A City Like No Other

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Day 11

Following the sun's lead, we rose Sunday morning and set out to explore the magical city of Venice, wandering its narrow streets and hoping we'd get lost at least once or twice.  Near the top of our list was Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square), the massive public space (pictured above) which is the principal public square of the city and its social, religious and political center. 
Popular with both tourists and locals, the square is dominated on the eastern end by the Church of St. Mark, the cathedral church of Venice and its most famous house of worship.  Located adjacent to the Doge's Palace, the church is known for its opulent displays of wealth, which earned it the nickname of Chiesa d'ora (Church of Gold).
Church of St. Mark
Connected to the church is the Doge's Palace, the former residence of the Venetian doge, the highest elected official of Venice when it was a city-state republic.  Elected for life by the Venetian aristocracy, a series of doges governed the republic from 697 to 1797.
Doge's Palace
The doge's personal apartment occupied only one floor of the palace.  On our tour, we were able to ascend to the apartment using the Golden Stairway (Scalia d'Oro), so called because of its heavy use of gold leaf and elaborate wood carving. In front of the palace is the Piazetta, or Little Square, which extends St. Mark's Square to the nearby lagoon. spa
Scalia d'Oro
Just as all the photos and paintings of the city show, Venice is crisscrossed with a network of canals, and there was no mistaking the iconic gondola, among the many other types of boats plying the waters.  The gondola stop near St. Mark's Square seemed to be a busy place for gondoliers to pick up a fare.
Gondola glory
On the front of every gondola is a distinctive metal prow blade known as the fero da prora.  Its original purpose was to serve as a counterweight to the gondolier standing in the back and keep the flat bottom boat level in the water.  Not content with such a prosaic explanation, the Venetians wove a legend to create a symbolic meaning for the utilitarian devices.  The shape is said to represent the turns of the Grand Canal, while the six fingers stand for the six districts of the city, with the one on the opposite side referencing the island of Guidecca on the far side of the canal.  The top is shaped to resemble the official hat worn by the city's doges.
 space   space  
Function and form unite in the fero da prior.
Raised sidewalks available and handy when needed during flooding.
Another signature feature of this unique city is the presence of raised sidewalk planks stacked in the streets.  Though they appear superfluous on an ordinary day, these platforms are essential during periods of acqua alta, the exceptional tide peaks that occur in the Adriatic Sea.  When the tides crest, Venetian streets become flooded and the elevated sidewalks are put into place so people can still get around without having to wade.
Trying our best to fit in with the locals, we felt obligated to try a bit of Italy's national treasure known as gelato.  Made from milk, cream and sugar, it has less fat than other types of ice cream. And oh, the flavor and texture. This heavenly handmade concoction dances around on the tongue, delighting the palate without the risk of brain freeze. Loved it!
Gelato?  Yes, please
Day 12

On Monday, our second full day in Venice, we began our adventure with a ride on the vaparetto (public water bus) to the St Tomá stop.  From the stop, it was a short walk to Campo St. Toma, one of many small squares in Venice, most of which have a cistern, a church and a restaurant or two.
Campo St Tomá 
From St. Toma, we ventured over to Campo Dei Frari, home of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (Church of St. Mary of the Friars), one of the city's best known churches.  Its campanile (bell tower) is the second tallest in Venice after that of San Marco.  Completed in 1396, the Gothic Frari church has been the burial place of some of the city's most famous residents. As in other churches we have seen, the quire is ornate and imposing.  Frari, as it is called locally, is one of the city's most compelling churches with a huge interior flanked by a profusion of elaborate monuments, paintings and decorations.
The tall bell tower (campanile) of Campo Dei Frari
After visiting the church, we were ready for refreshments and took off in search of a Greek restaurant recommended by someone we met.  In the process, we hit a dead end street, not a difficult or unusual feat in Venice.  Finally we located Frary's, the aptly named restaurant near the Frari church. A vegetarian appetizer platter made me happy, while Jeanne and Ken enjoyed a Moroccan chicken with honey and raisins.  With our hunger satisfied, we went back to roaming the narrow streets.  Time after time after time as we wandered, we walked over small bridges that afforded magical Venetian views.
Another canal
Unlike the summer season in Venice, the number of tourists shrank when the weekend expired.  We saw many more idle gondolas and taxis searching for fares on Monday.  With gondola rides costing more than $100, we opted for the city's vaparetto system, equivalent to a public bus. One can purchase a 7-day unlimited travel pass on this efficient transportation system for half the price of one gondola ride.
Vaporetto, our transport of choice
As we strolled down the narrow streets and explored the squares, we realized that Venice has no shortage of stores offering gifts and souvenirs. Colored glass items are a specialty and the variety of these beautiful baubles is endless.  Because of the major Venetian emphasis on the celebration of Carneval (known in the U.S. as Mardi Gras) masks are another popular item in city shops.  Venice also has an ample supply of high-end retailers offering luxury goods at prices that could feed a family of four for months, if not years.
Masks with sparkles
CC Zecchin shop 
Near St Mark's Square, where tourists and cruise ship passengers congregate, souvenir vendors abound. All seemed to be selling the same 'Made in China' goods, displayed and priced similarly. Yet they sit side by side, all seeking some edge over the competition.  In addition to the manufactured goods, booths also host artists selling their original art along the Riva Degli Schiavoni promenade near St Mark's.  With reasonable prices for original oil paintings of city scenes, many purchases were underway.
Souvenirs anyone?
Art from the artist
Located on its own island, the 16th century Benedictine Church of San Giorgio Maggiore is located across the canal from St Mark's Square.  The church interior is very bright with massive columns and the popular pink and white marble floor design seen in other churches.  With assistance from a wheezing, ancient Otis elevator, we climbed the San Giorgio bell tower for one of the best views of the city.  From the top we watched two massive cruise ships leave the city. Then we could really enjoy the view.  
Church of San Giorgio Maggiore
San Giorgio Maggiore La Giudecca interior
Back in our Dorsoduro neighborhood, we hit the local grocery store for dinner supplies and discovered that lots of others had the same idea.  When we emerged from the supermarket, we found two dogs leashed to a lamppost and waiting patiently for their masters. We invited them home for dinner with us, but they didn't seem to understand English, so we left them to wait in peace. 
Day 13
As day three in Venice began, we had a hankering to see how the famous Venetian glass was made, so we again hopped on a vaporetto, this time heading to the island of Murano, about an hour's trip from our apartment.  Murano is home to many glass factories, which operate showrooms to sell their beautiful art.
Glass showroom, Murano
At a glass furnace run by one of the 12 Murano master glassmaking families, we watched a demonstration. Afterward we met Marco, a former PR executive turned glassmaking apprentice, who showed us the luxury glass showroom.  We saw some exquisite pieces, but photos were not permitted for fear their designs would be poached.
View from Campanile di San Giorgio Maggiore La Giudecca

Glassmaker at Gino Mazzuccato
Like Venice, the island of Murano is divided by many side canals, which provide intra-island and inter-island transportation links.  Along the canals in Murano, dozens of boats are tied up by the fondamenta (walkway adjacent to a canal). Each had its own little pier of sorts.
Thanks to a tip from Marco we lucked into a simple little neighborhood restaurant on Campo San Bernardo for lunch. Good food at great value!  After lunch we visited Museo del Vetro, Italy's only glass museum, founded in 1861. Housed in the former palazzo of a high-ranking church official, the museum traces the history of Murano glassmaking from Roman times to the present.  Almost every piece in the museum collection was donated by Murano glassmakers.
Museo del Vetro Murano
From the museum we walked over to Murano's greatest architectural treasure, the 12th century basilica Santa Maria e Donato built in Veneto-Byzantine style.  The basilica floor is covered with marble mosaics dating back to the year 1140. The designs incorporate geometric figures as well as plant and animal motifs.
On the vaporetto ride to and from Murano we passed San Michele, an island set aside as a cemetery for Venice. The cemetery was established in 1807 when burials in the city were forbidden by Napoleonic decree.
San Michele Cimitario
Back in Venice, we went to a local post office for some stamps.  Entering, we saw about 40 people sitting around waiting but no one in line. With some help from a local we too obtained a number from a small machine.  Our number was quickly called because we just needed stamps.  Our last stop of our last day in Venice was the famous Rialto Bridge spanning the Grand Canal. Completed in 1591, the bridge is often pictured as a symbol of Venice.
Ponte di Rialto 
Both sides of the bridge are lined with shops. Two rows of shops opening inward divide a set of inner steps from the outer steps on each side. All kinds of souvenirs (most made in China) are snapped up by eager tourists.
Ponte di Rialto Shops
In Venice, house and business addresses consist of the neighborhood name (e.g., Dorsoduro) and the number assigned to that house or business. No tourist maps exist that indicate where the numbers can be found. Only the mail carrier and UPS agent know.
Siestere Di Dorsoduro, 804 & 805
One last stroll along the Guidecca Canal promenade on our way back to the apartment left us wistful for a few more days in this magical city.  Before we arrived at the apartment, we couldn't resist stepping into one more church. Located just down the fondamenta from where we were staying, this church is easily identifiable by a huge rosary hanging above its entrance.
Fondamenta Zattare
No mistaking this is St. Mary of the Rosary
Santa Maria del Rosario (St. Mary of the Rosary) was built in the early 1700s and is exceptional for its preservation of the original layout and much of its Rococco decorations.  A total of 270 pilings were driven into the soil to support the weight of the ornate church facade.
Church Of St Mary of the Rosary 
After checking out the Rosary, we continued on our way back to the gate leading to our little apartment.  Down the garden path we went to our home away from home for one more night.  It's one of the few places we've seen grass growing in Venice.  Tomorrow morning we'll take an Easyjet flight to Paris, the final destination on this European adventure.
Siestere Di Dorsoduro, 274 - Home sweet home in Venice