As I stood in the middle of the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square)in Venice, surrounded by pigeons, tourists from all over the world, the bright Italian sun and the smells of pasta and cappuccino all I could hear was the song of the Italian language. It reverberated through my body, sinking into my bones, and welcoming me back. I was standing in Piazza San Marco in Venice as tears began to form in my eyes while pure joy ran through my veins. I had arrived back in the country that feels like home to me.
For ten years I have dreamt of returning to the country I love, and of standing back in this spot, under the four bronze horses, and the gold lion with the entire world swirling around me. It is different than when I was here before. Last time it was in January, it was practically deserted and I roamed the streets with J. with almost no one else around. We toured St. Marco’s church alone and stood in the Piazza with only ten other people around. It was magical. This time while surrounded by people, and waiting in line to get into the Basilica I realized that it is impossible for Venice to lose its magic whether there are a few or thousands moving around it.
It is important to me to stay present in the moment. In Piazza San Marco it was even more so. I didn’t want to lose this moment, it was the start of a month touring Italy, seeing places I had never seen, places that I couldn’t wait to get back to, and friends to spend time with after ten years apart. I didn’t want to lose the moment thinking about the crowds, the heat or the terrible case of vertigo I had developed after a massive allergy attack in France & Switzerland. Working for this moment for ten years was all that sometimes kept me going through the 70 hour work weeks, and the incredible stress, I didn’t want to take away from it. Unfortunately for J. this meant powering through the crowds as we slowly made our way to the water and the glorious views that define Venice. I believe I must have looked like a child discovering Disneyland with my head turned up towards the tops of the buildings and the incredible Italian sun. I walked in wonder and glory, after waiting for ten years the power of the moment made all of the colors more intense, the architecture more pronounced and the glistening water more welcoming.
For some reason whenever I am in this city I can’t help but think of the writers who have wandered these streets before me, entranced by the mystery and beauty that is Venice. I think it is easy to do this because Venice has not changed. The buildings, the monuments and the mode of transportation is the same as it has always been. The water lapping against the buildings and coursing through the neighborhoods is so unique and special that it demands appreciation. On most buildings you can physically see the struggle for survival with metal rods and anchors having been installed in the last 100 years to give them support and keep them from collapsing. Venice wears its history well and invites all visitors to discover it.
The goal for this visit to Venice was to see the things we had missed before. We started at St. Marco’s, even though it was a repeat, because I honestly think you could visit this church 10 times and never see everything, from the gorgeous mosaic floor to the gold mosaic ceiling every detail of this church is worth noting and admiring. (There are over 85,000 square feet of mosaics in St. Marco’s Church!) The more than 500 columns in the building lead you through the church to an area behind the altar where the Pala d’Oro has been housed since it was created in 976 A. D. It has been expanded several times since then. The gold screen has 250 squares which house 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, along with rubies, topazes, and enameled figures of holy men and Jesus. It is an absolute marvel to see the intricate work of each stone, each enameled portrait, and the overwhelming gold. The piece is 9.8 feet wide by 6.6 feet tall. Standing before it I could think of nothing but the artists who spent their lives working on this piece. The care with which they created every square centimeter is evident as you notice the tiniest of intricacies, like the way the pearls rest as halos above mens heads. It is one of the most important works of Byzantine enamel in existence. While it costs a few euro more to see it, it is worth every penny. We kept trying to walk away from it and then found ourselves back to it because we realized we hadn’t seen even a fraction of it.
There is an upstairs area in the Church where you can step on to the balcony of St. Mark’s and look out over the magnificent Piazza The view from here is stunning. You see the entire piazza, the Doge’s Palace, the beautiful canal and the impressive buildings leading the canal into the bay. Touring upstairs you can learn more about the history of the church and get up close to the mosaics on the ceiling and walls. Standing next to the walls, seeing the pieces of mosaic which are smaller than a quarter and then looking up to see how many millions of them were carefully placed on every wall and ceiling to create the masterpieces that have survived here for thousands of years, it is impossible to not be moved. I can promise you that the detail, and beauty of the Basilica (church) will leave you breathless.
One of the best things to do in Venice is to wander. The architectural details on the buildings, the delicious food, gorgeous window displays in the stores and beautiful bridges never end, leading you from one place to the next. While it is easy to get overwhelmed by the crowds, if you get off the main streets when you need a break, you can continue your tour, and even spot some sights most people don’t see. This happened to us one day when we went across the Rialto bridge in search of Santa Maria della Salute. We found ourselves away from the heavy flow of people and in neighborhoods with the locals. We had lunch at restaurant where we were the only tourists, tucked away at the end of a brick walkway, running right along a small canal. It was absolutely perfect, and J. discovered the delicious treat of adding French fries to a pizza (due to a misunderstanding of our Italian speaking waitress). The getting lost was half the fun, the other half was in spotting architectural details and buildings we weren’t expecting and having the space to appreciate them. While it took the better part of the day, which we had not planned on, the discoveries made it worth the time we lost on our other plans.
Another day we decided to take the water bus from one end of the Grand Canal to the other. We really enjoyed this, especially since we were lucky enough to find seats on the outside of the boat. Sitting in the semi-circle in back of the boat with the wind rustling your hair as you move along the canal you have to fight to become overloaded by all of the activity, and sights. The Grand Canal is everything you think it will be. It is extremely romantic, lined on both sides with stunning buildings with antique glass windows cut in arches and balconies overlooking the canal. There are huge buildings which were once palaces filled with balconies and flowers and grand seating areas at ground level. Of course gondolas travel up and down the canal moving gracefully between the water buses, water taxis, and private boats. There is something so special in Venice which you can’t find anywhere else. If you take Line 1 it runs up and down the Grand Canal giving you a great visual of the city. We didn’t realize we were at the end and had to disembark at Lido which was not what we had expected but again turned out great. We had a delicious lunch in a beautiful restaurant sitting along the canal. From Lido you see the canal from a different perspective, instead of the homes leading you to the opening at the bay your eyes flow over the wide open bay to meet with huge churches and domed buildings atop of which are incredible metal sculptures. The massive expanse of the buildings were meant to impress and to show the importance of the city you are entering. As impressive as they are now I can only imagine what it was like to approach this city 200 years ago. While Lido is about 15 minutes outside of Venice on another little islet it is worth the ride out there not only to experience Venice from another vantage point but to experience the culture here without the crowds.
As you walk through the more tourist focused areas you will find Italian men outside of restaurants doing their best to convince you to eat at their establishment. They are pretty charming and quite fun to talk to. Many of them have elaborate verbal productions to coax you into their establishment, like promises of mama’s home recipes, or free Spritzes, or the best lasagna found in the world, it feels like an Egyptian market at times, all with the lightest of hearts, after all this is Italy. I prefer to eat off the beaten track if possible. The food tastes better and the experience is more genuine. We found a few places along the canal further away from San Marcos where each table was candlelit, the restaurants were small and the city lights made the perfect backdrop for good wine and conversation.
The Bridge of Sighs was high on my list of things to see. For some reason the story of how it got its name was so intriguing to me, I had to see it in person. The story goes that the name came from the purpose of the bridge. Men who were sentenced to jail had to cross the bridge on their way to prison. They called it the Bridge of Sighs because they said as the men walked over the bridge they would let out huge sighs as they took their last looks at Venice. I was overwhelmed by the imagery of standing on this white bridge, looking out over the city, not only realizing I would never see it again but that I would never be free again. Luckily our wanderings took us past it from many angles and I immediately understood.
The one thing I found disappointing was the Venice Casino. J loves to visit casinos in each country. With the grandeur of Venice he had high hopes for the casino. While the entrance was really cool with a stately courtyard and views of the Grand Canal the inside was a bit tired and underwhelming. We did get lucky at blackjack and roulette though, so J’s winning streak continues.
While leaving Venice is never easy for me I am so excited to visit the new cities we will see in Italy that it softens the blow as we take the water bus to the train station, stop for coffee and get ready to board our next train.