Are you looking for a special place to pop that important question? Or somewhere to spend your honeymoon or wedding anniversary? Or are you seeking simply somewhere to relax, switch off and connect with your inner calm? If so, then Venice, Italy’s enchanting city on the water could be the perfect place for respite and romance.
The girl in view wears heavy shades, stilettos without hold-ups or leg warmers, and a skimpy skirt, which one would think is especially daring in winter; but not in Venice, one of the rare cities in Europe where the temperature hits an average of 9 degrees in early January, with three hours’ undiluted sunshine per day.
Venice is also called the ‘Floating City’ and ‘City of Canals’. It is among Europe’s most romantic cities; a dreamy, aqueous ‘man made wonder of the world’. Everyone should visit in Venice in their life time if they can; if nothing else, to experience it’s the archetypal trip in a gondola. In January light, Venice looks pale and fragile, wrapped round by the trembling waves, and yet still standing tall and proud of its singular aesthetics. Venice was once described by the Romantic poet George Gordon Byron, in his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, thus:
I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
In Venice Tasso’s echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone–but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade–but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the mask of Italy!
The name ‘Venice’ originated from the ancient Venetian people who first inhabited the region around the 10th century. The city was originally the capital of the Venetian Republic. Venice has attracted numerous encomiums throughout history: la Dominante (‘the leader’, ‘the best’), la Serenissima (‘the Serene’), ‘Queen of the Adriatic’, ‘City of Water’, ‘City of Masks’, and ‘City of Bridges’. It has also been the atmospheric setting for many famous films throughout cinematic history, including the romance Summertime (1955), the autumnal Death in Venice (1971) and the eerie Don’t Look Now (1973).
This enchanting city, located on the Adriatic Sea in North-Eastern Italy, has a total of 120 islands, labyrinthine archipelagos fractured with canals and connected by over 400 bridges. The absence of cars contributes to its serene atmosphere. It is located in the marshy Venetian Lagoon, which stretches along the shoreline between the mouths of the rivers Po and the Piave.
The Republic of Venice was a major maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance: it was a launching bay for the Crusades; the setting for the Battle of Lepanto; and a vitally important trade centre, particularly for silk, grain, art and spice, from the 13th century to the end of the 17th.
It is for all these reasons that Venice has sustained such a potent reputation as one of the world’s wealthiest cities, throughout centuries.
The Italian aqua-city is also known for its several important artistic movements, especially during the Renaissance period. Venice has also played an important role in the history of symphonic and operatic music, and is the birthplace of the Italian Baroque composer, Catholic priest, and virtuoso violinist, Antonio Lucio Vivaldi ( 4 March 1678 – 28 July 1741) – also known as il Prete Rosso, ‘The Red Priest’, because of his red hair. Vivaldi is best known for composing instrumental concertos, especially for the violin, as well as his sacred choral works and over forty operas. His most celebrated work is comprised of a series of violin concertos known under the umbrella title of The Four Seasons.
Contemporary Venice has an area of 414.6 km²and a population of 263,996; an average winter temperature of 7°C; a wind speed of 1 mph (2 km/h); and an 87% humidity level. Venice remains today one of the ‘must see’ places in the world.
Venice is also renowned for its gastronomic delights: in addition to the traditional stone-baked Italian pizza and pasta dishes, Venice is, by dint of its maritime location (on a lagoon), particularly known for its seafood dishes: fish, molluscs, crustaceans and other aquatic delicacies are common elements to the Venetian diet. Influences from the more general traditional Italian diet are combined with local specialties of the area around Venice, known as ‘the Veneto’. In Italy, and abroad, some people choose to adopt the Venetian diet as a healthy way of eating, since it uses many fresh and organic foods.
However, it is important to stress that Northern – as opposed to Southern –Italian cooking, and, consequently, Venetian tradition, involves a heavy use of butter, which represents a high source of saturated fats, considered risky for coronary health. Moreover, the high seafood consumption in the Venetian diet can heighten the risk of high mercury intake from fish flesh. This is the reason why pregnant women are strongly advised to limit the intake of seafood.
When to visit?
But what is the best time of the year to visit Venice? Unless one really wants to attend the spectacular Venice carnival, which usually takes place in February or early March, January is arguably one of the best months of the year to visit Venice for those wishing to avoid its high humidity at other times of year.
Broadly speaking, in terms of weather, late spring and early summer are the most popular times, and so the city is swamped with tourists at these periods; as a result of this, there can be long waits to enter museums. During these peak times, of course, finding low budget accommodations and attractions can be challenging.
In January, the weather in Venice is comparable to spring in London. And the city is not so oppressively hot, nor the canal wafted with sewer odours and mosquitoes, as it is in late summer for instance.
The Bridge Magazine staff have discovered another reason why visiting Venice in early January can be particularly auspicious: at this time of the year, ‘water taxi’ men will frequently offer rides or private cruises in their luxury mini-boats at bargain prices, cash in hand. Such offers tend to be peculiar to off-peak periods. At more popular times of year, only aristocrats and celebrities can afford these luxury private cruises.
Flooding or acqua alta (‘high water’) is more likely to occur during the autumn, which is otherwise one of the most beautiful times of year to visit Venice. Even if October through to January is still the typical ‘high water’ season, which can hamper sightseeing, one should bear in mind that the autumn conditions provide one of the more authentic tastes of Venice.
Venice is built in marshlands, on sedimentary islands sprawling a lagoon off the Italian coast. When Attila the Hun invaded Italy in 452, many inhabitants were forced to move to the coast. La Rivo Alto or ‘high bank’, a small group of islands in the centre of the lagoon, expanded to become the centre of Venice, known today as la Rialto.
The Sinking City?
In Venice, Gondolas and water taxis are used as public transport to enable people to commute. The city has been described as ‘the warren of canals’, because unlike most cities, it has canals as opposed to roads. In recent times, partly due no doubt to global climate change, the flooding in Venice has become critical. As with most coastal towns and cities, the sea level is continually rising, frequently causing damage to Venice and disruption to its inhabitants. Increasingly, the old axiom that ‘Venice is sinking’ seems fractionally closer to the truth (though tropes such as ‘the Sinking City’ – or even ‘Stinking City’, if one notes the notorious canal fumes during summer – would not be appropriate tropes for the tourist brochures of course). During the high tides in autumn and winter, for instance, the Piazza San Marco, the lowest area of the island, becomes totally flooded with water.
There were once, indeed, concerns that Venice may one day sink into the water, never to be seen again, like some Renaissance Atlantis. According to a recent report, the city has been slowly sinking into the water more than five times quicker than previously thought.
Scientists say that in recent decades the city has been tilting to the East, subsiding and leaning evermore out towards the Adriatic Sea, as it has been hit by more floods ever more frequently than in former times.
But let us be positive: nothing so final will ever happen to Venice. It is more likely to survive future flooding due to modern advances in underwater architecture, which today is at the cutting edge, and has already achieved huge advances over the last few decades through engineering ingenuity. In March 2012, Jonathan Amos, the BBC News Science Correspondent, reported on these matters as followed:
“With waters rising in the Venetian lagoon also by about 2mm (0.08in) a year, the combined effect is a 4mm-a-year increase in sea level with respect to the land. The city is already subjected to regular floods, which require citizens sometimes to walk on raised boards. These floods, however, should be better constrained by a new system of barriers set for completion in 2014.”
If you are on a really tight schedule, below we list the top five most memorable sights in Venice.
(First of all, however, do not underestimate the amount of walking involved in a visit to Venice, because the water buses serve only the Grand Canal, Can Naregio Canal and points around the ‘edge’ of Venice Island.
It is vital to wear comfortable, shoes or trainers, and if you are travelling with children, to carry babies in baby-backpacks rather than in pushchairs. Take this on the bright side: a stay in Venice can be a very scenic way to get fit as well).
1 – St. Mark’s Basilica
Often described as the “drawing room of the world”, St. Mark’s Basilica is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Venice, a breathtakingly beautiful church that attracts sightseers like bees to honey.
With its large onion domes and colourful marble pillars, and an interior which is a floor-to-ceiling mosaic, the Basilica really is spectacular. A tour around the main part of the building is free of charge, and booking an entry time on line is also a straight forward process.
There are three little museums within the basilica, for which you have to pay an entry fee. Depending on your budget, if you were going to pick just one these to visit, then we’d advise you to take the narrow, steep staircase in the entry alcove up to the museum that has the original stone horses which used to overlook the square.
2- The Doge’s Palace
The magnificent Doge palace is believed by a recent report to have been visited to date by more than, 1,998,799 people. The palace used to be the residence of the ‘Doge of Venice’, the supreme authority of the Republic of Venice. It was first opened to the public as a museum in 1923. The Doge’s Palace was built in the Venetian Gothic style; it is currently one of the main landmarks of the city, and is also one of the 11 museums run by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.
Destroyed in the 10th century by a fire, the modern reconstruction works were carried out at the behest of Doge Sebastiano Ziani (1172–1178) – hence its name. Ziani was a great reformer who dramatically changed the layout of St. Mark’s Square. The new palace was built out of a fortresses.
Partly connected to St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace is arguably the second most important ‘attraction’ in Venice, after the Basilica. While the most popular stop on the tour is when gets to walk over the famous Bridge of Sighs; you can see the bridge from the outside without buying an entry ticket, but the only way to walk on the bridge yourself is as part of the Doge’s Palace tour.
3- Grand Canal of Venice
The Grand Canal is a busy aquatic thoroughfare coursing right through the heart of Venice with water craft of all sorts travelling along it. You can board a vaporetto (‘water bus’) at Piazzale Roma and cruise the entire length of the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square, where you will acquire a spectacular view of some of Venice’s most beautiful architecture.
It is believed, however, that the most scenic way to get around Venice is on foot. However, the Grand Canal only has a few bridge crossings, so taking a ride on one of Venice’s water taxis or buses can be a beautiful, as well as less arduous, experience. Indeed, a slow vaporetto trip that runs the length of the Grand Canal is the city’s unique equivalent to a city bus tour. You will still enjoy the ride with or without a self-guided tour.
4- The Rialto Bridge
The first bridge across the Grand Canal was a pontoon bridge built in 1181. It was later replaced in 1255 by a wooden bridge; and then became known as the Rialto destroyed by fire during a revolt in 1310, and periodically collapsed, in 1444, and again in 1524. The stone bridge that still stands today was built in 1591 and was designed by one of Italy’s most famous architects and engineers, Antonio da Ponte.
Since the bridge is close to the market, don’t miss out on the opportunity to take in the view of the famous Rialto market: a fascinating way to see how Venetians gather their grocery supplies; it is also the terminus where local shop owners and restaurateurs buy stock for their kitchens. The Rialto is famed particularly as a fish market, but there are also plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits for sale.
5- The Murano Island
Venice is also famous for its beautiful glass, mainly made on the island of Murano. Watching a glass blowing demonstration on Murano Island can be an amazing experience. Most people have confessed to having never watched glass being blown and shaped before. It is an entertaining, educational and culturally fascinating craft to witness close up.
Visiting other islands in the Venice lagoon is also a great idea, and since Murano is the closest of them all, if you want to avoid the overly ‘touristy’ glass demonstrations, you can always catch a vaporetto to Murano, rather than a boat booked by your hotel. You can then walk around the streets until you find a studio that looks as if it’s open. There are more glass blowing studios on Murano and they are less congested with tourists.
Talking about the Venetians themselves, on 4th January 2013, when asked by The Bridge Magazine, what it is like to live and work in Venice, three out of four Venetians foreigners were very negative about it. However, it is commonly rumoured that the Venetians tend to be rather proprietorial of their city and its economy, so possibly such feedback is intended to deter too many foreigners from settling there. The Venetian ‘character’ is also apparently know for being narcissistic, aggressive, haughty, imperious, and dismissive towards foreigners who wish to move to Venice – even to those who are administratively eligible to settle there, and able to contribute to the economy.
Why do Venetians seem so suspicious of foreigners and protective of their city, one might ask? Is it due to some insecure characteristic, or even perhaps some latent xenophobic attitude in the city?
The Senegalese-born premier league footballer Moustapha said of having lived in Venice himself, and why he believes it is not a suitable place to move to:
“Foreigners are not welcome in Venice when they wish to settle, no matter how legal or wealthy they might be and capable of affording to pay their taxes. The teeth a Venetian uses to give you a smile, he or she will use the same teeth to bite at you when you least expect it, and without reason.”
It is believed that ignorance, overconfidence, and the fact that the Venetians have always lived self-sufficiently and cut off from the rest of the world, have all played a huge part in forming this rather strange character of the city’s inhabitants.
In fact, one should not expect the Venetians to be as accepting of foreigners as, for instance, cosmopolitan Londoners are. This Venetian ‘attitude’ is somewhat antediluvian and out-of-kilter in a changing world, but it nevertheless is existent, and is believed to be largely a result of the fact that most native Venetians have never travelled abroad before, not even to the nearest Italian city.
Meanwhile, however, a Caribbean couple on their honeymoon in Venice declared to The Bridge Magazine on 5th January 2013 that they were “having the time of their life”:
“The staffs of the hotels are unbelievably kind and charming. We are thrilled to have chosen such a beautiful place for an important chapter of our life.”
Opinions, therefore, about the Venetian hospitality, vary from one person to another. It is perhaps sensible then to emphasize that while Venice might look like an enchanted city of romance and dreams, it is still, underneath all its architectural beauty, a real city inhabited by people with their own very specific customs and ideas, some of which are less hospitable than one might think.
However, like it or not, Venice, remains one of the most fascinating cities in the world. It still has un je ne sais quel charme, as the French put it: that bewitching charm which every one still agrees on.
As well as this, its close proximity to the Adriatic Sea makes a stay in Venice supremely relaxing, calming, inspiring and serene. Venice will enable you to recharge your batteries, and if you do your research in advance and prepare thoroughly for your visit there, you will not regret it, nor ever forget it.