It is possible not to get lost in Venice if you allow yourself to just wander, with the very occasional “Where am I?” moments. The secret being that Venice has got wise and everywhere you go there are strategically placed signs pointing the way to St Mark’s Square and/or to Rialto Bridge, both major landmarks.
Venice is flat. The best way to see it is to just walk. With my camera slung over my shoulder, my favourite walking shoes on, and my trusty guide book in hand, I let my feet and curiosity find the direction.
Over four days my feet lead me to some wonderful experiences as I amble through and explore four of Central Venice’s six districts.
Come walk with me.
Day 1: San Marco
Leaving my hotel
in San Marco district, I wander down alleys, cross some of Venice’s 400 unique bridges and watch the waters of the canals lap the doorsteps of antique buildings in various states of glorious decay. Over a coffee in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, I see canal barges loading the linen from hotels and learn from the waiter it is taken off the islands to the mainland for laundering so as not to pollute the canals. Taking in my surroundings from one bridge, I witness a gondola traffic jam and am thankful I am not playing tourist. Everywhere I turn I see evidence of Venice’s unstable foundations, with lopsided arches and leaning church bell towers. So much to photograph. I have fallen in love with Venice.
Venturing down a very narrow alley near Campo Manin, requiring me to manoeuver through crab-like, I come across an unusual building with the most elegant external multi-arch spiral staircase – the gothic Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. The staircase, with its ascending rows of round-headed arches, is the only one of its kind found in Venice today. Closed to the public, I let my camera do the sightseeing.
Stumbling across Piazza San Marco for the third time within half an hour, I know it is time to experience a coffee at Café Florian, the oldest café in Venice. At a cost of €15 for my coffee, I know it is an experience not to be repeated.
As I wander around Basilica San Marco, marvelling at the brilliant mosaics, I wonder at the story of St Mark’s body being stolen by two merchants from Alexandria in Egypt and brought back to Venice, and of the miracle of his body reappearing after being destroyed by fire.
I experience a sense of excitement as I watch an ambulance race down the Grand Canal and disappear into a side canal. The excitement doesn’t come from the errand the ambulance is on but from the alien sight of an ambulance being a boat and not a van.
Day 2: San Polo
Wandering around Rialto Market and chatting to the stallholders, I learn much about the humble tomato; that there are 25 varieties of tomatoes in Italy and no self-discerning stallholder will sell you tomatoes until it is known what is being cooked. This is very important because the stallholder must advise on just the right type of tomato to use as they all have a different taste and must accompany the right dish. I have to admit my palate is definitely not up to Venetian standards.
Walking past San Giacomo di Rialto’s 15th century 24-hour clock and through Campo San Polo, I find the shop Tragicomica on Calle dei Nomboli, which my research at home before leaving for Italy told me it sold traditional Venetian masks. The shop is crowded – with masks – and I wonder how I am ever going to find that special mask with my name on it. After a lengthy chat with the artisan Mask Maker about the different types of masks and how they are made, I buy an authentic Venetian, papier mâché plague doctor mask, with its long beak-like nose.
Sitting in a café opposite Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, A huge Gothic church, I spend a pleasant hour just people watching.
Day 3: Cannaregio
Walking the length of Strada Nova, and more, I make my way to Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, the Jewish Ghetto. This small square is distinguished by very tall buildings unique in Venice. Confined to a very small area, as the Jewish population grew and needed housing, the only way was up. The Ghetto’s five synagogues, unrecognisable from the square, date back to the 16th century. Through the Jewish museum’s guided tour, the only way possible to see these hidden treasures, I discover three of the five synagogues on the top floors of buildings – the French, German and Levantine, each representing a different ‘school’.
Back in Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, I contemplate the Holocaust memorials depicting Nazi brutality to the Jews.
Before the long walk back to my hotel I have lunch at Gam Gam at the entrance to the Jewish ghetto; leisurely eating my way through kosher antipasto with falafel and delicious Italian bread.
With my feet crying ‘enough’, I take a traghetto (pedestrian transport) across the Grand Canal, alighting near Rialto Market. In a traghetto, it is traditional to stand as you are rowed across the Canal. Do I save any walking distance? Probably not but for about 6 minutes there I feel like a true local and know I have experienced something few tourists can share.
Day 4: Castello
Dominating Castello is the Arsenale, the old naval shipyard. Whilst largely disused today and closed to the public, the gateway remains guarded by large lion statues.
Heading back towards Piazza San Marco, as I cross Ponte Canonica, I see for the first time Venice’s most famous and only covered bridge, the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). This little Baroque bridge spans the canal, Rio di Palazzo, between the New Prison and Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). From Ponte Canonica I have an uninterrupted view of the Bridge of Sighs for my camera to record the moment.
After a coffee and people watching on Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice’s most famous promenade, I take a tour that incorporates crossing the Bridge of Sighs. Walking across the Bridge, I sigh, just as the prisoners are supposed to have done when they crossed the Bridge from the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the New Prison, knowing they would never walk back the other way. I learn Casanova is the most famous person to have crossed the Bridge of Sighs on his way to prison, from which he later escaped.
Venice beckons again. I need to finish my walk.
Where will your feet take you?
For more on Italy, read: “The Sassi di Matera – from national shame to cultural showcase”