By Jim Ferri
A place where the sea, land and sky come together as in no other place on earth, Venice can be overwhelmingly beautiful.
But the real reason Venice is unique among world cities is that through its art and architecture it continues to flaunt its immense wealth, most accumulated by the Venetian Republic so many centuries ago.
If you think about it, it’s amazing that Venice even exists today. It was conquered by Napoléon, has endured two world wars and, worst of all, is built on a series of islands and mud flats that are prone to continual flooding.
But still it survives, serving up its little Canaletto and Tintoretto canvases almost everywhere you look. If you need proof of this, just take a ride on a vaporetto, the city’s waterbuses, along the Grand Canal in early morning or late evening and watch the palette come to life before your very eyes.
I’ve always enjoyed riding on the waterbus #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 about you as you pass five-centuries of palaces, almost all bearing the names of some once great Venetian family, as well as beautiful churches and other buildings.
You’ll pass the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi, one of the preeminent Renaissance palaces in Venice, where the composer Richard Wagner died in 1883. You’ll also go by the narrow Baroque church of San Stae; Ca’ Pesaro, another Baroque palazzo that now is home to an art gallery and museum, the beautiful ca’ d’Oro and, across the waterway, the busy fish market (Pescheria) that’s been on the spot for six centuries.
I had never been to the fish market and while I was in Venice a few months ago I went there one morning and had a great time just wandering about. It was already past 9:00 a.m. when I arrived so the chefs from the city’s restaurants had already come and gone hours earlier. But now it was the local residents who were coming in to shop for the day and I walked about watching them carefully choosing their evening dinners. It’s a one-stop shop since the fish and produce markets are right next to one another, with a few butcher shops and the ubiquitous coffee bars and cafes nearby.
Afterwards I wandered back to the Rialto Market and bridge, just a few minutes away and the vaporetto stop I had disembarked at earlier, and wandered around for a while. The bridge is one of Venice’s most famous landmarks and it’s also great place to get a good view of the Grand Canal. The bridge got its name from its location — the Italian rivo alto, means “high bank” — and this was one of the first places people settled in the city’s infancy. It’s hard to imagine, but it was the only way to cross the Grand Canal, other than boat, until 1854.
This is the commercial heart of the city and the bridge and the shops that line it can be packed with tourists during the day, so I wandered down a side street and quickly escaped the crowd and discovered some charming campos, the little city squares that are called piazzas elsewhere in Italy. More on that campos thing next week.
Since I had bought a multi-day pass for the vaporetto (highly recommended if you’ll be in town for a few days) I hopped back aboard one and headed for San Marco. The string of beautiful buildings continues all along the canal here so it’s worth getting a good guidebook and map if you want to know what you’re looking at, or, more importantly, how to get where you’re going. The whole layout of the city with all of its canals and bridges can be quite confusing to the uninitiated, so it helps to explore Venice by area instead of jumping from one major site to another.
In addition to plenty of palazzos heading downstream to San Marcos you’ll also pass the Accademia, the place to which Napoleon moved many of the artistic treasures of Venice in 1807. It has one of the greatest collections of Venetian paintings in the world. (I visited it two days later, way too quickly though, since I was getting far behind on my list of “want to’s.”)
Close by is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection which houses a great collection of modern art. I skipped the Guggenheim on this visit, since I’m not that fascinated with modern art, although if my wife had been with me it’s likely she would have dragged me in. (I love her dearly but I’m thankful I was traveling alone that week).
We passed the luxury Gritti Palace Hotel and soon Vaporetto #1 was docking at San Marco Vallaresso. I had left the commercial heart of the city, the Rialto, only minutes ago and was now in its touristic heart, the Piazza San Marco.
I’ll tell you more about it next week.
If you go:
The Italian Government Tourist Board
630 Fifth Avenue – Suite 1965
New York, New York 10111
Tel: (212) 245-5618
APT of the Province of Venice
San Marco 2637, 30124 Venezia
Tel. 041.5298711 fax 041.5230399
Campo della Carità, Dorsoduro 1050
Tel. +39 041 5222247
Entrance fee: adults €11 (free for European citizens 65+ years)
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Entrance fee: adults €12; seniors 65+ yrs. €10