A gondola ride through the city’s back “street” canals is the world’s most iconic association with Venice.
Photos © Peter and Alison Gardner
Learn a little about the story of Venice in its glory days and the serious threats the city faces today, discover ways to explore by water the canals, lagoons and rivers without leaving a big footprint doing so, and delight in an unusual coffee table book that captures the magic of Venice at dawn.
Venice and its lagoon, nature and history have been closely linked since the 5th century AD when Venetian populations, to escape barbarian raids, found refuge on the sandy islands of Torcello, Iesolo and Malamocco. These temporary settlements gradually became permanent and the initial refuge of the land-dwelling peasants and fishermen became a maritime power. The small island of Rialto was chosen as the headquarters of the new city.
St Mark’s Basilica is the most famous of many churches in Venice and one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in the world.
The famous and bountiful pigeons of St Mark’s Square have now moved on to other islands as the Venice city fathers declared them a nuisance and banned anyone from feeding them.
By AD 1000, Venice controlled the Dalmatian coast and in 1112 a trading market was founded in the Levantine port of Sidon. The year 1204 saw Venice allied with the Crusaders to capture Constantinople. The abundant booty brought back on that occasion, including the bronzes horses of St Mark’s, is only the more spectacular part of the loot from Byzantium.
The Rialto Bridge is the oldest of the four bridges spanning Venice’s Grand Canal.
Venice soon became a maritime empire of unequalled power extended over the entire length of the seas around the eastern Mediterranean, including the islands of the Ionian Sea and Crete. During the many centuries of Venice’s expansion, it was obliged to defend its trading markets against the commercial undertakings of the Arabs, the Genoese and the Ottoman Turks, as well as those of the European monarchs who were envious of its power.
The Grand Canal is a major traffic corridor for water busses, water taxis and private boats.
At an elevation of one meter or three feet above sea level, Venice is situated on a group of 118 small islands separated by canals and linked by bridges. It is located in the marshy Venetian Lagoon which stretches along a shoreline between the mouths of the Po and the Piave Rivers. Venice is renowned for the beauty of its setting, its architecture and its artworks. The city and its lagoon are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The population of the Venice commune area is 272,000 with the historic city residents numbering only about 60,000.
Built in 1602, the enclosed Bridge of Sighs (above) over the Rio de Palazzo historically connected the New Prison to the interrogation room in the Doge’s Palace. It was the last view (below) of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment.
Venice has also played an important role in the history of symphonic and operatic music, and is the birthplace of Antonio Vivaldi. The UNESCO description concludes, “In this unreal space, where there is no notion of the concept of terra firma, masterpieces of one of the most extraordinary architectural city-wide museums on Earth have been accumulated for over 1,000 years.”
Though Venice is not one of the 44 UNESCO World Heritage Sites presently listed as endangered, it could soon be there, between the catastrophic floods and erosion the city has experienced in recent years and the cruise-ship based visitor-crowding (see below) that many view as a match for the natural assaults that the city is trying to overcome at enormous expense.
The back streets are where true Venetians live. Visitors are welcome to stroll through many charming neighborhoods, past homes and apartments decorated with colorful flower boxes, where they may greet people walking their dogs and eat at local restaurants away from the tourist areas.
In the past decade, Venice has become a popular destination for larger and larger cruise ships plying the Adriatic Sea. In fact “too popular” say a growing number of people in Italy and around the world. The city has seen cruise visits increase by 400 percent over the past five years. In 2012, 1.78 million cruise passengers visited Venice, outnumbering its local inhabitants by 30 to 1!
Considered by many to be the “most beautiful street in the world,” the Grand Canal is an upside-down “S” three kilometers long dividing the city into two parts.
Photos of 3,000+ passenger cruise giants towering over Venice’s iconic sites require no captions to emit a gasp from anyone who values the city’s unique place in European Medieval and Renaissance history and who recognizes Venice’s increasing, well-documented physical fragility in the 21st century.
Two in-depth articles by BBC News reporter, Alan Johnston, capture the issues and arguments most effectively. Their accompanying photos also illustrate the “size” dynamics of the problem better than any words can express. I recommend these articles as food for thought:
September 6, 2012 “… At the height of the season, these giants [cruise ships] emerging from the sea one after another can bring as many as 30,000 visitors in a single day.”
November 5, 2013 “… From January 2014, the number of cruise ships allowed through Venice will be cut by 20%.”
And on July 5, 2017, CNN Travel reported “…the islands voted to ban cruise ships sailing along Venice’s picturesque Giudecca Canal. … However, just three months after it came into law, this move was overturned by the Regional Administrative Court on the mainland.”
Northeastern Italy’s beautiful canals and rivers allow visitors to pass through diverse landscapes and nature from picturesque lagoon islands with colorful houses to wild beach dunes and pine woods with an abundance of birdlife. These waterways were once the ancient trade routes used by the Romans and the early Mediterranean settlers before them and are perfect for gaining a real insight into the many cultures, including Roman, Etruscan, Istrian, Byzantine and of course Renaissance, that have influenced the arts, architecture and history of the region over many centuries.
La Bella Vita cruises around Venice and northern Italy. European Waterways
Luxury barging specialist, European Waterways offers three theme-cruise itineraries focusing on Venice, its Lagoon and the Po River aboard La Bella Vita, a 10 stateroom, 20-passenger vessel. Choose from a Classic Cruise in Italy, a Golf Cruise, and a Wine Appreciation Cruise, each one seven days long from Venice to Mantua.
River cruising specialist, Uniworld offers two creative ways to explore Venice as part of larger itineraries, both while cruising aboard the 132-guest River Countess, a refurbished boutique vessel: Venice & the Gems of Northern Italy, an 8-day Venice to Venice cruise; and Splendors of Northern Italy, Venice, Florence & Rome, a 13-day cruise and land tour.
River Countess explores Venice and other gems of northern Italy. Uniworld
For travelers who have already fallen in love with Venice or for those who are ready to begin their first love affair with this unique city, I recommend a new book, The Light of Venice, as seen through the lens of acclaimed photographer Jean-Michel Berts. His extraordinary black and white photographs pay homage to Venice, captured at dawn when the city’s magnificent architecture, canals and bridges are shrouded in misty solitude.
“I always try to give my photographs a feeling of timelessness,” says Jean-Michel. “I never know the photograph I’m going to make, the photograph comes to me, it finds me.” With his text and images, he captures La Serenissima (The Most Serene Republic of Venice) in just such a timeless glory.
The Light of Venice may be purchased through the publisher, Assouline, or via local bookshops and online bookstores. Hardcover with jacket, 10½ x 13″, 132 pages, over 60 illustrations, laced with illuminating quotes from famous visitors past and present, ISBN: 978-1-61428-023-1. Priced at US$65, €50 and £40.