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The International Writers Magazine: Europe
Looking for a place to relax, enjoy world renowned fine cuisine, and contemplate some of the world's greatest treasures? Dreaming to find yourself at a cross-roads of history and escape a hustle and bustle of a city whilst staying in a city?

A Week in Venice
Natalya Popova

First impression of Venice from the airplane window was a surprise: "Were we landing on water"? The visibility was brilliant when approaching Marco Polo airport - lots of little islands surrounded by muddy water, as well as a stream running alongside the landing ground. Despite reading so much about Venice, every day of our holiday came as a surprise to both of us - my husband Richard and I – on our first trip to Italy.

Passport control and luggage collection was no different to any other airport, however, the wonder of Venice began there. Heading to our hotel on the Lido - the island that separates the Venetian lagoon from the sea, we bought our waterbus (wow!) tickets from the airport travel office - and received two free maps and a guide to Heathrow airport (why?). A normal, boring, bus with wheels took us to the waterbus stop - a moored floating barge. The waterbus didn’t keep us waiting for long. Small, at first sight, boat had a Tardis-like interior that comfortably swallowed 60-70 people plus luggage.

After accommodating myself on a plastic seat in a row of three, I looked out of the window and wondered if our vessel was commanded by Captain Nemo. The water was splashing just below the window level, creating a drowning effect. However, we quickly adapted to our ‘Titanic all over again’ situation as the bus followed a route marked by tripods of wooden stakes supervised by proud seagulls. The relaxed feeling of the journey never left us until we left Venice. From time to time, passing by private boats or water taxis, overtaking, created Australian surfing waves which splashed in through our open windows – to the excitement of tourists and the annoyance of locals.

The Lido at last … we were very much looking forward to practising our: ‘Grazie, senior’ on our arrival at the Villa ‘Cazanova’ - only to find a Russian speaking (Moldavian) receptionist. The locals, though, were pleased to hear us taking the trouble to try the basics of Italian, even though most of them spoke reasonable English.

It was interesting to discover that some familiar words came from old Venetian. We learned about the origin of word "getto" when visited the quiet and compact Jewish quarter. Set aside from 1516 to 1797 for the city’s Jewish population, the site was originally occupied by an iron foundry. In the old Venetian dialect a foundry is a "getto" - and the term ghetto was subsequently taken to describe the Jewish quarter in other cities. A sculpture on the wall commemorated the deportation of the local residents by the Nazis in 1944.

The Arsenale, the great shipyard of the Venetian Republic, situated just a short walk from the city centre, gave its name to sites of arms manufacture around the World, and now is close to hearts of many football fans…

Our first morning in Venice was unforgettable. We took bus No 1, rightly recommended by a few friends of ours, on a tour around Venice. We had bought a 72-hour pass to the water buses. The advantage of staying on the Lido was the choice of seats on the bus – first come, first served basis.

The best views of the Grand Canal were from the front seats – paradise, just like in a cinema. Following our guide book we tried to identify each building: "Look, at this one.. yes, yes - nice pinkish one - three windows first floor, two on second - considered to be Desdemona’s house, and this one is The Academia! .. and this…" Under, from the first glance, shabbiness of buildings- centuries of history, great culture and, of course, hard work of the local government in fighting floods and distortion of the water.

Venice is a city built on 117 islets and shoals, everything goes by water in Venice - police, ambulance, fire engines, garbage ‘trucks’, deliveries. We went up and down the Grand Canal by bus at least 20 times in the week. Between those trips we walked the city thoroughly, starting from the outskirts towards the centre.

The city is not quite big enough to get lost in, but it can be difficult to find your way back to any place you liked. Venice wasn’t built by orderly Romans to a neat plan - so we had to mark places on our map when intending to return. One method of orientation was a stream of tourists – the crowds became far more intensive around the main city sites. Further out of the centre, where tourist crowd shrink, is a space of authentic Italian atmosphere, and quiet contemplation.

This is where we took many pictures for our "Italian album" with washing lines across a narrow street or a canal. Walking along these winding narrow streets can be quite an adventure. Many houses retain their original features: old coats of arms and stucco molding. Walls hide little courtyards - but not every landlord can boast of such a luxury. Islanders are very inventive fulfilling this crammed space with life. Flora: their flowering balconies and roof gardens were fascinating. We were very much impressed by a meter high palm tree growing out of a miniature window box. Fauna: lazy cats sleeping on the streets, dogs (usually tiny creatures) walking their owners - - there are no recreation grounds in the city. Exotic birds singing from cages in open windows… O-oh, their open windows also teased us with such delicious smells of Italian cuisine.

And we very much enjoyed our Italian food experience. Wonderful three course meal: mussels for a starter, black spaggetti (with squid ink, a truly Venetian experience) and then fried sole with a selection of vegetables following by tiramisu and coffee was only 19 Euros for one. Unforgettable was a lunch in the ‘time honoured establishment, where Titan stored his paints’, suggested by the ‘Northern Italy Blue Guide’ -the away from the centre restaurant 'Alla Frasca' (Cannaregio 5176). The place looked just big enough for storing one paint set, however, their grilled mixed fish was terrific - the best meal we had had in Venice - though 27 euros per dish. There were also Chinese, Jewish, Indian restaurants and two MacDonalds - however, they could not compete with the local food in any way except, maybe, on price.

Prices then were rising towards the city centre, as well as the amount of shops and, of course, crowds. The most diverse range of money wasting facilities is around St. Mark's Square. There was anything there for every taste: shops - from Murano glass & small gifts to exclusive names such as Armani & Versace; restaurants & tratorias; street markets.
St. Mark's Square (this is only true square (Piazza) in Venice, as others are campi) is itself a bust of the city’s glory. Whoever called St. Mark's 'the (finest) drawing room of the world (Europe)' Napoleon or Musset, was absolutely right. This impressive reflection of the works of many famous architects, such as Sansovino, Longhena, Scamozzi, Rizzo and Tirani, has been an inspiration for generations of artists. Venice Canal scenes inspired even me to rush sketching - no chance of being a 'proper' artist though...

On our third morning in Venice, excited, we got up with the sun to catch the perfect image of the Square at dawn (later in the day the place gets flooded with the crowds). And we were absolutely right. St. Mark’s - rested after another late night, washed up with a morning dew, lit up by rapidly rising sun and reluctantly going moon - was fabulous. This time in a morning even pigeons didn’t interrupt our enjoyment of the view. We had it all for ourselves - the place, which had been the scene of many important religious and political activities, as well as the centre of Venetian social life for almost a millennium. It is difficult to imagine that the Square started its existence from a small square, a part of the Square was once the vegetable garden of S.Zaccaria monastery. Growing little by little with the wealth and power of Venice, the Square changed to what Gentile Bellini engraved in his famous painting: "The Procession of The Holly Cross" (which of course can also be found here, The Gallerie dell'Accademia). Even the plan of St Mark's Basilica (Basilica di Sant Marco) reflects the importance of Venice - based on an equal sided Greek cross and ornamented with five Byzantine domes, it symbolises a gateway between east and west. Founded in 832 to house and honour the relics of St. Mark, the church became the Cathedral of Venice only in 1807. The famed sculpture of a chariot drawn by four horses abreast on the main facade gallery, brought to Venice in 1204 at the time of the Fourth Crusade from Constantinople, then removed to Paris by Napoleon and then returned in 1815 are confidently aspired into the future.

The square changes scenes few times on a day.
St. Mark's Square gets very busy during the day - lots of tourist groups from all over the world, some from cruise liners, some of them in Venice just for one day – mean queues are everywhere. It is worth joining a queue or two - whether into St. Mark's Basilica, The Doge's Palace, The Campanile of St Mark's Basilica (apparently this is the exact replica, as the original one collapsed in 1902) or The Clock-Tower (closed for restoration whilst we were visiting). Unfortunately we couldn't do them all, but visited the Cathedral - we were amazed to discover that it is lavishly decorated not only from outside, but throughout - covered with over 4000 feet of mosaic artwork, rubies, diamonds, emeralds, gold and many varieties of precious marble.

Beautiful Renaissance paintings and sculptures adorn the interior, the floor is of inlaid marble and glass but is very uneven due to frequent flooding. To preserve the square from ruthless time and salt water, the Italian Government has started 'protection works' - there were posters on the Square explaining the project in detail: raising, restoring and reinforcing the bank.

In an evening the Square magically turns into a concert hall and fills up with the magnificent sounds of music - Vivaldi, Strauss, Bach, Mozart…

We failed to find a united museum of the Venice history - because there isn’t one. The whole city is a museum - every square, house, bench - is a historic place, where walked, lived, sat past generations of famous people. Pieces of priceless art are kept in local churches, city exhibitions and private collections for generations to come. This is collection of countless treasures in the treasure-city. This is the place to contemplate, create, realise yourself as part of the past, present and future of the Universe. This is a place to visit again and again.

© Natalya Popova April 2008

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