City Above the Water
Venice is a city of wonders, from the elegant architecture to the canals and endless waterways. Its beauty and culture have drawn visitors for centuries. But, for all of its charm, Venice has a dark and fascinating past. Tales of invasions, plague and war fill the history books. The Venice you see today grew from the Venetians’ need to form a defence against foreign attacks.
This city-above-the-water owes its creation to the clever minds of architects and builders. It is made up of 117 small islands at the centre of a lagoon that are linked by canals and bridges. Surprisingly, the foundations of the buildings are composed of millions of wooden pylons, driven deep into the sand and silt. Lack of exposure to oxygen prevents them from rotting.
The first time I visited Venice, our tour bus was caught in a major traffic jam, which resulted in a three-hour delay. By the time we reached our hotel we had missed our planned gondola ride and serenade.
As I was travelling solo, three other women on the tour asked me to join them. Eager to explore the city, we caught a taxi as our hotel was out of town. (Note: When booking tours it’s worth paying extra to stay in the heart of any city. It can save time and expense.) When we arrived in town it was dark and late, the streets deserted. It was also magical. We hurried past small boats and sleek black gondolas, their ornate decorations enchanting beneath the streetlights. To our delight we discovered a few shops were still open. Stepping into a gift shop in Venice is like stepping into a wonderland filled with beautiful decorative masks lavish with feathers and gold paint and vibrant glasswork and jewellery, handmade by artisans. After we had made our purchases, we walked to the next shop to discover even more treasures.
The following morning we had our gondola ride among the flotilla of gondolas floating the waterways, the gondoliers and musicians serenading and entertaining us. By the light of day Venice was equally
beautiful — from the way the water reflected on the underside of bridges, which curve over each waterway, to the layers of moss and corrosion that mark the water levels on the buildings.
At every turn, gondoliers of all shapes and sizes, plied their trade, all dressed in traditional outfits of straw boaters, striped polo T-shirts or white shirts and tight black pants. Less glamorous dinghies floated by with families on board and the occasional dog. Cream, apricot, mustard and russet-coloured buildings towered overhead, some with wrought-iron balconies, others draped with creeping vines or red geraniums.
When our gondola ride had finished we were given one hour to explore before our bus left. I wandered by myself along the many twists and turns of the labyrinth-like streets. Fortunately there were signs on the walls pointing the way to significant areas including our meeting place, Piazza San Marco or St Mark’s Square. That day I shopped on the run for family gifts. The hour was up too soon and I hurried back, vowing to return to this beautiful city.
On my next visit six years later, I spent four days in the heart of Venice with my daughter. Each day began with breakfast at our hotel where I developed a love of boiled eggs and blood orange juice. We befriended the good-natured waiters who greeted us warmly at every meal.
During the day we wandered the streets for hours and ate delicious thin-crust pizzas and gelati. Sometimes we bought supplies from the local Billa supermarket; fresh ham, cheese and crusty ciabatta rolls. We walked through markets piled high with
“A wonderland filled with beautiful decorative masks lavish with feathers and gold paint and vibrant glasswork and jewellery, handmade by artisans.”
fresh produce and chillies cleverly displayed in the shape of trees or flowers.
One morning we heard a siren heralding the acqua alta, or high tide. We hurried outside and joined crowds of people clambering onto hastily erected wooden platforms in Piazza San Marco. As the water gradually rose we saw tablecloths dangling in it and waiters in thigh-high gumboots. All of this added to our experience. Even the rain didn’t dampen our spirits; instead, it reflected off evening streets and softened the lines of the buildings.
We visited tourist attractions and boutiques where I tried on cashmere knitwear as soft as a cloud. A number of times we saw newlyweds having dramatic photos taken before the amazing architecture. We looked in bakery windows laden with biscuits, cakes and garish marzipan goodies displayed for Halloween.
It seemed not much had changed since my last visit, apart from a variety of new gift shops selling imported “Venetian” jewellery and glassware. These stood side by side with the traditional shops. In the back streets, I was delighted to chance upon artisans at work in their studios. To hear their stories and watch them at work adds value to any purchase made.
And now, as I pack my suitcase to visit Venice for the third time, I look forward to revisiting the old and discovering more of its hidden treasures.
“Cream, apricot, mustard and russet-coloured buildings towered