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Venice: The Jewel in Italy's Crown

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

Few cities have influenced the western world's history as much as Venice. It was this city that provided the ships for the Crusaders, extracting as a price the sacking of Constantinople, another Christian city at the time. It was also Venice that, in the person of Marco Polo, opened the secrets of Asia to Europe.

History of Venice

Here is a city, once one of the most powerful in Europe, that is not only regally splendid, but is built in the most unlikely locale. Its history is said to have started around the year 453 AD when farmers and fishermen from around the Veneto area escaped the hordes of Attila the Hun by fleeing to the tidal islands in the delta located at the very top of the Adriatic. Gradually these tidal islands were raised above the waterline through driving tree trunks, gathered from the nearby mainland, down into the silt.

The early settlers were followed by more arrivals when, in 568 the Germanic Lombard tribes conquered Northern Italy. Then the locals discovered that, due to the reaction between this particular timber, silt and seawater, these tree trunks petrified instead of rotting. The future of Venice was assured.

These settlers, both farmers and fishermen, were outstanding sailors. Soon their boats fanned out into the Adriatic and then into the Mediterranean. Hardworking and shrewd traders, the Venetians became the leading ship owners and operators -- trading, leasing their ships for charter and generally engaging in any business deals that would make a profit. In the process, they grew rich and powerful, creating their own Island State to the model best suited to its citizens' needs. The richest families became the aristocracy. They elected a leader, known as the Doge, and formed powerful alliances with Hungary, Padua, and Byzantium. At the same time they challenged the power of Genoa, their only real competitor in Mediterranean shipping, and so started an ongoing if intermittent enmity that was to last through the centuries.

Then came the Crusades. The crowned heads of Europe needed transportation for their soldiers. Venice was the only state to have sufficient ships, and was prepared to make these available, but under harsh conditions. Venice had long envied the riches of their old ally, Constantinople. Here was an opportunity to grab these, regardless of the fact that the prey was yet another Christian city.

Venice remained the leading seapower in the Mediterranean until the rise of the Ottoman Empire. As this expanded, so Venice's power shrank accordingly. With the advent of the Napoleonic wars, Venice finally fell to Bonaparte's troops. He in turn allowed Venice to fall to Austria in 1798 and this was the beginning of a long period of hibernation.

The city returned to Italian rule in 1866, but it was not until the mid 1930's, when Mussolini built a causeway linking Venice to the mainland, that Venice was rediscovered by the world's travelers.

Traveling to Venice

Summer is probably my least favourite season in Venice as it can get very hot. July and August are the months when I prefer to avoid La Serenissima ("the most serene") as Venice is known to locals. At that time, there is not a room to be had at a reasonable price, and the Riva degli Schiavoni rings with more languages than the Tower of Babel. Tourists flood in from every corner of the globe -- France, Germany, Japan, England, Australia, Russia, USA, Argentina and more.

The city's shopkeepers respond, bringing Venice into the international market place by providing the finest designer labels at the highest prices. And along the Riva degli Schiavoni, the Venetian equivalent of fast food restaurants offers Fish and Chips to the hordes of package holiday Brits, and Bavarian Beer to go with Frankfurters and Sauerkraut for German tourists at their Wurst. In Autumn the crowds have receded and normality has returned. The vaporettos (water buses) that ply the canals the way commuter trains do in other cities, are again a pleasant mode of travel.

In the balmy breezes of spring, the few carefully tended trees and shrubs flower in gardens with soil that might have been transported from Maestre five centuries ago. Now, tourists are returning to the Piazza San Marco in droves, and the two competing cafe orchestras which operate on either side of the square are again serenading packed cafes.

It doesn't matter if you can only get there in winter. Then, when mist shrouds the canals and the songs of the gondoliers becomes muffled in the fog, the city takes on a romantic shroud of mystery and a quiet dignified beauty. It is also in winter that Venice's Carnivale turns the whole city into a vast theatrical stage, where splendidly costumed figures glide through the cold streets in masked anonymity.

But even if you go in peak season ... and much more so if you don't ... this city is filled with magic. Every building is steeped in mystery as well as history. No trip to Europe should be considered complete without a visit to Venice.

If you have the time, start your trip at Asolo, a place that is only 75 km from La Serenissima. This charming little town of 16th to 18th century villas has marvelous views and splendid, wooded surroundings. Here is the beginning of the region from which the early inhabitants fled to Venice, borne out by the fact that the regional cuisine of dishes like calves liver with onions on white polenta is common to both places.

Lodging in Venice

Try and adjust your itinerary to stay at the Villa Cipriani at Asolo. Even better you might fax the hotel to ascertain the one weekend a month when the Asolo Antique Fair transforms the streets of this tiny, ancient town into an antique-collectors' wonderland. Stalls magically appear in the town square and some sidestreets, and most of the merchandise is of high quality, for this is the most respected streetmarket for antiques in the country and draws buyers and sellers from all over Italy.

The Hotel Villa Cipriani is, for me, the only place to stay. Some of this is due to the fact that the Villa Cipriani is housed in a 15th century patrician's home. At one stage Robert Browning, the renowned English romantic poet, also lived here. Some of my affection for this hotel is also due to the splendid cuisine which is typical of the area, and some, to the charm and ambiance of this unpretentious looking but totally delightful "home away from home."

But the main reason for my liking of the Villa Cipriani must be Dr. Giuseppe Kamenar, a sprightly elf of a man who, at an age when most others are content to sit back with folded hands, is the life, breath and soul of this establishment. Don't be surprised if you meet members of the British or Dutch Royal Families in the corridors. The English Queen Mother loved coming here when she was still traveling, and she liked tea to be made in her presence, and with great care and ceremony. No tea bags for her, so she bade Dr. Kamenar to pick the teapot she should use each time. The villas of the area are especially interesting as many were designed by the great Italian Renaissance architect Palladio, and the hotel concierge can arrange inspection visits to some of these.

On departing from Asolo, head down towards the coast to Maestre and across the causeway. Leave your car in one of the huge car parks near the railway station and take a water-taxi to your hotel.

My favourite has to be the Hotel Cipriani, namesake of the hotel in Asolo. And that's no coincidence, because both hotels were started by the same man. Today's Cipriani, reached by luxurious private motor launch from the hotel's mooring just outside the Piazza San Marco, is to my mind the most serene, elegant and stylish address in Venice. The rooms are palatial, the cuisine outstanding, and it doesn't matter how busy the streets and waterways of Venice might be, the hotel and its lovely grounds are an island of tranquillity.

On the subject of five-star hotels, we did stay once at the Danieli, but that was once too often. For a hotel that charges top dollar, I cannot understand why everything from service to furnishings seemed to be in a state of historic decay. What a contrast to the Cipriani! And what made the Danieli even worse was the haughty arrogance of the staff. On my list of hotels I consider totally overrated, the Danieli must be a contender for first prize! On the other hand there are two hotels on the Riva Schiavoni which, while making no pretension of being five-star, are in a reasonable price range and quite delightful. The first is the Romantik Hotel Metropole, which also has the best buffet meals in their price range to be had in Venice. Mr. Beggiato, the owner/ manager of this hotel is a charming man who is a compulsive collector of Venetian memorabilia. He not only runs the hotel extremely well, and puts his heart and soul into doing so, but has enough enthusiasm left over to have acquired an amazing collection of items, mostly linked to the history of Venice. Fortunately he knows each of these intimately and can talk about them with great energy bordering on passion.

The Gabrielli Sandwirth, like the Metropole, is located right on the main canal and is only a stone's throw from the Naval Museum. As the name indicates, this hotel was, during the last century, a particular favorite of British visitors. But it is the old courtyard there, rather than the comfortable rooms, that so endears the establishment to me. The well in this courtyard dates back to the 13th century and carries the shield of the family who lived there as well as a depiction of the Archangel Gabriel. Dining in the quiet courtyard is, for me, a special occasion; one that combines excellent food with one of the most romantic settings possible.

There are lots of other delightful hotels in Venice also, so if you are there in winter, you may have an opportunity to shop around and check them out. But if you are planning to go during the other three seasons, you had better have a confirmed reservation. With the affordable lira making Italy a comparative bargain, summer accommodation is virtually impossible to book at short notice, and spring/fall are also very heavily booked.

Exploring Venice

To me, one of the pleasures of Venice is to walk through the Piazza di San Marco in fall and winter, watching as the faint mist wafts around the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale. The edges of these impressive buildings are softened and muted as though in an impressionist painting.

As a contrast to the wintry mists and fog, the vivid spring light in Venice, sharpens the outlines of La Serenissima's magnificent structures. And in summer it's fun to sit and sip overpriced drinks in the cafes of the Piazza. Here there is a musical "battle" as the two cafe orchestras, often off-key, vie for earspace. Adding to this cacophony is the authoritative drone of the tour guides. They speak in Japanese, English, German and a dozen other tongues, each guide embellishing his or her very own version of Venice's splendid past.

I'm also fascinated watching tourists feed the hordes of overgorged pigeons, the number of which just about match that of the tourists. But watch out! The reason why some locals call these birds "bankers" is that there is every possibility that they will leave a large "deposit" with you!

What attracts so many people to this city? Maybe it's Venice's lure of being one of the best-preserved cities in Europe. Maybe it's the aura of power, royalty and noble decay that abounds, testaments to the might that once was. This city's wealth and influence enabled it to attract Europe's finest architects, sculptors, artisans and dreamers. In its heyday Venice was home to people such as Giacomo Casanova, Marco Polo, Jacobo Tintoretto, Titian, Canaletto and Veronese. A visit to Venice was considered to be de rigeur when young aristocratic ladies and gentlemen undertook the "Grand Tour" of Europe. This was their version of a modern-day "finishing school," taking in the best that Europe had to offer. Venice was considered a cornerstone of culture.

Unless you have time to kill, don't be tempted to accept the free rides to the "glass blowing factories" of Murano that are offered by "touts" in the square or along the waterfront. These so-called "factories" each have two or three glassblowers demonstrating their art. But if you mentally check how many artisans would be required to produce the vast stock which is offered at prices that are generally far higher than in the city shops, you soon realize that most of these places are nothing more than slick marketing operations. Needless to say the "touts" receive a fat commission.

Most first-time visitors also have to be very strong to resist the temptation to buy the sort of souvenirs that are put at the back of a cupboard on their return home, and are finally discarded in the "why did I buy that" pile. Yet, there are some marvelous "buys" in Venice if you have time to shop around, especially in some of the small boutiques off St. Mark's Square.

My favourite way of exploring the "real" Venice of the Venetians is by foot, walking the narrow streets tucked out of the way of the busy tourist areas. Some will open onto courtyards and gardens. Others lead me along the small canals that twist through the city behind the walls of palaces that have seen more elegant times. In this Venice, multi-hued lines of laundry wave overhead while groups of men in buttoned undershirts sit around in earnest discussion. Others work on boats that look as if they will never go back in the water. It is in such back streets that you'll find small shops owned by marvelous craftsmen and maybe even an occasional antique treasure. It is worth a quiet stroll to see the day to day life of Venice away from the bustle of the tourist crowds.

The more adventurous might like to hire their own motor-boat or gondola, perhaps complete with a gondolier who can often sing most Italian arias off-key. But watch out! Nothing comes cheap in Venice, so negotiate a price before you go too far. And parking spots for boats are often hard to find.

As your gondola glides along the canals, you are riding exactly as the city's rich and powerful have traveled for centuries, visiting the numerous palazzi that line the city's waterways. With their marble facades, Moorish windows and candy-striped gondola mooring posts that were used when Venice was at its peak, to proclaim their owners wealth.

A great way to see these marvelous buildings is to take the vaporetto along the Grand Canal. A trip from the Railway Station to the Riva degli Schiavoni will combine into a journey of art, history and architecture.

Stop just beyond the Station Bridge on the right side of the Canal Grande at the Natural History Museum in the Fondaco Dei Turchi (Turkish Commodity Exchange). This sumptuous building was occasionally borrowed in the 16th and 17th centuries to receive princes and sovereigns and was later leased to Turkish merchants as a warehouse. Nearby, is a former home of the composer Richard Wagner, who died here in this Palazzo Vendramin Calergi. A marble sculpture of Wagner by Ettore Cadorin stands within the garden walls.

A little further on, you might inspect the Palazzo Pesaro which is the last work by the 17th century architect Baldassare Longhena, Venice's greatest baroque architect. This enormous structure, once a private home, is now the Galleria d'Art Moderna e Galleria d'Art Orintale -- International Gallery of Modern Art and Museum of Oriental Art.

One of Venice's most beautiful buildings is the Ca' d'Oro (Golden House). Inside is the art collection of the Galleria Franchetti. Outside is a facade, once etched in gold. And despite the fact the gilding is gone, the marble filigree work is still intact.

Further down the canal near the Rialto bridge is the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (German Commodity Exchange.).The goods that German merchants had brought in from their principalities fanned out all over the known world from here, and imports were in turn shipped back to Germany. Today, little of this building's exterior frescoes, some painted by Giorgione da Castelfranco and Titian, remain.

A tour of the Doge's Palace will also reveal much about the grandeur that was Venice. On the second floor the largest hall was the meeting place of the Grand Council. Close your eyes and imagine how it would have looked filled with over a thousand nobles from this city's grandest families. Look at Tintoretto's painting of Paradise, the bold 72 foot long and 23 foot high artwork that dominates the magnificent hall. You may note that virtually all the paintings around here extol the power, virtue and influence of Venice. Even the Tintoretto ceiling, entitled "Jupiter leading Venice into the Adriatic," follows this theme.

A smaller but more sinister hall, the Sala dei Trecarpi, is not far from the room used by the State Inquisitors. This is not exactly a place one would clamor to get into at the time. Even more interesting is the collection of arms and armour, much of it captured from one powerful enemy or another.

Some of the city's most valued and significant treasures are housed in St. Mark's Basilica, the resting place for much of the booty acquired at the sack of Constantinople. Perhaps the most famous representatives from this time are the four magnificent horses above the entrance of the newly restored mosaic facade. Alas, they are copies. The originals, having suffered substantial damage from pollution, have now been fully restored and are on display in an exhibition room in the church.

There is so much to see in Venice that you could return for a month each year and die of old age without having even remotely covered the whole city. So don't try to do everything. Before your first trip, it may be a good idea to buy a good illustrated guide (I recommend The Everyman Guide) and mark those features of the city in which you are most interested.

For me, a place that really fires up my imagination is the Arsenale, the city's shipyard. It is said that at one stage 16,000 men worked here. While it is hard to believe the claim that they could build and fit-out a ship in one day, this was undoubtedly home to the known world's most famous and most productive shipbuilders. In their day, they used the very latest technology (akin to a production line) to build vessels at a rate that no other power could match.

Today the Naval Museum on the Riva degli Schiavoni shows details of just how effective the work of the shipbuilder's was. The Arsenale is still there, and is partly used by the Italian Navy. But it is a mere shadow of its former glory. If only the walls could speak!

Shopping in Venice

For many people, history is a major reason for visiting a city. But there are many more who, while history may be their first priority, also enjoy the shopping. And for them, Venice also has much to offer.

A fascinating gift and decor shop, specializing in carnival masks, is Le Maschere di Prisma. Located near San Marco, it has a fascinating range of giftwares.

At one stage Venice was also famous for its lace, but the old lace makers have died out and the younger generation finds the work too tedious and exacting. Nevertheless, Jesurum, the shop that specialized in Venetian lace and opened in 1870, still has marvelous linens, tablecloths and all kinds of natural fiber fabrics decorated with lace and embroidery.

There are endless rows of shops, both in the San Marco Square and outside it, that sell great Venetian glass. The most eye catching collection of is at Venini, a shop that specializes in the very finest modern, rather than antique, Venetian glass.

We were also most impressed with the jewelry at Elena. Italian gold jewelry is recognized as being the world's best and Elena has some of the finest examples. Italian housewares are also of legendary design and in Venice we were enthralled by the shop called Domus which had the best of the Italian housewares designs, though it is not a place to go bargain hunting.

An amazing shop that is not to be missed and has some of the liveliest puppets, masks and music boxes we have ever seen is Il Prato. Everything is hand-made up to a quality and not down to a price. Many of the products found here could be the museum pieces of future generations. Another mask maker who is clearly a master craftsmen (and will allow you to see how he makes the masks) is Gianfranco, near St. Mark's Square.

Dining in Venice

By now, you are hungry after all that shopping. There are some interesting alternatives which I can recommend. Naturally, the top of the line is a romantic dinner at the Cipriani. But for a superb meal at another time one should also make sure to visit Harry's Bar. This is the spot where everybody goes to see and be seen. Book a table upstairs, and you will get one of the best meals in Italy. If you want to stay away from the crowds, much the same standard of delicious cuisine is also available at Harry's Dolci, on the island of Giudecca. And for a superb buffet, lunch or dinner, the Romantik Hotel Metropole is hard to beat. Two other places are Ristorante Antico Pignolo, and the Trattoria do Forni -- somewhat touristy but quite good.

There is so much to see in Italy that one of the most difficult aspects of planning a trip is deciding what to include and what to leave out. The first-time visitor who comes to Italy and does not include Venice has omitted one of her greatest treasures. There is only one remedy for that -- another trip.

Le Maschere di Prisma
San Marco 171 Pente dei Dai
Phone 522 3474.

Ponte della Canonica,4310
Phone 520.6177.

Piazzetta Leoncini, 314.
Phone 522 4045
...and at Murano...
Fondamenta Vetrai 50

Mercerie dell'Orologio 214 - 216
Phone 522.6540

Domus Housewares
Calle dei Fabbri 4746
Phone 522.6259

Il Prato
S. Marco 1770
Phone 520.3375

La Venexiana
Ponte Canonica - Castello 4322
Phone 523. 3558

Ristorante Antico Pignolo
San Marco, Calle Specchieri 451
Phone 522.8123

Trattoria do Forni
Calle Specchieri 468
Phone 523.2148

Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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