Venice, Italy, is so iconic that other places use it as a reference point for beauty itself.
What makes Venice so special? It’s not the alleyways of shops and apartments that weave like a maze through the islands. Most ancient European cities of medium or larger size have a similar aspect. If you’ve been to any one of them, I dare you to be dropped into Venice blindfolded and distinguish any distinctive characteristics, except that the Venice storefronts have an oversupply of shops selling the locally, hand-blown Murano glass, named for a group of isolated Venice islands where the glass kilns are allowed to be located for safety reasons.
Venice is a collection of 120 islands surrounded by a lagoon and a mainland part known as Mestre. A “lagoon” is a shallow, salt-water enclosed body of water. In the case of Venice, surrounding the islands are various “canals” or places where the lagoon forms river-like spiders of water. The deepest canal is 12 meters. It’s the one that is used by the innumerable cruise ships to dock here, towed in by tugboats because the lagoon is too shallow to enter on their own power.
Before I left for my visit, a friend suggested Venice is a swamp. On hot summer days, it can feel that way, down to the many annoying mosquitoes. And when a cruise ship pulls in, its thousands of passengers disgorge throngs of tourists. For heat purposes and to avoid cruise ship excursion crowds, it’s best to visit the sites early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Exterior Venice is like one big outdoor museum, which forms its most impressive attraction. Unlike any other city, Venice retains its ancient buildings, having been spared by the ravages of war and having been a thriving trading city for centuries when transportation by boat was the principle mode of transportation. In Venice, it still is.
Inside some of the Baroque, Renaissance, and Gothic buildings and churches, you learn the history of this ancient town which once formed a significant place in the Ottoman Empire and whose form of government was an early model of the melding of aristocratic and democratic rule. I personally had never focused on the fact that the Venetian Empire was vast and extended from the seventh century until 1797, after the American Revolution, when Napoleon finally defeated it. Venice’s 130 churches each seem to contain an important person’s body, a relic, or a significant piece of art or sculpture. Combine this with the mansions built by traders of lore at its most highly sought-after canal locations, and you get a virtual architectural delight.
The focus of tourist attractions is a large plaza, San Marcos Piazza or Saint Marks Place. There sit the Doges Palace or Palazzo Ducale and adjacent Basilica of San Marco. This is also the hub for all the water-based transportation.
Although Venice can be reached by train, most people arrive by air or cruise ship. The trip from the airport to a lagoon hotel by water taxi costs about $150. A far less expensive option is the airport shuttle known as the Alilaguna (around the lagoon) which stops at several points, including some of the remote islands, such as popular Lido, the island with a beach. An extensive water bus system is run by “Actv” with stops around the city. Once inside the downtown area, gondolas are a popular tourist mode of transport.
The main canal in the city, the “Grand Canal,” a mere five meters deep, is traversed by only four footbridges, meaning there are large areas where you must walk a bit out of the way to get to one of them. Solution: do what the locals do. Take a gondola to cross from one side of the canal to the other for a mere two Euro per person. Boats labeled “taxi” operate just like land-based taxis. Mix into this the various tourist vehicles and “free” hotel shuttles and the waterways get very congested, which explains the five-mile per hour speed limit effective in most places.
It’s all part of the charm of Venice. Warning: If you are afraid of being on the water, avoid Venice, because being on the water is unavoidable there.