Posted by: rkurzweil | 11/21/2009

Venice – La Serenissima

I recently returned from a trip to Italy, during which I got to visit Rome, Florence and Venice. This was my second time in Italy, but my first visit to Venice. I can assure you that it will not be my last.

Over the years, I have heard so much about Venice and at times have wondered if it is possible for any city to really be all the things that people have said about it. Well guess what – it is all that and more. It is a truly indescribable place. It is mysterious and beautiful. It is a dream built on the impossible that has somehow survived for 1500 years now. It is a relic of a city struggling in a modern world that it seems to want no part of. Did I mention that it is beautiful? Its beauty really is beyond description and I believe that it is nearly impossible to convey it in words. It has to be experienced.

Grand Canal

So what is it about Venice that is so enchanting? Let’s start with the fact that there are no roads, and thus no cars, buses or motorcycles. Even bicycles are not allowed. When you get there, you don’t realize how quiet the place is (even with all of the crowds) because there is just nothing to compare it to in this regard. When you leave Venice is when it hits you. When you get back to the traffic and the noise of a modern city, you realize how quiet – dare I say serene – Venice is. I find myself wishing that there were no cars in my city. It really is a different lifestyle when you don’t have motor vehicles racing all over the place. Of course Venice is filled with boats, many of which are motorized. So on the Grand Canal, traffic can be as bad as any highway in the world. But it is still different than car traffic.

Then you have the actual buildings all over the city. Venice is made up of about 120 islands that are strung together by pedestrian bridges over all of the canals. The Canals themselves are the “roads” of the city, as they have been since the 8th Century. I think it has probably been a few hundred years since any major construction of houses or “mansions,” especially along the Grand Canal. So the properties that you see are actually not only stunning but quite historic. Unfortunately, the expense of maintenance has caused many of them to be abandoned. Venice is an extremely expensive city to live in. And the constant maintenance that is necessary to keep these “houses” up is also prohibitively expensive. After all, most of the buildings are not built on solid ground. They get rested on hundreds of wood pilings that are driven into the bed of the lagoon. And the level of the water around the lagoon seems to be rising, while at the same time the foundations of the buildings are sinking into the seabed. It makes for a rather tense situation. And as far as I understand things, there is not a great deal of consensus as to how to deal with the problem.


But let’s forget about the problems and concentrate on the great things about Venice. We arrived at the Marco Polo airport, which is on the mainland, and took a bus over to a square near the train station (which is actually in Venice). From there, we walked with our luggage, doing our best to find our way over the various canals to where our hotel was located. It took us a while, and a few missteps, but we eventually made it there. We stayed at a hotel called the Hotel Abbazia. Abbazia is an Italian word for Abbey and the name comes from the fact that the hotel is actually a converted Abbey. I assume the Abbey belonged to the church that was nearby (St Maria di Nazareth), but I am not completely sure. Regardless, the place was an absolute treat as a hotel and the staff of the hotel could not have treated us better. That is always something I am concerned about in Europe, as the standards tend to be a bit different from US hotels, and those that work in the service industry in Italy are not, in my opinion, always particularly friendly.

Fire Brigade practice/training

After collapsing in bed as a result of our almost 24 hours in transit, we woke up the next day ready for our Venetian adventures. Unfortunately, the weather was kind of bad. It was cold and there was a steady rain all day. But we were prepared for this possibility, so we did not let it hold us back. Venice is a city completely overrun with tourists in the summer time. I knew that I did not want to have to fight off the hordes on my first trip there. That is why I scheduled our trip for November. The drawback with November is the wet weather. It is not guaranteed to be wet, but it often is. The byproduct of all the rain is that there is flooding around the city. Some of the Fondamentos (the “streets” along the canals) end up being partially or completely flooded. And St. Mark’s Square is almost always flooded during this time period because it is the lowest part of the city. The waters covered most of the square, and even managed to flood St. Mark’s Basilica. The city is prepared for this acqua alta (high water) and erects elevated walkways for people to be able to walk above the flooding. Interestingly, the city was still quite crowded. If this is the offseason, I would really hate to see the high season. There were hundreds of people in line to visit St. Mark’s Basilica. But it wasn’t too bad.

Basilica of St Mark - Interior

The cathedral is truly awe inspiring. The mosaics and Byzantine-influenced art is breath taking. But Venice is FILLED with churches. We visited about 15 of them. Not only are the buildings and the altars beautiful, but they also contain incredible paintings from the likes of Titian, Tintoretto and other great Venetian artists. And I have to say that St. Mark’s was not my favorite (though it is very impressive). My favorite was the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (referred to as the Frari by most people). This church was a little unusual as it had monuments to individuals that are not saints (Titian, for example). I didn’t know a Catholic Church would do that, but this one did. The place is absolutely huge. Other notable churches we visited are Il Redentore, Il Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore and Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello. This last one is the oldest building still standing in Venice, dating back to the 7th or 8th century. It has some of the most spectacular mosaics I have ever seen anywhere and is well worth the time it takes to get to Torcello.

The mass transit system of Venice consists of a series of boats called the Vaporetto. They hold about 100 people or so each and the system can take you all around the various islands of the main city, as well as to Burano, Murano, Torcello and the airport. It is a very efficient system and it is a GREAT way to see the city. We enjoyed just sitting on a vaporetto that rode all the way through the Grand Canal. When it isn’t raining, I think it may be the best way to get an overview of the city.

Rialto Bridge

I can’t talk about the time in Venice without discussing the Jewish section of the city. Venice was a city that allowed Jews to be permanent residents pretty early on (starting in the early 1500’s). They were confined to a specific area of town. That section became known as the Ghetto. It is where we get the word from. The word comes from the Venetian word for Iron Foundry (Geto) that turned into Ghetto. Even though the Jews would be locked up in this section of town at night, it still was a step forward for them.

In present-day Venice, you can tour the Ghetto as well as 3 of the synagogues (or “scuolas”) that date from this period of time. The synagogues were divided based on the origins of the practitioners; Sephardic Jews (from Spain and Portugal) worshipped at the Spanish Synagogue. Eastern European Jews (what we now refer to as Ashkenazi) worshipped at the German synagogue. The Levantine Jews (from around the Mediterranean and Turkey) also had their own synagogue. It is interesting that with all of the prejudice of the Christian community against the Jews, they had to further divide themselves within their own community. You get to see three of the synagogues on a guided tour. They are really quite interesting. The Jews did not build their own synagogues. They would use a room or floor in an existing building. There is also a monument to the Holocaust and another one specifically for the Jews that were deported from Venice by the Nazis. If you get to Venice, I highly recommended this tour. Hopefully you will get a friendlier guide than we had, but even if you don’t, it is a memorable experience.

There is so much more I could say about Venice, but the best thing to do is to try to experience it for yourself. To see some of my photos, click here. And enjoy!!


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