Story and photos by Stephanie Levin.
My last memory of Venice was as a 21 year old, running to catch a train with a backpack the size of my body molded to my spine. Too young, and too inexperienced a traveler, the magic spell Venice casts over first time arrivals completely washed over me. Now, decades later, I have returned to Venice, a seasoned traveler, a much older woman traveling alone with eyes and senses wide open, and as I enter the island on the Alilaguna boat from the airport, the immensity and expansiveness of Venice far surpass the impressions an eye or film can capture. The domes and cupolas asserting their architectural puissance, the palette of terra cotta and sunset colored palaces are a testament to the heart and soul that define Venice.
Then there’s the exquisite pulse of the waterways! Built on a hundred islands, connected by arched bridges, water taxis, boats, gondolas, and cruise ships all transporting Venetians, tourists, and everything that arrives or leaves, Venice does so on the water. Even before exploring Venice, I feel a sense of gratitude for the ingenuity the architects, artists and craftsmen who, by 1500, shaped much of present day Venice; she has thrived against all odds. Built on low mud banks and subject to flooding, Venice has transformed her palaces into museums, apartments and shops. Yet, the essence of Venice has not been altered.
Venice is divided into six districts or sestieri and some say shaped like a fish. Regardless, the easiest way to move around Venice is by landmarks. At the doorsteps of the Canalazzo or Grand Canal, palazzos reflect both the architectural and historical Venice from the early Byzantine horseshoe-shaped arches-dating from the 12-13 Centuries-to the Baroque semicircular, stone carved ornate windows of the 17th Century.The Venice of my 20s is the very same Venice today, yet with more tourists succumbing to her magic.
My stop is Zaterre in Dorsoduro, a quiet neighborhood in the western sestiere with shaded squares and canals. I’m an arm’s stretch from the Academia Bridge, the Galleries dell’Accademia, home of the largest collection of Venetian art history from Byzantine to Renaissance, and the intimate Chiesa San Vidal Church lined with famous violins, all played at one time by masters. (Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice, and Chiesa San Vidal presents nightly Vivaldi concerts.) Tickets are sold inside the small church, and for music aficionados, this is a must. The contemporary Peggy Guggenheim Museum stands in all its splendor just three minutes from my front door. I fear I might not leave my little corner of Venice.
There are two ways to acquaint oneself with Venice—walk, crossing the bridges that lace different neighborhoods and small winding alleyways. It took me a few days to realize streets run parallel, making it impossible to get lost. Don’t panic if you feel lost, head toward the water. The second way to explore Venice is by vaporetto. It’s 7 euros for one ride, so it’s best to buy a two or three day vaporetti pass. From any vaporetto you will recognize the Venice of guidebooks,-the Baroque Santa Della Salute church, the Punta Della Dogana, once a customs house and topped by a weathervane figure of Fortune, the Doge Palace and Campanile of San Marcos, Ca’Rezzonico Museum, home of the late poet Robert Browning, the modern Guggenheim Museum, Palazzo Babaro, where Monet and Whisler painted and Henry James wrote The Aspen Papers, Palazzo Giustinian, where Wagner lived as he composed the Tristan and Isolde.
Ignore the guidebooks that set an itinerary. Venice has her own rhythm-water transit is slow, yet perfect; a 15-minute walk is an adventure; there’s canals with singing gondoliers, a thimble size bridge connecting to a cloistered square, artisans, Gothic churches, galleries, absolutely nothing you planned on your way to the Rialto Fish Market, but delightful with each little discovery. The fish market isn’t open on Monday, and I learned from a native Venetian that one should not order fish in a restaurant on Monday because that is the day of rest for the fish and the fish market. And, seafood dishes are the mainstay for all reputable eateries.
The one drawback traveling alone is eating alone. An espresso or cappuccino in the morning is rife with conversation and greetings, and lunch and dinner are relaxing and social. Food is an art form in Italy meant to be shared, discussed and enjoyed with others.
On one of my favorite finds while moseying around Cannaregio, the city’s most northern sestiere, I discovered Santa Maria del Miracoli, the church of miracles, a masterpiece of early Renaissance and a favorite of Venetians. I would not have found it had I not been strolling with a Venetian. It’s tucked into a small alley, and doesn’t announce itself. People walk right past the façade, which is decorated with various shades of marble. The inside is embellished with grey, white and pink marble, and there is a tranquil feeling that pervades. If you want to experience a more pedestrian corner of Venice without tourist, Cannargio is perfect. If you take a train from Santa Lucia train station-your vaporetto stop is San Marcuola in Cannaregio.
I avoided San Marco Square by day. Cruise ships stop here and deposit the masses making it hard to get close enough to take a photo of the Doge Palace. However, one night under a full moon, I boarded Vaporetto #1 for San Marco / St. Mark’s Square and sauntered around eating a pistachio gelato. Small quartets serenaded the square with the most exquisite classical music from tangos to the Blue Danube Waltz. As the music filled the square, people stopped chatting and edged toward the musicians. I felt like dancing, and if I had been with a lover, I would have grabbed his hand and waltzed him across the square.
While my week in Venice did not permit a profound exploration of the culture, I need an art history course for that, what stood above the beauty and history of Venice is her people. Venetians are remarkably kind, generous, and discrete when asking a tourist to not take a photo inside a church or move a backpack so someone could sit in a seat. They have mastered the art of diplomacy: never embarrassing the offender.
Venice is a metaphor for beauty, elegance and charm, a city that draws lovers, artists, families and tourists repeatedly. It’s expensive, yet irresistible, it’s a city I, like many, must visit again and again, for Venice has cast her magic spell over me.
IF YOU GO: The Venice Tourist Board website has links to many attractions as well as useful tips.