Venice was the first European city I visited and it was love at first sight. It was a rather blustery day in February but even this could not detract from the amazing beauty of this unique city. I have since returned to Venice in summer when it has a very different atmosphere but whether it is winter or summer it always has a hypnotic charm.
Venice was built on 120 small islands which are now linked by over 400 bridges. It became the greatest maritime power in Europe and for 1000 years was the centre of a vast powerful republic ruled by the doges. Venice arises from the water like a mermaid. It is a city but a city without typical city noises or smells. Its roads are canals and its land is for pedestrians. Everywhere the sounds of the water impose a soft slow rhythm to tempt the tourist to linger and ponder on the contrived beauty surrounding him. The water, however, is the only natural feature of Venice. There are no parks, gardens and few flowers or trees. Venice stands proudly as a memorial to the Venetian's victories over people and the sea - but the sea is fighting back and Venice is sinking. Given time nature will win.
We arrived in Venice by train. The first sight that greets you as you emerge from the station is an amazing contrast to typical station surroundings. Outside the station is the Grand Canal and directly opposite is one of the many picturesque churches. This view sets the mood of the day and the ride on the waterbus to St. Marks confirms it.
The cheapest and easiest method of transport in Venice is the waterbus and on a trip round the Grand Canal you see countless palaces, some immaculate and some crumbling, dating from the 12th to 18th centuries all with their elaborate doors opening directly onto the Canal. Expensive launches sit alongside traditional gondolas moored to their picturesque twisted wooden poles waiting, it seems, for some Venetian aristocrat to emerge and go about his business.
St Mark's square is unspoilable, whether it is seen in bleak February, which is when we first went, or seething with tourists in August. It is the 'centre' of Venice and has two of the most beautiful places to visit.
St Mark's Basilica is the main attraction of the piazza, somewhat reminiscent of an overly decorated cake it is the supposed resting-place of the remains of St Mark, the gospel writer. This magnificent basilica almost defies description it has a very oriental appearance yet at the same time seems to be perfectly at home. Five great domes dominate but a myriad of other features vie for your attention.
Inside St Mark's the beautiful mosaic floor undulates, assuming the shape of the gentle waves which have lapped underneath it for centuries. St. Mark's is a church and if a service is on you cannot visit inside but you can still visit the upper levels. In contrast to many other churches I felt that St Mark's has a marked religious atmosphere. It is as if the place has absorbed something of the worship throughout its history. A small icon, the Virgin of Victory, caught my attention for the same reason. It may be studded with precious jewels and decorated with strings of pearls but it is not that alone which makes it special. There are many other such delights in the Basilica.
The Doges palace is another must see. The political centre of ancient Venice is highly decorative from the grand staircase with its eye-catching floor to the amazing paintings absolutely everywhere. The paintings on the ceilings are absolutely spectacular and one wonders, with aching neck, why they put them in such a stupid place. But what is probably the largest if not the most impressive painting in the world, Tintoretto's Paradiso, is found in the great hall. If you are unaware that it is there and discover it on turning, as I did, the effect is sensational.
February isn't perhaps the best time to admire the view from the top of the rather ugly bell tower which dominates St Mark's square but even on a cold and windy day the view is spectacular. Having an expensive coffee (hint - if you want a 'normal' cup of coffee rather than the minuscule espressos ask for American or cafe grande con aqua calda - large coffee with hot water- don't know if it is correct Italian but it worked for me) we watched wooden walkways being laid out in the square ready for the floods then headed of to see more sights.
Everywhere you look in Venice is beautiful - I used 3 films that day and even took up painting when I got home because it was so inspirational and I wanted to capture the atmosphere as well as the views. I may not have quite managed to do so but I enjoyed trying. I'm sure that the ever-changing February sky added greatly to the effect. One moment clusters of dark clouds and at another bright sunlight provided the backdrop for the spectacular scenery.
We were shown round Venice by a friend who took us to lunch in one of the many small restaurants. Italians take their food very seriously and lunch was a long drawn out affair. It was delicious but I would rather have spent the time sight seeing.
Venice is not really the place to shop unless you are quite wealthy. There are many small exclusive boutiques and the usual touristy shops selling beautiful masks and glass but our host told me that much of the glass and lace on offer is in fact imported and a bit of a con. The Rialto bridge, however, has market stalls with Italian chic at more affordable prices at least in the off season.
Returning to Venice in summer is a different experience. We rose early and wandered the back streets of Venice to watch it awake. There is a beautiful silence broken occasionally by church bells and you can discover hidden gems off the beaten track and it such a small place you cannot get lost. Back in the centre St. Mark's square is full of tables and tourists but on a balmy summer evening it is worth the price of the mega expensive drinks to sit at a table in the piazza and listen while a handsome Italian plays a grand piano 'just for you'.
In summer St. Mark's square is bustling but in February its only occupants might be pigeons. As we took a last look at it before catching the waterbus the waters had risen and it was flooded and the sun reflected off the gold on St Mark's onto the water. Pure magic. If you can only go one place in the world choose Venice.
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