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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Beauty of history: Things to do when in Venice

Small alleys, quaint little bridges, old world architecture and endless canals, Venice is unlike any other European city.

Written by Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava |
Updated: September 8, 2015 3:49:11 pm
One of the many bridges in Venice One of the many bridges in Venice (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava)

It was a bit like being at India Gate on a crowded weekend evening. Surrounded by a majestic monument, a sea of people walking around aimlessly in a festive mood, with no destination in mind. Interspersed in the crowd were men with flowers and plastic toys in their hands, desperately trying to make a sale. This though was Venice.

After a six hour train journey from Zurich, we reached Venice in the midst of tourist season. And it couldn’t get more commercial. After waiting in a long queue, we finally got a ferry to take us from the mainland to the quaint island where we were to stay for the next few days.

Venice is the only city in the world where no vehicular traffic is allowed inside the city limits. In fact, the cobbled narrow streets were never made for anything but walking.

Clock tower in Venice, an early renaissance building (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava) Clock tower in Venice, an early renaissance building (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava)

If we thought we had left the tourists behind we were mistaken. Disembarking just near our apartment, we merged into another wave of humanity. Venice is made up of 118 islands. We were staying on one of them and it was as charming as we had imagined.

Small alleys, quaint little bridges, old world architecture and endless canals, Venice is unlike any other European city. Tiny cafes at every corner serve what else but Italian cuisine, although catering to the countless tourists, some restaurants can get their basics wrong, in this instance pizza! But what you can’t get enough of is the Gelato, with more ice-cream shops on this small island than in any of our cities.

Ornate architecture in Venice (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava) Ornate architecture in Venice (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava)

Shopping is usually restricted to buying a couple of things and the most prominent is glass. Murano, an island about an hour away, has been home for centuries to artisans using glass to make the smallest bead or the most ornate chandelier. But you can now buy a souvenir without going all the way to the island. Although beware, all of it is not genuine. Costing just a fraction of what an original does, this however is a blow to the Murano economy that is now sinking.

Also staring at you from the small shops are the famous Venetian masks, in a riot of colours and extravagance. Again one has to wonder how many are Chinese made, especially with pop up vendors from India and Bangladesh selling them.

St. Mark's square (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava) St. Mark’s square (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava)

St Marks square, or Piazzo San Marco as it is locally known, is the main public square of Venice and dazzles you with its architecture. It is surrounded on all sides by grand buildings including the St Marks Basilica, the most famous church in Venice. The visit to the Basilica with its ceilings full of gold mosaic work, barely lasts ten minutes, but the wait to enter can be hours. Not unless you reach by eight in the morning. We made it to the front of the queue and looking back within minutes could see a long serpentine line around St Marks.

Main entrance of St. Mark's Basilica (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava) Main entrance of St. Mark’s Basilica (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava)

The classic building on the east side adjoining the Basilica is the seat of the patriarch of Venice. There is history all around this square. The Doge’s palace, in all its gothic splendor is also adjacent to the Basilica. For centuries, this was the seat of the government of Venice. As an empire that had a thriving economy, Venice had a free hand in supporting artists. Palaces had grand facades on all sides so that the architecture was visible even from the water. Venice in later years became a hub for trading renaissance art.

Another picture of the facade of St Mark's Basilica (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava) Another picture of the facade of St Mark’s Basilica (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava)

What also goes way back in time, is the tradition of gondolas. These rowing boats once upon a time were the only means of travelling through the canals of Venice.

Gondola ride through Venice (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava) Gondola ride through Venice (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava)

Now with speed boat taxis, they count on their historical past to tempt the tourist.

Where there is beauty can Bollywood be far behind? Rewind a few decades, a young Amitabh Bachchan can be seen crooning on one of these gondolas along with Zeenat Aman in the movie the Great Gambler.

Today though can take you for quite a ride. The experience will cost you 100 euros. You can try and bargain the price down, but be wary, the ride also becomes shorter. So while it all looks very decadent and appealing, it may be cheaper to just take the ferry taxi. The view remains the same.

Venice skyline (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava) Venice skyline (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava)

But what you can make up with is by dining at any of the delightful cafes by the canal. There is a waiting period at these cafes and often the bar reaches the customer all the way even to the nearest bridge. In some places, you are paying more for the experience than you are for the food. In the summer, and it can get pretty hot, the wining and the dining continues late into the night. Locals here say, in winter there is no business at all.

The beauty of Venice (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava) The beauty of Venice (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava)

Hawkers selling stuff reminds you a bit of home and in fact as we learnt some of them are from India. We met a man from Kolkata, desperate for anyone to listen to his story. Illiterate, he didn’t realise he was in Italy to sell flowers till he came here. He had been promised something entirely different. Having paid the broker’s fee with great difficulty he wanted to go home but cheated, has no means of regrouping.

Masks in the shops of Venice (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava) Masks in the shops of Venice (Source: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava)

There were many like him in that crowd. Going from tourist to tourist, desperate to sell their wares and make some money to send home to their families. But most were oblivious. There were here to see the famed Venice of movies and history. And when the sun set, they came streaming out of the small alleys, singing and soaking the vibrant atmosphere of a city that is a world heritage site. Venice, is your chance to live the other life.

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