La Serenissima. Beautiful and beguiling, Venice is by turns enchanting, eerie and infuriating. The bewitching architecture of the stone built palaces, piazzas, churches, bridges and fountains unfold seemingly endlessly over long walks across the more than 100 islands that make up the city which is set on water alongside 150 canals.
During the daytime a vast ocean of people of all nationalities crowd off gigantic cruise liners and water taxis onto the docks at San Marco and pour themselves into its historic square. The bustle begins at 10 o’clock.
The narrow covered passages of designer shops, souvenir stalls and trattorias become a challenge to pass along, and it can be a relief to side step into an alley dodging the daily bin collections and trolley-pushing porters bellowing ‘attenzione, attenzione!’.
After dark, and away from the populated centre, Venice is unsettling. Without clear signage or any street lighting this is the time you find yourself lost in the maze of its many dank passages, crossing steep unlit bridges and coming to an abrupt halt at a sudden canal sides.
On these occasions a dimly lit window display of sinister and beaked Venetian masks against a rich red velvet backdrop is a welcome, if strange, beacon.
We spent five days exploring Venice and were visiting with my mum who joined us by water taxi from the airport. In that time we experienced a range of weather from hot bright sunshine to wet chilly rain, misty mornings and rosy pink sunsets. The weather is a backdrop to Venice which adapts its mood accordingly from dazzling and sunlit to mysterious and atmospheric.
The highlight of our visit was of course St Mark’s Square. It is lined on three sides by the neo-classical Royal Palace, now home on the upper floors to the Museo Correr and downstairs to the orchestra playing 18th century cafes.
The gold mosaics of the domed basilica shine especially in the late afternoon sun when the deep chimes from the bells of the tall brick campanile send hundreds of wheeling pigeons flying into the air.
Bells also chime from the 15th century astrological clock which features a winged white marble lion, the symbol of Venice, and two hammer-wielding ‘moors’ which strike the hour in automation.
Mum remembered seeing those for the first time as an impressed teenager on a school visit and we were all delighted that years later the same two bronze men, actually shepherds, but known as ‘moors’ due to their dark bronze patina, are still hammering out the blows of the hours. It was all quite charming.
Gloriously frothy pink and cream marble and facing the square on one side whilst reflected in the lagoon on the other, the Doges’ Palace is the historical powerhouse of Venice. Little surprise then that it’s interior is all dark menacing panelled wood and allegorical paintings by the Italian Masters.
Room after waiting room lead to the various assembly rooms, council rooms and ultimately Doge’s reception room and you only have to turn your back to imagine the politicking of the European and Eastern ambassadors and the Papal delegation behind you.
The sinister ‘lions mouths’ of silent post boxes still await the written denunciations by anonymous individuals to the secret police that led to many innocents seeing their last glimpse of daylight crossing the sadly infamous Bridge of Sighs to Venice’s cruel waterside prisons.
A hot day’s sunshine sent us onto a boat to visit three of the neighbouring islands, all with a character of their own. Murano, famous for its glass products produced by famed master craftsmen (although the one we saw at work didn’t seem particularly enigmatic) is dominated by the glass warehouses, shops and marketing agencies.
Burano is smaller, prettier and more local and we all loved its many colourful houses arranged around picturesque squares and along narrow canals.
Torcello is the least inhabited by people and mostly inhabited by cats and retains a marshy green watery feel to it. A Roman sacristy and classical basilica remain beautifully maintained at the end of a short walk past the island’s handful of houses.
Heading back towards Venice on the boat we saw derelict churches, monasteries, fortresses and a leper colony all slowly crumbling into the waters. It was interesting to see how life had been established on the islands over hundreds of years and eventually evolving into one of Europe’s most powerful empires.
You have to marvel at the ingenuity and determination of people who chose to build their metropolis on reed beds.
The setting sun signals the departure for the daily thousands back onto the enormous cruise ships at the north of the island. For a few hours, at least, you can see Venice without the masses, albeit in the darkness.
Venice is still very much ‘lived in’. We sought out local corners at the former Arsenal, and in the routes north of the city that Simon and I got to know on our way to morning coffee with mum at the Grand Canal.
We encountered schoolchildren, bin collectors, floating vets, university students, couriers, councillors, elderly residents and wedding parties. Away from the crowds of selfie-stick wielding tourists the city manages to retain a relaxed ‘every day’ feel to it and the residents deal with the waterways as a matter of course.
We watched electrical goods being delivered from a boat to one address, and commented on a noisy ‘builders barge’ parked alongside a villa being renovated. Even DHL has its own branded water delivery service!
An air traffic controllers strike in Italy meant mum was excitedly grounded so we had an extra day to enjoy the now well-loved sights together once again. She was very happy to have been able to see the city she first fell in love with as a teenager and to share her memories of it with us.
We in turn were delighted that Venice lived up to her remembrance, and we all enjoyed our time living within its shimmering and unique loveliness.
La Serenissima. Bellissima!