It’s summertime 2003, these Aussie expats were keen to escape the English definition of Summer (18°C and raining) to the more familiar version (32°C and crystal clear, blue skies). A 15-Italian-cities-in-10-days itinerary was planned, a cheap and cheerful airline booked and we were soon stepping out of the crisp air-conditioning of Marco Polo Airport near Venice, into a wall of heat. Welcome to Italy!
Growing up on a farm, in a small country town, in rural New South Wales, in a country at the bottom of the World, always made places like Venice feel slightly out of reach. Like a tantalising jewel on the edge of my imagination. Now, at last, it was a reality.
Hot, confusing and equal parts mesmerising, Venice turned all my previous concepts of a ‘city’ upside down. I know I am a simple soul, but I was transfixed by the garbage boat (not truck), the delivery boat (not van) and the various traghettos, gondolas and ferries that moved the population around the liquid streets. On foot, I was not struggling with stop lights and pedestrian crossings, no road rage or exhaust fumes. If this was an alternative to traditional city-living, then more power to it!
With ubiquitous Lonely Planet guide in hand, we had three days to tick off all the big name sites. We must have looked like your typical stunned tourists as we strolled alongside the canals. Just when we thought we had seen the most amazing canal/street/church, we would turn another corner and be astounded all over again. A particular highlight of the first day was the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. In hindsight, I am not sure whether it was a church or a Harry Potter spell! At the time I was equally impressed by its elongated name as I was by its Titian paintings. Little did I know how ‘common’ the Great Masters were in Italy. Ho hum, yet another priceless work of art.
We had been given a tip to visit St Mark’s Basilica as early as possible in the day and tag onto the guided tour in English. While the tour didn’t cover the entire Basilica – that would take days and more information than we could ever possibly retain – it did cover a few select mosaic murals providing insight into some of the people and events that graced this floating city. Left to our own devices, we explored the rest of the building, climbing up to the Galleria for a birds-eye view of the Piazza. It confirmed our decision to start early in the day, as the square was now full-to-overflowing with both people and pigeons.
Trying to orient ourselves around the Main Canal, we wandered the cobbled streets, absorbing the atmosphere of this unique city. A gondola poling along a quiet narrow canal, an elaborate iron balcony, or a quaint, arched bridge all combined to make us believe we were experiencing something extra special.
Before leaving England, some locals had warned us, rather inelegantly, that Venice stinks in Summer. However, we did not find that at all and spent the majority of our visit walking happily alongside the canals or floating about out on the sea proper, completely oblivious to any sickening odours.
Taking a ferry ride out to the various islands surrounding Venice was a good way to understand the architectural feat that is Venice, as well as its relationship to the sea. There was a real vibrancy to the waterfront as buildings were progressively being restored and the hundreds of different water craft shuttled to and fro.
On our way out to the island of Lido, I was befriended by an aged Italian gentleman who graciously offered to spend the day with me, showing me around. When I said I would need to check that with my husband he cooled noticeably but, undeterred, he continued to enthusiastically promote the merits of his island home. After a brief stroll along the crowded beach, without my Italian escort, we cruised on to Burano – home of Burano lace – and the island of Murano, the centre of a spectacular glass industry.
I think the lace industry on Burano has seen better days and has mostly gone the way of Asian imports and knock-offs. I have never been a fan of the lace doily but the trip wasn’t wasted. Many of the homes and buildings in Burano are painted in a kaleidoscope of colours. It creates a happy and friendly atmosphere and an amusing shake-up for we residents of beige, bone and brown countries.
From Burano, we hopped on the next commuter ferry for the short trip to Murano. Another fascinating island and craft centre, but this time focusing on glass. We were lucky to stumble across a fornacé, or furnace, and were spellbound by the glass blowers in action. I truly admire the skill involved in working with such a fluid and fickle material, yet being able turn out such works of beauty and delicacy. I can only wonder how many times they burned themselves as they learned their trade! Sorry, it is just how my mind works!
Our Venetian experience was drawing to a golden close as we rode the twilight ferry back into Venice. The city appeared mystical as it materialised out of the dusky Summer haze – all ancient towers and lace-like balconies.
The last evening was spent walking the cool and shadowy footpaths beside serpentine canals, and jostling with the ever-present tourists. I doubt that we got even half-way through our Venice bucket list, but the places we experienced left a lasting and loving impression. We did not see all the churches, museums or canals but maybe that was on purpose.
The longing for Venice continues today.
What: First stop on a 10 day trip to Italy. In Venice, we stayed in the tiny but centrally located – Antica Casa Carrettoni
Where: Venice, Italy.
When: Late July 2003, hence the non-digital photography. Apologies!
Why: A good opportunity to escape the English version of Summer and yet another opportunity to absorb European history and culture.
How: We flew from Gatwick airport aboard budget airline Volare. We caught the shuttle bus into Venice and left Venice on the train bound for La Spezia.
Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and two bored children.
Related Blogs: For some fantastic photos and background information have a look at the Venice Travel Blog – http://venicetravelblog.com
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!