What Italy lacks in physical size, the country more than makes up for with the rich and ancient history that permeates the streets of its cities and the people living within them. Ruins of the once great Roman civilization can be found right next to contemporary office buildings and homes. People stop for an afternoon espresso under the shadow of the Colosseum and in Florence, sip on a glass of grappa after an amazing meal, with the Duomo illuminated behind them. The songs of gondoliers echo off the walls of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Remnants of the past are seemingly around every corner.
In 2009 my wife Destiny and I traveled to Italy. We spent three days in Rome, two in Florence, one day in Pisa and three in Venice. Nine days, a whirlwind trip, whose tale finishes along the watery canals of The Floating City.
We have already been on three different trains in six days and by now we consider ourselves pros. We deftly maneuver through the bustling crowds at the Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station as we prepare to board our last caravan and say goodbye to Florence. The ride will last two to three hours and like our journeys from Rome and to and from Pisa, the landscape changes in a blur. Cityscapes turn to rolling hills and rolling hills to farmland as we speed through the countryside. As we approach Venice we see the coastal plains and pass over the lagoon named after our final destination before pulling into the Venezia Santa Lucia railway station.
We make our way out of the station and immediately understand that Venice is different from any of our other travels on this adventure. Boats acting as taxis are lined along the canal as people take pictures in the square of the Chiesa San Simeon Piccolo. The large green dome of the church instantly grabs our attention as well as the other floating buildings, as far as the eye can see, that seem to defy physics.
The buildings of Venice don’t actually float. Wooden piles are placed closely together and sink through the soft sand and mud to a hard layer of clay below. A plate of limestone is laid on top of these piles where the foundation of a building is then built and the rest of the structure follows. The water level is high enough that it gives the appearance that the buildings float lazily on top of the water.
We walk the streets of Venice trying to orientate ourselves and find our hotel. I say streets but really they are sidewalks of varying widths that follow the canals throughout the city. We climb the steps of our first bridge, over a canal, and down the steps on the other side. This process will be repeated a countless number of times over the next three days.
We ditch our bags in our room and take a taxi through the canals. The late afternoon sun shines as we pull up to Piazza San Marco. St. Mark’s Basilica glows in the light as we catch our first glimpses of the remarkable church and the square attached to it which is full of people and pigeons. On our first afternoon the pigeons actually outnumber the people.
If you have not been to Venice before, the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square are somewhat famous. Some might even say infamous or call them a nuisance, but as a first timer, the birds are a sight to see. Vendors surround the plaza selling popcorn. The distinct buttery smell reaches our noses before the vendors reach our eyes. At first we’re confused by what our senses are telling us but that confusion doesn’t last long. The chorus of hundreds of birds all cooing to one another is loud enough to drown out the squealing of young children as they run through the flocks. The birds rise and land in a seemingly bored rhythm. A couple crouches in the midst of around 50 birds to have their photo taken. And then it all comes into focus. I don’t know whether Destiny sees it or not, but I mention I can use a snack and sprint over to one of the vendors to buy a small bag. I come back and ask if she wants some popcorn. I place a few pieces into my hand and as she reaches for them three pigeons take flight and land on my arm to eat the kernels before she can get to them. For the next half hour we play with the birds. They land on our outstretched arms or our heads or hover around us in a flurry of feathers. We feed them until our bag is empty and eventually they move on to a more enticing family.
The sun is setting as we walk back to the edge of the bay. The light casts its last colors on the city as we watch gondoliers stow their boats for the evening and twilight illuminates the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore across the water. We catch another boat and travel down the Grand Canal of the city to the Rialto Bridge where we find a place to eat and then shop in the brightly lit stores that are decorated for Christmas. The moon lights our way as we explore the narrow walkways and canals of the city back to our hotel to rest our heads for the evening.
We’re out early the next morning to catch a speedboat to the island of Murano. We race across the water to tour the Mazzega Glass Factory and watch as master glass artisans ply their craft. Murano is known for its glass which has been made on this island using the same techniques since 1291. We start to sweat from the heat of the large furnaces as we watch a plain piece of glass be transformed into a work of art. Afterwards we stroll through the rooms of the shop decorated with completed works of art. Chandeliers sparkle from the ceilings casting light onto vases and sculptures. Mirrors hang from the walls. Jewelry, fountain pens, bowls, tables and more are out on display in a dizzying array of color. We wander around the island late into the day before taking a boat back to Venice.
Night descends swiftly as we walk through the city. We happen upon a jazz club and decide that a little music is just what the doctor ordered to cure our tired feet. A quartet of musicians takes to the stage of an intimate, one room club filled with small tables and candlelight. The music is beautiful as only jazz can be.
Our final day in Italy. The previous eight have blown past us in a rich tapestry of sights, sounds and tastes. Venice is alive with the throngs of people going to work, tourists walking through the city and gondoliers serenading their passengers. Boats filled with people crowd the canals as we make our way back to St. Mark’s Basilica. We have yet to go inside so we spend some time exploring the ornate structure. The wealth and abundance of Venice is summed up in this church and the Doge’s Palace that connects to it. Gold ground mosaics, ceilings and statues overflow from the archways giving it the nickname of Chiesa d’Oro or the Church of Gold. Like everything else in Italy it seems, the basilica is ancient, construction having been completed in 832. We climb the stairs to the upper stories to get a different perspective and are overwhelmed with the beauty of the architecture.
The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore has been staring us in the face from across the bay so we take a short boat ride to the island. Everything is marble and stone except for the giant metal doors that make up the main entrance. The hours are dwindling quickly so we spend a little time here before making a trip to the small island of Lido. The island is more like a seven mile long sandbar that was once home to the Doge. Now a casino, a golf course, hotels and three settlements house 20,000 people. The draw for us is the beach. The Adriatic Sea greets us as we walk through the sand. As we reach the shore, the soft sand turns to seashells as we watch people hunt for perfect specimens. Gulls screech overhead as surfers walk with their boards while the light begins to fade.
We return to the city and walk the streets one last time. Finding our last meal, we pass by a street market and people enjoying the night while lounging in a plaza. We can’t stop talking about the many adventures and experiences we’ve had over the past nine days. We stroll over the canals one last time hand in hand. “Ah, Venice”, it is almost a sigh. Our adventure is now complete.