• Venice and its Lagoon

Visit: 29th May 2016

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Venice is one of the world’s most famous tourist destinations, so it is one of those World Heritage Sites – like the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal – that nobody questions when I tell them I am going to. “A steel works in Germany? – But, what?” … “a Mercury mine in Slovenia? Are you mad?”. But Venice – that makes sense.

And they would be right, because Venice is a city unlike any other. Its origins are in a time of fear and isolation following the collapse of the Roman Empire. That great civilisation which had held most of Europe together under the yoke of one city eventually crumbled and fell away, leaving the forces of barbarism and destruction to wreak havoc across the continent. In Britain it was the Vikings, who came by boat – but in the south of the continent there were other tribes raiding on foot. For this reason the people of Venice sought refuge on a small archipelago of islands off the coast of the Veneto. It turned out to be a wise move, and the settlement prospered. Over time the city was built up, the gaps between the 117 islets forming the basis for what are now canals.

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By the Middle Ages Venice was one of the strongest city states in the world and boasted great riches. It was a staging post for Christian armies heading out on the Crusades and an important centre of trade in goods imported from far and wide. During the Renaissance Venice played a key role as host to various notable artists, such that it even formed its own sub-style. Venetian builders were slow in adopting the principles behind Renaissance architecture, but when they did the city’s buildings greater warmth and splendour than those in Florence or Rome. The effect of sunlight on Venice’s vistas is something artists often strain to capture. We were fortunate after a thunderstorm to really notice the glow of the evening sun, which I think comes across in the picture above. It is surely no coincidence that one of the chief differences between the Florentines and the Venetians was that the former emphasised design in their art whilst the latter preferred colour.

We arrived in Venice by train from Padua. The main Venetian island is nowadays connected to the mainland by a rather ugly causeway with a highway and railway line on it. I would note that it was opened by Mussolini. Upon exiting the station the view is at once striking. We crossed the bridge over the Grand Canal and began to navigate through the maze of alleys to our hotel about 30 minutes on foot from the station.

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After checking into the hotel we headed out to the city’s main art gallery, the Accademia, just in time for a downpour to catch us. The ‘Venetians’ include Titian, Tintoretto, Giorgione and Bellini. We didn’t see any Canaletto, which was odd because he is famed for his scenes of the Venetian cityscape. But there was a notable altarpiece from the disturbing mind of Hieronymus Bosch, which I had not been expecting.

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After the gallery we considered taking a boat somewhere. Gondolas, I was told, are extremely expensive – so we looked into water buses. But these were expensive too, and none were convenient for us anyway. So we spent a whole day and night in Venice without ever travelling by boat about the canals or the lagoon (never more than a few feet deep). I did come here once before, though, with school when I was sixteen. We took a gondola then, and a trip to the island of Murano where they make the (semi)-famous blue glass.

The city is crowded in parts (eg. the Rialto Bridge) but there are still areas that are relatively quiet and seem almost local. The northern neighbourhood of Cannaregio, recommended by Natalie’s friend Chiedza, was one such place. Here we sat and drank wine before having a good meal. The rain really came down again as we were having a ‘spritz’ aperitif but this time we were sheltered inside.

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One of the most popular sites to visit in Venice is the Doge’s Palace – the seat of the city’s historical ruler, the Duke of Venice. Having walked past it earlier in the day we saw just how big the queues could be. But it turns out that the palace has extended opening hours at weekends, keeping its doors open until 11pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. This is a great way to avoid the crowds. We almost had the place to ourselves as we walked around some of the most spectacular interiors in the world.

The Doge’s Palace is an example, perhaps surprisingly, of a Gothic building. When I hear Gothic I tend to think of imposing cathedrals such as Cologne and Amiens, covered in gargoyles and flying buttresses. But this later development of the Gothic style from the 14th century is quirkily individualistic outside (above, left) whilst being more characteristic of the period in its internal courtyard (above, bottom right).

The highlight of the palace is the Senate Hall (above, top right), which was made all the more atmospheric on our visit by the bat flying round and round in the dim glow of the evening’s lights. A visit to the Doge’s Palace also includes the Bridge of Sighs, which contains a pair of corridors through which convicts were taken to jail – sighing as they passed through.

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Venice is full of historic churches. I am always impressed by Baroque interiors such as this one at the Church of the Jesuits (which reminded me of the chapel at the Würzburg Residence in Germany). The spiral columns are called ‘Solomonic columns’ after Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, from which the design was traditionally said to have originated (unlikely to be true).

I assume that the most impressive church of all is St Mark’s Basilica, the city’s cathedral. Unfortunately we didn’t manage a visit, but at least got to see the exterior by night as we headed to the Doge’s Palace.

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After one day and one night in Venice we got up early the next morning to catch a train back out to Padua again. I had accidentally booked the Scrovegni Chapel tickets for the wrong day, meaning our weekend itinerary ended up being Venice Airport – Padua – Venice – Padua – Venice Airport. But Padua is such a nice city that we didn’t mind at all.

Venice is on the UNESCO list for fulfilling all six of the man-made inscription criteria, which is quite an achievement. They are:

  1. masterpiece of creative genius
  2. interchange of values
  3. testimony to cultural tradition
  4. illustrating a significant stage in human history
  5. human interaction with environment
  6. associated with ideas of universal significance
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