Venice: Silent Gondolieri and fairy-tale romance

Venice is a labyrinth of canals. It is easy to get lost on its narrow meandering streets, no matter how many maps you are carrying. The good thing about Venice is that getting lost there is a bliss; every little corner of the city is picturesque and inviting.

Sailing into Venice is a wonderful experience. The domes and the bridges, the palazzos and quietly drifting gondolas provide an almost magical vision; an impression which will not be betrayed when you first set foot in this wondrous waterland.

A view of the famous bridge of sighs

My first impression, as I got off the shuttle boat from the cruise ship terminal to San Marco and touched Venetian soil, was one of unreality and fantasy, as if I had just walked into this gigantic Hollywood movie set. Nothing was out of place, all of the buildings and the fountains, the bridges and the canals spoke of the past; the whole city seemed to have been designed to tell one story, but I had yet to find out which story that was. Was this Othello´s Venice or Casanova´s Venice, the Doge´s domain or a refined cultural center of modern Italy?

Shakespeare and his “moor of Venice” had sprung to mind  the first time I flew into Venice, as I saw a black man delivering pizza at the airport. That image alone made me think that not much had changed since Shakespeare´s times, not even in Venice. Of course, Shakespeare fans visiting Venice will have more to remember him by if they head down to the nearing city of Verona for the exclusive Romeo and Juliet tour around the church, the houses and the streets where the actual story of the two Veronese lovers might have taken place.

In fairy-tale (water)land

But before envisaging a trip to Verona, you have to wander the streets of Venice and get lost in them once and again. Your starting point will be San Marco square, where you can visit the impressive Basilica, or catch an Elton John concert like I did last August, as outdoor concerts are not unusual in the city, specially during Venice´s busy summers.

One of the most expensive places in Italy, Venice offers some very exclusive shopping, from Armani to Cavalli and from Dolce & Gabbana to every international designer store. The hotels and restaurants around San Marco are excellent but pricey, although there are more affordable options nearby, like coffee shops where you can get delicious sandwiches for a handful of Euro.

If you walk along the water from San Marco to the right, you will pass some beautiful bridges, and, after passing only a couple, you will  discover the infamous Bridge of Sighs; a tunnel connecting a former prison with the fabulous Doge´s palace.  Venice used to be a city state; a Republic ruled by the Doges for over a thousand years.  The magnificent palace, which is open for visits, recalls the past splendor of the “Serene Republic of Venice”. Gothic in style, it was built during the XIV and XV centuries. The bridge was added a century later, in a more classical style. It was called the Bridge of Sighs because prisoners used to sigh as they saw Venice for the last time, while they were conducted  to the prison and, possibly, to their death. The little arched bridge overlooking the Bridge of Sighs is probably the busiest bridge in Venice, as it is a favorite for taking trademark photographs of the city.

But Venice is not only the land, or rather, the lagoon of intrepid sailors, crusaders and brave men; it is also the home of Giacomo Casanova, the world´s greatest lover. It is possible to take a Casanova tour of Venice, at night-time, where an actor will take you to the astute lover´s hiding places and share a bit of his story.

Wearing my Venetian mask at a costume party

Internationally though, Venice is famous for two things: its Carnival and the Film Festival. The Carnival is a feast for the senses, where nothing is forbidden for those  hidden behind a mask. But, even if you don´t go to Venice during the Carnival season, you absolutely must take home one of their gorgeous masks. The masks are mostly hand-made at local workshops. I particularly like the ones with a long beak, like out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, but whichever one you buy, it will be a bliss to know that this is one souvenir that is NOT made in China.

The Venice Film Festival takes place in the summer in Lido, Venice´s glamorous beach resort located just a 20-minute ferry ride away from Piazza San Marco. At this time of the year, it is not uncommon to sail past George Clooney riding a private motor-boat or to spot the current cover girl sipping Prosecco at the outdoor bar of the Excelsior Hotel.

At Lido beach before a glamorous Film Festival party

There are two things that surprised me, going from the historical center to Lido, much more than the superstar presence: one was the beauty of the sandy beaches, which is hard to imagine from the sight of the polluted canals; the other thing was  the Armenian monastery of Mekhitarian,  which was one of the stops on the ferry ride. This three hundred year old order was formed by Armenian monks who  came to Venice after fleeing Turkish persecution. The building itself and the beautiful island it is located on are certainly worth a visit.

As far as shopping is concerned Murano crystal is one of the local favorites. The island of Murano can be reached by ferry, and it will provide opportunities to see remarkable glass-making demonstrations. What singles out Murano glass in the world is mainly its design and, although you may find some cheap small souvenir, the price you´ll have to pay for those vases and ashtrays and what-not shall be steep, but they will be just so beautiful, it might be hard to resist.

During the night, Venice is more quiet than other Italian cities, since most bars and restaurants close before 1 or 2 AM. My favorite bar in Venice is Bacaro Jazz, near the Rialto area. In spite of the unusual hanging-bra decoration of the ceiling, the Bacaro has friendly bar servers, good background music, and their fried shrimp is to die for.

A labyrinth of bridges, canals, covered galleries, dark alleys and palazzos with doors at water level, Venice is still as sensual and mysterious as ever.

Once you´ve experienced Venice, you will always long for the quiet gondola rides with the silent gondolieri at the helm and the gentle marine breeze cooling your face, while the crowds of tourists look at you with the eyes of envy, sweating on the streets and cursing their pedestrian fate.

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