We said good-bye to the City of Water with great reluctance. We would have happily stayed on in Venice for another month had we had the time and wherewithal. We made arrangements for a water taxi to pick us up at our hotel and transport us back to the mainland. From there a private shuttle took us to the airport where we rented a van for a road trip down the Adriatic coast. I hope to return to Venice and stay longer…sooner than later!
The single span Rialto Bridge is the oldest of four bridges straddling the Grand Canal in Venice. Completed in 1591, this unique stone arch was built to replace the original wooden structure that had twice collapsed. The bridge’s twin incline ramps meet to form a central portico which is lined with shops catering to Venice’s tourist crowd. The bridge includes three separate walkways—two along the outside and one wider passageway down the center. Its high arching design was intentional as ships required adequate space to pass under the bridge. Some so-called “experts” predicted future ruin, but the regal Rialto has defied her critics to become the most famous—and most photographed—bridge in the city.
We visited the bustling Rialto district first thing on a Tuesday morning. The Grand Canal teemed with activity as boats of every size and description jockeyed for position—loading and unloading freight, hauling passengers, or motoring to and from the lagoon. Locals and tourists alike mounted the ancient stone steps of the Rialto Bridge as vendors set up kiosks and hawked their wares. We had witnessed crowds and activity in other parts of the city, but the atmosphere in the Rialto district was different—businesslike and efficient. Here and there a gondolier loitered; others deftly threaded their gondolas through the maze of watercraft on the canal. This area is the oldest settled part of Venice and originally boasted exclusive shops, banks, and the fish market (which was later moved to the opposite side of the bridge to avoid assailing the noses of the bankers with less than appealing odors!).
I understand that the Rialto is scheduled to undergo restoration and cleaning in the near future—if work has not already begun. Italy has employed innovative measures to fund its recent restoration efforts—seeking paid sponsorship by large businesses in return for free advertising during the work effort. It is entirely possible, therefore, that the bridge will be shrouded in canvas for a period of time and bedecked with ads for Diesel, the Italian clothing company reported to be footing the bill for the restoration project. Times, how they are a-changin’…
View of St. Mark’s Basin (the lagoon) and San Giorgio Maggiore from the Riva degli Schiavoni
The crowded promenade that runs along the waterfront in Venice past the Bridge of Sighs and mere steps from St. Mark’s Square is known as the Riva degli Schiavoni. Here tourists can embark upon a gondola tour, purchase every kind of souvenir imaginable, mix and mingle with artists and craftsmen as they showcase their work, or grab a quick bite to eat. The waterfront is one of the busiest spots in Venice. Dating back to the ninth century, this bustling walkway is lined with historic buildings—many of which were once the palace homes of Venetian aristocrats, and today serve as hotels, restaurants, and shops. There is also a large bronze monument honoring Vittorio Emmanuele II, the first king of Italy. The Riva degli Schiavoni offers a fantastic view of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and its beautiful church by the same name.
I am not big on buying souvenirs, but was impressed by the artwork on display along the Riva degli Schiavoni. I purchased several beautiful oil paintings from a local Venetian artist, which I had framed and now hang on the wall just a few feet from where I sit. Each time I look at them I am transported back in time and experience once again the wonder and awe of that amazing city we call Venice…
No trip to Venice is complete without a gondola ride! While many visitors opt for a romantic, nighttime excursion in the soft moonlight with a serenading gondolier, a daytime tour is an excellent way to experience Venice up close and personal. Gazing up at the city from the water and gliding under a seemingly never-ending succession of bridges—each one unique—provides a completely different perspective than one gets when sightseeing on dry ground. Our group of six decided to go for the 60-minute private tour, all in one gondola. That option was fine for us as we wanted to share the experience as a family group. However, if your vision of a gondola ride is slightly more intimate than six folks loaded into one boat with four of those people seated on straight-backed chairs along the edges, you will likely want to book a tour for two. That said, we had great fun and saw a tremendous amount of the city in one hour. Our gondolier, Sandro, was informative and entertaining; he spoke perfect English, so communication was no problem at all. It was intriguing to watch the gondoliers interact when passing one another along the route. As they turned blind corners or slid into narrow spaces, the gondoliers would whistle or shout a warning. They chatted back and forth like old friends—as I am sure many of them are.
I booked our tour online ahead of time through Walks of Italy. We used the Danieli Gondola Service—located opposite the Hotel Danieli on the Riva degli Schiavoni. We boarded the gondola in St. Mark’s Basin a short distance from St. Mark’s Square, passed under the Bridge of Sighs, and traveled along many of the city’s smaller, interior canals. We saw several notable landmarks including the reputed birthplace of Marco Polo, the famous Venetian merchant and explorer. Overall, we found the entire experience to be agreeable—peaceful, relaxing, and enlightening. There are a number of unique itineraries for gondola tours, depending on which boarding point you choose. It is, therefore, wise to do a little homework before settling on a particular route. Be prepared to pay a bit, as gondola tours are not cheap—but the opportunity is not to be missed!
I had scheduled our gondola tour to immediately follow our guided tour of the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Cathedral. As luck would have it, we were running a bit behind schedule and were late arriving at the loading dock. The confirmation paperwork I had received from Walks of Italy stressed the importance of a prompt arrival, so I was a bit worried that we would run into complications. Thankfully we were able to get right in, and our tardiness actually worked to our advantage since the majority of the other tourists were already on their way and the waterfront was much less crowded.
Hours later as I lay in bed, I could still “feel” the gentle rocking of the gondola!
Clock Tower in St. Mark’s Square
The clock tower in St. Mark’s Square is a fascinating and beautiful piece of Renaissance architecture, and impressive to me for its grandeur as well as its antiquity. Facing the waters of St. Mark’s Basin, the richly enameled clock face is yet another symbol of the wealth and prestige that was Venice at the zenith of her glory days. Completed in 1499, the clock tower was originally freestanding. Four lateral bays were added in the early sixteenth century; the upper stories and balustrades more than a century later. The arched opening below the clock is the entrance to the Merceria—Venice’s primary thoroughfare—which runs from St. Mark’s Square to the Rialto Bridge, connecting the city’s religious center to its commercial district.
A pair of colossal bronze figures standing atop the tower are known as “Moors” because of their dark color. The bell situated between the two is original and was cast at the Arsenal in 1497. The Moors strike the hours on the bell. The inscription on the tower reads “Horas non numero nisi serenas”—“I only count happy hours.” One level below the Moors and their bell is the winged lion of Venice with an open book. Below that is a semi-circular gallery with copper statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus positioned between two large, blue panels showing the time—the hour on the left in Roman numerals, and the minutes (at five-minute intervals) on the right in Arabic numerals. The clock’s enameled face of blue and gold is fixed within a marble circle that is etched with Roman numerals for the twenty-four hours of the day. A golden hand with an image of the sun travels around the circle, indicating the hours of the day. I am amazed at the intricate workings of this centuries-old timepiece! Not only does it reflect the date and the hour, but also the position of the sun within the zodiac and the phases of the moon.
It is possible to tour the clock tower, but reservations must be made in advance. The stairway is narrow and steep but anyone willing to brave it can climb to the rooftop terrace, passing the clock’s mechanism on the way up. Alas, our too-tight schedule did not allow time for a tour, so that is another thing I have added to my mental bucket list. I need to live to be a hundred…
Piazza San Marco as seen in the mid to late 1960s.
In a quote attributed to Napoleon, St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) is referred to as “the drawing room of Europe.” Though the impressive origin of this quote is unsubstantiated, it is reflective of the significance placed upon Venice’s principal public square—known to locals simply as “the Piazza.”