Canals, gondoliers, romance, swaying buildings and mystery persons wearing painted masks. This guide will help you get behind the mask of Venice in just 48 hours.
Providing you haven't spent the better part of the day trying to locate your accommodation you may find some time after checking in to do some exploring. One of the first things you will notice is no traffic. Vehicles are restricted to the last piece of solid ground near the train station, Piazzale Roma. This is where the bus terminal and public carparks are located and where your journey begins.
As you walk across the first of 409 bridges spanning the 150 canals you may wonder what inspired the original inhabitants to build their city afloat on 117 tiny islands in a marshy lagoon. The key reason was safety and protection from the marauding non-swimmer Attila the Hun. However the locals soon learnt that the centralized location was equally important in terms of European trade.
Walking the streets of Venice is an attraction in itself. The architecture is a mix of Byzantine, Renaissance and opulent Austro-Hungarian tastes. Narrow alleyways lead into decorative courtyards or twist around corners to hidden gardens. Some of the buildings have taken on a seriously disturbing lean that can leave you feeling dizzy and hoping that they remain standing for a few minutes more as you pass beneath.
There are three main street signs mostly visible with arrows pointing to either Piazzale Roma, or 'Ferrovia' (the train station) or towards Piazza San Marco and more often than not, in both directions. There are wider street arteries which allow the majority of crowds to find San Marco with ease but to get a real sense of Venice it is recommended to get off the beaten track.
Turn a few corners and after a few hours you will have been totally lost and found again, either ending up at the Ferrovia or hopefully in Piazza San Marco.You will notice first the campanile towering above you.
The campanile was built as a lookout and lighthouse on foundations that dated back to the Roman period. Added to and enlarged over several centuries the end result was a total collapse in 1902 and a huge international effort to rebuild it brick by brick. The logetta base relief at the base of the tower was painstakingly pieced back together after being completely shattered by the falling bricks. The climb to the top of the campanile is worth it for the view across the lagoon to the outlying islands and a great way to orientate yourself. Gallileo even demonstrated his telescope to the Doges up here.
The other obvious thing to dominate the square is the sheer number of pigeons. They are usually seen covering small children which kindly parents have doused in birdseed in hopes the birds will fly away with them. On a slightly more serious note the rumor is there is a $ 500US fine for anyone caught kicking the pigeons. It's really tempting but …
Looking south out between the pillars topped by the winged lion, the symbol of Venice, and the statue of St Theodore you will see water craft bobbing about including the vaporetti, Venice's metro system, ferrying workers and tourists from island to island. Then there are the delivery boats, fire, ambulance and police boats, water taxis and the distinctive black gondolas.
You would have seen these gliding effortlessly through the canals between the houses during your walk carrying couples and groups of tourists, propelled by striped shirted men with a long oar and quite possibly singing an opera tune.
Continuing past the Doges Palace and turning left will bring you out onto the most south-eastern edge of the square. There is yet another bridge to cross but it may look crowded with tourists looking up a canal at another bridge. The object of their fascination is the Ponte Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs. It is an enclosed bridge linking the palace courts to the old prison. A last breath of fresh air could be gasped by prisoners at the tiny latticed window before being dragged off to the 'leads'.
Now to head back towards the Rialto Bridge. There will be a few signs directing you towards this and again they may appear to go in both directions. The bridge is the oldest one of three in the world that is occupied by shops.
The Rialto was mediaeval Europe's trading center with traders from the orient bringing goods to wealthy Venetian merchants. Usury, or money lending, was also practiced contributing significantly to the city coffers making Venice extremely prosperous.
The current stone bridge was constructed in the 1500's after a competition was run to find a solution to the regular problems of flooding and fires that kept destroying the wooden ones.It was successfully won by architect Antonio da Ponte. It also had to be tall enough to allow warships to pass beneath on their way to the crusades.
Depending on where you are staying or how tired the feet are it might be time to catch a vaporetto up the Grand Canal. For a fraction of the cost of a gondola trip you can take the 40 minute ride up the Grand Canal, go beneath the Rialto as well as see the magnificent mansions, palaces and plush Venetian hotels that line the banks.
Venice by night is far more peaceful as the noise of the boats going about their daily business subsides and the canals are left to the gondolas and the odd taxi. Dinner can be an expensive affair unless you know where to go. A rough guide is the further away from Piazza San Marco the cheaper, however there are some good value places around in places such as Cannareggio, Dorsoduro, San Polo and Santa Croce. Look more for osterias while some bars also serve bar snacks and light meals.
Many Venetian locals no longer live in the city due to the high living costs, preferring to reside on the mainland in Mestre. As a result there isn't a particularly energetic nightlife after hours. There are a few jazz bars where you can get pricey cocktails. Venice's most famous establishment is Harry's Bar in San Marco, where the Bellini was born. This is a tasty combination of champagne and peach juice.
An early start is necessary to ensure you get where you are going and to hopefully beat the crowds. Venice is a popular city all year round, summer and winter, and there doesn't appear to be a low season as such. The weather can sometimes be a blessing as passing showers can keep the large crowds at bay and make queuing time shorter. Flooding is common in winter.
Entry to the Basilica can either be a long line shuffling through the doors or a quick step inside. Watch your step as the floor has taken on an undulating feel due to years of flooding. Beneath the altar lies the remains of St Mark, the patron saint of the city. St Mark was actually a replacement patron as the city fathers felt the original one, St Theodore, was lacking in ecclesiastical clout.
The mosaic above the door to the left portrays the bringing of St Marks body back from Alexandria in Egypt in 828. A chapel was constructed to house the remains but burnt down in 932, to be replaced with a more substantial basilica in 1063. During some of the renovations St Marks body was lost but was eventually found and relocated to the crypt beneath the altar.
Above the door way stands the Quadriga on the loggia balcony. These four horses are copies of the originals that are housed inside in the Galleria. They were stolen during the sacking of Constantinople. There is a small fee to enter the Galleria upstairs where you can view the original horses as well as get a great view over the entire Basilica's interior.
The Palazzo Ducale was started in the 10thC as the formal residence of the Doges. These men were responsible for the government, administration and justice system for the entire republic of the Veneto. The rooms and hallways are filled from floor to ceiling with paintings, frescoes and sculptures. In particular is one of the largest oil paintings in the world, Tintoretto's Paradise. Many of the works shown are by Tintoretto, Sansovino and Veronese reflecting the wealth brought to the city by the traders.
You also cross the Ponte Sospiri to the palace prisons offering a chance to get an idea of what the prisoners must have felt on their way to their incarceration. One of the more famous inhabitants was Casanova, the legendary womaniser, imprisoned in 1755 for dealings in the 'occult' by the State Inquisition and the only one to successfully escape.
The streets around San Marco area are filled with shops and churches, all offering some more examples of fine art, architecture and craftsmanship. Not least is the impressive Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute, the church opposite the square marking the entrance to the Grand Canal. This church was built in honor of the Virgin Mary in the 17thC whom the city believed protected them from an outbreak of plague.
Making your way further up the Grand Canal you will reach the 20thC Peggy Guggenheim collection in Dorsoduro. She lived in Palazzo Venier dei Leoni for 30 years before dying in 1979. Her collection contains works by Picasso, Mondrian, Chagall, Ernst, Miro, Magritte, Bacon and Dali. The garden contains more sculptures as well as the graves of Ms Guggenhiem and her dogs.
There is a 10 minute vaporetto ride from Fondamente Nove on the LN line to Murano where the glass artisans have been working their trade since 1291. Venetian glass was one of the most prized items for the wealthy around Europe and it is still revered today. The glass makers were moved here by ducal decree after one too many fires and were also charged with treason if they tried to leave town, such was the prizing of their skill in the craft. Today you can watch them at work on their premises so keep an eye out for signs with 'fornace'. Some places even offer more structured guided tours and demonstrations.
You can then continue on to Burano from Murano-Faro, the journey takes 30 minutes. Burano is the home to the centuries old tradition of lace making. The lace was an extension of the fishing nets made by the women on the island and became well known in courts around mediaeval Europe as being the finest quality. The island is distinctive also for the bold colors the houses are painted in.
From Burano it takes an hour to reach Venice's hotspot for celebrity and films- the Lido. The Venice film festival is held here every year attracting the stars from all over Europe and now more commonly non Europeans. Even if the stars are not out there is the beach which gives a bit of respite from the bridges. The resort is not as hip as it once was but the prices are still geared towards those with a bit more cash. The trip back to San Marco should take about 15 minutes.
So there is the best Venice has to offer in 48 hours, all the essentials to get you behind the mask of this unique city.
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