There are many places in the world I would call overrated: places that everyone gushes and raves about, places that are the subject of so much hyperbole and so many clichés, that it’s often hard for them to live up to all the hype. This post is not about one of those places!
(Venice and Piazza San Marco as seen from the lagoon)
Venice is many things to many people. For some, it’s the most romantic place on Earth. For others, it’s a dirty, smelly place where the streets are open sewers. For me, it’s a magical place, a gem of a city. Like all gems, Venice is not perfect. It has its flaws. Yet in the end, I am always happy to find my way back to Venice, to an enchanted city on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.
Let’s start with a bit of history, shall we? On 24 August 410, the city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths under their leader, Alaric. This began a series of “barbarian” attacks on Roman territory, especially in Italy, culminating in the invasion of Attila and the Huns fifty years later.
These events led many inhabitants of the Roman cities in the area to flee from the invaders and seek refuge in a place where they would be safe. The refugees soon found the perfect hiding place: the shallow Venetian Lagoon, an enclosed bay that lies between the mouths of the Po and Piave rivers. Separated from the mainland by 2-3 miles of shallow water, the lagoon contains a group of 118 small islands where the refugees built their settlements. Soon many of the islands were connected by bridges. As none of the barbarian tribes had knowledge of boats, the people were safe, and the settlement grew.
(Flag and Coat of Arms of The Most Serene Republic of Venice)
Because of its isolated position, Venice was not affected by the warfare and disturbances of the Middle Ages. The Venetians looked less to mainland Italy and more to the East, to the Byzantine Empire and the area of the Levant, the Crusader kingdoms of the Middle East. They became sailors and merchants, trading with the East and becoming the focal point of East-West trade. It was known as La Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic.
(Historical map of Venice from the 15th Century)
Between 1200-1700 Venice controlled large areas of the Adriatic, and grew rich on trade, but the discovery of the Americas led to a serious decline for Venice. No longer did Venice have the monopoly on spices and exotic goods from India and China: European explorers quickly found new routes to the Indies. The city lost its independence to the Austrian Empire and joined the new Italian Republic in 1866.
That’s a short history of Venice. But what about the city today? Let me show you some of the reasons I love Venice, and why it should definitely be on your Mediterranean cruise itinerary!
First of all, let me say that you need more than 1 cruise day in Venice. If your cruise starts or ends in Venice, I HIGHLY recommend that you spend at least two or three days in the city before or after your cruise. And if Venice is just a stop on your cruise, I suggest that you return at the end of the cruise and spend some time here. People that only visit Venice for a few hours miss most of the magic of the place. (And you also miss Venice at night, which is when it is its most magical: most of the tourists have gone, and you’ll feel like you’re a local!)
Enough of the talk! Here’s a photo essay on why I love Venice so much. I’ll show you some of the things you will experience if you visit Venice. We’ll start at the heart of Venice, the Piazza San Marco. Here you’ll find two of the most famous sights in the city: the Basilica of St-Mark, and the Doge’s Palace.
St-Mark’s is often called the “Church of Gold” and once you see it, inside or out, you’ll quickly see why. The mosaics alone are worth the visit! Before you go in, though, take a look at a few things outside. Above the main portal you will the “Horses of St-Mark“. Originally made in the late Roman Empire, they were part of the Hippodrome of Constantinople until 1204, when the Venetians and their allies sacked Constantinople in the so-called “Fourth Crusade”, and the Doge (the ruler of Venice) ordered the horses sent to Venice. They were put atop the portal in 1254. The horses you see today are not the originals, but bronze replicas. (You can see the originals in St-Mark’s Museum, inside the basilica.) And look up a bit higher, at the gable of the basilica, and you will see the statue of St-Mark, the patron saint of the city, and below him is the lion (representing the saint, with his paw on the Gospel of St-Mark) which is the symbol of Venice.
Here are some more views of the outside of the basilica.
And now for a few pictures of the amazing mosaics at St-Mark’s!
While you’re in Venice, you will probably want to visit some of the outlying islands in the lagoon. The most popular one is Murano, where they make the famous glass. If you wander along the harbor right by piazza San Marco you will find, along with the usual gondolas, speedboats that will take you over to any of the islands. The ones for Murano are often free (but one-way only!) If you get a boat operator that tells you the trip is free, keep in mind that he works for the glass blowers on Murano: you’ll have to pay for the water-taxi back to Venice! But those aren’t expensive, and this is a good way to get over to see all that famous glass.
If you’re interested in glass, head over to the Venice Glass Museum on Murano: the exhibits inside are worth seeing, but my favorite glass is outside: check these out!
But Murano is a cool little place to visit even if you’re not much interested in glass. It’s much less crowded than Venice, and you can wander around, visit a local church (more great mosaics!), sit at a café, and people-watch! It’s a very relaxed place.
So now you’re back from Murano. You’ll probably do like most tourists: RIDE A GONDOLA! I personally don’t do the gondola thing, because they’re horribly expensive, but if you’re feeling romantic, and want to splurge, it’s the way to see Venice! And you won’t have any trouble finding one: THEY’RE EVERYWHERE!
The gondoliers are also easy to spot, with their traditional blue- or red-striped tops.
The gondolas are highly decorated, and every one is different.
This could be you on your visit to Venice!
Here are some more pictures of Venice: its streets, markets, bridges, churches, and even some of the famous Carnival of Venice masks!
I hope you enjoyed this short visit to Venice! More importantly, I hope you someday get to visit this beautiful city!