many bridges, I lost count. I was thoroughly charmed by the architecture of this place. Sometimes I noticed I was on a bridge without ever realizing I was over water!

St. Mark’s Basilica

Ice cream (gelato) stands are plenteous, literally at least one on every narrow street. There are also many sellers of blown-glass pieces, as well as carnival masks, but not all of Venice is out of the past. There was a Disney store and a Hard Rock Café along its crowded streets.
The still water in the canals perfectly reflects the beauty and uniqueness of this city. Venice is truly one of the most photogenic places I have ever visited. Joseph Brodsky, a poet and Nobel prize recipient, describes Venice as a photographer’s paradise. He writes, “In the morning the light breasts your windowpane and, having pried your eye open like a shell, runs ahead of you, strumming its lengthy rays — like a hot-footed schoolboy running his stick along the iron grate of a park or garden — along arcades, colonnades, red-brick chimneys, saints, and lions. . . it doesn’t trust your retina’s ability to retain what it makes available, not to mention your brain’s capacity to absorb it. Perhaps the latter explains the former. Perhaps they are synonymous. Perhaps art is simply an organism’s reaction against its retentive limitations. At any rate, you obey the command and grab your camera. . . .”
The Rialto Bridge is the most widely-known of Venice’s bridges. There are today four bridges across the Grand Canal, and the Rialto Bridge is the oldest of these. Next to Saint Marco’s Square, this bridge is one of the top tourist attractions in Venice. This bridge was actually a pontoon bridge in its earliest days during the late 1100s. Since then it has been rebuilt many times. The first non-floating bridge was constructed in 1255, though it was known by a different name. The bridge has two inclined ramps so that gondolas and other smaller ships can pass underneath. Then there is a movable central section that can be raised so that taller ships can pass through as well. In the late 16th century the wooden bridge was replaced with one made of stone. Some architects and engineers thought that this stone bridge would not stand the test of time, but it still stands today defying its critics. Indeed, not only has it not failed, it is has become one of the architectural icons in all of Venice.
The thing is this: by any measure Venice is unique. Frequent visitors to European cities often discover a pattern and these great cities begin to resemble one another. They all have museums, art galleries, and frequently a castle or two for good measure. Sure, occasionally, you encounter something vastly different but for the most part, many European cities are very similar. Then along comes Venice. A city where roads are replaced with water, where steps lead down into rivers, where finally the tourist-hype seems to be somewhat justified! In my view, Venice does indeed belong in a class all by itself. This magnificent city definitely belongs among the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.”

Next time: “The Amazon Rain Forest”

Dr. Watson E. Mills has traveled to 174 of the 193 member-countries of the United Nations during his more than 140 overseas trips. In terms of the number of countries visited, he is ranked 21st among USA travelers and 186th in the world by the website www.mosttraveledpeople.com. He has visited every site included on the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.”

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