Venice Is More Than Just a Gondola Ride
It’s almost sunset and the colours of the sky resemble a Renaissance-era painting. I am at a palazzo (palace) that dates back to the 16th Century in the heart of a city that was at the epicentre of the Renaissance. It’s an intimate luxury hotel now – the Aman Canal Grande. As I watch the sun go down, I think back to a few weeks ago. I never wanted to be in Venice; I always thought it was too ‘touristy’ – with over 50,000 visitors a day, tourists often outnumber locals. But it didn’t take too long for me to be smitten by Venice’s charms and for it to prove me horribly wrong. And no, it didn’t happen on a Gondola ride.
It actually began with my journey to the Aman. I ignored the hotel’s suggestion of hopping on a boat, choosing instead to walk from the railway station. Google Maps said 20 minutes, but I took almost two hours (suitcase in tow). I wouldn’t have been able to do this if Venice’s plan to ban wheeled suitcases (the cacophony got too much for the locals) had come into effect in 2014. It was probably the longest 1-kilometre journey I made, as I kept losing myself (in more ways than one) in the labyrinth of alleys and small piazzas (public squares). It brought me up close and personal with a side of Venice that is rarely captured by film or popular culture. Away from the waterways and through historic winding streets that are the ultimate test for Google Maps. It was here that all those ‘touristy’ images of Venice kept getting blurred with vignettes of daily slices of life. From locals stopping for conversations to clothes hanging from balconies in buildings that could well be 500 years old.
Venice was once the world’s most powerful financial centre – probably the New York of the 13th Century, and the most influential city of Europe with a naval fleet of 3,300 ships engaged with active trade and commerce. Each of the city’s palazzos became a treasure trove of art and artefacts. My brush with Venice’s grand works of art began at the Aman – the hotel is home to exquisite ceiling frescoes by Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, often described as the greatest decorative painter of 18th Century Europe. It’s here that I learnt that you always need to look up at every ceiling in Venice.
It helped that I walked through the never-ending corridors and special rooms of the Palazzo Ducale – the Palace of the Doge, now a spectacular museum that allows you to visualise Venice at the peak of its powers. Venice’s unique ‘republic’ was modelled on the republic system of ancient Rome where a senate of 200-300 elected a council of 10 who in turn elected the Doge (Duke). It ensured the Venetian Republic was always forward-thinking and became a great hub for art and music.
Venice’s grandeur is all over, like the Teatro La Fenice, Venice’s opulent theatre that has risen like a Phoenix from three fires (including one in the 1990s attributed to arson). I was lucky to watch an orchestra from Moscow rehearse for their big performance during my visit. The historic St Mark’s Basilica that dates back to 1092 AD, is one of the world’s most finest examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture with interiors covered in gold ground mosaics. It earned the church its famous moniker – the Church of Gold. This church features an art museum that showcases some of Venice’s famous objects d’art including the famous bronze ‘Horses of St Mark’ believed to have been sculpted in the 2nd Century AD. The church’s exteriors get somewhat lost among the hordes of tourists. St Mark’s square is probably one of the world’s busiest squares, even busier than New York’s Times Square on a Saturday night.
I didn’t just get lost in Venice’s alleyways, it kept happening in the city’s packed markets full of local souvenirs too. The region’s famous Murano glass is showcased in different forms – from decorative plates to earrings and cufflinks. Almost every street has its own little trattoria (café) where you can try freshly made gelatos or the local dessert – tiramisu. I made time to visit Venice’s most famous market – Rialto (mentioned in the Merchant of Venice), once a hub for traders and moneylenders and now a bustling fresh food market.
Venice’s countless bridges (over 400 on last count) and waterways form an intricate network and it’s possible to find a quiet corner even in the busiest tourist season. I never imagined I’d enjoy Venice, I was so busy walking the streets that I never made time to ride on a gondola. As I caught my last sunset in Venice from a vantage point at the Aman, I was reminded of the first words of advice I heard from an old gelato seller in Venice. “It takes just 45 minutes to walk the whole of Venice, but a whole lifetime to truly discover the city”.
Getting There, and Around
Venice is well-connected by train and flights from most European cities. There is an extensive network of water taxis and more expensive private taxis but walking is usually the fastest and the best way to enjoy the city.
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)