Tour Day 1
This afternoon, we meet our tour group of 26 other travelers, and our intrepid leader, Patricia. My traveling companion and I are not sure how we will like ten days of togetherness with the group. We come from Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and South Carolina. Some couples, some friends or relatives, some traveling solo. We introduce ourselves. My traveling companion says he is here for the adventure. I explain that as an artist, I have always wanted to see the art and architecture I studied in Art History class.
Patricia orients us to the city. She teaches us about pickpockets, a common problem, and how to conduct ourselves in crowds. She is organized, funny, charming, competent, and motherly at the same time. We adjust to wearing headsets. At first, the devices feel awkward. Later, we come to rely on them.
We have a fine Venetian dinner of lasagna and tiramisu at Ristorante Antica Sacrestia. The building is hundreds of years old, and has been carefully restored. Our group gets louder as wine is consumed. After dinner, Patricia leads us through an evening stroll in Piazza San Marco. Dueling tuxedo-clad orchestras play from cafes lining the piazza. Street hawkers throw balls of light high up into the sky, and the show is altogether magical.
Patricia posts the next day’s schedule in the hotel lobby. We retire early, because we’ll leave right after breakfast in the morning for a full day of touring, and we don’t want to be the last ones down!
Tour Day 2
Our tour group meets in the morning, and everyone is on time. We set off to see Venice with Patricia and a local guide. First stop, the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. The palazzo is renowned for its amazing arched spiral staircase. In the courtyard, we view a collection of cisterns, and learn how the Venetian used to manage their water supply.
We visit the area where Marco Polo lived as a child, Corte Seconda del Milion. Newer 16th century buildings are located on the foundation of Marco Polo’s original house. To think we are standing in the same piazza where the great 13th century explorer likely played sends chills down our spine.
We find the only hospital left in Venice, Ospedale Civile in Campo San Giovanni e Paolo, a gorgeous 15th century building. We regroup in front of another winged lion sculpture at Campo Manin for a short break before tackling the crowds at San Marco.
Onto Basilica San Marco. “Little darlings, little darlings,” Patricia says, as we negotiate multiple chains of school children crowding the piazza. Even though we are traveling at the beginning of tourist season, many of the locations we visit are jam-packed with school groups. Even so, the beginning of April is a very good time to travel in Italy. The weather is perfectly beautiful, with clear blue skies, and temperatures in the 60’s and 70’s.
“Little darlings, little darlings.”
We bypass the long lines, and go right into the opulent basilica. The space is cavernous. A choir is singing. Mosaics of gold cover the walls and ceiling, symbols of Venetian power and wealth. Byzantine in style, the basilica feels more Eastern than Italian. We climb the stairs to the balcony for another bird’s eye view of the piazza.
We view the four famous bronze statues of horses. The statues are likely Roman, from the second century A.D. The originals sculptures were taken from Constantinople in 1204, and were placed on the balcony of the basilica above the entrance. Replicas stand there now. The actual sculptures are displayed inside St. Mark’s Basilica, for their protection. We learn that the Venetians stole everything: the columns in front of the basilica, the horse statues, the bones of St. Mark. We realize how far away and how far back in time we have traveled.
Our group separates for lunch. My traveling companion and I walk across Piazza San Marco to visit the Museo Correr. The elegant, neoclassical building was once the Royal Palace of Venice, used by the ruling powers throughout the 19th century. The Napoleonic wing was built by Napoleon I in grand style to reflect his authority. The museum is not crowded, allowing us an easily digestible taste of Venetian art and life.
Fortified with a tasty lunch of salad and local wine at Birreria Forst, we are ready to tackle the landmark Doge’s Palace.
On the outside, the Venetian Gothic style Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, is delicately lacy and imposing at the same time. For hundreds of years, it served as the Doge’s residence, the seat of Venice’s power, and the hall of justice. It helps to understand a little Venetian history here. The Republic of Venice was a major power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. Venice commanded the seas. Trade in silk and spices made Venice wealthy. Venice was a creative center of culture, art, and music. During this time, the Doge was the ruler, the supreme authority. And so both his residence and governmental offices needed to be imposing and grand: power equals wealth. And this is amply demonstrated in the jaw-dropping Doge’s Palace.
Each room at the palace is more ornate than the next, with gigantic painted frescoes, massive wood doors, and carved and gilded ceilings. Most impressive to us is Tintoretto’s Paradise, the largest oil painting in the world, filling the wall behind the Doge’s seat in the Hall of the Great Council. Other notable paintings in the palace include works by Veronese, Titian, Tiepolo, and Bellini; some depict events from the history of Venice.
I take photographs with a Nikon Coolpix, and my companion, with his Pixel phone. In Venice, around every corner another gorgeous view awaits. We could spend all our time taking pictures, and miss experiencing the moment. I decide to focus my photography on certain items—a scavenger hunt of sorts. In each city, I will look for a bridge, a dome, a campanile, a fountain, a market, a column, a symbol of the city. At the Doge’s Palace, I begin focusing upwards, on the beautiful ceilings. And I continue my collection of putti photos—naked baby angels. Who knew there were so many!
See more Ornate Ceilings
Allora, we visit one of the most famous bridges in the world, the Bridge of Sighs. We have seen the bridge from the outside, but now we cross inside, as the condemned did on their way to the prison across the canal. The prison is primitive, claustrophobic, horrifying. We must get out, out into the sunshine and fresh air, out to look for comfort in a cup of gelato.
In the evening, we do what you just have to do when in Venice, and that is take a gondola ride. We go out as a group in four boats. We sit five or six to a gondola, plus the gondolier. We feel like we are on a water ride at an amusement park, or at the Venetian in Las Vegas, but we try to ignore that, and concentrate on the back canal views of the city.
We are accompanied by musicians: an opera singer and an accordion player. The tenor who serenades us is magnificent. We traverse a very narrow canal, surrounded by the beautiful decay that is Venice. The singer reaches the high point in Santa Lucia. His voice reverberates from the building on each side of us, like in an echo chamber. A bell begins to toll. The moment feels sublime. I will hold on to that moment, truly one of the highlights of the tour, and not on the rush hour traffic of the Grand Canal.
“Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!”
See more of the Grand Canal
Afterwards, a group of us cross the Rialto Bridge, and head over to the San Polo sestiere to find the best chiccetti bars. The bridge is almost impassible, full of people with selfie sticks. At Osteria Al Diavolo E l’Acquasanta, we sample local wine and interesting fried cheese snacks. Later, we have dinner outdoors at Vini Da Pinto with four others from our group. The pizza, wine, and conversation are all quite good. After we eat, our most excellent waiter brings us shots of limoncello, a lemon-flavored liqueur that my traveling companion and I find too sweet. We are comfortable with our new traveling friends, and with the city. We don’t get lost on the way back to the hotel, even in the dark Venetian night.
Tour Day 3
Our last day in Venice is full of art and culture. We spend the morning with a local guide at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. My traveling companion and I have spent our entire adult lives going to Art museums—me, to study, and him, let’s just say he’s been dragged along for the ride. But we have never been to a museum with a guide, and it is truly a mind-opening experience. We see and understand so many things we would have passed by with a cursory glance. We don’t try to view everything. We take a simpler, sane approach to museums, and focus on a few pieces.
The Accademia displays a strong collection of Byzantine art—diptychs, triptychs, and polytychs.
Venetian art at the Accademia is outstanding. The museum displays masterpieces by Bellini, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Titian, Vasari, Veronese. And da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. We especially like the painting Feast at the House of Levi, by Veronese, with its product placement of Murano glass goblets. I discover more putti for my naked baby angel collection.
We find ourselves saying the same thing we say every day on this tour: “This is the best thing we’ve done so far.”
We board a water taxi and travel to the islands northeast of Venice. The bright blue sky and wind in our faces feels invigorating as we pass through the Grand Canal. We view the Basilica San Marco and the Doge’s Palace from the water. We pass long, skinny Lido, where many Venetians live. It seems strange to see cars there. We leave the canal and enter the lagoon. We learn about the MOSE Project, large flood control gates that have been under construction for many years. Venice and its Lagoon are designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. But it is obvious that the city is a living museum of history and art, and needs protection and preservation, even from being overrun by tourists such as ourselves.
We pass by the glassmaking island of Murano, and stop at Burano, the lace making island. This is where you find the iconic images of multi-colored buildings along the canal. The effect is cheerful. We have lunch at Trattoria da Romano: spaghetti with clams, cheese, wine, and heavenly grilled vegetables. We indulge in tourist shopping; this is a great place to purchase lace scarves, or other items made of lace. Later, at the hotel, I discover that two of the scarves were made in China, but no matter. We are happy to help out the economy of this small island. Too soon, we have to leave Burano for the next island, Torcello.
The first Venetians settled in Torcello. Fleeing barbarian invasions on the mainland, people in the region took shelter on the island around 450. It is hard to imagine that this deserted island was once home to about 20,000 people. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta dominates the landscape. We respect the request for no photography. We keep our voices low. The ancient church was founded in 639, and contains the earliest mosaics in the Venice area: a beautiful Byzantine Virgin, a Crucifixion, a Last Judgement, numerous saints. We light a candle. The newer 11th century Church of Santa Fosca sits nearby.
On the way back to the boat, we pass the other attraction on Torcello, Locanda Cipriani. This inn and restaurant has hosted an amazing list of royalty and celebrities: Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Elton John, and many others. We spot no stars—the place is closed today.
Now Torcello is our favorite thing so far.
“This is the best thing we’ve done so far.”
We return to the hustling main part of Venice for our last night. My traveling companion and I have our favorite meal—cheese, bread, salad, and wine, at Vino, Vino. We take our last walk through St. Mark’s Square as the sun sets, holding hands.
In the morning, we say arrivederci to Venice. Our group boards the water taxi at the Rialto stop, and we head for the bus station. We are not sure if the water taxi is taking the long way, but we are given one last glorious tour of the Grand Canal, and of Venice’s early morning bustle. We spot one of a legion of the behemoth cruise ships that dock at Venice for day trippers. The figures are frightening. Hundreds of cruise ships stop in Venice every year. Thousands of passengers can flood the city from just one ship. Close to two million cruise ship passengers descended on the Central Park-sized city last year. We wonder if Venice can survive. We wonder if we too have contributed to Venice’s problems.
Venice is as you would imagine it to be, and at the same time, you cannot imagine what it is really like, not without being there. We take a last look at this fairy tale of a city, grateful to have experienced Serenissima’s decaying beauty, grace, and charm.