Venice, La Serenissima is unlike any other city in the world. A unique maritime power in the medieval and early modern world, this gateway to the Orient situated in the heart of a lagoon, in the northeast Italy, still has a spirit and soul that leave you speechless. Call us blinded by the clichées, but Venice fostered our imagination and captured our hearts in hard to describe ways.
La Serenissima under pressure
The city state of Venice earned her nickname La Serenissima due to her ability to avoid conflict and use diplomacy and mediation instead of weapons if possible. These days the most serene city is facing different challenges. If you have followed the news you’ve probably learned about the issues that are very real problems in La Serenissima.
At times, we got exhausted by the crowds (60,000-70,000 daily visitors) at certain areas. Our heads spinned when we kept thinking about the touristification, the cruise industry’s impact, the unstoppable sinking of the city (1-2 mm per year). Venice and it’s lagoon are fragile UNESCO Heritage property and sustainable solutions within the tourism industry are needed.
We tried to imagine the challenges local people have to face while balancing with the public and private life. As we talked to people we understood a lot of locals are struggling to understand and tolerate the tourism industry as the one bringing in the money for people and the maintenance of the city at the same time as it narrows the traditional, local life in the historic quarters.
In Venice, where we knew we would be part of the problem, we also wanted to be part of the solution by staying several nights in a hotel run by locals instead of just visiting one day.
A high percentage of locals have had to move to the Terra Firma across the bridge when everyday services disappear, apartments are becoming rentals or hotels, prices for renting and buying an apartment get sky high and restaurants start forgetting the local flavors.
Still, as visitors, we could’t help thinking it is truly magical to have the possibility of walking the ancient streets where Marco Polo decided he wants to explore the Silk Road, where Casanova enjoyed the decadence of the city, where composers from Vivaldi to Wagner have inhaled the special air and poured it into their music.
And we believe that because Venice, La Serenissima is unlike any other city in the world it will also find solutions unique to the city.
An Ode to the Floating City
Venice is something you can’t compare to the metropolitan cities like Rome, Paris, London, New York, Las Vegas, Berlin, Shanghai, Hong Kong. We have both visited numerous urban areas around the world and enjoyed them all in their own ways, but Venice.. well. Like Joseph Brodinsky described it “In Venice, maps fail. As everyone knows, to be in that floating city is to be forever lost and disoriented, as if in a labyrinth.”
Venice, a city built on water, tests your limits of understanding and knowledge. It requires you to allow your senses to open for surprises that the city brings in front of you behind every corner. You have the canals, the hundreds of different bridges, decorated palaces, churches with their marble Madonnas and mind-blowing paintings, ageless squares, secret gardens. Western and eastern influences harmoniously live side by side in the most exiting ways.
As the sun moves, the shadows and the colors are in constant play. What now is a reflection, will no longer be reflected within a short moment. From dawn till dusk Venice becomes a new world. The day visitors leave, the pace slows down. We flaneured, wandered around. Got lost and found our way again.
When we let our imagination run wild we could picture the famous names of the past on the same streets where we enjoyed the soft evening air. The personalities of the past would still know their way around, the maze of canals and alleys has pretty much remained the same through the centuries.
And for that particular reason, the layers of history and influences of La Serenissima can be explored, re-visited and experienced in literature, architecture, places of interest, traditions, movies, food & beverage and historical events like in no other place we can think of.
We were lucky to witness one of these very special festivals, Festa Della Sensa. Every year in June the enchanting city of water celebrates it’s marriage with sea. Festa della Sensa dates back to the medieval times, when the Doge literally threw golden rings to the sea to manifest the special relationship this city has with the Adriatic Sea.
The liquid mirage is appreciated by boat parades, rowing competitions and as we learned, a symbolic dropping of the rings at one of the churches.
Gondoliers keeping up with traditions
One of the best known trademark of Venice are the iconic gondoliers wearing the stripy shirts, straw hats and soft, velvet-topped slippers called furlane. We enjoyed following the gondoliers at different times of the day in different parts of Venice. In the mornings getting ready for the day, during the day with their customers, gondoliers taking a break and guys getting ready to go home in the evening.
Gondolier trade was originally created to serve the nobility over 1000 years ago, but without tourists the gondoliers would be doing something else these days.
Obviously, gondoliers need to have good communication skills, foreign language skills and a lot of knowledge of the city’s history, sights and specialities. The guild protected profession requires a license, but also still often goes in the family. Some gondoliers come from many generations of rowers and preserve their trade secrets with pride.
Rowing of the gondoliers looks pretty effortless, but it is a tough job. It takes a lot of skill to be able to navigate through the traffic without colliding. Especially the lagoon and Grand Canal can be filled with different size vehicles at times.
The gondoliers must have developed new sets of skills to be able to adjust when motored vehicles were introduced to these waters. Before motorboats the number of gondolas in the Venetian lagoon and canals was substantially higher, thousands of rowers would work daily in La Serenissima. These days there are about 400 licenses.
Watching these professionals at work is one of those truly intriguing and unique thing to do while wandering in the City of Canals. Venice, La Serenissima is unlike any other city in the world.
This time we didn’t feel like taking a gondola ride, though. We enjoyed our time in the romantic city on water exploring mostly by foot (and used the vaporetto).
But by no means, take a gondola ride to know what it’s like. The best way to see Venice however, is by foot. You can easily escape the crowds and wander aimlessly, crossing bridges, finding secretive, narrow alleys, hidden corners and quiet campi (squares). The labyrinth of canals is mind-blowing. But everywhere you find a place to sit down and have a small glass of wine, ombra de vin, an Aperol Spritz or a Bellini. Maybe taste some Cicchetti, seafood specialities or hearty pasta.
Venice and the famous names
We didn’t visit Café Florian nor the Harry’s Bar. But it’s no surprise that Lord Byron, Balzac, Dickens, Chaplin, Proust, Goethe, Hemingway and so many creatives, intellectuals and famous names have fallen in love with and gotten in a way, bewitched by this city. Venice lets you slow down. She lures you to this beautiful idleness, the pure enjoyment of doing nothing, just observing and watching world go by.
How about bringing James Bond to Venice canals in the movies? Brilliant! Venice is truly glamorous as you notice in The Moonraker (Bond has an inflatable gondola to drive it off the water to dry land) and the Casino Royale, where, before the dramatic death of Vesper, you see Vesper and Bond sailing in the lagoon. We also remember seeing Talented Mr. Ripley (with Talented Mr. Damon) and movie The Tourist with Depp & Jolie, both with very well identifiable buildings and areas. Woody Allen has filmed here a lot as well.
Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice plays with very dark shades, bringing up the mud and weeds to the surface. The hotel in the novel and the movie exists on the island of Lido. Donna Leon’s novels tie together the dark side of Venice as well. Conspiracy, fear, danger, brutality, secrets, decadence, revenge, poisonings, torture, auspicion, espionage – all that has been part of the real history of Venice through the centuries.
Many visitors come to Venice only for the history, the certain sights and creations by the old masters, but this surprising city is a home for the most extraordinary contemporary haunts and events. Like Truman Capote once said: ”Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”
If you are into modern and contemporary art, find the Peggy Guggenheim Collection or the Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, the art spaces created by the French billionaire François Pinault.
Venice Film Festival is one of those annual see and be seen events and every second year there’s the Venice Biennale. We were lucky to enjoy the city during the 58th International Venice Biennale. The slogan ”May You Live In Interesting Times” is to our knowledge actually a Chinese curse that is wishing you something else. Biennale obviously wants us to pay more attention to the world around us and avoid what ever the greeting suggests.
It’s easy to visit the pavilions, but you can also bump in to exhibitions as you wander around. You can experience a great variety of installations and also more traditional works of art at permanent and temporary galleries. Some pieces are easier to interpret, some leave you wondering what you just saw. And really, that is very fitting in La Serenissima. What did I just see?