October 27, 2010

Venice, the city on water

Snaking through the city like an inverted S, the Venice’s longest (4km) and widest (30-70m) waterway, the Canal Grande (Grand Canal), is the main artery of aquatic Venice, and dividing Venice into 2 major geographical areas. Venice is best seen from the Grand Canal, and since we didn’t want to fork out 80 euro for a gondola, we took the cheap option of a cruise on the slow No 1 vaporetto that runs the length of the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco and the Ferrovia (train station). We woke up extra early for this, before the rest of Venice woke up, so there were not many people on the vaporetto and we could secure outdoor seats which afforded us unobstructed view of the 200-odd palazzi, churches, and imposing republican buildings dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries. Many of the largest canal-side buildings are now converted into international banks, government or university buildings, art galleries, and consulates.

After the cruise, we headed to the famous Il Mercato di Rialto (Rialto Market) to see how real Venetians get their food supplies, from restaurateurs to ordinary folk just stocking their kitchens.

In the vicinity is the elegant white marble Ponte Rialto (Rialto Bridge), the most famous of Venice’s bridges.

After the visual feast of colourful fruits and vegetables, we headed back to Piazza San Marco to visit Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica). A long queue had already formed to enter the Byzantine basilica, which is free by the way. It’s beautiful outside, with its big onion domes and multi-colored mosaics art, and the interior is floor-to-ceiling mosaics.

Few shots of the colourful mosaics

The Campanile (Bell Tower)

The pink-and-white marble Gothic-Renaissance Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace), residence and government center of the doges ("dukes," elected for life) who ruled Venice for more than 1,000 years, is next to Basilica di San Marco. A symbol of prosperity and power, it was destroyed by a succession of fires and was built and rebuilt in 1340 and 1424. Inside is an inner courtyard with a double row of Renaissance arches, wood-paneled courts and elaborate meeting rooms richly decorated by Venetian artists.

The inner courtyard

A brigde that connects Palazzo Ducale and the grim Palazzo delle Prigioni (Prisons) is famously known as Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs). The bridge took its current name only in the 19th century, when visiting northern European poets romantically envisioned the prisoners' final breath of resignation upon viewing the outside world one last time before being locked in their cells. Some of the stone cells still have the original graffiti of past prisoners, many of them locked up for petty crimes.

Inside the prison

(L) Ponte dei Sospiri from the outside and (R) view from the inside, the last view that prisoners saw before bring locked up in their cells

We had about two hours left in Venice and made the big mistake of visiting Murano, the biggest of the three major islands in Venice’s northern lagoon (the other two being Burano and Torcello). It was a total waste of time, as it was far less charming compared Burano and Torcello. The only thing worth mentioning was being able to watch a short demonstration on glass blowing (an age-old tradition of this island and a craft that has long since spread to Venice itself) in one of the shops. The time would have been better spent walking around districts on the opposite side of the Grand Canal.

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