Thursday, 5 September 2013

Venice - a pearl

Venice is as lovely as most people imagine. It's like no other city for its layout, geography, monuments and the shopping is interesting. There's quality and cheap nonsense. We had one day's guided tour and half a day's independence there. It wasn't long enough. Of all the cities we visited, this would be my favourite, though Florence was also great to explore. I hope you'll enjoy reading this extended blogpost on this city.

The Republic of Venice was a major maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and a launching pad for the Crusades, as well as a very important centre of commerce and art in the 13th century until the end of the 17th century. This made Venice wealthy throughout most of its history. Venice is the birthplace of Antonio Vivaldi. It lost it's independence as a republic when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered it on 12 May 1797. While he was there he removed a lot of precious art and sent it back to France so in some buildings what you see are sometimes copies of originals.
 Venice had a governmental structure different to the other areas of Italy as it was similar to the republican system of ancient Rome, with an elected (for life) chief executive (the Doge), a senate-like assembly of nobles, and a mass of citizens with limited political power. Politics and Law were not separate entities but politics and the military were, except when the Doge personally headed the military. War was used effectively as a means of continuing commerce.

Its location meant that there were byzantine architectural influences and war with the ottoman empire was always on the cards. The main square is San Marco (St Mark's) and there you'll find the basilica and near that the Doge's palace.

Venice's geographical situation meant that it was relatively easy to defend due to the presence of the lagoon which only locals knew how to safely navigate. Safe lanes were usually marked out, as today, with posts and if under attack the locals would simply remove the posts and watch the enemy ground and sink itself. You can see that Venice is not an ancient fortified town, for this reason, since it's a collection of 118 connected islands.

The buildings of Venice are constructed on closely spaced wooden piles. Most of these piles are still intact after centuries of submersion. The foundations rest on the piles, and buildings of brick or stone sit above these footings. The piles penetrate a softer layer of sand and mud until they reach a very hard layer of compressed clay.

When submerged by water, in oxygen-poor conditions, wood does not rot as rapidly as on the surface. Most of these piles were made from trunks of alder trees, noted for water resistance.
During the 20th century, when many artesian wells were sunk into the periphery of the lagoon to draw water for local industry, Venice began to subside. It was realised that extraction of water from the acquifer was the cause. The sinking has slowed considerably since artesian wells were banned in the 1960s. However, the city is still threatened by more frequent low-level floods.

Some recent studies have suggested that the city is no longer sinking but this is not yet certain so in May 2003, the Italian Prime Minister inaugurated the MOSE project (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), an experimental model for evaluating the performance of hollow floatable gates; the idea is to attach 78 hollow pontoons to the sea bed across the three entrances to the lagoon. When tides are predicted to rise above 110 centimetres, the pontoons will be filled with air, making them block incoming water from the Adriatic Sea. This engineering work is due for completion by 2014.

Venice has many iconic symbols which include the gondolas (mostly used for tourists), the Grand Canal, carnival masks and glassware. I love to just wander and potter and see what happens so I stumbled upon a workshop of one of the venetian mask-makers. He spoke little English so I couldn't get an explanation of the process. The best ones are made from paper mache and the tourist ones are plastic. The quality ones are super-expensive and probably not easy to take back in a suitcase. The cheap ones are everywhere. It's fun to look at the masks in the shops and high-end galleries.

Venice has no cars. This takes a while to sink in (so to speak) as there are no roads. Everything is ferried by boat. You travel via water taxi or Vaporetto- the scheduled water 'bus' on the Grand Canal. You can see an example in the accompanying photo of peak-hour traffic on one of the side canals. A few days before our arrival a German tourist was killed when he jumped into the water to rescue his young daughter but was crushed between a vaporetto and a gondola.

At a fork in one of the side canals I saw what is reputed to be the rose-coloured house of Casanova (see photo). We all know Casanova was a ladies man. He was thrown in prison beside the Doge's Palace and eventually escaped. He wrote about his escapades in a book but it's widely believed that his account of the escape was fiction and that it is more probable he bribed the guards to look the other way. Both Casanova and Marco Polo are two of the reknowned Venetian adventurers and writers.

The Doge's Palace is a must see. It contains exquisite rooms including the audience waiting rooms designed to impress and humble visitors. You can't take photos inside. There is a direct passageway to the old prisons on the other side of the side canal so justice could be quickly implemented. The prisons on the top floor 'cooked' prisoners and the prisons on the bottom were dank and created illnesses. We visited some of the cells.

Basilica di San Marco doesn't allow photos inside and queues are enormous if you haven't pre-booked. So get organised online and it should be worth a visit. The square is picturesque and full of pigeons and expensive shops. It's a key meeting point and point of reference for setting off to explore further afield, such as the main Rialto  bridge across the Grand Canal. Allow 20 minutes to find your way there through the crowds.

Gondolas are everywhere. They have velvet-covered seats and in some cases a trio of musicians may be on board to serenade you. I'd have loved to have had a gondola ride and mentioned this to JC but he just said they are  expensive (50-100 euros for 30 mins). That was the end of that because I couldn't afford to pay myself. I'd definitely do it if I came back to Venice but don't haggle too hard or you'll find  key sites missing off your itinerary.

 Murano and Burano (Glass and lace) are two islands off the coast of Venice proper. One of the most renowned types of Venetian glass is made Murano and has been for centuries. Located off the shore of Venice, Murano was a commercial port as far back as the 7th century. By the 10th century it had become a well-known city of trade. Today Murano remains a destination for tourists and art and jewellery lovers alike.

We visited a factory on Murano and watched a glass-blower demonstrating his trade. Prices were too high to buy here. It's better to buy items in Venice. Prices range to cover all budgets.
The other island we visited was Burano and its lace-making.  Lace was exported all over Europe but is in a serious decline as it's only old ladies who make it now and it's super expensive due to being so labour intensive. Some doilies would have been nice to buy but I let them stay there.

Burano is also known for its small, brightly painted houses, popular with artists. The colours of the houses follow a specific system; if someone wishes to paint their home, they must send a request to the government, who will respond by advising of the colours permitted for that sector. If you've got time and money visit these islands,otherwise save both and skip them, they are not essential.

With all the twists and turns it's easy to get lost in Venice. Get a decent map and ask shopkeepers at every second turn. Signposts are frequently confusing. It's generally a safe city but beware of pick pockets.

 I was very surprised to see a shop called Auckland New Zealand. I don't know if it had any products from NZ or not because it was closed for the evening but it was rather odd to see any reference to my former country in Venice. The fernleaf sign was not traditional so it may simply have been an exotic brand with no reference to NZ at all such as a shop in Nice called Maori. That sort of thing annoys me.

Access to Venice is expensive, whether its via water taxi etc from the Marco Polo airport on the mainland, or car parking on the mainland or a tour bus trying to park temporarily to let off its passengers, you'll pay an arm and a leg. There's a bridge for buses, no cars. Most visitors must ravel over water, obviously.

I loved this city and hope you enjoyed this lengthy post and photos.

This marks the end of my blogposts on my trip to Italy in August 2013. The blog continues with chronicles of my unpredictable daily life in France.


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