The shock of Venice

Welcome to Venice. Greeted by the church of San Simeone Piccolo

It is impossible to go to Venice without a preconceived vision. It must be the most painted, photographed, fictionalized and filmed city in the world. But it was still a shock. It was the most “foreign” experience I have ever had.

One knows that Venice in on the water. But I don’t think I had really understood what that meant. On another planet, in another universe, perhaps all cities are built on the water. Here on earth, there is only one.

The city of Venice is on a lagoon of 117 islands. While lagoon dwellers have lived there since the 10th century B.C., the impetus for modern day Venice began when people from northern Italy were fleeing Germanic and Hun invasions in the 4th century A.D. The early peoples brought wood from the forests of northern Italy and began the process of building on the lagoon and creating a unique world of interconnected islands. Their strategic position at the head of the Adriatic eventually gave the city naval and commercial supremacy and by the late 13th century, Venice was the richest city in all of Europe. It was ruled by the “Great Council”, made up of all of the leading Venetian families. They vied with each other to build the largest palazzos (palaces), decorated with the work of the greatest artists of their time.

But as with all empires, Venetian fortunes changed. Trade routes altered. Over a three-year period in the 16th century, the Black Death killed a third of Venice’s population. Venice would never have the same military force. But it has never lost its grace and beauty.

Today, the city relies on tourism to keep it afloat, quite literally. Over 50,000 tourists visit Venice per day. We were, again, very glad to be visiting in the off-season.

“Ask Venetians why they stay, nearly suffocated by mass tourism and rising water levels, and they will tell you that the tourists are supernumeraries, the acqua alta part of the scenery, and the play itself is still the greatest show on earth” (Time Out, Venice)

Of course, I love a good stage set. I love crumbling and fading beauty, where sculptures and painting are tucked in and around every façade. A world where attention is paid to every detail, and yet so little is kept in good repair.

And I love living in a city with no cars, where early morning deliveries are made by quiet barges skillfully maneuvered through narrow canals.

The view from our window in Cannaregio

We had rented an apartment in the Cannaregio region, near the Jewish ghetto, away from the mad tourist dash of San Marco and the consumerism of the Rialto.

Tim outside the door of our apartment

Here, people were living their lives amidst the beauty and decay. There were little stores on every corner, with all manner of cheeses, meats and wines. There was a large fruit and vegetable market, fish market, bakeries and cafes.  What more could a person ask for?

The word ghetto comes from Venice. It meant iron foundry, a place where iron was cast (gettato). The foundry was in the island of Cannaregio until 1390. In 1516, the Jewish population was given permanent residency status in Venice, but they were confined to this area. It was a haven for Jews who could take refuge here from other parts of northern Italy. But it also became a prison where the bridges were locked after dusk. It is the one region where there are tall buildings — since people were confined to a small area, they built upwards. It was not until the arrival of Napoleon in the 18th century that the Jewish population were given full rights of citizenship. Many chose to remain in Cannaregio.

The Ghetto

Living in Cannaregio, we decided to make our first stop a pilgrimage to the memorial for the 202 Venetian Jews who were deported from Venice to death camps in 1943. The central piazza in the ghetto was cold and still in the early morning sunshine. The memorial was overpowering.

Memorial for the Venetian Jews deported during the holocaust

Venice is a city built on water, but it is also a city made for walking and getting lost. No street is straight or long. It is an intense maze in which a map is almost useless.  We spent the morning walking. And walking. And walking. Trying to get a sense of the geography, and realizing that it is more like understanding a forest than a city. Learning to recognize shapes, trusting more to instinct than reason.

So we switched our perspective and took a trip through the city by boat. At 75 euros for 50 minutes, we couldn’t afford a gondola, but for 6.50 euros we could take the vaporetto (the water bus) through the city, enjoying the twists and turns of the Grand Canal. We armed ourselves with a great guide book and Tim read through the “tour” as we went along.

The perspective on the city is entirely altered from the water. Grand entrances, designed for water access and invisible from the streets, are revealed in all their glory.

Ca d'oro, The Palazzo Santa Sophia

Commerce and daily lives are conducted here.

The fish market. Where fish can be unloaded directly from the boat.

The rich and mighty socialize, wheel and deal. It is a vision of power, wealth and astonishing beauty.

Red carpet treatment at the grand Casino. Lives of the rich and famous

We finished our Grand Canal tour at the Piazza San Marco. But we decided that we needed to wait a couple of days before submersing ourselves in the intensity of San Marco. Instead, we walked away from the tourist hub, along the cobbled seaside walkway, far enough that we could find a glass of wine that we could afford (the closer you are to San Marco, the more expensive the wine, and the seats).

Wine in the January sunshine

We watched the world go by, the boats heading to islands, the sun starting to set behind the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. As the dusk set in, we headed back through the narrow streets, finding new adventures around each corner.

Sunset behind San Giorgio Maggiore
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