En route to a wedding in Tirol, we decided to make a stopover in Venice. The Venice Marco Polo airport was a couple of hours drive from the Ötztal Alps, where the wedding would be held, and seemed like as good a way as any to reach our final destination. We’d been wanting to visit Venice for a while, although the plan was always to go in winter when it’s less crowded. Both of us had been to Venice briefly before in summer on separate occasions and remembered clearly the tremendous crush of tourists and oppressively hot weather.
My first trip there was many years ago during a Contiki tour, on my first visit to Europe. We stayed in a hotel on the mainland and in the morning the boat took us to Murano and then onto the main island. In Murano, I remember being fascinated as a glass-blower heated up the glass into a stretchy golden liquid and twisted it into the form of a horse. As it cooled, it became solid.
Afterwards the Americans and Australians on our tour shopped for glass ornaments, but being on my South African budget I just enjoyed looking at them all laid out in the shops. Then we were taken to the main island, dropped at Piazza San Marco and given some hours to walk around before having to meet back again to take a gondola ride. It was unbearably hot and crowded. The queues to get into San Marco, the Doges palace and other museums and historical buildings were endless, so we didn’t even try it. Even the queue to buy water was endless. I could barely see San Marco amid all the people and I learned to hate that crowded square. We went for a walk, but the little side streets and bridges were clogged with people. One of the girls I was with mostly wanted to shop, so a lot of the time we ended up hanging around waiting for her, dripping litres of sweat. By the time the gondola ride arrived, we were too hot to appreciate it properly. The canals were crowded and the loud singing of the many gondoliers passing by distracted from the scenery floating past. Truthfully, at the end of the day I was glad to leave Venice. But as I watched the island receding into the distance from the boat, I vowed that one day I’d come back and visit her at a quieter time. Finally that time came.
Even though we were again visiting Venice in summer, and during the month everyone says to avoid (August), we managed to see a more peaceful side of Venice at night and in the early morning. We arrived at Venice airport at about 10:30pm at night, and headed down to bottom floor of the airport, from where the water buses and taxis arrive and depart. That’s right – you can leave Venice airport by boat! Welcome to life on the water. Even at 11pm it was warm and humid, and the mosquitoes hurried to make a meal of us as we waited for the water bus. Inside the boat itself was hot and sticky, but luckily not too crowded as I knew both me and my backpack were a bit sweaty (it has been about 34 degrees Celsius in Berlin when we left, so was the end of a very hot day). The boat made its way across the dark water, and it was exciting to know that Venice lay somewhere out there in the darkness on the Venetian lagoon.
We arrived at an almost deserted station and started navigating the maze of narrow streets to reach our hotel apartment. The backpack was heavy and my feet was sore, but it was great to walk through the neighborhoods in the quiet of the night, and I especially liked the many little bridges crossing the small canals. After checking in and dumping the bags, we decided to go for another short walk, since San Marco was not far away, and the dead of night may be the only time to see it without the crowds.
This time, I was wowed by San Marco basilica. it is a spectacular building, with an intricate facade and beautiful paintings. I couldn’t imagine how i had not appreciated it the first time around, but then, I had barely been able to see it through the crowds. What a treat to have a big empty square to wander around, and this beautiful cathedral to admire. I began to understand the charm of Venice. We vowed to get up early the next morning so that we could wander around early, before the boatloads of day-trippers arrived on the island.
And that’s what we did. We left the apartment around 8am and after stopping for a coffee and pastry at a nearby café, we walked directly back to San Marco to see it during the day. There were a few other people around, but not so many.
After that we did what it’s best to do in Venice: wander and explore the side streets. We passed by canals with gondoliers, interesting displays of glass, masks, linens and prints in shop windows (most shops were still closed), crumbling, ornate old buildings, and boats loaded with goods for transport (the waterways are not just for tourist boats!).
The crown in the jewel was the Grand Canal, as viewed from the Rialto bridge. By the time we got there it was already much more crowded, but the waterway itself was crowded in a good way and left a strong impression of life on the water. Boats laden with cargo were packing and unpacking, water taxis cruised down the canal and some gondoliers floated along, greeting each other as they passed. One could imagine how the thriving merchant city of Venice was in the past. For once upon a time, Venice was an independent republic and an important merchant hub, and traded with many lands both east and west. The navies of Venice were so powerful that they even established colonies on Aegean islands such as Crete and Cyprus. I have seen for myself the grand Venetian fortress that sill stands at Heraklion in Crete. The fortunes of Venice started to decline when the Ottoman empire rose and captured most of the Venetian-ruled islands in the east Mediterranean. Its status as a trade empire also faded when the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope, opening up new routes to trade with the east. Several episodes of the plague also devastated the population.
As the day drew on, however, it got hotter and more crowded. It was not only hot, but humid. Unfortunately my relatively new shoes gave me blisters, even though they were usually comfortable. The humidity and the weight of the backpack carried the day before had probably contributed to this. The last walk was thus a bit of a slog and soon we had to head back to the mainland, but it didn’t matter anymore, because we’d had our morning in Venice, and we could leave without regrets. The city had won us over, and I know we’ll go back again and explore it some more.