Story and photos by Susan McKee
Water is the reason for Venice. In prehistoric times, fishermen first settled on its islands to take advantage of easy access to the sea’s bounty. Then, in about the 5th century, barbarians from the north invaded the Italian peninsula. Anxious to avoid the marauders, mainlanders took refuge on the islands in the lagoon, protected somewhat from warriors on horseback.
Venice became a boom town as merchants and businessmen from the mainland joined the locals. Soon, the city-state about two miles off the coast was trading its wares up and down the Adriatic Sea and further into the Mediterranean, bringing exotic cargo from around the world back home.
It’s the centuries of trading success of Venice that makes it a “must see” for tourists. Under the unique governmental style of the Doge, the city-state prospered for more than a thousand years.
Its sailors brought back priceless artifacts from across the known world. The bones of St. Mark were acquired in Alexandria in the 9th century. The famed four horses of San Marco were brought back from Constantinople about 1200. The wealth of its citizens attracted artists, sculptors, musicians, architects. Its population at one time exceeded that of London and Paris combined. As its citizens developed an eclectic culture, tourists arrived in droves – and still do.
Venice is known for its canals, but these aren’t the straight-shot transportation routes of man-made waterways in the United States. They’re organic routes, snaking between the islands and forcing pedestrian paths into unusual trajectories as they follow the contours of the ancient islands.
For the American tourist, used to the grid arrangements of towns and cities in the New World, it’s hard to keep track. Did I just walk east, or west, or? What seems like a straight shot across from, say, Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge becomes an exercise in meandering. Fortunately, there are directional arrows on the sides of buildings at most crossroads.
It’s often recommended that tourists begin their walks at the Piazza San Marco. This is, of course, the most famous spot in Venice – where you'll find the basilica of St. Mark, the campanile and the Doge’s Palace. In the warmer months, you’ll find the “dueling” orchestras of Caffè Florian (which opened in 1720) and Caffè Quadri (dating to 1638) facing off across the square as tourists and locals sit and sip their coffee at the outside tables and listen to the music.
In addition to the ubiquitous pigeons and souvenir vendors, the Piazza includes a series of raised wooden walkways; when the tide is high, water bubbles up through the paving stones of the plaza, and washes over the walkway along the Grand Canal. The “temporary” walkways keep pedestrians out of the water.
Although I hit some of the high spots when I was in Venice, my favorite time in the city was spent just wandering. The shops offer everything from exquisite Murano glass to mass-produced masks. Carnevale, of course, is Venice’s signature holiday. For the fortnight leading up to Ash Wednesday, the partying is nonstop – this year's dates are February 26 through March 8.
The rest of the year, it’s evident that a mask is the signature souvenir of Venice. There are hundreds of vendors hawking the most awful imported versions. Find a shop selling the plain, white papier-mâché version – purists buy these and fashion their own disguises.
Artisans create unique masks, such as the one I bought at La Bottega dei Mascareri, near the northern (market) end of the Rialto Bridge. In this tiny studio/shop brothers Sergio and Massimo Boldrin, working in traditional papier-mâché, fashion the most amazing masks. Mine, in the shape of a mottled gold leaf, now hangs on my wall -- it's more art than mask.
Resist the impulse to stay on the mainland: Venice changes character in the evening, when all the day-trippers have left. I stayed at the elegant Hotel Danieli, just steps from the Piazza San Marco.
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