As the sun starts to set over Piazza San Marco, a young blond couple walks by and stops. Listening to the sounds of the orchestra playing from the Florian Café, they smile at each other and start to slow dance in the middle of San Marco. The woman laughs as the man twirls her and pulls her close. Pigeons and seagulls fill the sky, circling the square and flying past the bell tower. The horizon turns first crimson then later a magnificent shade of blue. There is magic in Venice when the evening hour begins. This is the Venice I love. The hordes of cruise ship visitors have gone home and streets start to empty out. People who have come to see Venice just for the day are gone. The city becomes less noisy, less crowded, less touristy.
One can walk for hours and hours through tiny alleys, across little streets and over old bridges and canals, yet still end up in a different place each time. This labyrinth of little alleys and walkways that are simply the charm of Venice calls us to go a little further each day. Pit stops for pizza, panini, Bellinis, and gelato make us enjoy the walks more. The canals of Venice are quaint and romantic. Moss blankets steps in front of weathered doorways, where old and craggy is beautiful and enchanting. Vine-covered houses line the alleys with faded brick walls and wrought iron window grills. A gondola drifts by with a gondolier playing an accordion, singing “O Sole Mio.” From another canal, the strains of a guitar and a woman singing “Volare” echo. The Old World charm of this beautiful place is undeniable.
The gondolas in Venice
I can easily see in my mind’s eye a different time, when Casanova roamed the streets. When women wore their gowns made of intricate lace, velvet, and brocade. When Venetian masks were worn to balls and at Carnevale. Venice makes you feel as if you have stepped back in time, into a fairy tale, weaving a spell of magic, mystery, and wonder.
Riding a vaporetto from Piazzale Roma in the late morning upon our arrival, we make our way through the Grand Canal toward Piazza San Marco. No matter how many times I have done this, it always takes my breath away. Passing the famous Rialto Bridge, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute across the lagoon. Disembarking at Hotel Bauer with its own dock entrance on a little side canal is a delight. To me it has one of the best locations in San Marco, right in the main area, just a few steps away from Piazza San Marco. The Rialto and market area are a short walk to the right and the Accademia a short walk to the left. The Salute and the Guggenheim are a very brief traghetto ride across the lagoon. For those who come to Venice to shop, name brand and local stores are right nearby. For those who come to eat, restaurants line every nook and cranny of the adjacent alleys and walkways. I have come to explore and photograph Venice. This puts me right at the heart of everything.
The Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute after sunset and Piazza San Marco
The Basilica of San Marco is the highlight of Piazza San Marco. Most of the church is covered in scaffolding as repairs and maintenance take place today and I am told it’s been covered for a few months. The line of people waiting to enter the church extends from the doors of the basilica all the way down the square towards the water. I will not be venturing into the basilica this time around as the line is way too long. My memory of its gold-lined ceilings and splendor will have to be enough for now. The number of tourists on this bright sunny day are unbelievable. I am told that six cruise ships have docked in Venice, explaining the unusual amount of people in the square and filling up the tiny alleyways. The gondolas are full and the sight of traffic on the waterways is quite normal today. We wait until the heat of the day fades and the gondolas begin to empty out. Taking a gondola ride, I feel that the word “tourist” must be painted brightly on my forehead! However, it’s the simplest way to explore most of Venice’s waterways.
Hotel Bauer il Palazzo and Piazza San Marco
As our gondolier steers us through the canals he points out things here and there, a museum, Casanova’s home, a statue in a square, giving us little tidbits of history as we enjoy the silence as we drift through the canals. A one-hour ride takes you through many famed homes as well as through the Grand Canal with the Rialto and past the Bridge of Sighs.
Our gondolier tells us that long ago, when Venice was just becoming a city, a small group of islands in the lagoon’s center were called Rivo Alto. This area eventually became the Ri’Alto. Today, the Rialto Bridge or the Ponte de Rialto is the oldest bridge for crossing the Grand Canal by foot. He said that for over two hundred years, the Rialto was the only way for people to walk across the canal until the Accademia Bridge was built in 1854. The Rialto is a beautiful bridge made of marble designed by Antonio da Ponte. Today, quaint shops line the Rialto and the market is at the foot of the bridge just after crossing over.
The Rialto Bridge
The Bridge of Sighs or Ponte dei Sospiri was given its name by the poet Lord Byron. It was supposedly named so because of a story that said prisoners would catch their last glimpse of Venice as they made their way across the bridge into their cells below. Knowing death awaited them, they would sigh sadly. In truth, the bridge was not given its name until many years later, after the final executions at the prison had taken place. Many legends abound about the Bridge of Sighs. The most complete legend says that if a couple were to kiss under the bridge while sitting in a gondola, at the sunset hour, and with the bells of San Marco’s tower ringing, the couple would live happily and blissfully in love forever. A tad too many conditions to be met to achieve everlasting love, I would think, but passing under the Ponte dei Sospiri remains one of the most requested routes on a gondola, I am told by our gondolier.
Experts say Venice is sinking. They say this beautiful, charming city filled with the most magnificent architecture, art, and history will one day be gone. It is sinking as surely as sea levels are rising due to global warming. Every year as winter comes, Piazza San Marco is completely flooded and wooden walkways need to be set up so people can walk above the floodwater. Hopefully the city officials will find a lasting solution to save their city. What sadness it would bring to lose such a wonderful place.
Hotel Bauer il Palazzo and Piazza San Marco
As days pass, I realize my time in Venice is coming to an end. I have never stayed in Venice for this long. It’s given me the time to wander aimlessly. To walk for hours and finally know exactly where I am. What once felt like a labyrinth, a maze of unending alleys and bridges, now seems very familiar. I turn corners and know exactly what is coming up. I feel at home here. And just like that, when it starts to feel like home, it’s time to go. Another adventure beckons. I know without a doubt Venice will call me back one day and I shall willingly fall under her spell once more.