Venice – Visions of Ancient Grandeur and a Powerful Empire

Gondolas near Piazza San Marco in the early morning in Venice, Italy

It’s easy to dismiss the city of Venice as a giant tourist trap. After all, 50,000 tourists tramp through the city every day, stepping over the dwindling population of 60,000 local residents. The truth is, however, that the majority of the tourists stick to the popular sights such as St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) and the Rialto Bridge.  One simply needs to wander down the alleyways and across the bridges of this amazing water-filled city to find the peace and quiet of quaint squares filled with elderly gentlemen sipping coffee and children playing football in the street.

The calmness of the city betrays the historical impact that this city had on the development of Europe and the world as a whole. This metropolis was the most powerful city in the world at one time, and some of the richest and most influential people of the time lived here. The vestiges of that storied past can be found everywhere, from the architecture to the monuments to the influence that the Venetian language has had on world vocabulary. Venice truly is a remarkable city, and regardless of the hordes of tourists, is well worth a visit.

I journeyed to Venice in April of 2012 on my way to speak in the Istrian city of Rovinj. Turns out that Venice is one of the closest airports to Istria, so I flew into Venice’s Marco Polo airport and took the opportunity to visit this grand city before the event started. With as much travel as I have done, I had yet to visit Venice, and was excited about the opportunity to explore a place that is spoken so highly of by those who have visited it.

Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square) as viewed from the Campanile di San Marco (St. Mark's bell tower) in Venice, Italy

There are effectively three ways to get into Venice from the Italian mainland. The first method is via boat, which I’m told is overpriced, but has the advantage of bringing you directly to your hotel or the Piazza San Marco. The second option is to take a train in, which drops you off on the north side of the old city. The third option is to drive the causeway that leads to Venice, park in the Tronchetto parking structure for around 20 Euros a day and then take the ‘People Mover’ from the structure over to the North side of the city. Since I was lugging around a rental car, I opted for this route, which was a fairly easy option.  After arriving, and knowing that the main hub of activity was the Piazza San Marco, I made a beeline straight for that great urban meeting space.

Pigeons in Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy

Piazza San Marco (in English St. Mark’s Square) is the largest square in Venice and the center of Venetian activity.  Within the square stands the beautiful  St. Mark’s Basilica, a striking example of Byzantine architecture and a home to some of the world’s great cultural treasures.

St. Mark's Basilica in the Piazza San Marco of Venice, Italy

And, of course, you can’t miss the famous bell tower of Venice known as St. Mark’s Campanile, which towers high above any other building in Venice and provides for an amazing 360 degree view of the city below from the top of the tower, accessible via elevator.  A trip to the top of this tower was one of the highlights of my trip, and really gave me perspective of the surrounding region and the beauty of the city itself.

Detail of the Doge's Palace with the Campanile di San Marco (St. Mark's bell tower) in the background

Of course, it’s impossible to visit Piazza San Marco without noting the impressive and imposing Doge’s Palace, the historical residence of the powerful Doge of Venice, the chief magistrate of the Republic of Venice, an independent state with its capital in Venice that had a huge impact on world affairs and that existed independently for over 1000 years.

The Doge's Palace in Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

The Republic of Venice controlled the bulk of trade between Western Europe, the Eastern Byzantine empire and the Muslim and Asian worlds, gaining incredible power and influence in the process.  Indeed, it was the influence and power of Venice which brought down the great Byzantine capital of Constantinople during the Venice-financed Fourth Crusade. The sack of Constantinople significantly degraded the city and led to a decline of the Eastern Roman Empire that resulted in it’s eventual annihilation at the hands of the Turks in years to come. The riches and plunder of that sacking can still be found within Venice, including the ancient Horses of Saint Mark, bronze statues that were hauled out of the Hippodrome of Constantinople and displayed in Venice in the façade of the Cathedral (replicas currently, though the original are on display just inside the basilica.)

When in Venice, and indeed when in the territories previously controlled by Venice, you can find statues of the Winged Lion of St. Mark, a symbol of Venice itself.

Statue of the Tetrarchs and detail on the front of St. Mark's Basilica, including a Winged Lion of St. Mark in Venice, Italy

As previously mentioned, the Piazza San Marco can be an incredibly crowded place if you visit during the busy tourist afternoons and evening. If, however, you have a chance to visit in the early hours of the morning, you’ll find that you can have the place all to yourself, as evident in the video I took there at 5:30am the next day.

Venice is, of course, famous as an aquatic city, and one built on a myriad of canals.  Indeed, the only two ways of getting around in Venice involve either walking or by boat.

The Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) in Venice, Italy

And the traditional way to get around by boat in Venice is via a Gondola, or a Venetian style rowing boat, known worldwide as a symbol of this city. The gondolas are mostly for tourists nowadays, however, and large-scale transit through the canals generally takes the form of motorized vaporetto public transit waterbuses or other smaller motorized boats.  Indeed, the motorized watercraft are the only real motors you’ll find in this city.

Indeed, the most striking feature of Venice is how amazingly quiet this city is. Not to say there isn’t the chatter of people and commerce, but the complete and utter lack of any cars and their noisy gas-propelled engines results in a city that is remarkably peaceful and calm.

The Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy

In most cases, the only noises you hear in Venice are the sound of people and the chirping of birds, combined with the gentle lapping of water in the canals. Coming from a world surrounded by the whirr and constant din of traffic noise, it’s amazing to enter this urban environment that is built on a people-scale and not an automobile-scale.

View of a Gondola in the Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy

This city never had its streets widened to accommodate cars, buses, or trams. This resulted in a city that is uniquely people friendly. It’s refreshing not to have to constantly worry about getting run over by errant vehicles like you have to in most other major cities in the world.

Gondola navigating the canals of Venice, Italy

In fact, if I were to make one simple recommendation, it would be to simply walk through as much of this beautiful city as you can. Just let one street take you into the next one, and so on and so on.  Ironically, when you do this, even if you think you are heading in a straight line you eventually make it back to the Piazza (so I’ve found) and at the same time you generally see a quieter, gentler side of the city itself.

Narrow pedestrian streets and canalways in Venice, Italy

Now, one significant disadvantage with having the city built in the middle of a lagoon that is connected to a tidal sea is that the waters rise and fall with the tides. And more often recently, the waters rise significantly, flooding much of the city itself.

Flooding in the canals of Venice during Acqua Alta

This phenomenon, known locally as Acqua alta, is a significant issue for Venice, and I personally experienced it on my visit there.  Early in the evening, I enjoyed a pleasant stroll in the Piazza, only noticing as I left that water was starting to pour up out of the drains and onto the tile of the plaza. I returned several hours later to find a large portion of the Piazza under over a foot of water. Thinking I found a dry path through some of the high points of the square, I attempted to get past, only to end up soaking my shoes in the process.

Flooding starting in Piazza San Marco during the Acqua Alta (High Water) in Venice, Italy

The Venetian authorities take this issue very seriously, and are currently undertaking a massive project called MOSE that involves a series of gates that isolate the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic Sea in high water situations and keep the flooding to a minimum.

Flooding sidestreets of Venice during the Acqua Alta (High Water)

In the meantime, high water aside, this truly is a magical place and is well deserving of the attention that it receives from tourists. In addition, the fascinating history of the place keeps my attention, and it is astounding to think of how this place was founded by ancient Romans who were escaping land attacks by marauding barbarians but yet was able to later develop into a major world power whose influence is felt still today.

View of Venice from the Campanile di San Marco
While I did not spend a huge amount of time in Venice during this trip, I did leave this place with five key suggestions that I found will help you enjoy your time there. These include the following:

  1. Pack very very lightly, especially if you will be arriving via train or car! There is nothing worse than having to drag a roller board through the streets of Venice. I watched several miserable tourists do this…not recommended.
  2. Stay away from the touristy Pasta and Pizza restaurants near Piazza San Marco and instead eat what the locals do in places such as Ostaria Antico Dolo, a 500 year old restaurant that I ate at that serves traditional Venetian Cicchetti, small food plates similar to Spanish tapas.
  3. Walk walk and walk. Getting lost in a city like Venice is a joyful experience, and I mean that in all seriousness.  The evening after I ate, with my mobile phone completely out of battery, I wandered the streets looking for my hotel for at least two hours. It was one of the most relaxing walks I have ever taken.  If you are REALLY lost, you can always hire a gondola as well.
  4. Speaking of getting lost…you can usually find key signs that point you either in the direction of the Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge, or the Piazzale Roma (near the train station and parking structures.)  The signs simply say ‘Per San Marco,’ or ‘Per Rialto.’  And note #3 above if you end up getting lost anyway.
  5. Take to the water at some point, either as part of a gondola tour or simply via the relatively inexpensive Vaporetto waterbus system.  Venice is a water-first city, so this is often the best way to see it.  Most hotels also have docks that can be used by gondolas and watercraft to allow you to exit directly from the water into their lobbies.

My journey continued to the beautiful countryside of Istria in Croatia, a trip I cover in my next blog post…

4 thoughts on “Venice – Visions of Ancient Grandeur and a Powerful Empire

  1. I visited Venice a long, long time ago and had the privilege of getting slightly lost with my friends. Your photos are really beautiful, telling the story of such a rich city–one that I never knew as a college student. This was the first of your travels that I have encountered. I will continue to meander through your blog and live vicariously through your stories. Bon voyage!

    • Thanks for the kind comments! I try to bring some historical context to my posts when I can; I always find the history and legends of the places that I travel to extremely fascinating, particularly for empirical capitals like Venice. Thanks for visiting!

  2. They are fascinating! The addition of those legends, myths, tidbits, really add a nice texture–if that’s the right word–to your articles. You seem to have struck a balance between personal experience (like veggies in Bulgaria) and the general personality of a location that stems from its history. I just finished reading your post about Bulgaria, Albania, etc. Had a hard time stepping away to go do something else I had to do. Can’t wait to read more! Thanks for liking one of my own posts so I could find your blog!

    • My pleasure, thanks again! As you likely know, it’s a labor of love to write these things, but I get joy out of it. And I really enjoyed your blog as well, glad I stumbled upon it!

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