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The crumbling grandeur of Venice

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

That first breathtaking view of the Grand Canal as we stepped out of the train station took me completely by surprise. I literally stopped in my tracks to stare in awe. The fact that we arrived during the golden hour just before sunset made it even more wondrous.

Boats of all types and sizes cruised down the canal in every direction, weaving chaotically around each other. People navigated up stairs, over bridges and along paved canal-side walkways. Diners enjoyed the views from their outdoor tables squeezed up against stone-walled palazzi. Gondoliers sang out to their passengers. Colourful glass trinkets sparkled in shop windows, and tiny side-canals and alleyways invited us to explore them.

A palazzo to call home

It was only a 15-minute walk to Hotel Palazzo Odoni on a (thankfully) quieter side-canal. Behind its wooden street-front door we found a pretty courtyard lit with candle lanterns. The place oozed history and character, including our lovely corner room with glass chandelier, shuttered windows, sitting area with curtained day bed and antique tables. The modern bathroom with its large tiled shower was a contrast.

Vino with a view

We were exhausted after hauling our luggage up and over too many stairs and bridges, but we just had to experience the city at sunset. After making our way back to the Grand Canal, we bought a takeaway bottle of wine and grabbed a seat on the steps of a church to people watch as we sipped out of our plastic cups. Our eight-euro bottle was a bargain compared to the 15-euro cocktails on offer at the canal-side bars and restaurants. And the views were just as good from where we sat.

A vendor tried to sell us roses. We politely declined, but he literally shoved them into our hands, seeming to indicate no charge. We assumed he was giving away his end-of-night inventory, but he came back later, demanding money. He was hoping to guilt us into paying. Ah, the workings of a tourist city.

We gave the unwanted flowers back, but I did feel for him and the many other vendors we met along the way throughout Italy. It's a difficult way to make a living, especially in a struggling economy. Most of the street sellers seemed to be immigrants who were having a hard time finding work. Even Italian nationals were struggling in a country where those who have the best family connections get the jobs.

Piazza San Marco

The next morning we walked over to Piazza San Marco. There was no need for the GPS, since there were navigational signs everywhere pointing the way to the Rialto Bridge and the Piazza, a helpful surprise.

Despite our attempt to beat the peak summer crowds, the Piazza was already teeming by the time we arrived. No matter; we used our time in line to admire the outside of the church and take in the views around the piazza.

We also witnessed the ringing of the bells, a delightful multi-carillon symphony. I t was all started by the bronze Moor striking the first bell of the Torre d' ellâ Orologio (clock tower). It went on for a few minutes, so I've edited this down a bit:

The interior of the Cathedral was covered with glittering mosaics depicting saints and biblical scenes. I wish we could have taken our time viewing them, but we were herded along a specific, tightly controlled roped path. It was free to enter the main cathedral, but there were fees to see many of the side chapels and transepts. Since we weren't sure what they were, we opted not to splurge.

It was forbidden to speak (even for guides) or take photos in the church. We could have had a more enlightening visit if only I had read an article like this one beforehand. There will just have to be a next time!

Grand Canal tour on a dime

We admired the romantic and pricey gondolas from afar, but chose to use the public vaporetto water bus system to tour the Grand Canal. Following the advice in our guide book, we boarded a Line #1 boat and plugged into the audio tour we had pre-loaded onto our phones. It was specifically created to explain the sights along the vaporetto route.

The boat was jam packed and still very hot, even though it was after 6 pm. We had to jostle for position in order to enjoy the views, but the price was certainly right.

It was fascinating and sad to see the decaying palazzi from the water. Some looked abandoned, with badly crumbling facades and sagging balconies. A local told us city planners were worried the city would soon turn into a living museum - pretty to visit and look at, but a nightmare to live in.

There were many tourist shops and restaurants, but not enough supermarkets, playgrounds, schools or even wheelchair and stroller-accessible walkways. Homeowners couldn't afford to maintain their deteriorating palazzi according to UNESCO's strict guidelines, so they left them to decay. There were no roads for cars, and flooding is a bigger problem each year.

The population had dwindled to 60,000 - far less than the number of visitors clogging the streets in high season. I could only imagine what it was like for locals.

Our captain navigated skillfully through the choatic water traffic. Other vaporetti, water taxis, traghettos (boats used to cross the canals), police boats, supply boats, private speedboats and gondolas all dodged and weaved around each other. It seemed like complete mayhem, but some unspoken set of guidelines must have kept the vessels from colliding.

We rode all the way to back to Piazza San Marco, which took about 45 minutes. We enjoyed the more relaxed evening scene there with softer light, cooler temperatures, fewer people and more pigeons. The mosaics on the facade of the Basilica glowed and glinted.

A few men were selling grain for feeding the pigeons. Nina tried it out, despite my dire warnings of getting pooped on. Watch below to see how she fared.

Burano Island

We made further use of our water bus passes with a day trip out to Burano Island. We boarded the right boat, but soon realized it was going the wrong way around Venice - oops! It was a much longer and sweatier trip to our connecting stop, but we saw more scenery along the way.

We also met a lovely local woman who was commuting to an appointment. Barbara, a journalist, was thrilled to practice her English. We chatted about everything from the economy and Italian education system to what life is like in Canada.

The boat made a stop on the glass-making island of Murano. Some of the low brick glass factories were still in operation, but others looked like they had been abandoned for quite some time. If you have the inclination for a longer day trip, you can visit Murano and Burano on the same day.

We loved the cheery colourful houses and shops of Burano. We discovered the island  had its own leaning tower, one of many scattered throughout northern Italy In the main square, vendors were just tearing down from the morning market.

Burano is known for its tradition of lace-making. A few ladies still make some of the lace by hand, but the shops sell mostly factory-produced items these days. I was skeptical about finding anything I liked, since I usually think of lace as old-fashioned. But the island's designers kept up with contemporary preferences, using on-trend colours and mixing sections of lace with other fabrics to create fashion forward looks. I picked up a few bright, pretty scarves, which made nice packable souvenirs or gifts.

Buona sera Italia

Back in Venice, we started our last evening with bellinis (invented in Venice) on a patio. They were delicious and perfect for the warm weather.

Our last Italian dinner was delicious fresh seafood at a restaurant with lovely outdoor tables in Piazza Tomas. I went inside to settle the bill. I smiled when I saw waiters dispensing the house wine  from a tap, much like draught beer. But of course, there's wine on tap in Venice!

I'll admit Venice was hot and crowded in the peak of summer. But the faded grandeur, buzzing canals, historic ambience, centuries-old traditions of craftsmanship and quiet corners awaiting discovery added up to something quite grand indeed. The flowing taps of wine were like the icing on an enticing cake.

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