I can’t help but have mixed feelings about Venice. On one hand, I find it incredible, with completely unique infrastructure, fascinating history and a strong culture that is completely different from the rest of Italy. On the other, during both my visits I couldn’t help but find parts of it confusing, overcrowded and quite stressful. Ironically, I think the flaw in Venice is actually all of the tourists, as you quickly find a side of the city that you fall in love with as soon as you leave the area surrounding St Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge. Either way, it is a bucket-list city that you must experience for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
Exploring The Heart Of Venice
When I visited for the first time last year, I Couchsurfed with a local that lived in Castello, the residential area close to St Mark’s Square. As I didn’t know much about Venetian history, I fully immersed myself, going on a free walking tour, visiting the Doge’s Palace and the dazzling gold Basilica, and further researching things that interested me. I allowed myself to get lost, which was easy to do and enjoyable in the little winding streets, canals and bridges, that could lead you somewhere amazing, or nowhere at all. However, when I set my heart on a destination and tried to navigate there, even with the assistance of my phone, I usually found myself confused and wondering how I ended up at another canal with no bridge…
For our first day in Venice, the squad dived headfirst into the busiest sections, exploring the stunning white Rialto Bridge, that overlooks the Grand Canal. Arriving at midday was not our smartest decision though, as it was teeming with so many people that we were unable to move over it easily or get to the edge of the rail to enjoy the views. Instead, we took to the water on a gondola and enjoyed being navigated through the canals on the traditional mode of transportation. From that vantage point, you can really see that Venice was built so that most people could navigate it by boat – only the peasants and workers would use the streets to get around the city. Afterwards, we took the peasant’s route on foot to St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace, past the Bridge Of Sighs, and on to have a quiet pasta lunch. Faith and I then continued exploring and found ourselves in a pleasantly quiet residential area, where we settled into a nice wine bar with a platter of local cheeses and spreads.
A Little Bit Of History
Venice has an incredible and unique history that enthralled me when I first learnt about it. Some of the main things you’ll see when you go into the heart of Venice are: St Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and its connecting bridge, and masks for sale everywhere. The basilica is stunning and significant, as it holds the remains of St Mark, the patron saint of Venice (and many other places). These remains ended up in this golden mosaic basilica back in the 1st Century in a very sneaky way. Alexandria (in common day Egypt) had commissioned Venice to build some war ships, then renegged on their deal. As revenge, the Venetians used these ships to sack Alexandria and kill everybody, before bringing home all of the marble, gold and other materials to build the magnificent basilica. They also stole the body of St Mark by wrapping his body in pork, which their Muslim opposition wouldn’t touch for religious reasons.
The 14th Century Doge’s Palace was where the supreme authority of Venice lived, as well as being the political and judiciary centre as well. This is where laws were decided and sentences were passed down to prisoners. If you walk around the corner, you can see the pretty Bridge of Sighs, which got its name because the view from the diamond shaped holes in the bridge walls was often the last glimpse that prisoners would have of freedom before they were confined to their cells. If you’ve seen masks in every souvenir window and wondered what they were about – basically Venice was so small that the wealthy and noble were treated like celebrities, and gossip spread quickly. The masks were mainly introduced to protect people’s anonymity while they were doing sinful things (drinking, gambling, seeing women). There are some very interesting ones, with my favourite being the long, creepy plague doctor’s mask. When the plague was passing through Venice, the doctor would stuff the beak of his mask with herbs believed to stop him catching the plague (false) and to mask the smell of the dying people he had to examine.
Beautiful Burano and Murano
If you have a bit of time, I’d recommend getting off Venice and exploring the surrounding islands. Lido island is where the locals often go, with modern shops and a nice beach to relax on. Last year, my Couchsurfing host took me there for the sandy beach and the ‘best sandwich in Venice’ at a converted double-decker bus by the water. This time, Faith and I headed for the incredible Burano and Murano, each stunning in their own way and well known for their distinctive industries and aesthetic. Though the names are similar, Burano is a totally different visual treat, with its gorgeous houses, stacked side by side along the canals. The drawcard is that each of them is painted in its own bright and incredible colour, creating a mismatched rainbow of vivid hues that is absolutely enchanting to walk around and makes for Instagram gold!
Murano is a quaint little town, that is far more open and light than Venice. In every window, your eyes will be treated to bright displays of the local specialty trade – blown glass. This glass forming technique heats glass until is it molten, then uses a blowpipe to inflate it into a bubble; or uses a smaller torch to bend the glass into various shapes and designs. You will most often see vases, plates and other homewares, though there are also incredible demonstrations of skill in the form of glass animals and tiny figurines. If you’re extremely lucky, you might see a glassmith working his magic on the side of the street. Either way, you’ll be feeling lucky to have experienced this incredible collection of islands for yourself, learning their history and feeling the energy of the bustling little streets.
The Recommended Hostel: Camping Jolly
As you can probably ascertain from my impressions of Venice, it’s a very busy place, so staying at the campgrounds is actually a welcome and enjoyable break from the city centre. Though it is a little out of town, Camping Jolly has a courtesy bus that transports you to the main bus and waterbus station. When you’re there, there is a restaurant with delicious Italian food, a pool surrounded by sun beds, a fun bar that usually goes nuts at night, and a relaxing atmosphere.