May 29, 2011

Venice, La Serenissima

Venezia, May 2010 - We had arrived in Mestre yesterday on Trafalgar's Contrasts of Europe train tour through England, France and Italy. And this morning we would get our first view of the legendary city of Venice, La Serenissima.

Under a rainbow of umbrellas, we crossed the street to the Mestre rail station to board a train that would take us into Venice. As the train crossed the causeway that connects Venice with the mainland, the waters of the lagoon mirrored the dark, stormy skies, blurring the horizon and creating a a desolate grey seascape.

As we exited Santa Lucia Station, we were met at the bottom of the stairs by the Grand Canal.

Ferrovia Vaporetto Station on the Grand Canal

We boarded a water taxi that took us through an industrial area past dockyards, cruise ships, and a car ferry destined for the Lido (the only island in the Venetian lagoon that allows vehicles).

Car Ferry in the Venetian Lagoon

Piazzetta San Marco and Doge's Palace

We arrived at the Military Presidium not far from Piazza San Marco.

San Giorgio Maggiore

From here a local guide took us on a walking tour, leading us past St. Mark's Basilica and out of Piazza San Marco through the arch of the Clock Tower.

St. Mark's Basilica

Clock Tower, Piazza San Marco

Clock Tower Dial

We got our first glimpse of a gondola gliding along one of the smaller canals.

Venetian Gondola

Walking along the calles and fondamentas of San Marco, we crossed some of the 400 bridges that connect the 118 islands of central Venice. Venice is in an elegant state of decay, as seen in the crumbling plaster and mossy foundations.

Venetian Bridge

But the soft light flattered the pastel rose and ochre hues of the buildings, and the milky green water in the canals.

Venetian Canal

We entered a campo (square) where we saw a cistern designed to collect rainwater. These wells were in use until 1886, when they were replaced by an aqueduct bringing fresh water from the nearby mountains.

Cistern in the Campo

Back at Piazza San Marco, the square was full of people despite the foul weather. But the resident pigeons must have taken shelter from the rain. From here, we began the optional guided tour (34 euros) of the Doge's Palace.

Doge's Palace on Piazzetta San Marco

We marvelled at the ceiling of the Golden Staircase, and the immense rooms designed to impress visiting dignitaries.

Golden Staircase of the Doge's Palace

We then crossed the famed Bridge of Sighs to the cold, bleak dungeons where Casanova once spent time. Outside, the bridge was undergoing renovations and was dwarfed by painted panels.

Bridge of Sighs

During our walking tours, we used an audio system. A word of caution, though: more than once I looked up to find the guide nowhere in sight, but her voice sounding as though she was still standing next to me. Pay attention or you could be left behind.

Our next stop was nearby Vecchia Murano Glass for a glass blowing demonstration. I was starting to notice that while on tour, all paths to the exit lead through the gift shop.

Glass Blowing Demonstration

We were on our own for the afternoon, and we set off to Caffe Florian, another of Casanova's haunts, for lunch. The weather was still questionable, and I had learned that food and beverages taken out on the square were much more expensive. So we chose a table inside, next to an open window, and we were able to enjoy both the orchestra and the venerable atmosphere of this Venetian institution.

Caffe Florian, Venice

Caffe Florian opened in 1720, in the city that introduced coffee to the rest of Europe.

Caffe Florian Orchestra

Our shrimp and mozzarella salad and grilled vegetable panini were served to us in style on a silver tray.

Lunch at Caffe Florian

We returned with our group to the hotel for our included dinner, and there was time to explore the Mestre neighbourhood before returning to Venice for our evening optional tour: a gondola ride and walking tour with our Tour Director (60 euros).

It was a long walk to the gondola station, up and down stairs as we crossed several bridges. We spotted some arriving tourists struggling with their bags as they followed in our footsteps.

Our tour members were divided up among several gondolas, and another carrying a singer and an accordion player accompanied us through the peaceful smaller canals of Venice. A bottle of sparkling wine was shared aboard each gondola as we made our way alongside the fondamentas and under bridges to Piazza San Marco.

Venice by Gondola

From here, our walking tour took us down dark, narrow alleyways, and our echoing footsteps conjured images of Renaissance intrigue, or stories of fictional killers disguised by Carnival masks.

Stacks of wooden platforms had appeared since earlier in the day, in preparation for the acqua alta (high water) expected next morning. These platforms would form elevated walkways crossing the piazza when San Marco, the lowest point in Venice, is beneath water.

But when we returned to the piazza, the flooding had already begun. A huge pool of water fanned out in front of Caffe Quadri, reflecting the lights from the surrounding buildings. But as aboard the Titanic, the orchestras on the square continued to play.

Caffe Quadri on Piazza San Marco

The water had blocked our passage to the pier where we were to board our water taxi back to 
the train station. While our Tour Director came up with alternate arrangements, we had time for some strawberry gelato from Gran Caffe Chioggia, which I enjoyed under the arcade while listening to the jazz orchestra.

Safely aboard our water taxi, we travelled for the first time up the Grand Canal, past illuminated palazzos

Palazzo on the Grand Canal

and under the Rialto Bridge.

Rialto Bridge

There are fewer people living in Venice these days. It is very expensive to import daily necessities by boat. And the lower floors of many buildings lining the canals are underwater and beginning to decay. So the city is filled with the bustle of crowds during the day, but becomes quiet once darkness falls. This was the Venice that I preferred.

After all the rain we encountered today, I hoped to see the sun for our optional Lagoon Cruise and Seafood Lunch on the island of Burano the next day.

Next:  The Venetian Lagoon

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