Arrivederci Venezia

Venice began its existence as a hideout for people following the collapse of the Western Roman empire. Barbarians would come down from the north and those who occupied nearby villages would head out to the islands to escape. Then the barbarians would leave and the islanders would go back to their homes. This went on for a while, then Atilla the Hun shows up. Unlike his lightweight predecessors, Attila was all business. He burned every village and everything else in sight. However, even he didn’t feel like slogging out to the islands.

This time the islanders were fed up. Rather than going back to the mainland and re-building for the umpteenth time, they decided to stay. Only problem was, the islands were mostly marshes and the people quickly got tired of sinking into the mud every time they tried to go someplace. Then, somebody hit on the idea of driving stakes into the muck for people to walk on. Brilliant!

Many of these people were fishermen so they knew that the best, most water resistant boats were made of alder wo0d. Soon they were sending barge after barge across the Adriatic to bring back alder logs. They would then trim them to roughly fifteen feet in length and start driving them in. After they finished this they would build wooden (later stone) platforms on top and build buildings. When one of the large churches was built in the 1600’s it was recorded that it took 1,106,657 wooden stakes and two years and two months of pile driving just to build the base. Along the way, the Venetians managed to wipe out the forests of Croatia and Slovenia.

I am telling this story only because today, much of Venice is still supported by those very same stakes, now hundreds of years old. Apparently, the muck does not allow wood-eating creatures to survive.  Problem is, muck is still muck and little by little Venice is sinking. Not much. Maybe a millimeter per year. But over time it still adds up. Is that the biggest problem Venice faces? Not hardly. What is the biggest problem? Guess.



Typically Venice floods about a hundred times a year, usually from October through winter. This phenomena is called the acqua alta and is generally more of a nuisance than anything more serious. If you decided to go to Venice then, you might encounter this:

Acqua Alta, St. Mark's Square, Venice, Italy

Photo from Rick Steves

or this:

Photo from Rick Steves.

It has long been understood that Venice is a city living on borrowed time. But given the current climate it is not hard to imagine that time is running out. I suggest you move this city to the top of your wish list. Now, to change the subject.

After going through my bazillion photos I realized that I had left out of few from Saint Mark’s basilica, actually some details you see in the picture above,


If you are considering marble counter tops, what better place to look at samples?



The replica horses:



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I really can’t get enough of this place.

Often we would be late getting back to the hotel and just as often we would fail to make reservations at any restaurant. Fortunately the hotel staff would bail us out by contacting their friends to let us in. This generally led to evening strolls through the neighborhood. There are always people out, though, so safety is not a concern.

Although this street looks a little foreboding, there were lots of people behind us when I took this.


It led us to this place:


If you order meat for your pizza, sandwich or salad, they cut it fresh!




The big thing in Venice is Murano glass, which, not surprisingly, I’d never heard of. Murano is an island near Venice and tourists flock there like pigeons in a peanut factory. While we did not have time to join them, plenty of glass was available in the city proper. Here is the result of Dianne’s very deliberate and well-done shopping,


Plenty of room for these in the carry-ons!

Earlier I had mentioned the Correr Museum, which is on the opposite end of Piazza San Marco from the basilica. Here a few highlights;

This is the Doges library, all the books being leather bound.


A very fine coin collection. Each Doge, apparently, felt the need to have their reign memorialized on coins. Some obviously preferred gold.



Later in Venetian history the city became famous for the Masked Ball. Young upper-crust gentlemen would descend on the city each year from other city states with the idea of engaging in a little hanky-panky with young ladies of the area. Some of these ladies apparently were troubled by matters of stature. Well, problem solved!


And so, people, it was time to say goodbye to Venice. We were trapped like all the other tourists, but we were enchanted as well. We would gladly return. One last look out the room of our hotel,


before we made a mad dash for the front desk so they could call us a guy to move our now heavier bags across that bridge. Soon he shows up, possibly a member of the WHHS Class of ’56.


But, not only did he take all this stuff across the bridge, he took us to a secret entrance to the train station which led directly to the trains! Well worth the 20 euro!

We were sittin; at the railway station, had a ticket for our destination.Florence!


But this pretty well sums up our feeling about Venice:



The Rialto Bridge

If you’re in Venice and you long to see the faces of your fellow tourists, well typically all you have to do is turn around,  if there aren’t already several hundred in front of you. But if you want to see even more of them, head for the Rialto bridge.

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(This is not my picture, since apparently it is the one thing in this town I didn’t photograph. Credit goes to Wikimedia)

The bridge in its current form dates to 1591 and was designed, even then, to include shops on either side. They are well occupied to this day. So, ready for a leisurely stroll through the shops? Well, so is most of the civilized world.

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If you can’t find enough shops on the bridge…

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there are plenty more on the other side.

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And, there are more on virtually every side street.

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So, what is it we think we need? How about some hand-made shoes?



What! You say you don’t have gloves to match the shoes? Mama mia!


Perhaps some nice baubles to complete the look.


Going retro?


Want to enhance the decor?


Ready to bring the old man in line with your new fashion sense?



Wait! Don’t have time to dock the gondola for a little shopping? Problem solved!


Now, let’s pick up  a little something for the maid!


Well, all this shopping can wear a body out. Time to hit the gelato stand!


Then, it’s time to hit the sauce!


Now a quick bite for those on the go!

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And, perhaps, a little dessert!





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One thing about shopping, it should make you happy!

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Next, we will take one last look and Venice, then we’re off to Florence!





The Gondolier

Perhaps, when you think of romance, you conjure up a vision of you and your sweetie on a classic gold-trimmed gondola  slowly winding through the narrow canals of Venice, while your gondolier, in his best tenor, passionately, tearfully, renders his best “O Solo Mio”. Well, you must have seen it in a movie, because in the real Venice, things are strictly business.

There are 425 gondolas scattered throughout Venice. Did we count them? No need. Gondoliers are part of a guild (like a union) and the guild only allows 425 licenses. The guild also controls the cost of the trip, although some bargaining is possible. If you want to know the cost, you can, of course, look it up on the internet. Or, you can just ask the gondolier.

As we noted in earlier posts, there were a number of gondolas moored right outside our hotel. But, the Grand Canal is much like an interstate, with lots of cargo traffic and, of course, the vaporettos all over the place. Hardly very romantic.

Since Dianne and I had spent so much time on the Piazza San Marco and since the idea of riding under the Bridge of Sighs actually did seem romantic, we decided to ship out of there. To refresh you memory, here is the layout:


The red tent in the distance, between the columns, is the headquarters. When you go there you will see many gondoliers, in their striped shirts, standing around shooting the breeze. If you approach them, they will be sure to ignore you. Eventually you will discover that one of them is sitting on a chair. He is the next on call. When you approach him he will be friendlier and will give you the price for his services. If you want about a 20 minute spin around the block, long enough to say you did it and take some selfies, it will cost about 80 euro. If you want to actually wind through the canals for about 45 minutes, then 120 euro would be just right. If you want to go all the way across town to the Grand Canal, an hour plus trip, then figure on 200 plus. By the way, gondoliers don’t sing. If you want to hear “O Solo Mio” the guy who will sing it to you costs an extra 120 euro plus. He’ll ride in the front of the boat.

Having already been warned by Rick Steves, we had budgeted for the middle option. Soon we were on our way!

First the cover comes off…


Seats are arranged…


The passengers are seated…


And we head into the canals.


I will say one thing about the gondolas: They are absolutely beautiful and actually works of art! Some of them should be in museums.

Well, be began our journey going under the Ponte della Paglia, the main north-south tourist route. Then under the Bridge of Sighs. The gondolier told us if you kiss under the bridge it is supposed to bring good luck. So…


This is certainly not the only bridge we would find on our journey.


What we should have expected, and did not, was traffic jams.


No collisions, but not particularly romantic either.


Eventually the worst of the traffic cleared and things began to quiet down


It is truly beautiful going down these canals. It is an incredible city. Our gondolier, who pointed out a few sights along the way, was mostly quiet. All of a sudden he starts speaking in Italian. My first thought was, surely he doesn’t think we understand the language? Turns out he was talking on his cell phone! That’s him in the background.


Well, the conversation didn’t last long, but it was hardly a magical moment. Then he was back to business. Along the way we passed some beautiful boats:


This one was docked outside a church.


Some sights along the way:



You get a sense that it would not take much to flood the whole town, which does happen from time to time:


In addition to all the gondolas, we also make room for cargo boats:


Now, if these pictures didn’t quite take you there, here is a video of the last six minutes of our cruise where things got a little crazy again. There were many quieter moments as well:

Soon we were back to the piazza:


So, if you are looking for a storybook romantic experience, this is probably not it. The gondola is where the magical Venice and the tourist-trap Venice come to meet.  Is it worth it? Absolutely. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat. We might start from a different location. Maybe Tripadvisor has some suggestions. But all things considered, there is no better way to see one of the great cities of the world.

Next, we’ll go on a little shopping spree! Well, at least we’ll look in the windows.





The Bridge of Sighs

Faced with power struggles inside Venice and threats from invaders outside, you can forgive a Doge for being a little paranoid. Accordingly they were not bashful about disposing of anyone who was, or was rumored to be, interested in taking over.

Originally, the palace dungeons and torture chambers were housed in the basement. But, due to overflow crowds down there a new, connecting building was created to give prisoners more room to stretch, or be stretched, depending on the nature of their crime. To connect the buildings a bridge was built with two lanes of traffic, one inbound and the other outbound. It is not hard to imagine which was more heavily traveled. This is the bridge:


A close-up:


This became known as the Bridge of Sighs because prisoners would look out the window at their last breath of fresh air and last glimpse of sunlight, possibly ever, and sigh. Or, so the story goes.

This, minus the gondola, was their view:


As it so happens, we encountered a young prisoner sighing on that very bridge. Although she was told a thousand times not to mess with politics the message never got through. Now she must pay the price.


After crossing the bridge, things take a downhill turn:


Early on, you get the idea that the government plans for you to stay a while:


Here is our prisoner searching for a cell that meets her requirements for comfort and the proper amenities:


Yes! Perfect!


Nicely appointed and lots of companionship for those lonesome hours:


Fortunately she likes her mattress extra firm! So do her roomies!


Even better, the cell next door is occupied by a community of artists!


Let’s see what works they left that have survived the ages:


Hard to imagine what they must have been thinking about.


There are a lot of recurring themes, no doubt after hours of artistic discussion.


At least, if you were a prisoner in Venice, you found comfort knowing you weren’t alone:


Next, we’ll take you for a ride on one of those gondolas and we’ll see what’s down the canal!



It Isn’t Easy Bein’ a Doge!

Vienna was a republic, so the Doges (long “o”, soft “g”) were elected, not by the common folk, but by the representatives of the wealthy families of the city. In all there were 117 Doges through the history of Venice, the first being elected in 697 and the last, being advised by Napoleon to take a hike, left in 1797.

So, for 1,100 years there was more or less of a struggle between the Doge and the electorate to wield power. The first one had to serve under the rule of another city. He left and the next guy was elected by people who wanted out from under the thumb of the Byzantines. Well, he was assassinated. For a while after that some other guys filled in. In 742 they elected a guy name Theodato Ipato. He served for 13 years till somebody else, Galla Gaulo, thought he could do a better job. So, with some of his friends, he arranged to have poor Theodato deposed, blinded, and exiled. Galla didn’t last more than a year until another guy, Domenico Monegario, had him deposed, blinded, and exiled. Domenico ruled for 8 years, then the same thing happened to him!.

The next in line, no doubt wearing protective eyeware, served without being deposed, but he, too, made a big mistake. When it was time to take his leave, he put his son in his place. Well, one of the big no, no’s of being a Doge is nepotism. The electorate gave the son and his family a one way ticket to Mantua, and made it clear that returning would be a VERY bad idea. Apparently they all died in Mantua.

So, on and on it went for centuries. The Doge would try to get away with something and the Council would say, “No, no, no!”

It is pretty clear, though, that these guys were not shrinking violets. Here are a few portraits.

Around 1150, the current Doge had a palace built in its present location, connected to Saint Mark’s Basilica, which at that time was a private chapel for the Doge. From that point on, the Doges were required to live at the Palace, mostly so the Council could keep an eye on them. At one point, the council required one of its members to be present before the Doge could even open correspondence from a foreign power.

The original palace did not last, so around 1340 the construction of the current palace began. Over time, there were fires and modifications, but the existing palace is close to the original. So, let’s take a look!

Here is the outside:


The view from above:


Inside the courtyard, which contains two wells:


A close-up of the link to St. Mark’s


Inside the courtyard:

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The floor plan:Doges Palace

OK, let’s say you are, oh, the King of Naples, in town to discuss business with the Doge. Your ship pulls up to the harbor, but you’re lucky if anyone comes to meet you. You get off the ship and arrive at the entrance to the Palace.


The first thing the Doge liked to do was to make sure you had to climb to meet him. Your journey started here.

Then, once inside, you found this:


Up we go! To the landing where there is another set of stairs like this one. By the time you get to the Doge, who is on an elevated stage, you are more than just breathless in anticipation!

You observe that the Doge spared no expense on decor:








One of the things Doges loved to do was to have themselves painted into biblical scenes:


Why not?

Well, we could go on and on to room after room, but there are two you should definitely see: First, the Room of the Great Council!

Sometimes, if the Doge was planning something really big, like a war, he would convene the Great Council, which consisted of males 25 and over from the proper families. This could be up to 2,000 people. Where are you going to put them? Right here!


At the far end, where the Doge sat,  you’ll notice a rather large painting:

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The artist Tintoretto was a favorite of the Doges and they were always bugging him to put out more work. Finally, he hired a workshop of apprentices, fine artists in their own right, including three of his children. It was the Tintoretto Workshop, and the man himself, who produced this painting, called Paradise. It is reputed to be the largest painting on canvas in existence. It is the size of a tennis court. Tintoretto was 70 at the time. This was his last major work.

Here are some details:


Everything builds to Christ crowning the Virgin Mary:


Over the thousand or so years, Venice played around with different ways to set up government around the Doge. Predictably, the larger the council the more unwieldy it became. At one point somebody came up with the idea of taking the top ten most influential guys and making them a separate council to deal with issues in a hurry. They became the Council of Ten and one thing they did was to decide the guilt or innocence of various alleged offenders. Here is a detail of where they met:


As you might imagine, some of the cases heard by the council were of a delicate political nature. And, if they decided that some guy was guilty of, say, treason, and a lot of his supporters were out in the hall, it would not do to parade him through the palace. If you look closely at the wood panels you will note, in spite of the glare, that one panel, almost in the center, seems to stand out from the others. That is because it is a secret door which leads directly to the dungeon below. No muss. No fuss.

In our next post we will take you to the dungeon for a nice visit. I will leave you, though, with a small sampling of treasures from the war room where you can take a look at some of the brotherly love displayed on the Medieval battlefield:










Nice guys!





Piazza San Marco!

In the year 828 a couple of merchants of Venice happened to be in Alexandria, Egypt, which, at that time was under control of the Muslim Saracens. It just so happened that the Apostle Mark had established a Christian Church in Alexandria years before and when the merchants visited that church they came across some monks who were very concerned that Mark’s church might well be attacked and plundered. Their principle concern was that Mark himself was buried there and the monks had no interest in seeing his bones paraded down the street. So, the merchants and the monks hit upon a plan to get Mark out of town. They exhumed him, stuffed another lesser saint into his sarcophagus and, loaded him on the next ship bound for Venice. To make sure he was not discovered they hid his remains under a load of pork and cabbages, which the Muslims would not go near. Sure enough, they quickly passed inspection and off to Venice they went. Numerous miracles are said to have occurred on this voyage, which brought everyone back home safely.

At that time Venice was ruled by “Doges” (DOUGH-jis), or, “Dukes”. When the Doge heard that Saint Mark was in town he immediately ordered the construction of a cathedral right next to his palace. Well, it was a beautiful cathedral no doubt, but unfortunately it burned to the ground some years later and it was assumed that Mark’s remains went up with it.

However, as a new, larger cathedral was being constructed an apparition appeared one night and pointed to one of the pillars left from the old church. Sure enough, upon inspection, it was discovered that Mark himself had been tucked inside the pillar! So, as the new cathedral was completed a much more suitable and secure final resting place was created. Where is it? Nobody is saying. All we know is, he’s somewhere in here:


The basilica is now part of the complex known as the Piazza San Marco which is the crown jewel of Venice. If you stand at the west end of the Piazza the basilica is at the east end:


Along the north sides, to your left and right, are the offices of the Procuratie Vecchie, the people who administer the affairs of the Basilica. The tower is the Campanile di San Marco, or, bell tower.

Here is a better view of the Procuratie Vecchie:


If you stand at the cathedral end and look west you will see this:


At the far end is the Correr Museum, which we will visit later.

If you are at the cathedral looking south, toward the canals, this is the view:


To the left is the Doges Palace, still connected to the basilica. There are two columns also, the one on the left being a winged lion, the symbol of Mark and of the city itself.


So, let’s take a look at Saint Mark’s Basilica. First the outside. The columns at each entrance are of different colored marble. Above are mosaics depicting scenes from Mark’s life and of his rescue from the Muslims:




Such a huge cathedral and yet the attention to detail is incomprehensible:







What incredible art! But wait! Let’s take a look inside:


Yes, people. That is gold! It is gold leaf embedded in the glass chips!







I could show you every picture in our collection or you could find more on the internet but nothing takes the place of just being there. We have been in many great cathedrals, but this is an absolute mind blower! And yet, there’s more!

Inside the basilica is a museum which mostly features mosaics and other art that was salvaged from the earlier church or otherwise removed for display, like this one:DSCF0075

But, by far, the stars of the show are the Horses of Saint Mark:


These horses date back to the first or second century and were probably part of some Roman garden. Apparently they were gifted to the Byzantines and for many years were displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Well, in 1204, they became part of the loot plundered from that city during the Fourth Crusade. They were brought back to Venice and displayed above the entrance to the basilica where they remained until Napoleon captured Venice in 1797. He removed them by force and had them placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris.

Following the Battle of Waterloo, however, the Emperor of Austria gave the horses back to the Venetians who, once again placed them on basilica. In 1980, people began to notice that pollution was taking its toll on them. They were taken down, restored, and moved inside to protect them. Are they happy?


Here are the copies:


Next, we’ll head up the Campanile and take a look around.





Venice is a city like no other! Of course, you already know that. But, to actually be there is also an experience like no other. It was a two and a half hour train ride from Milan (38 euro for the two of us) and to get to the city you have to go over a causeway.


So, over we go! We arrive at the Santa Lucia station and it’s an easy departure right out the main gate and there, in front of us is the Grand Canal! Across the canal we can actually see our hotel. This is the one town we decided to upgrade our hotel so we could be on the canal. All we had to do is simply cross over the Scalzi Bridge, turn right and we would be there less than a minute. There is only one detail that even Rick Steves left out: here is the Scalzi Bridge:


Even our light luggage dreaded this one. Almost instantly we were besieged by guys with carts offering to transport our luggage. Now every tour guide we read had one piece of advice in common: Do not allow yourself to be approached by strangers selling stuff and, if you are, ignore them. So, this is what we did. Instead we lugged everything up each of these steps and down the other side. It was awful. And, these guys followed us right up the steps to make matters worse. But we persevered and finally got everything over. So, here is an addendum to any tour book you read. If you are approached by a stranger wanting to carry your bags over the Ponte Scalzi, pay them!

OK, so here is Venice, famously shaped like a fish:


The train station is at the upper left. Our hotel was across the Grand Canal, the omega shaped ribbon that runs through the city, and, as you can see, most of the streets are water. To get around the city you take a water taxi called a vaperetto, which is this:


They make routine stops up and down the Grand Canal and out to the nearby islands if you take the right one. They are numbered so you know which one to get on. To go the entire length of the canal takes about an hour if you get on one that makes all the stops. They can be incredibly crowded. Would you like to go for a ride? No problem! This is the part of the journey that takes you under the Rialto Bridge:

This is the way to see Venice! Here are some more sights along the way:












The real charm of Venice, though, is the side streets:






So, we took the vaporetto the length of the canal and planned our time here. Then it was back to the hotel. Here is the view out our window:


As it turns out, there was a gondola station right in front of us! In the next chapter we will go on a gondola ride and visit Piazza San Marco. Plenty to see and do! In the mean time I’ll leave you with a view from the room at night: