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Venice, Italy

Revised December 1, 2007

Built on swamp land in the middle of a coastal lagoon, Venice is a magical city of canals and cathedrals which draws tourists from around the world. Though I love Paris for its food, its history and its parties, Venice rivals Paris as a great place to spend a holiday. And like Paris, the city knows how to party. If you have the chance, be there for Carnivale in the spring or on the second Saturday of July for the Feast of Redentore.

Venice has a population of approximately 330,000, about the size of Buffalo, New York, spread across many islands. You can drive to the edge of the city but to visit the sights, you must walk or ride a vaparetto, a system of large passenger boats that work like urban busses in dryer cities. But as you stroll through the alleyways or ride a vaparetto, you feel like you are in a much smaller city. Buildings are beautiful but in a scale that doesn't overwhelm you, and the city is divided into cozy little neighborhoods that are reminiscent of life in the old neighborhoods of our great cities.

How to spend you time in Venice depends on what you love. There are dozens of churches, often with dramatic paintings done by Tintoretto or Titian. There are great shops with goodies from the area and the world. There are good restaurants around almost every corner. And there are the outer islands and the coastal beaches that invite you to enjoy their less hectic pace.

Venice Canal

Wandering the back canals of Venice

Orbitz Family Sale Exp Feb 28, 2007

How to spend you time in Venice depends on what you love. There are dozens of churches, often with dramatic paintings done by Tintoretto or Titian. There are great shops with goodies from the area and the world. There are good restaurants around almost every corner. And there are the outer islands and the coastal beaches that invite you to enjoy their less hectic pace.

If you can arrange it, arrive in Venice from the Adriatic Sea...First of all, you will find cheaper places to stay on Punta Sabbioni and perhaps on the the Lido, than you will in the center of Venice. Secondly, as you cross the lagoon to the Piazza San Marco, watching the basilica rise from the distance, you get a greater sense of the beauty and drama of the islands. Venice looks different when you get there via the causeway from the west--you are dropped on the edge into a small square surrounded by parking structures and other tourist services, clearly not the romantic image you expected of this unique place. If you arrive by train, you will come across the causeway but be dropped along the Grand Canal, again missing the drama that comes with an arrival by boat but you'll find the location makes travel, by foot or vaparetto, to a hotel or campground relatively simple. I

The most popular sites in Venice are:

  • Basilica San Marco
  • Palazzo Ducale. next to San Marco
  • The Bridge of Sighs
  • The Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge
  • The Church of Madonna dell'Orto
  • The Church of Santa Maria della Salute
  • The Church of Santa Maria dell Assunta
  • Accademia
  • Murano, the glass island
  • Burano, the lace island
  • Toricello, the undeveloped island with Attilla's throne
  • Beaches on the Adriatic Sea at the Lido or Punta Sabbioni

Saint Mark's

The Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark's) is the most famous building in Venice. Built to honor the apostle Mark, the walls and ceilings are adorned with great art. On the front of the cathedral are spectacular golden mosaics that glimmer in the afternoon sun. Inside there are more spectacular mosaics and dramatic art honoring the evangelist whose body miraculously returned to Venice in the 11th Century after it disappeared in a fire in 976.

The Pala d'Oro at the high altar is one of the most opulent features of the church; it has 250 gold-plated paintings and is covered with precious gems including 1,300 pearls, 400 garnets, 90 rubies, 300 emeralds, 90 amethysts,and 300 sapphires. Because of its popularity, lines to get in can be long, expecially during the summer. It can be toured daily and some tours are conducted in English, but the best way to visit the basiica is to attend mass.

The square, or piazza, in front of the basilica is a popular spot for tourists and locals. The large plaza on the is surrounded by dramatic arched buildings and lined wth elegant restaurants. Some of the restaurants sponsor music groups that play classical music for diners and passersby.

A seawall protects the square which has sunken below water level. Still, at high tides and during storms, the lagoon rises above the seawall and floods St. Mark's Square. We were there during a summer windstorm known as the "Mistral" in France. When these warm winds head north from Africa, they slightly raise the waters in the Northern Adriatic Sea, often enough to flood the lower walks in Venice. During low tide, the city was fine, but as the evening tide reached its peak, water slopped over the seawall. Tourists carefully travelled on planks to keep their feet dry, learning how threatened the glorious basillica is.

If you are a student of Renaissance art, the churches of Venice are filled with the works of many great artists, the most famous being Tintoretto and Titian. Both are known for their use of color, though it is the drama of Tintoretto's work that brought him his fame. As you wander through Venice, you'll find many squares bordered by two or more churches. Unless you've given yourself lots of time, make plans to visit a few, looking for the specific pieces of artwork you are eager to see. Use the rest of your time to get off into the neighborhoods of Venice and sample Venetian fare.

The Madonna dell'Orto is open from daily. It was created around 1350. It has two interesting pictures by Tintoretto in it: one is the Last Judgment , which is a very violent picture that portrays the potential horror of the final day of reckonng; the other is the Adoration of the Golden Calf, telling the Old Testament tale. The Adoration, like many Renaissance masterpieces, includes a picture of the artist. Tintoretto and his children are buried in the chapel at Madonna dell'Orto.

A romantic way to tour Venice is aboard a gondola at sunset. As you travel down the Grand Canal, you sail past the great churches and simple homes of the Venetians. The trip takes you beneath many bridges that connect the neighborhoods of Venice, including the most famous, the Rialto Bridge.

Santa Maria dell'Assunta is the oldest building in the Venice area. It is located on the island of Torcello and was built in 639. This simple church has medieval mosaics of the Madonna and the Last Judgment and the relics of Saint Heliodrorus. Attached is Santa Fosca a church built in a Byzantine design. The simplicity of these churches blends with the lifestyle of people on Torcello, a quiet peaceful island that has declined since malaria ravaged its population in the 16th century. Near the churches you will find a throne used by Atilla the Hun. Ferries leave the main island to Torcello regularly and Santa Maria dell'Assunta is open daily.

Santa Maria della Salute is one of the most impressive sites in Venice. Its large dome marks the entrance of the Grand Canal across the waterway from San Marco (St. Mark's). It was designed by Baldassare Longhena and was finished five years after he died. The spectacular facade disguises its simple but elegant interior, noted most for its chancel and high altar. It is a pleasant stroll for della Salute to the Guggenheim Museum through the neighborhood known as Dorsoduro. The elegant hotel, Calle de Brocch, which we recommend if you can get it at a reduced rate, i is not far from this church.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is a major site in the eastern part of Venice called San Polo. It has a painting by Titian called the Assumption of the Virgin. Another great piece of art in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is Madonna and Child painted by Bellini in 1488.

St Mark's Basilica

View from the Campanile
of the Onion Bulbs of St. Mark's

Pigeons in St. Mark's Square

Feeding Birds in St. Mark's Square

Venice's Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

Strong winds from Africa
Flood St. Mark's Square

View from a Window
in the Ducal Palace

Venetian Gondola

The Famed Gondolas of Venice Santa Maria della Salute Church in Venice

Santa Maria della Salute seen from
the Campanille in Piazza San Marco
On the next island you can see
the church of Redentore

Yet another major site in Venice is the Palazzo Ducale. There are many things to see here. One is the Giant's Staircase made in the 15th century by Sansovino has statues of Mars and Neptune representing Venice's power. Another major thing in the Palazzo Ducale is the Sala del Maggior Consiglio which was a meeting place for Venice's Great Council. There is a picture called Paradise painted by Tintoretto's. Porta della Carta is the third of the major sites in Palazzo Ducale. This is the main entrance to the palace. But most people visit the Palace to cross the Bridge of Sighs and see the prison that held the condemned of Venice. While the prison seemed "sanitized" and much cleaner and brighter than it must have been during its use as a jail, the historic parts of the palace were interesting. As a lover of travel and geography, the Map Room with its early Renaissance estimations of the world was the most fascinating part of the palace for us.

Accademia is well known because it has an extremely varied line of artwork. It has medieval, baroque, and Renaissance artwork. It is also a monument to Napoleon's greed because he plundered many other museums and churches to establish the collection at Accademia. Accademia was founded in honor of San Rocco (St. Roch), who dedicated his life to helping the sick. Construction began in 1515 by Bartolomeo Bon. In 1564 the members of the school decided to get Tintoretto to decorate the building. On the ground floor is a set of 8 paintings by Tintoretto dedicated to the life of Mary. The ceiling of the upper floor has three scenes from the old testament: Moses Strikes Water from the Rock, The Miracle of the Bronze serpent, and The Fall of Manna in the desert. These were showing the alleviation of thirst, sickness, and hunger respectively. A tour through the museum will demonstrate the wealth that Venice built during the Renaissance.

The City of Venice has a history as a naval power and controlled an empire that included the part of the eastern coast of the Adriatic sea. Its glory lingers in the buildings and art that are found throughout Venice. But it is the canals that are the streets and boulevards of this city that have made it one of the truly unique places in the world.

There are still many small wine shops in Venice where you supply a container the merchant will fill. We used an empty water bottle to get wine for a picnic. There are many good and some superb restaurants in Venice, often needing reservations in advance. But the budget traveler can still dine well in Venice. Our favorite meal consisted of sandwiches from a local grocer and a three-pack of Prosecco along a well-gondola-ed side canal. As the sun set and tourists sailed past, we enjoyed their good cheer and music, feeling we were seeing Venice at its best.

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