By Jim Ferri
The light in Venice is so soft it’s seductive.
Every morning and evening it transforms the city and its canals into a palette of pastels.
As dawn and dusk settle on Venice, the ethereal light softens everything it touches. It’s not just the beauty of the tableaux, though; it’s the physical feeling of it, as well. Wander anywhere in Venice, and you’re charmed at nearly every turn.
The city’s incredible and colorful art and architecture, symbols of an immense wealth accumulated centuries ago, draws you inward. Its web of canals and their little bridges pull you here and there. You’re charmed even by the mundane as small ristorantes and bars and shops beckon you further.
But despite its overwhelming beauty and charisma, what’s amazing is that Venice even exists today.
Among other things, the city has survived great plagues, two World Wars and being conquered by Napoléon. But, worst of all, the city is built on islands and mud flats that make it prone to recurrent flooding. There have been many times the world has worried about a looming catastrophe as high tides enveloped the city.
But still, Venice survives, serving up little Canaletto and Tintoretto canvases almost everywhere one looks. If you need proof of this, just take a ride on a Vaporetto, the city’s waterbuses, along the Grand Canal. Early and late each day you can watch the light transform the canvas about you.
The Grand Canal of Venice
I’ve always enjoyed riding on the Vaporetto #1 as it makes its way along the along the serpentine Grand Canal. It’s a beautiful ride, one I’ve never tired of taking whenever I’ve returned to the city. All along the route history unfurls as you pass many centuries of palaces and places.
Over there is the Renaissance Palazzo Vendramin Calergi, where the composer Richard Wagner died in 1883. Up ahead is the Baroque church of San Stae. Beyond is Ca’ Pesaro, a palazzo now an art gallery and museum. Across the waterway is the Pescheria, where fishmongers have been selling the daily catch for six centuries.
One morning I jumped off the Vaporetto to wander about the Pescheria. It was past 9:00 a.m. and restaurant chefs had already come and gone hours earlier. Now residents were flooding the wide aisles, and I amused myself by watching them choose their evening dinners.
The Rialto Bridge
Afterward, I walked back to the Rialto Bridge, just a few minutes away and near my Vaporetto stop. The Rialto is not only one of Venice’s most famous landmarks, but it’s also a great place to view the Grand Canal.
Since there are crowds on the bridge and in its shops most days, I escaped down a side street. I quickly discovered some charming campos, Venice’s little city squares. Campos are actually piazzas elsewhere in Italy but here St. Mark’s Square is still the only Piazza in the city.
I wandered a while, then hopped back aboard the Vaporetto and headed for San Marco. En route I admired the string of beautiful buildings that line the canal. If you don’t have a good guidebook and map, you’ll find it near impossible to know what you’re viewing.
More importantly, perhaps, a good guidebook can help you get where you’re going. Since Venice’s layout can be confusing to the uninitiated, it helps to explore the city by area. It’s a lot easier than jumping from one major site to another.
In addition to plenty of palazzos on the Grand Canal, you’ll also pass the renowned Accademia. It was here where Napoleon moved many of the artistic treasures of Venice in 1807. In addition to its other treasures, it has one of the greatest collections of Venetian paintings in the world. If your interests tend more towards modern, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is nearby.
Piazza San Marco
The Holy Grail of Venetian tourism, Piazza San Marco can get obscenely crowded during the high season (April through November).
During the many times I’ve returned to it over the years, I’ve discovered how to experience it at its best. It just takes a little planning.
The first thing you need to do is consider the time of day. Visit the square in the early morning, enjoy an espresso and watch the rising sun illuminate the basilica and other buildings. Being there early also lets you be at the front of the queues for the Basilica, Doges’ Palace, and Campanile.
You can also go online and book a time to visit the Basilica. You must pick your exact day and time, however.
If you can’t get to St. Mark’s in time to greet the morning sun, come instead in the afternoon. Before noon all the tour groups arrive, and they go to the head of the line, leaving you to linger. Rather wander about Sestieri San Marco, the surrounding district, have a gelato and find a little restaurant for lunch. Come back in mid-afternoon when the crowds have dissipated.
The Basilica and Palace
The Basilica and Doges’ Palace are very interesting, although the tour of the palace can get long. There’s also a “Secret Itineraries Tour”, which provides access to other areas with a guide at fixed times. You must pre-book it.
St. Mark’s Basilica, the namesake and jewel of the Piazza, is right next door to the Doges’ Palace. Blending the architectural styles of the East and West, it’s a stunning place. Entry is free, although there is a small charge to visit the Chancel, the Treasury, and the Loggia.
If nothing else, pay the €5 fee to ascend to the Loggia for a beautiful view of the Piazza. On the Loggia are the four life-size bronze horses taken from the entrance to Hippodrome in Constantinople in 1204. The ones you see on the outside are replicas, but you only need to step inside to see the originals.
To the right, you can also get a great photo of the beautiful Torre dell’Orologio, the Renaissance clock tower. It sits above one of the entrances leading into the warren of streets of Sestieri San Marco.
Around the Piazza
You’ll also get a spectacular view of the entire city from the top of the Campanile, the square’s bell tower. Luckily, there’s an elevator to the top. For something incredibly unusual, time your visit to be at the top on the hour when the bells ring.
At the other end of the Piazza is the little-known Museo Correr, a museum that recounts the history of Venice up until the end of the 18th century. Also nearby is Nardi, a famous jeweler renown for its Venetian moretto jewelry, fashionable during the 1920’s and 30’s.
Walk around the square and visit the nearly 300-year-old Caffè Florian, one of the elder statesmen of the Piazza. Its elegant rival, Ristorante Quadri, is directly across the piazza. With their tuxedoed waiters and mini-orchestras, they lend an air of elegance to the St. Mark’s experience.
Be sure to take a look at the interior of both cafes, especially the ornate rooms of the Florian. Keep in mind also that if you sit at one of the tables either outside or in, you’ll pay dearly. At Caffè Florian prices are considerably less if you go into the back bar.
Finally, at day’s end have a drink at the original Harry’s Bar, nearby at the San Marco Vallaresso Vaporetto stop.
Made famous by Hemingway, Toscanini, Chaplin, Bogart and Bacall, Taylor and Burton, et al, Harry’s is still the home of the Bellini cocktail, carpaccio, and the extravagant bill.