Venice, ‘Venezia’ in Italian, comprises more than a hundred islets, packed closely together around its black velvet canals. The city is in a lagoon protected from the sea by a long strip of land called the Lido, but it is a sad fact that Venice is famously sinking. Every year, high water levels threaten the city’s fabric and it has long been feared that the enchanting city will one day disappear beneath the water. Ideas have been put forward and funds offered to protect the endangered heritage site, but the problem is complex and solutions including those to erect a huge water-gate, are contentious.
So there’s no time to lose in paying a visit to this must-see destination, one of the world’s most beguiling, with dazzling architecture, no cars, no traffic lights and water, water everywhere. Venice is totally unlike anywhere else in the world and regardless of how many pictures or films of it you may have seen, it is still an unforgettable experience to see for yourself Venice's canals and palaces for the first time.
A great way to get a boat’s eye view of the city is from aboard a chugging vaporetto, a 230-passenger boat, on the Grand Canal. One of the busiest parts of Venice, this is the main thoroughfare and inspiration for countless paintings. It is crossed by three bridges, the Accademia, Rialto and Scalzi, the most famous of which is the Rialto lined with a double row of shops. Many famous buildings stand on the canal banks including the baroque church of Santa Maria Della Salute, the Accademia Gallery and the Corner-Spinelli and Grimani Palaces. This area is home to the city’s aristocrats and you can see their magnificently fussy, richly frescoed palaces, more than a hundred of them, each framed by coloured posts showing the livery of their owners. The handsome Venetian buildings are constructed on wooden stilts which keep most of each building above the waterline.
A mere hop, skip and jump from the Grand Canal is St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), best seen first thing in the morning when the city is just beginning to shake off her mantle of sleep. Later in the day it gets crowded, not surprisingly, being the city’s premier tourist attraction and most famous square in the world. Two centuries ago the square pleased Napoleon so much that he pronounced it ‘the finest drawing room in Europe’ as he marched his troops into the city. This is somewhere to sit outside sipping coffee while being serenaded by musicians at one of the square’s legendary cafes and is where Casanova, Byron and Goethe came to sip their espressos.
Two famous showstopper buildings dominate the piazza – the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Basilica. Inside the splendid Byzantine church of St. Mark's, the life of Venice's patron saint is recalled in a series of handset mosaics while the front doors are adorned with precious gems, each inset by hand and depicting religious scenes. Next door stands the splendid pink and white Verona marble and Istrian stone building, the Doge’s Palace, containing a stunning collection of frescoes and paintings including Tintoretto's ‘Paradise’, the world’s largest oil painting.
Just behind here is the legendary Bridge of Sighs, an elegant covered stone bridge connecting the law courts to the prison and the link between liberty and doom for condemned prisoners. Their doleful lamentations caught the imagination of 19th century Romantics to give the bridge its name.
It is hard to get lost in Venice because nearly everywhere you look there are signs pointing to the twin poles of the city: the Piazza San Marco at one end of the Grand Canal and the Piazzale Roma at the entrance to the city, at the other. If you do happen to get lost while ambling through a web of narrow streets though, don’t worry! You will happen upon some of the city’s most eye-catching sights this way.
In 1841, John Ruskin wrote, “Thank God I am here. It is the paradise of cities.” And do you know? He was right.