Everyone deserves to have one perfect day in their lives, a day touched by magic. Mine took place many years ago, when I was young, in Venice. In my mind’s eye, I can still step off the Rialto Bridge into a waiting gondola, glide past the waterside palaces we all dream of living in some day, and hear the melodious strains of the gondolier singing "Come back to Sorrento."
My girlfriend and I were Youth Hostelling our way around Europe and, without knowing it, had arrived on a special day. It was the "Fiesta del Redentore" – the Festival of the Redeemer. Although its religious significance was not relevant to me, I was entranced by the atmosphere. All the gondolas were decorated, music filled the air, the girls wore flowers in their hair; and there was a symbolic throwing of a wedding ring into the water, to signify the marriage of the Doge of Venice to the Adriatic.
Venice is a labyrinth of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque splendor. It began in the 5th century C. E., when mainlanders first fled barbarian invaders to the Venetian isles. Out of nothing, they created medieval Europe’s most splendid city. Traders like Marco Polo ventured east and built a merchant empire, and for centuries it was the Meditteranean’s greatest maritime power. However, by 1797 it had caved in to Napolean and succumbed to decay and decadence, but it is still bursting with artistic and architectural wonders. 20 million tourists visit each year. Now it is plagued with problems of flooding and subsidence, but it has never lost its power to bewitch.
Much of Venice is built on ancient platforms of petrified timber pylons driven into the lagoon floor. Through the middle of it winds the upside-down S-shaped Grand Canal. This is Main street Venice, clogged with ferries, water taxis, private boats, police vessels, ambulances, transport barges and flotillas of gondolas. The speed limit is 7 kms. per hour.
Often the easiest way to travel is on foot. There are no cars, for Venice consists of myriad islands. There are 400 bridges spanning 150 canals. It only occupies 7.6 sq. kms. but it would take months to exhaust its glories. Palaces, convents, churches and mansions jostle for attention.
Ferries arrive from Greece every day, sailing past St. Mark’s Square en route to the shipping terminal. You can arrive by rail, but to fly in over the island-spangled lagoon is stunning.
The sights are all wonderful. St. Mark’s Basilica dominates the square of the same name, and you simply must feed the pigeons in the Piazza San Marco as you sip coffee among all the tourists and artists, drinkers and musicians. St. Mark’s itself, built in 11th century, glistens inside with its patina of delicate gold mosaics. Next door, the Gothic arcades of the Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace) spread to the waterfront. It is filled with masterpieces by Venetian greats … Tintoretto to Titian. This was the seat of power for 1,000 years of the proud Venetian republic. Do not miss the art collections at Galleria dell’ Accademia, or at the nearby Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art.
For a breath-taking view, take the elevator to the top of the Campanile, the bell-tower of St. Mark’s Basilica, even though it collapsed in a heap in 1902 and was rebuilt in 1912. Early Spring is the best time to visit. Summer is torrid and crowded. Late Autumn can be wet, although even the fog is romantic. Our visit coincided with Fiesta del Redentore, the 3rd week-end in July. Since 1578, Venetians gather along the Zattere to cross the pontoon bridge to Giudecca Island. The festival was instituted to give thanks for the passing of a nasty plague. There are endless bottles of ‘prosecco’ (light sparkling wine) and fireworks. Then on to the Lido beaches to party until dawn.
Murano glass and Burano lace are on visitors’ wish lists. Head for the islands where they are made, or the stores in St. Mark’s Square. Today tourists also head for Harry’s Bar for a bellini … peach nectar and prosecco. Some of the islands are little more than abandoned rocks, while Burano is a cheerful isle of pastel-colored houses belonging to fishing families.
If you decide to visit this jewel of Europe, remember me to Umberto, who took me dancing at the Lido in 1955. Tell him I’ve still got the little silver gondola!