Getting lost in Venice

Upon the recommendation of one of our guidebooks, we spent two days deliberately getting lost in Venice which is not hard to do when you consider Venice is really a collection of 118 islands connected by 400+ bridges.  At times we split up and went our separate ways but for the most part we wandered through the streets together.

Around every corner, we saw charming scenes unfold: winding alleyways some just a few feet wide, medieval buildings bulging this way and that, stone bridges over canals, unexpected piazzas, gondolas and their drivers in their black and white striped jerseys and straw hat – it was a photographer’s dream.  Sonja was giving her new camera a good workout – I think by the end of our trip, she exceeded 1500 photos!  I tagged along with the little point and shoot which I use to entertain myself more than anything as I wait for the photographers with the real cameras.  I would describe myself as a reluctant photographer, a photographer of circumstance not necessarily of choice.  Sometimes I do surprise myself when I manage to take a half decent photo.  And I must admit I am always secretly pleased and perhaps even a little smug when I happen to get a great shot other’s have missed.

Sonja and I managed to squeeze in a few early morning runs while in Venice which was a great opportunity to see the city awaken.  It was surprising to see the number of people already heading off to work at 6:30 am.  I was intrigued by the way boats were used to make deliveries of every sort in much the same way trucks are used in other cities.  The other thing that amazed me was how the postal service managed to deliver the mail in what looked to me like a maze.  After our run each morning, Sonja treated us (I always forgot to bring money, convenient, I know) to a couple of cappuccino’s at the coffee bar around the corner from our apartment – we were practically regulars on a first-name basis with the owner by the end of our visit.

We visited Piazza San Marco both during the day and one evening.  Because of a tip offered to us by the hostel owner on our first night in Venice, we managed to avoid the long line up of tourists waiting to get into the Basilica (see travel tip below for more details).  It felt a little like cheating when we walked past everyone to the head of the line, showed our pass, and waltzed right in.  The Basilica is an example of Byzantine architecture that dates back to the 9th century although much has been altered over time. Once inside, we were in awe: the walls, ceiling and floor of the Basilica were adorned with complex, bright mosaics.  We couldn’t take pictures inside, but managed to capture a few shots in the corridor just outside the main entrance.

When we returned to the Piazza at night, we were surprised to see a wooden walkway erected from one side of the Piazza to the other because it was now covered in ankle deep water that was rising.  We were experiencing what is known as the Acqua Alta, “high water” which is caused when several events coincide: a very high tide, low atmospheric pressure, and a scirocco wind blowing up the narrow, shallow Adriatic Sea which forces water into the Venetian Lagoon.  By official definition, acqua alta occurs when the tide is 90 mm (3.54 inches) above normal high tide.  I’m not sure how high the water got the night we were there, but it was up to the knees of those who waded into the lowest parts of the Piazza.  This natural phenomenon used to be rare, but lately it happens quite frequently, many times each year in fact, mainly during the winter months between September and April.  As you can imagine, this type of flooding causes all kinds of problems so much effort is being made to find solutions that range from floodgates at the Lagoon’s entrances to raising of pavements in low-lying areas of the city.

We wandered into many churches which could easily be mistaken for art galleries as these churches were home to wonderful works of art, even some masterpieces, from famous Italian artists.  The buildings themselves were stunning examples of Renaissance architecture.  

A trip to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, home to a collection of modern art, offered a refreshing change of scenery. The museum is housed in what used to be the home of Peggy Guggenheim and her family for over 40 years.  It was interesting to learn how this rich American heiress used her inherited wealth to advance living artists of her day.  The museum is a tribute to her generosity towards the arts and a lasting legacy of her contribution to the art community.

Before we arrived in Venice, I had the romantic notion of taking a ride in a gondola with Chris, but this fantasy was dashed when we saw the gondolas lined up like taxis, and then stuck in traffic jams along the canals.  It was anything but romantic.  We decided we could find a better way to spend 120 Euros – yup, that’s what 30 minutes in a gondola will set you back these days.

In Venice, and in many other places in Italy, restaurants will charge a service charge (not to be confused with a tip which is still expected), a cover charge (for the privilege of stepping foot in the establishment) and now something we had never seen before, a table charge (an added cost for sitting at a table rather than standing at a counter).  We discovered (the hard way of course) having a coffee at the table could cost as much as 3 times what you would pay if you drank it at the counter. No wonder Italians order their shot of espresso and down it quickly while standing.  It is a very different culture from North America where lingering over a coffee at Starbucks or Tim Horton’s while reading the paper or a book or catching up on your email is a common way to spend an hour or two.  In spite of the added charges, we still enjoyed some great meals in Venice but suffered through a few misses too.  The gelato was divine, especially the mango flavour which tasted just like the fruit.

Venetian masks, a centuries-old tradition of Venice, are typically worn during Carnivale  (Carnival of Venice), but have been used on many other occasions in the past, usually as a way for hiding the wearer’s identity and social status. Mask are sold everywhere in Venice but shoppers must be wary of the cheap knock-offs from China which are distinguished by their low price and equally low quality.  The masks that are made in Italy are often made right in the shop where you can observe the artist at work.  These masks are works of art and can be quite elaborate, with a matching price tag (hundreds of Euros).  I took advantage of my sister’s presence (and willingness to be our mule both bringing provisions to us from Canada and taking things back home), and selected a beautiful mask for my daughter Alyssa who had just celebrated her 25th birthday. As a collector of masks, this seemed like the perfect gift for her.  I’m not sure why we made an exception to our “policy”of not buying gifts or souvenirs….it just seemed like the perfect opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up.

After spending four full days in Venice, we all agreed that this was our favourite city in Italy and that four days was a sufficient amount of time to get a good sense of the city and to see the highlights.  Much more time would be needed if you wanted to visit more museums.  And so we were off to Rome, our final destination on this whirlwind tour through Italy.

Video:  Snapshot of Venice

Travel Tip:  Avoiding the line ups and saving hours of precious time at San Marco Basilica is as simple as checking a bag.  The baggage storage is located off a small alleyway to the left of the church.  Just ask a security guard on the side of the building to point you in the right direction.  You simply leave a bag (we left an empty camera bag) in exchange for a token which then permits you (and your group) to walk straight into the church, avoiding the line altogether.  You see, entrance to the Basilica is free of charge; people are lined up just to have their bags searched by the security guards.


Category: Europe, Italy, Travel Tips
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One Response
  1. sonja says:

    great posting chris. I think though your picture of the gondala kind of at a v section was awesome (not sure if you know which one I mean)…..i think it should have been showcased as one of your ‘talented pictures’.

    BTW….happy mothers day! I want to hear what life on the farm is like….have you had that cooking class yet?