We left Venice in the dark. The only sound was the water slapping against the wooden dock. The few lights from the palazzos spilled golden puddles on the water. We sat at the back of the boat, huddled together against the cold but needing to store it all up: the wind on our cheeks, the put put put of the boat as it criss-crossed the canal picking up the small amount of people out that early in the morning, and the majestic arches of the Rialto bridge appearing before us in the darkness, empty finally of the crowds that lined it during the day. But is Venice worth visiting?
Venice is a city like no other. A city that floats on water. A city of ornate palaces and gothic churches, bridges and canals. How many other places in the world still look much as they would have done in the 18th century?
Walk halfway over the Accademia bridge and look at the never changing view of the Grand Canal. You’ll see no skyscrapers, no office blocks. The silvery dome of the Salute basilica rises into the sky above the terracotta rooftops. Crenellated battlements are attached like delicate rows of lace to the top of the historic palazzos.
Truman Capote said that Venice was “like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go” and there is an element of the impossibility about Venice, about having too much of a good thing. There are also moments when you feel as though you’ve invaded a film set – along with a thousand others. Squeezed onto the Rialto bridge, jostled by the crowds at St Mark’s Square, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into someone else’s holiday pictures. But is Venice worth visiting despite the crowds?
There’s a grandness and a majesty to Venice not found in many other places in the world. The set pieces – the Grand Canal, the domes and minarets of the Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the view of San Giorgio Maggiore across the lagoon – are imposing and magnificent.
It’s impossible not to be awestruck by a place where winged lions, angels and prancing horses look down at you from their columns and balustrades – as they have looked down on their public for hundreds of years.
Napoleon called St Mark’s Square “the finest drawing room in Europe” and it has that feel of a place where people want to linger, to talk, to sit on the steps or in one of the pavement caffès. Entering from one of the arcades, it’s hard not to gasp at the sheer size of the space, covered as it is with pigeons and tourists.
But come here at dusk, when the crowds have dispersed and the lights are starting to come on and you’ll find a much more magical atmosphere. Take the lift to the top of the belltower at the Campanile and marvel at the city anew as it rediscovers itself in the oncoming darkness. This is the time to wander around the piazza without the crowds, to listen to the orchestra playing and smell the rich aroma of hot chocolate being served by white-suited waiters at the tables outside Caffè Florian. Is Venice worth visiting at this time of day? Absolutely.
At the beginning of the last century, the German novelist, Thomas Mann, called Venice “Part fairy tale, part tourist trap”. There are certainly elements of both but even now it’s not so difficult to escape from the crowds. Wander a couple of streets away from St Mark’s and you’ll find yourself in a different Venice entirely. A Venice of tiny canals and little squares called campos with a fountain in the middle where a centuries-old statue – an angel, a winged lion or a turbaned man – looks down at you. Washing is hanging up outside the windows of the houses and life goes on much as it has done for hundreds of years.
To discover Venice is to get lost in these little lanes, to wander inside a neighbourhood church and find yourself staring at a Tintoretto. Turn another corner, cross a narrow bridge and get lost once more. The shops lined with carnival masks add to the aura of mystery and enchantment. Make your way towards the back and you’ll find the door ajar to a tiny workshop where an artist is painting faces on masks or blowing glass into colourful bowls. Is Venice worth visiting for this? Yes, and yes again.
To fall in love with Venice is to become entranced by its otherness, by the dreamlike quality of a city on the water. You’ll find yourself continually drawn towards the water, to gaze at the elegant curves of the gondolas silhouetted against the hazy blue light. The mists rising up from the lagoon swirl around the tower of San Giorgio Maggiore across the water and give Venice an ethereal quality as the blues of the sky bleed into the paler blues of the lagoon, setting off the vibrant covers on the fleet of gondolas waiting at the pier.
Then there’s the indigo green of the Grand Canal, its sides lined with ornate palaces in pinks, yellows and ivories. Candy cane-striped paline stand straight as toy soldiers in the water outside, their motorboats and gondolas moored alongside. It’s at its best in the late afternoon when the dipping sun bathes the palaces in a golden light.
But on a morning, over by the Rialto market, the smell of fresh fish attracts a group of squealing seagulls who fly over the heads of the passengers standing on the traghetto crossing the canal, its two gondoliers stood rowing at each end. They fly over to the gigantic hands of the child holding up the peach-coloured palazzo on the other side. The sculpture is part of on installation for the Venice Biennale by artist Lorenzo Quinn to highlight climate change and rising sea levels in the historic city.
A police boat speeds down the canal. For this is a city with no roads. The only traffic comes by boat so gondolas and water buses compete for water space alongside fire engines, kayaks, water taxis and rubbish trucks. Just close your eyes for a minute and imagine the silence of a city at night without the noise of cars or lorries.
And so Venice will seduce you in the end. You’ll find yourself giving in to its charms. You’ll do things you’d consider far too touristy in other places. You’ll ride in a gondola and you’ll love it. You’ll surrender to its gentle rhythm, lulled by the sound of the oar dipping in and out of the water. You’ll glide down the narrow canals, under bridges and past palazzos and you’ll vow to come back. Because this, after all, is Venice. Is Venice worth visiting? What do you think?
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