Venice: The Enchanting City of Gondolas, Masks and Casanova

Like a maze, the watery streets of Venice, Italy, twist and turn causing me to lose myself in this enchanting city.

Canals snake their way through the city connecting all the islands.

Canals snake their way through the city connecting all the islands.

Streets of water and 409 bridges connect the 117 islands making up the city of Venice. Getting around hasn’t changed much since the birth of Venice in 421. Boats and gondolas crowd the Grand Canal and are docked on the side of the watery streets. Visitors wait with their luggage on the front steps of the hotels with water lapping over the bottom step for the water taxi to pick them up. Many front doors lead into the one of the 177 canals, though one day they may be underwater. Venice is sinking about 2 ½ inches every 10 years.

One would think that with Venice being one of the most internationally visited cities in the world and with that much water, the city would be dirty and have a slight smell to it. I was happy find this was not the case. The water, made up of a mix of river and sea water, was a bright bluish-green and my nose did not wrinkle in protest at any time during my visit.

It’s no wonder Casanova chose Venice as his stomping ground. The city has a lure about it. A place perfect for romance. Add the carnevale, with its eight day festivities of masks, costumes, and dances; and you have an intoxicating combination that can lead to all kinds of splendid adventures.

Sadly, I only had a day to adventure, part of that being with a group. I began with a water taxi ride down the Grand Canal. Front doors with steps leading to the water, a woman with groceries in hand stepping onto a boat, traffic lights hovering above streets of water, and gondoliers rowing their sleek black gondolas while wearing bright red and white shirts and straw hats met my eyes.

Getting off the water taxi near Piazza San Marco, I saw a bride and her groom get off another water taxi. It reminded me that all this was not a show for the tourists. Real people live their lives like this, using boats to get from island to island.

Italian newlyweds pose for pictures near the docks.

Italian newlyweds pose for pictures near the docks.

The heart of Venice, as the Piazza is fondly called, is flocked with pigeons. They cover everything from the Doge Palace to the Bridge of Sighs, a bridge that connects the prison to the Doge Palace. The name came from European poets who envisioned prisoners taking their last breath of the outside world before being locked up. Legend says if two lovers pass under the bridge, their love will last for eternity.

Wading through a hoard of pigeons, I passed St. Mark’s Basilica with its Pala d’Oro with over 3,000 precious stones and enamel of gold. Then I ambled around the Clock Tower, with its famous winged lion of St. Mark looking down on me, to the Café Florian. Outside an orchestra played classical tunes that made it easy for me to imagine Casanova weaving his magic over beautifully dressed women having tea. The only café at the time to admit women, it’s no wonder that Florian’s was a favorite of Casanova. Time and money constraints, it is a pricy place, kept me from ordering a drink though the elegant ambience was tempting.

The stomping ground of Casanova.

The stomping ground of Casanova.

After a few minutes of taking it all in, I left Piazza San Marco on the hunt for a cheap gondola ride (prices are more expensive near the touristy spots). On average a gondola costs around 90 euros for up to 6 people for 45 minutes. Instead of a gondola ride I found a glass blowing demonstration.

Glass, the ticket to Venice’s wealth, since 1291 was once confined to Murano Island because of the fire hazard it posed. Considered an art, glass blowing is a skill passed down from father to son or learned through apprenticeships. Watching the artist work with 1292-1832 degree Fahrenheit melted glass made me wonder how many times he’d been burned. As he blew and spun, shaped and molded the melted glass into a vase then later into a horse I was amazed at his focus and his self-confidence. Not once did he falter.

glass blower and vase

The glass blower designed this vase as a practice piece. After he was finished he remelted it.

Still on a search for a gondola ride, I stopped long enough to grab lunch at a smaller sized seafood restaurant. Located on the Adriatic Sea, Venice is never at a loss for fresh caught seafood, therefore I thought it only reasonable to have the seafood spaghetti. I figured cram all the fresh seafood on one plate. And for drink, I had a Bellini, Venice’s famous cocktail. Giuseppe Cipriani’s invention was made of sparkling wine and peach puree. Created in his bar, Harry’s Bar, a popular drinking place of Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles, in Venice in 1948. The sweet drink is now a must for all Venice travelers.

Feeling refreshed, I joined my group and we ended the search of a fair priced gondola ride. The tourist guide took us to a small place where a group of 6 of us for 15 euros a piece rode through the side canals for 45 minutes.  Our gondolier, spoke little English, though for a spurt of time he did sing for us. However, it sounded more like a basketball game half-time song than a romantic Italian ballad.

Decked out in the traditional red and white striped shirt and straw hat, our gondolier was picture perfect.

Decked out in the traditional red and white striped shirt and straw hat, our gondolier was picture perfect.

The view from the canals was beautiful, that is once you left the big canals with their motorized boats. In the side canals, I relaxed.

Gondolas take the side canals to avoid the motorized boats that clog the Grand Canal.

Gondolas take the side canals to avoid the motorized boats that clog the Grand Canal.

I let the boat’s rocking and the sound of the lapping of the water against the houses fill my mind. I watched lazily as we passed under bridges covered in blooming plant boxes and other gondolas. It seemed like we had just started when it was time to debark.

With our feet back on the ground the guide led us through a walking tour of part of Venice, with 117 islands there is no way he could show us everything in an hour. My favorite spots of interest were the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo and the market by the Ponte di Rialto. Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo because it looks like the leaning tower of Pisa attached to a house.

This house was built to resemble the tower of Pisa because the man's wife was from there and missed home.

This house was built to resemble the tower of Pisa because the man’s wife was from there and missed home.

And the market because I saw the store of two of the most famous mask makers, La Bottega dei Mascareri. Brothers Sergio and Massimo have created masks for festivals, celebrities like Tom Hanks, and films like Eyes Wide Shut.

Masks decorate all the streets and hang from all the market vendors booths.

Masks decorate all the streets and hang from all the market vendors booths.

One day was not nearly long enough to explore all this charming city had to offer. I’m already planning a return trip for next February so I can participate in the magical celebration of the Carnevale.

Venice is waiting for you!

Venice is waiting for you!

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