Gondola Lessons in Venice
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Of all the cities in the world, only Paris comes remotely close to matching Venice in terms of sheer beauty and romance. You've seen it in photos and films, but there's no substitute for the reality -- the shimmering Grand Canal, the gondolas slipping down watery alleyways, the elegant palazzos emerging straight from the sea.
Venice once ruled the Mediterranean as a shipping power, amassing vast wealth and producing some of Europe's greatest artistic and cultural treasures. But over the centuries Venice has declined a bit and now has less than half the population it had at its peak. What remains of its former grandeur -- the crumbling palaces, the sumptuous art in its museums and churches, the fantastic rituals of Carnevale -- makes Venice a living tribute to the past.
Aside from a number of charming squares, such as the famous Piazza San Marco, Venice is mostly comprised of a warren of narrow canals and streets spread over more than 100 islands. These tangled passageways are an attraction among themselves. There are few better cities to simply get lost in, particularly if you want to escape the tourist hordes that clog the main arteries around San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.
So once you've seen the major sights, fold up your map and set off on foot. You'll discover pretty, residential neighborhoods with colorful flowerboxes in the windows and clean laundry billowing in the breeze. You'll discover tiny trattorias where the locals enjoy the catch of the day. And, away from the vaporetti (water taxis) and motorboat traffic on the Grand Canal, you'll discover one more pleasure of this place, aptly dubbed La Serenissima -- the unexpected quiet of a city without cars.
What to See
Piazza San Marco: According to Napoleon, this gracious plaza was Europe's first drawing room. It's a huge piazza surrounded by the Basilica di San Marco, the Torre dell'Orologio clock tower and the arcade of Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove. The basilica is the primary tourist attraction; plan to wait in line during high season. It dates back to 1094 and represents a range of architectural styles, such as Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance. (Note: You will be denied entry to this and many other Italian churches if your attire is deemed inappropriate -- be sure your knees and shoulders are covered.)
Also check out the Bell Tower, a 324-foot structure originally built in the 10th century. It had to be rebuilt early in the 20th century when it completely collapsed. Climb to the top for a great city view. Almost as much of a Piazza tradition is a visit to one of the square's two famous cafes -- Caffe Florian and Ristorante Gran Caffe Quadri. Their outside tables offer fabulous people-watching; just be prepared for the stiff prices.
Incidentally, San Marco is as big an attraction for pigeons as it is for people -- you may want to wear a hat.
Art galleries abound in Venice. The best-known include Gallerie dell'Accademia, featuring Venetian art from the 14th to 18th centuries, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for contemporary masterpieces and sculpture. Guggenheim was an American who resided in the Palazzo; she and her dogs are buried out back in the sculpture garden. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco features the work of Venetian artist Tintoretto.
The Venetian equivalent of a superhighway, the S-shaped Grand Canal runs through the heart of the city. It offers fabulous views of palazzos that date back to the 12th century and line the waterway. The best way to traverse the Grand Canal is via vaporetto, line #1. The Grand Canal also divides the city, in a way; the east side contains most of the best-known tourist attractions (San Marco Square, et al.), while the western part is generally more residential, boasting wonderful trattorias and local shops. Pedestrians can cross over the canal in just three places: Rialto Bridge, Accademia Bridge and Scalzi Bridge.
Venice's lovely cathedrals and churches are too numerous to count; among the highlights (besides the basilica) are Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (Campo dei Frari, San Polo), a huge 14th/15th-century Gothic church, and the 17th-century Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (Punta della Dogana, Dorsoduro).