A couple of days before we left for Venice, I was researching various options for how we would actually get there. We were planning to carpool with another Venice bound couple from the team. Mapquest reported it was a little more than a four hour drive. However, cars are not permitted onto the majority of the island, and, therefore, we needed to find a place to park from which we could utilize some means of public transportation to get to San Marco, the portion of the island containing St. Mark’s Basilica, The Rialto Bridge, and our hotel.
Luckily, we live in the age of the internet. And, with a few keyword combinations in the google search toolbar, my computer screen was covered with possibilities as provided by travel-savvy backpackers and Euro-travel website publishers. We could drive as far as the Santa Lucia Station on the island in Cannareggio, but parking there comes at a price. The alternative would be to drive to the nearest mainland railway stop, Mestre, and continue onward by train to the Santa Lucia station. From there, we would have to walk the whole way or take a vaporetto (water bus) part of the way to the hotel. Since we would be arriving after sunset, I decided that less navigation by foot through the maze of canal-side waterways would be a good thing. The final verdict: we would park in Mestre, ride the train to Santa Lucia, take the vaporetto to the Ponte De Rialto stop, and walk the few blocks to our hotel from there*. Done!
Satisfied, I motioned to close my internet browsing windows. But, a headline caught my attention. “Protesters Invite Venetians to the ‘Veniceland’ theme park in bid to save the city”. I’ve attached a link to the article below, but the gist of it is that the soaring cost of living in Venice is pushing locals out. Meanwhile, the city’s supposed transformation to a Disneyland-like amusement park continues ushering tourists in. The protesters would be gathering to denounce this trend on Sunday in Piazzale Roma. This just so happened to be the day we were set to leave Venice at the train station we were set to leave from. Interesting concept, and somewhat ironic timing, I thought before clicking the red x at the corner of the window and packing my backpack for the weekend’s adventure.
By the time we arrived at the Santa Lucia station on Friday evening, the scheduled protest was long forgotten. The railway station exit fed directly into the water stop where we boarded a boat and headed in the direction of the Rialto Bridge. In addition to giving us a much-needed headstart to finding our hotel, the vaporetto provided us with a spectacular first impression of the lagoon city. As it chugged along the Grand Canal, we were absolutely mesmerized by the silhouette of historic buildings rising up from the water and into the night. I quite literally couldn’t believe my eyes. Spellbound, I struggled to wrap my mind around how such beautiful architecture could be emerging right out from the sea. It appeared that the illuminated structures stood in graceful defiance of the laws of physics!
After checking into Hotel Caneva, we headed back out onto the streets with three objectives. Find a place to stop for dinner, explore the city, and sample a little of Venice’s highly acclaimed gelato. And that’s the pattern we followed for the remainder of the weekend. Food, walk, gelato, and repeat. All in all, this turned out to be the perfect routine for our 2 night, 1.5 day stay. We were able to see the main attractions as well as many of the lesser-known charms of the city and the neighboring island of Burano. And, we were able to do so from two perspectives, day and night.
As suggested by nearly every travel website, the top 3 priorities of our visit were the following: Visit Saint Mark’s Square, walk across the Rialto Bridge, and experience the general atmosphere of the city by getting lost within it’s countless side streets.
As for the square, I thought it was remarkable. The Basilica, the Campanile Tower, Doge’s Palace, and a continuous row of historic columns were the boundaries of the stone-covered piazza. Whether it was flooded with water in the morning or with lantern-light in the evening, I couldn’t imagine a spot with better 360-degree views. And the Basilica was phenomenal! Like it’s exterior, the interior was breathtaking. Gold and marble mosaic tiles covered every square inch from the floor to the ceiling, and the terrace provided beautiful views to the canal or the center of the square.
Maybe the Basilica was just a tough act to follow, but when it comes to the Rialto Bridge, I have to say that I wasn’t that impressed. At one point while we approached the white marble archway, I may have even said aloud “Is this it?”. I guess it deserves points for being something I’ve never seen before, a footbridge with little souvenir shops on it. It does have a nice view. But, then again, so does every other spot along the canal. Call me a bridge-snob, but I’m just being honest when I say I think this tourist spot is slightly overrated.
In the scheme of things, my disappointment in the Rialto Bridge was more-than-compensated for by my delight with the third item on our tentative agenda. Exploring Venice. No maps allowed. (Not that a map would have helped). Travel experts recommend that you “get lost” in the city to truly experience it’s charm. It’s certainly not difficult to get lost when you are never exactly sure where you are to begin with. In the hours we spent navigating through the maze of San Marco, Cannaregio, and Dorsoduro, I was almost always geographically disoriented. And I loved every second of it! Even though we tried to avoid taking any street twice, I doubt we covered even the smallest fraction of the streets in the city.
During our exploration of the tiny alleyways weaving through the island, we found little surprises everywhere. Suppose you were in the U.S. and you needed to know how to find some particular hotel or restaurant. If someone were to say, “it’s over the bridge and across from the church”, you would think you were receiving very descriptive directions to your destination. This is soooo…. not the case in Venice. With more than 400 bridges and upwards of 100 churches scattered throughout the city’s six sestiere, or borroughs, there is a church or bridge or both at nearly every turn! And, I can’t decide what is crazier…. The fact that no two are the same or that all of them are beautiful! That’s not to say I didn’t have my favorites. Of the bridges I crossed, I loved the wooden Ponte dell’Accademia. And, in the church category, I was especially fond of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute.
It wasn’t until the drive home from our weekend getaway that my thoughts returned to the scheduled protest. First, it was a simple acknowledgement of how we didn’t notice anything going during our Sunday stroll through Piazzale Roma on our way to the train station. Had there even been a gathering to inaugurate the opening of a satirical “Veniceland”? Then, I started reflecting on how my perspective on the protest changed after having seen Venice for myself.
On Thursday, as a prospective tourist, I was somewhat annoyed by the fact that locals were essentially protesting against people like me. However, having concluded my visit, I realized that I shouldn’t have taken the protest so personally. The Venetian residents probably aren’t upset about the tourists, but about how the city caters to the tourists. And, quite frankly, I can see where they are coming from. Afterall, as much as I loved Venice for it’s natural beauty, it did not make for a culturally stimulating vacation spot. Sure, it was nice to see a menu written in English (and eight other languages for that matter!) for the first time in three months. But, at the same time, I’ve always appreciated the sense of adventure that arises when I place an order off of an Italian menu and don’t know exactly what I’m going to get. And while it was comforting to find fellow English-speakers within earshot for the weekend, I’ve always loved walking through the streets or Torre Pellice with the background noise of conversations in Italian. And who couldn’t do without the high prices of a popular tourist town? 17 Euro for a sandwich, coke, and an apple… seriously? (Lesson learned: Read the small print before you sit down for a quick bite. Most spots have a cover charge per person plus a fixed percentage service fee. It adds up fast!)
Don’t get me wrong, Venice was well worth the tourist traps. Even if there were an ornery troll under every bridge in the city, I would still say it is a worthy addition to everyone’s bucket lists. But, the concern of high prices driving residents out is a valid one. The locals, afterall, keep the culture in the city. And, since I’ve arrived in Italy, learning the culture has been my favorite pastime. In a city full of so much history, why change to meet the demands of tourists? It would be devastating to see the integrity of such a unique island community sacrificed for the sake of tourism. Venetian chefs don’t need to develop a tourist menu for their restaurants; shop owners don’t need to be fluent in several languages. What makes Venice such a popular destination is not what drives families to book vacations in Disneyland. It’s not bells and whistles, but sheer architectural beauty that brings people flocking to the lagoon city. It’s the fact that while we can barely build an efficient tunnel in Boston in the 21st century, Venetians constructed an entire city around a complex system of canals hundreds of years ago. This is what puts Venice into it’s own category of amazing and makes the city one of the most beautiful places I have ever and probably will ever see.
* This method of getting to Venice worked marvelously, and I would recommend it to any Venice visitor arriving by car. The train ride was only one Euro and ten minutes from Mestre and we spent half of what we would have on parking had we driven all the way into Santa Lucia.
|St. Mark's Square|
|The front of St. Mark's Basilica flooded in the morning|
|A leaning clock tower in San Marco|
|A typical alleyway in Venice|
|Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute|
|Facing the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute with San Marco behind us|
|Some of the colorful houses in Burano and, yes, another leaning clock tower|
|From the Ponte dell' Accademia looking down the canal|
|A view from the Rialto Bridge|
|Another shot from the Rialto Bridge|
|On a bridge in front of another bridge|
|Doge's Palace is to my immediate right with the side of St. Mark's Basilica in the background and the Campanile Tower to the left.|
|A busy shopping street at night|