All I want is to find my hotel, unburden my shoulders of a hefty backpack and jump face-forward to the bed, but instead I linger in Piazza San Marco far too long. It doesn’t help that I arrive in Venice at sunset, when its skyline of Gothic towers, spires and domes glow golden above the Adriatic Sea. Pastel skies, warm streetlights and marble buildings of bright colors reflect in the still waters of the Grand Canal. Gondoliers break into an aria as they pull their oars with a gentle splash, their gondolas bobbing up and down as vaporettis (water taxi) glide by. A blatant reminder of my solitude, couples hold hands as they listen to serenading violins. There’s really no competition. For romance, Venice has the perfect ambiance.
Timeworn cobblestones lead me on through a tangle of alleyways and bridges, and at the point of desperation when I realize I am nowhere near my hotel, I duck into a tiny gelato store where the gentle-faced owner gives me a confusing direction full of hand gestures. I nod pleasantly, trying to make sense of his floundering English. The sight of other baffled tourists, who can’t figure out where “take a left, then go straight” went wrong, somehow consoles me. Apparently, getting lost is part of the deal when visiting this love-infested city.
Venice is not a typical Italian city. It is a vast agglomeration of roughly 120 islands linked together by a mind-bending 409 bridges and countless pedestrian conduits that can disorient even the best sense of direction yet lead to a multitude of backstreet gems, such as Renaissance opera houses and museums, quaint restaurants and hidden gardens. There are no cars and motorcycles to honk strolling lovers to the sidewalk, and the only way to get around is either by foot or by boat. I let my eyes survey the marble façade of the Santa Maria Della Salute and the nearby palaces, moving across their lacelike stonework and Baroque swirls inch by inch. The city is nothing less than a vast aquatic gallery of elegant architecture, an urban maze of a museum that reminds everyone of its glorious past. Enriched by trade and cultural contacts with the East and the Mediterranean, Venice had seen opulence in the Middle Ages. Not only was the city an important port and commercial center, it was also celebrated for its music and painting, exquisite glasswares and magnificent palaces and churches.
Today a city for lovers, Venice wasn’t born out of romance. According to tradition it was founded in 421 AD, when the Celtic people called the Veneto fled to the remote islands of an Adriatic lagoon to escape the violent Barbarian invasions, which lasted until the sixth century. The settlers took advantage of their vast waterways and deep channels and started maritime trading with Egypt, Syria, Southeast Asia, Iran and China. Soon, they formed a loose federation and elected their first doge (duke) to assert their independence from the Byzantine Empire. By the Middle Ages, Venice flourished as a port and trading center and became one of the world’s wealthiest cities. Eventually, their wooden pile dwellings were replaced with brick houses, splendid palaces and Gothic churches. Venice became so powerful that it remained intact and unscathed despite the attacks of 15 kingdoms, which tried to suppress it from expanding towards the mainland. Its glory, however, did not last very long. By the end of the 15th century, the Americas were discovered and became the new trading port, triggering the commercial and political decline of the Venetian Republic. Furthermore, the recurring bubonic plague decimated its population. In the 18th century, it became politically irrelevant that Emperor Napoleon dissolved it and handed it over to Austria. Venice, however, did not prosper under Austria, and when the Prussians defeated the Austrians, Venice was allowed to join the new nation of Italy.
With a cappuccino in hand, I wind my way back to Piazza San Marco early morning the following day. The square is empty, save for the early-rising pigeons scattered on the patterned stone paving and a grumpy waiter setting out tables and chairs at a nearby café. Laid out in the ninth century as a gathering place for the Venetians, the sprawling piazza is bordered by historic buildings. As if by instinct, I walk toward the Basilica di San Marco on the eastern end of the square. Glinting in the sunlight, its pinnacles, domes and intricate mosaics and arches instantly draw attention. A hodgepodge of different architectural styles- Gothic, Byzantine and Islamic, the basilica was built in 1071 to shelter the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist, which were stolen by two Venetian merchants from their original resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. A stone’s throw away from the basilica is its campanile, (bell tower) soaring 99 meters into the sky. Originally built in the ninth century, the imposing landmark was reconstructed in 1912 after the original tower collapsed in 1902. The other dominant building in Piazza San Marco is the 14th century Doge’s Palace, which for centuries was the seat of government, the palace of justice and the Doge’s (duke) residence. Stepping back to admire the massive structure, I realize that its entire width is embellished with splendid patterns, perforations and Gothic arches, making it appear light and lacy. It is said that from these arches, the Doge would watch public executions in the piazza and announce death sentences.
It is a hot summer day and by noon, the square is thick with smooching couples and tourists inspecting its marvels. Every square foot of sitting space is crowded with young people licking overpriced gelatos and making peace signs for photographs. Licking an overpriced gelato myself, I recognize plenty of Asian faces around, particularly Chinese. Most are tourists and some are residents, most likely descendants of the Chinese merchants who once traded in the Venetian shores. After basking in the piazza’s old world atmosphere, I stuff my map inside my bag and decide to get lost. Walking through labyrinthine alleyways, climbing bridge after bridge, I stumble upon the Chiesa di San Moise, an 8th century Baroque style church dedicated to Moses. Like other medieval churches, Chiesa di San Moise is heavily embellished with carved patterns and sculptures from its roof down to its entrance doors. Not far from the church, a crowd queues up for a gondola ride. Priced at 100 Euros for a 40-minute ride, the gondola experience is quite heavy to the pocket, but thankfully, a group invites me to split the cost with them. I say yes in a heartbeat. Soon, we are gliding past other gondolas filled with affectionate couples. Quietly, we stare at endless boutiques and gargoyle-bedecked buildings that line both sides of the canal. Just before we progress to the Grand Canal, we sail under the infamous Bridge of Sighs, which was named such because of the prisoners’ sighs of grief and remorse.It was through this Baroque bridge, which connects the interrogation rooms of the Doge’s Palace to the penitentiary across, that criminals in the past would catch their last glimpse of the outside world before they were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Shortly, the Grand Canal welcomes us with a chaotic procession of watercrafts swerving across the rush hour traffic and spilling newly arrived tourists to the wharfs. I strain my eyes to catch glimpse of the tapestries, chandeliers and frescoed ceilings through the windows of ornate buildings that fringe the waterway. One can only imagine the city’s grandeur during its golden years. Then, cargo vessels from different parts of the world unloaded gold, silk, spices, metal and textiles by the Rialto Bridge, which briefly blocks the sunlight as we drift by underneath. Built in 1588, the dignified Rialto Bridge connects the districts of San Polo and San Marco across the Grand Canal. It has always been the busiest crossing in Venice, now usually thronged by tourists instead of multicultural merchants during the city’s heyday. Complementing the dramatic ambiance, the sweet sound of accordion resonates from serene side canals, where colorful reflections dance beneath stately palaces and wooden bridges. Fishing boats of gaudy colors float steadily in front of crumbling buildings, seemingly frozen in time like still-life paintings. The magnificence of Venice is undeniable especially when viewed from the water.
Truth be told, Venice has become exhaustingly crowded these days. During summer months, an average of 80,000 tourists a day throngs its narrow canals and alleyways, profoundly altering its economic flow. Businesses like restaurants and supermarkets now charge tourist rates even to locals and property owners have increasingly converted apartments and residences into hotels, skyrocketing the cost of permanent housing. As a result, the locals’ population has plummeted to an alarming 50,000 in the recent years and if the trend continues, the city may soon lose all of its full-time residents and become a mere Disneyland-like tourist attraction. One can only hope for an intervention that could save it from eventual demise. After all, a city as unique, visually satisfying and historically rich as Venice has to be experienced by travel enthusiasts at least once in their lives.