The Essence of Venice
'Gondola, Gondola!!' the incessant bellow of Gondoliers as we strode past them could be heard from a distance. I followed the canals by foot, pacing rhythmically together with the sculling of the Gondola.
My feet swept the stone pavements that has been the foundation of this floating city for many centuries. As I pushed forward, I observed the water waves lapped the inundated steps, generated by the oars. Its humidity spurred the growth of green algae's across the structure with multi tiered balconies decked with flowers adorning the arched windows of various sorts.
At every turn, bridges, some made of stones and some of foliage-like metal support, provided continuity for those on foot. For a moment, I was unsure of my bearings, ambling in the stoned wall maze, almost lost. Every direction seems familiar yet unknown and new at the same time. Meandering through the tiny alleyways became exciting as it opened up to another unexplored commune, each outdoing the latter in beauty and character. This is the essence of Venice.
My visits to Venice have always been memorable and for first timers, here are the essential places that you must tick off your bucket list.
1) St Mark's Square
Piazza St Marco's, L-shaped design of the principal sqaure in Venice houses most of Venice's outstanding structures.
As I walked around the lagoon edge (south east corner) I was greeted by 2 large granite pillars one of which is surmounted by the winged lion of Venice (a traditional symbol of St Mark the Evangelist and is also seen every souvenir shop in Venice!!) and the other by St Theodore of Amasea (patron of the city before St Mark, who holds a spear and stands on a crocodile to represent the dragon which he was said to have slain).
On the eastern end as I walked towards the main square, St Mark's Basilica with its opposing campanile dominates the square, and adjacent to it is the Doge's palace.
Imagine standing right in front of St Mark's Basilica and moving in an anti clockwise motion; the first building you will see is a clock tower, built above a high archway where the street of Merceria, begins, leading to the Rialto which happens to be a merchant and financial centre as well as the location of the Rialto Bridge.
Can you spot the winged lion on top of the clock in the picture below?
Along the circumference of the piazza, you will find beautiful long marble arcades which houses expensive hotels, cafes, shops and restaurants. If you are willing to splurge then this is the right place to enjoy both the ambience and local Italian food.
The movie Casino Royale was shot right here in this square and Bond's apartment was on the first floor of the building with the signage as pictured below.
2) St Mark's Basilica
You probably would have seen it in travel blogs and magazines but how much do you actually know about this timeless structure?
St Mark's Basilica is one of the finest examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture with its meticulous and opulent gold ground mosaic designs representing the wealth and power of 11th century Venice.
If you look above the centre arch, you will be able to spot St Mark and the winged lion sitting right below it.
The church is divided into 3 levels; lower, upper and dome. The lower level has 5 arched portals, the upper level is comprised of lunettes in the ogee arches (S-shaped arches) with scenes depicting the life of Jesus Christ and the relics of St Mark. At the top of the arches, are reliefs of saints.
The most well known structure of this Basilica is the replica of the 4 galloping horses of Saint Mark Lysippos that stands right above the centre arched portal, whilst its original is safely kept in St Mark's museum.
As for the interior, the great majority of the design is stemmed from gold glass tesserae in order to create a shimmering effect.
The creme de la creme is the elaborately designed Pala d'Oro. Imagine a high altar retable made up of 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, plus rubies and topazes depicting several saints!!
3) The Campanile
Facing the basilica is the 323 feet tall bell tower with its fluted brick square shaft rising upwards to form the loggia which houses 5 bells, and topped by a cube with alternate faces of the winged lion and female representation of Justice. Above that, a pyramidal spire caps the Campanile with a golden archangel Gabriel as the weathervane right at the top.
Here are some interesting facts about St Marks Basilica & Campanile:
According to legend, the basilica was built from relics stolen by the merchants of Venice from Alexandria, Egypt. Both the body of St Mark's and the treasuries where snuck past the Muslim guards by hiding them in layers of pork in barrels.
Most of the relics adorning the basilica are attributed to the extensive looting in Constantinople during the 4th crusade. Those relics include the 4 horses of St Mark's, the icon of Madonna Nicopeia, and enamels on the Pala d'Oro.
The campanile once collapsed in 1902 due to improper reworks and it was rebuilt again in 1903 till 1912 using safe and proper techniques.
Admission to the basilica is free of charge, but a 5 euro fee is applied for admission into the museum and the balcony which is located on the second register of the Basilica.
4) Doge's Palace
Admission Fee: 19 euros
Proclaimed the official residence of the Doge of Venice, this sprawling Venetian Gothic style palace facing the grand canal and the piazza has become an iconic landmark of Venice.
The facade is composed of loggias (white pillars) below and solid walls above, gives the structure the familiar ' light' feeling so indicative of Venetian buildings.
The palace's layout is comprised of an extensive courtyard, the Doge's apartments, council chambers, the bridge of sighs and the old & new prison. The palace also boast a wide array of traditional Venetian paintings dating back from the 14th to 16th century. The Bellini room is one of the finest examples of Venetian paintings influenced by 4 generations of Venice's most famed artistic families.
5) Bridge of Sighs
The bridge of sighs was built to link the Doge's palace and the new prison. Just walk along the bustling Riva Degli Schiavoni, a busy shopping street to get a good look of this bridge (picture below).
Its name is derived from the sighs of prisoners who, after being sentenced in the courtroom, took one last look at freedom through the small windows that overlooked the blue lagoon before being subjected to a bleak and arduous fate in the new prison.
Another version of the origin of its name comes from the sighs of amorous lovers who are in rapture whilst drifting below on the gondola. According to local legend, lovers will be blessed with eternal love if they share a kiss right below the bridge, a stark paradox to its true nature and purpose.
An enduring image of Venice's tradition, the gondola, whose history dates as far back as the 16th century.
During its heyday, the Gondola was one of the popular means of public transport ( up to 10000 in number) but these days there are only 500 gondolas and its purpose, contrary to its previous function, has been reduced to a popular tourist 'must-do' attraction in Venice.
A single ride along the Grand Canal will set you back almost 100 euros but the cost is split as each Gondola can accommodate up to 6 people. Choose a gondola stop in the area you want to visit. If you want back canals, walk a few blocks off the main street (and away from San Marco) to look for a gondolier (at Hard Rock Cafe).
Facts about Gondola
Gondola fares are standard and set officially. These are the minimum fares for a standard gondola ride but rates can go higher.
A standard gondola ride is 40 minutes so if you negotiate for a lower fare, you'll end up with a shorter ride.
Gondola fares are higher at night..
Arrange your gondola ride ahead of your trip to save some cash.
If you book a gondola ride through a hotel or agency, there's likely to be an additional fee built in to the price.
Gondoliers must be officially licensed.
Singing is not a requirement for a gondolier. Although some may sing, it's best not to expect it. Some may also give information during the ride but again, don't expect it.
If you want to go to a particular place, be sure to discuss it with the Gondolier before the ride.
Most gondeliers speak some English.
5) Rialto bridge
Situated in Rialto, the sestiere of San Polo and the financial and merchant hub of the city, the Rialto bridge is one of the oldest and monumental bridges spanning across the Grand Canal.
Initially, built as a wooden bridge which subsequently collapsed in 1524 under the weight of a crowd watching a boat parade, the proposed idea of a stone bridge was only materialized in 1591 when the Rialto was completed. The bridge has 2 inclined ramps leading to the central portico both flanked by rows of shops.
6) Grand Canal
This S-shaped canal measures two and a half mile long and courses through St Lucia's train station all the way to St Mark's basin, serving as the largest and important shipping route back then. Along the banks, there are 170 houses built between 1200 and 1700.
This route is often frequented by tourist via Gondola, but it also be accessed at a cheaper rate by using the vaporetti.
The Ponte dell'Accademia is one of only four bridges to span the Grand Canal. It is named after the Accademia di Bella Arti, which is still there.Much like the Pont des Arts in Paris, The bridge has been been innundated with love pad locks and authorities have began to crackdown on this.
I stood on the Academia bridge, peering through the canal that unfolds into a vast blue lagoon, and as the sun began to set, the hue turned from baby blue to deep indigo, casting a hypnotic spell on observers. I smiled and a thought began to brew 'This is the Venice I have known then and now'. It is places such as these we all yearned for in sight and mind, allowing us, for one brief moment, to feel humbled with a sense of rapture at the sight of a sinking wonder, slowly ebbing away.