Venice – May, 2011

Posted: May 20, 2011 in Uncategorized
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16 May 2011 

We bid goodbye to the fantastic Castel Monastero in the morning and drove into Florence to catch our train to Venice. Once again, the GPS proved to be totally inadequate in the city centre and after going round and round in circles for about half an hour, we finally ended up at the car rental place. The journey to Venice was once again through the superfast train and it took us only two and a half hours. The scene we saw as we stepped out of the train station in Venice stopped us in our tracks. The steps from the train station ended at a canal and boats were plying up and down like cars on roads. There was no road or sign of any car. We secured a boat taxi and stepped in and that was when I felt I had to capture this in the camera. To my utter dismay, I discovered that I had left my camera in the train. Fortunately, a member of the cleaning staff had found the camera and was bringing it to the lost and found office when I got there. We had been warned against the pickpockets and other petty thieves in Italy who thrived on the tourists and here our experience was totally the opposite.

I have never been to a city where the transport is totally by waterways. The city is built on 117 islands connected by 400 bridges over 150 canals. There are no roads in the inner part of the city and everything is being transported by boats, be it goods or people. We were amused by speed limits, one way signs etc. In due course, we arrived at the doorstep of the hotel. Most of the journey was on the Grand Canal. The skill with which the drivers manage the boats is simply amazing – there are many narrow canals which require good level of dexterity to navigate. All along the Grand Canal one could see some really beautiful buildings.

Our hotel was quite close to the main square of Venice – Piazza San Marco. Napoleon described Piazza San Marco as the “finest drawing room in Europe”. It is indeed a very beautiful square with the Basilica di San Marco dominating one side of it, with a tall clock tower beside it. There are many cafes with live music along the square and the whole place seemed to pulsate with an abundance of energy as people continued to pour in as the evening wore on. The square sure seemed to have some special attraction that drew people in.

Basilica di San Marco is the pride of Venice and its claim to fame happened when some Venetian merchants stole St. Mark’s body out of Egypt in AD 828 and brought it to Venice. They also adopted St. Mark’s winged lion as the city’s symbol. Venice felt that it was an equal to Rome as it had its own Saint and so the authorities did not heed Rome’s call to shun all Pagan symbols. Hence, one can see many Greek statues and such on the façade of the church. There is also a very nice fresco above the entrance to the church and it looked quite attractive – I think there must have been some restoration work done on it.

In the evening, we went in search of the lone Indian restaurant in Venice and it was a great feeling to walk through the narrow lanes, some of which were just 6 feet wide. We passed by the famous Rialto Bridge and paused to take in the views. There are a lot of restaurants on the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge and I was surprised to hear snatches of Hindi as we passed by. On closer inspection, I found that many of the waiters in those restaurants were Indians and they were talking to each other in Hindi. The restaurants were serving Italian food and so we continued on our journey towards Indian food.

All along we saw people taking rides in colourful gondolas. This is supposed to be a very romantic thing to do in Venice and the boat men do also sing songs on request. Not being the romantic type, we passed on the ride.

On the way back, night had fallen and the city had taken on a special charm in the night. I got a beautiful shot from the Rialto Bridge by balancing the camera on the handrail.

17 May 2011

Venice is very famous for its glass making skills since the last ten centuries or so. In the thirteenth century the then Doge (Duke) of Venice ordered that all glass making facilities be moved out of Venice, as he feared that fire accidents could break out and destroy the city. That is how Murano shot into prominence as all glass making workshops were moved to this island, which is just a short ride from Venice. Another thought behind moving all glass making skills into a small island was to ensure that the secrets and knowledge did not leak beyond Venice. The masters were not allowed to leave Murano and had to stay there all their life. As a form of compensation, they were allowed to marry the ladies of the upper class families in Venice and this must have been very prestigious as these families had special privileges.

Murano glass is very well known all over the world today and they still use the techniques used centuries ago. We were warned against cheap imitation from China that pass off as Murano glass. We set off in a boat to Murano and visited a glass making workshop. A master demonstrated his skill and showed us how a small vase could be made. I was quite amazed at how malleable glass became when heated to high temperatures.

The workshop had a showroom as well, which had many beautiful pieces and they were actually pieces of art and priced as such. They did not allow photography as they were afraid of Chinese imitations. Jewellery made of Murano glass is quite attractive and was on display all over the island.

Our next port of call was Burano and we went there by public transport boat. Burano is known for its brightly painted little houses, which make the island very colourful. It was indeed very beautiful and I got a couple of nice shots. Burano is also known for its lace making skills.

After Burano, we went back to Venice and Piazza San Marco. On the square, is the very tall clock tower, which goes up to a height of 100m. It was originally built in AD 888 but has been rebuilt twice, the last time being in 1902.

A lift takes you up to a height of 60m and that is high as you can go. From that position, there are great views of Venice, especially as you look out to the sea.

In general, I have felt that punishments in medieval Europe were of a rather barbaric nature and that was borne out here too as I heard that they used to hang cages from the side of the clock tower and hold prisoners in those cages. Another comment I heard was about the Doge – the Doge was the ruler of Venice and hence powerful, but it seems that there are there are only two monuments that show the Doge. In both, he is shown as kneeling before St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice; another way of depicting that he is a public servant. I was profoundly impressed by this point that rulers in those medieval days had such an insightful approach – especially in those days when the practice was for rulers to have themselves painted and sculpted and to make grand monuments. This shows that they truly believed that they were servants of the city. The Doge’s palace is to one side of the square and did not look like an imposing building. Hence I had decided not to visit it but this comment made me change that and I penciled that in for the next day’s itinerary.

Venice was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite cities and he is said to have frequented a bar called “Harry’s Bar”, which is just a few minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco. He wrote portions of his book “Across the river and into the trees” here and the bar itself finds mention in the book. This aroused my interest in the bar and I decided to visit the place, especially as that novel is a favourite of mine. I located the place without much difficulty and spent a quiet half an hour in there, thinking of Hemingway and his books. I do not know what is special about this bar but there must be something as it is also rumoured to have attracted some other famous personalities like Marconi, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Baron Rothschild, Aristotle Onassis, Woody Allen etc.

18 May 2011

Venice was a republic from the eighth century till 1796 and had deep democratic traditions. Citizens from prominent families formed what was called the Great Council, which had more than 400 members. Only members of some certain families could be part of this council and the names of these families were registered in the “Golden Book”. There was another book called “Silver Book” which held the names of families that could make it to the Golden Book and when the city had some financial woes, some families were promoted, in exchange for tidy sums of money which they had to pay to the city! A senate was chosen from within this council and there were about 100 members in the senate. The Doge was chosen from the senate and held the office for life. There was also a council of ten that was chosen from the senate to help the Doge in day to day administration. The democratic traditions were very evident and they also had a legal system, which was based more on common law than on royal law.

The Doge was deemed as a public servant and public offices like administrative offices, courts, prison etc. were all attached to his palace. The palace itself was not very impressive.

When we went inside the palace, we found the place rather bare. On enquiry, it turned out that the Doge had to bring his own furniture when he was elected to office and so the family used to take back the furniture once the Doge passed away. The art works in the palace clearly showed the great pride and love that Venetians had for their city; Venice was shown in many paintings as Venus with kings and others bowing before her. Venice thrived as a republic for about 1000 years and had a very powerful navy which allowed it to rule the seas. Gradually, its power declined and the city was ravaged by plague two times. The last Doge dissolved the council and resigned from this position when he found that he could not defend Venice against the military might of Napoleon.

That was our last visit and the end of a very enjoyable trip. Italy is truly fantastic and I felt that there is much more to explore and experience. May be I will be back!

 

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