Thursday, August 6, 2009

Venice, Italy — A city of fantasy, freedom, joy, and pleasure

by Richard L. Weaver II

Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) was an American art collector. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the most important museums in Italy for European and American art of the first half of the 20th century. Having lived in Venice and dying in Padua, Italy, at the age of 81, she spoke with knowledge when she said, “Venice is not only a city of fantasy and freedom. It is also a city of joy and pleasure.”

We extended our two-week Mediterranean cruise to have an extra day in Venice, and just that brief experience proved the truth of Guggenheim’s comment.

Our ship docked in the northern part of the city, and during the morning I had a chance to watch the water taxies move in and out of a port area just ahead of where we were docked. It looked active and vibrant with as many as 10-15 boats entering and leaving at the same time — just a hint of what we would see on the canals within the city.

With a population of about 275,000, Venice is situated on 117 small islands within a shallow Venetian lagoon along the Adriatic Sea. There are 150 canals, and the small islands are connected by about 400 bridges. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who conquered Venice on May 12, 1797, and caused the Republic to lose its independence after 1070 years. The French conqueror brought to an end the most fascinating century of Venetian history, because it was during the Settecento (1700s) that Venice became the most elegant and refined city in Europe greatly influencing art, architecture, and literature.

Venice became Austrian territory when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio on October 12, 1797, and Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798. It was taken from Austria by the Treaty of Pressburg in 1805 and became part of Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy but returned to Austria following Napoleon’s defeat in 1814. It wasn’t until 1866, following the Seven Weeks War, that Venice became part of Italy, although after 1797 the city fell into a serious decline with many of the old palaces and other buildings abandoned and falling into disrepair.

The bus trip from the ship to Hotel Soiftel was brief since the hotel was located in the northern part of the city as well. With a railroad causeway built in the 19th century and an automobile causeway built in the 20th, along with a parking lot, at the northern end of the islands, these offered the only land entrance. From there, the canals function as roads. Venice is Europe’s largest car-free area.

Most Venetians travel by motorized waterbuses (“vaporetti”) which ply regular routes along the major canals and between the islands. There are many private boats, but the classical Venetian boat, the gondola, is now mostly used for tourists, weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies. The price of a gondola ride was published in our Celebrity Today, a daily newspaper published by our cruise line and placed on our beds by our room attendant every evening when the beds are turned down. According to the newspaper, a ride costs $80 euros for one-half hour which is about $120 dollars. If you want a singer as well, you must be willing to pay about double that cost for the same amount of time.

While trying to obtain a non-smoking room at the hotel, we asked for a map, and the concierge provided a very good one and even marked a walking tour from the hotel to Saint Mark’s Cathedral.

There were a number of highlights of Venice we uncovered on our walking tour. The first was the number and kinds of decorative masks sold from stores but especially from numerous street vendors. They are used for the Carnival of Venice which dates from 1268. The subversive nature of the festival is reflected in the many laws created over the centuries attempting to restrict celebrations and, often, banning the wearing of masks.

Masks have always been a central feature of the Venetian carnival. Traditionally, people are allowed to wear them from St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th — the start of the carnival season (two weeks before Ash Wednesday) — until midnight of Shrove Tuesday, which is the same day as Mardi Gras or, in Chicago, Paczki Day. When Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798, and Venice fell into decline, it effectively brought carnival celebrations to a halt for almost two centuries. The fascist government outlawed Carnival in the 1930s. It wasn’t until a modern mask shop was founded in the 1980s that Carnival enjoyed a revival. Although most masks sold in the tourist shops in Venice have nothing to do with the original Venetian masks, as a tourist I can report that they are spectacular, colorful, engaging, and omnipresent.

On our walk from the hotel to St. Mark’s Basilica and St. Mark’s Square, we simply followed the flow of tourists along the cobblestone walkways. Also, there were yellow signs at each intersection pointing the way. In a hurry to get to the destination, not possessing many euros, and wanting food we didn’t have to wait long for, we had lunch at a very crowded McDonald’s along the way.

As we walked to St. Mark’s we crossed the popular Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, but the crush of people made it difficult to see into the windows of the stores lining both sides of the bridge, and it made our experience there less than ideal.

There is no doubt that St. Mark’s Basilica and Square are impressive. There were two bands playing on either side of the Square, one in the shade and the other in the sun. Nobody was sitting in the sun, but a number of people sat and relaxed in the shade. We saw the replicas of the four horses stolen from the Hippodrome in Istanbul (Constantinople when they were stolen) standing outside the Basilica, but what caught and held our attention were the thousands of pigeons being fed with feed bought in the square. When being fed, they sit on people’s arms and head, and gather in large flocks around those throwing out bird feed.

Venice was truly unique, and the view from our hotel room underscored why we stayed an additional day. You could see the rooftops, true, but we looked down on an ancient square anchored by an old cathedral, along a quaint canal, and frequented by businesspeople, families, and young lovers. To end our extra day, we enjoyed delicious pizza at a local restaurant, capped by an ice cream cone eaten along one of the canals near our hotel. They highlighted our brief stay in the city of fantasy, freedom, joy, and pleasure.


At the website Italyguides:Venice, there is the standard tourist information as well as at least 25 very attractive photographs.

At, the description reveals exactly what we did in Venice: “Venice makes you a believer in fairy tales. Cars are banned, so the only way to get around the 1,500-year-old city is by foot or by water. From these vantage points, you'll be awed by the magical beauty. La Serenissima, ‘the most serene one,’ is filled with palaces and art, fine shopping and excellent food. Relax in Piazza San Marco, visit the basilicas, drink a bellini at Harry's Bar and wander the alleyways and bridges.”


Copyright August, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

1 comment:

  1. Everthing in Venice is perfect. Thank you for your post


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