From Bardolino we caught a bus back to Verona, then a train to Venice. It’s low season. The weather can be foul, but we hoped the absence of crowds would compensate. As Henry James said “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice, there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors”. Harsh words considering he was, and we are, visitors. But in summer, tourists outnumber locals two to one. We would not contemplate coming then.
When we arrived it was cold, windy and had obviously been raining a lot. But we caught a vaporetto to San Marco and checked into our hotel without getting wet. It was a luxurious, restored palazzo at a fraction of the summertime cost. Another benefit to Venice in the off season.
By late afternoon the weather was feral. Sheeting rain and strong wind. We dashed to a nearby restaurant recommended by the concierge for dinner and hoped for an improvement in the morning.
What a difference twelve hours makes. Next morning it was calm, sunny and warm. The gondolas that were all packed away under tarpaulins yesterday were out cruising the canals.
No doubt every visit to Venice starts with St Mark’s Basilica. A church was first built here in the 9th century to house the body of St Mark, which Venetian merchants had smuggled out of Egypt in a barrel of pork fat. That church burned down and was replaced by the current dazzling dome-topped one. Is there a more appealing piece of architectural confectionary in Italy?
Inside, the walls, columns and domes are covered with more than 8,000 square metres of luminous mosaics. Photographs do not do it justice.
Behind the alter is the Pala D’Oro, a 3 metre x 2 metre gold and silver altarpiece decorated with 1,927 gems including emeralds, sapphires, amethysts, rubies, pearls and garnets.
It may be priceless, but we still think Jesus looks like a hippie giving a peace sign.
St Mark’s horses are an enduring symbol of Venice. They were likely made in the 2nd or 3th century CE in Rome or Greece. Somehow, sometime they made their way to Constantinople. In 1204, they were looted by Venetian forces during the 4th crusade and taken to Venice. The collars on the horses hide where the animals’ heads were cut off to enable their transportation. Napoleon nicked them in 1797 and took them to Paris, but after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, they were returned to Venice where they pranced above the Basilica’s cupola for 175 years until being moved inside in the 1980s for preservation.
What’s outside now is an exact copy.
And a grand view down the length of St Mark’s Square.
The Clock Tower on the north side of the square was built in the 1490s and positioned so it would be clearly visible from the lagoon. It put approaching boats on notice of the ‘wealth and glory’ of Venice. It still accurately displays the time, phase of the moon and zodiac sign.
On the south side is St Mark’s Campanile. At 98.6 metres, this bell tower is the tallest structure in Venice. It was initially designed as a watch tower to look out for foreign ships and to guide Venetian ones into port.
Turn around and there’s a view across the lagoon to Isla San Giorgio Maggiore.
Around the corner, there was no queue to get into the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), the official residence of the Doge during the height of Venice’s power.
Climb the Golden Staircase with its 24 carat gilt stucco work.
You pass through the Senate Chambers with ceiling paintings by Paolo Veronese, and wall panels by Tintoretto.
And then into the Chamber of the Great Council. At 53 metres x 25 metres, it’s one of the largest rooms in Europe. On the far wall is Tintoretto’s magnificent but dark Il Paradiso, the longest canvas painting in the world. He knew how to ingratiate himself. Heaven is populated with some five hundred prominent Venetians of the day, including several of his patrons.
You can cross the Bridge of Sighs which links the palace’s interrogation rooms to the New Prison. The name was coined by Lord Byron as a translation from the Italian ‘ponte dei sospiri’. It was said that prisoners crossing the bridge on their way to the cells would look out the window and sigh, knowing it would be the last time they would see beautiful Venice.
Truman Capote said “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go”. We get that. It’s easy to overload on Renaissance art, churches and museums here.
But we did visit Museo Correr, Napoleon’s home away from home during his brief reign over Venice. Again, no queue, no waiting. It now houses a remarkable collection of art, statues and ancient maps. The interiors themselves are worth the price of admission.
And here is an interesting exhibit. The museum has an heirloom copy of the will of Marco Polo and the original inventory of his belongings which was prepared as a result of a lawsuit by one of the daughters disputing her inheritance. The encyclopaedic inventory included substantial amounts of merchandise and artefacts from the Far East. For those who doubt Signore Polo actually went to the Orient, historians point to the inventory as proof. How else did he come by the loot?
Another Venice icon is the Rialto Bridge. In summer it’s standing room only. Now, relatively calm.
And the view down the Grand Canal? Well, it certainly is grand.
We had a long, lazy lunch in one of those restaurants with the red awnings. We expected it to be ordinary food at best, given the location. Venice is full of very average tourist-oriented restaurants. We were pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t remarkable but it was good. Honest food, well prepared, big servings, nicely priced, the sun was bright and warm, the service was good, no booking required and we weren’t sitting shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of others. So, when you put it that way, maybe it was remarkable.
It’s true that there’s plenty of shabby backstreets in Venice, but there’s a charm even in those. And lots of squares and bridges and canals to stroll around. We really had the best of all possibilities. The weather was agreeable and away from St Marks it was relatively people-free.
It would be a shame to come to Venice and not visit the surrounding islands.
Leaving Venice, the ferry passes the walled islet of San Michele where Venice’s first off-shore cemetery was established after Napoleon decreed burial in parish plots within the city to be unsanitary, which it almost certainly was given the watery environment. Luminaries including Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky are buried there. It’s still in use today.
In about 15 minutes, the ferry arrives in Murano, docking near Murano lighthouse.
It’s actually a group of seven islands connected by bridges.
By the 12th century, finest quality glass production was Venice’s biggest industry. In 1292, the city authorities ordered all glass making operations be moved to Murano. The official reason was a fear that a fire sparked by a furnace could devastate the largely wooden structures of densely populated Venice. It’s been speculated that the real reason was to isolate and control glass production. The techniques used to produce Venice’s quality glass were a closely guarded trade secret and glass workers were forbidden to leave Venice. Any who did were guilty of treason and subject to assassination.
And while Murano’s fortunes have waxed and waned with the centuries, it’s still a famous centre for glass production. Furnaces and workshops line the outer edges of the islands.
There’s a small museum dedicated to the history of glass. And there are dozens of shops selling local and not-so-local glass jewellery, ornaments, chandeliers, sculptures, lamps and anything else you might desire.
Neatly combining the ‘fire and glass’ theme with religion, is the Basilica of St Maria and St Donato. Here there is a 12th century gilded glass mosaic of the Madonna made in the Murano furnaces, and what are said to be the bones of a fire-breathing dragon slain by St Donato. It is still a working church and unfortunately for us there was a funeral in progress so we cannot verify the dragon’s bones.
This house had window boxes of glass flowers in place of the real thing.
And quite a few of the restaurants and businesses make use of glass for ornamentation too.
Murano is famous for glass, and Burano was famous for lace. It rose to prominence in the 16th century when the island’s women began making lace with needles using techniques learned from Venetian-occupied Cyprus.
The time-consuming art became commercially non-viable with the advent of machines and the industry all but faded away in the period following World War II. There are still lace shops here, but it’s questionable how much of it is locally hand made.
Today, Burano is more famous for its brightly painted buildings, a stark contrast to Venice.
And for the Church of San Martino which leans at a more acute angle than that tower in Pisa.
A quick ferry ride from Burano is tiny Torcello. In the 10th century it had a population of around 20,000. In 2018, it was 12. It isn’t famous for anything, really. Tourists come here because it’s so close to Burano.
However, if you missed out on paying 22 euros for a bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice, (yes, you read that correctly, 22 euros for a glass of Prosecco mixed with peach pulp), the same owner has a small hotel and restaurant here for those who want to be away from the madding crowd.
Torcello is so small you can basically do a circuit, see the island and be back on the return ferry to Burano in less than an hour.
The main attraction is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta which contains a gobsmacking 12th century mosaic of the Last Judgment. Photos are not allowed, so here is one from Wikipedia. It’s huge and the detail is astonishing.
And the Devil’s Bridge. A local legend says that during the period Austria ruled Venice, a young Venetian woman fell in love with an Austrian soldier. Her family opposed the union and killed the soldier. The woman enlisted a witch who agreed to meet her on Torcello. The witch summoned the Devil who brought the soldier back to life – for a price.
The witch agreed that every Christmas Eve for seven years she would bring the Devil the soul of a recently deceased child. However, the witch died soon after in a fire, so her promise was not kept. To this day the Devil turns up every Christmas Eve in the form of a black cat, howling in vain for the souls he is ‘owed’.
It wasn’t Christmas Eve, but maybe he arrived early this year?
And so that was Venice. Fine weather, few tourists, no queueing, everything open. We were extraordinarily lucky but if you’re prepared to chance the weather, we’d certainly say off-season is the time to travel here.