Gnomon's Trip to Venice - Part 1

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Venice was wonderful. It hasn't changed much since Mrs G and I were there 22 years ago.


We flew to Venice on Saturday afternoon. The airport is right beside the lagoon, so we bought tickets for the boat to the city (only €20 for the four of us), rather than going by bus. We had to wait about half an hour for the boat, so we had a couple of glasses of wine, some coke and some croissants.

It was dark by the time we got on the boat, so we didn't see much of the lagoon. Our B&B was close to the Fondamente Nove, which is the quay that runs along the north side of Venice. We only had to drag our suitcase along for about 10 minutes. The B&B looked nice but we didn't go in, as our 'family room' was actually in a different building, and was a ground floor apartment with our own front door, two bedrooms and a bathroom. The main bedroom also had a fitted kitchen and a small table. There was food provided for breakfast, including pre-packaged toast, croissants, cornflakes, milk, orange juice and unlimited real coffee. By this time it was about 11pm, so we didn't go out.


We decided to spend Sunday getting a feel for the city. The girls hadn't been there before, so it came as a great shock to them. Venice is not like any other place in the world. If you've been there or have read the Venice Entry, you'll have some idea. If not, well, the entire city is pedestrian, you're never far from water, every building you see is at least 400 years old and there are very few proper streets at all, just narrow alleys. It is crowded with tourists, shops selling the most stylish stuff you ever saw, restaurants, pigeons, bridges over little canals every 100 yards or so, alleys twisting under houses, pillared ways and a mass of confusing signs giving you the names of the routes in Venetian, even though the maps all show them in Italian.

Our little home was near the Ca d'Oro, which was once the finest house in Venice. We wandered the streets until we saw a glimpse of the famous Rialto bridge which crosses the Grand Canal, the main waterway through the city. The Grand Canal is the main highway. All the biggest houses and palaces open straight onto it and there are no footpaths on either side of the canal, so if you want to see it you have to go by boat. More of that later. There are four bridges across the canal and the Rialto is the oldest. It's instantly recognisable.

Then we went on to St Mark's Square, which is huge, full of pigeons and has the most amazing church in the world at one end: The Basilica of St Mark. This is 11th Century and is covered in domes and spikes and gold mosaics. We didn't go into this just yet, but admired it from the outside. The bell tower of the basilica is more recent, being finished in about 1500. It is 99m high and dominates the square. All around the square are elegant buildings. Two cafés (Quadri and Florian) have their own string quartets to provide calming music. I've been told it costs about €20 for a coffee in these.

Next to the Square is the Piazzetta (little square), with the Doge's palace, a giant block of a building with collonnades and a flat face of pink and white stone. Separating the piazetta from the sea are two pillars (looted from the sack of Constantinople in 1204) with St Theodore and the Lion of St Mark on them. Then we were at the sea. This is the main parking place for all the boats, waterbuses and gondolas.

We walked for a bit to get away from St Mark's where the prices are highest, then stopped and had lunch: delicious sandwiches and some wine.

After lunch, we caught a water bus down the Grand Canal to see the sights — it was really crowded on the bus. This brought us right as far as the other end of the city, the railway station. Then we walked back to our apartment. So we had covered a lot of the city on the first day. For dinner, we found a nice pizza restaurant close to home.

By a strange coincidence, we had shared the plane from Dublin with a choir by the name of Enchiriadis Treis. They were performing in a free admission concert on Sunday night in a church just 10 minutes from our apartment. So we toddled along at 9 o'clock to the church of San Salvador, which is a huge building with a very high ceiling. They sang a selection of short sacred works and a few secular ones. The church acoustic was very echoey, which adds to the tone, but blurs the sound making it very difficult to sing fast music. The choir handled it well.


We decided to spend Monday visiting the Northern Lagoon. We caught the Route LN boat to Burano and were lucky enough to get seats — it was very crowded. The trip takes about 40 minutes. On the way, we passed San Michele, the cemetery island, but didn't call in. Space is so limited in San Michele that the bodies are only buried for about 10 years. Then they are dug up again, having been reduced to skeletons, and are stored in the ossuary (bone chapel). Famous exceptions who have been allowed to rest in peace are Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Ezra Pound.

Burano itself is like a Lego Venice — it is small and multicoloured. All the houses are painted in bright colours and there is a little canal through the town. Burano specialises in lace and every house is a shop selling lace, although I've been assured that most of the stuff for sale is imported from the Far East. Lunch in Burano consisted of focaccia with beer, wine and soft drinks.

A short hop on another boat brought us to the island of Torcello, which is very calm and peaceful. Once home to 20,000 people, there are now only 100 people left. The main thing to see here is the old cathedral, which dates mainly from 1008, although bits of it are as old as 7th Century. There's a wonderful mosaic representing the afterlife, with the souls being sorted into damned and saved — this is massive, taking up the entire end wall of the church.

Heading back towards Venice, we found the boats very crowded. The Torcello to Burano one was okay, but we didn't get seats on the next one and were squashed into the standing area. In the summer when there are more tourists, I believe they lay on really large boats for this route. We stopped off at Murano, the island which is the centre of the Venetian glass industry — they moved the glass industry to here from Venice in 1294, for fear of the fires setting fire to the city. Murano glass is world famous. The girls boughts lots of tiny glass animals at about €1 each as presents for all their friends. Unfortunately, it was getting dark and the foundries were all closing, so we didn't get to see them making any of the glass.

It's only about 10 minutes from Murano back to Venice on the boat. We had another dinner in which pizzas figured prominently in the Old Ghetto. More about the Ghetto later.

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