Saturday, July 21, 2007

Gliding Gondolas

Venice is certainly different than the rest of Italy. It is so compacted; the streets and alleys are narrower than anywhere else. There is no rigid city layout; it is still medieval in layout, crooked alleys; it is said that if Marco Polo should return today to Venice he will still recognize most of Venice because most of it is still as it was in the 15th century. Well, take that with a grain of salt because he will not believe his eyes when he sees how many people today visit Venice on a daily basis, not will he believe there can be so many shops selling the same masks, t-shits and other tourist-focused goods as there are in Venice. The obvious thing that makes Venice different than any other place is the fact that there are no cars and no noise from motorbikes (thank goodness.)

But what I have a hard time to understand is why it is labeled as a romantic city. Maybe it is because of the gliding gondolas on narrow canals and the water everywhere and so many bridges. It is not particularly more beautiful than Florence or Rome (most certainly better than Naples). Sure, it architecture is different; more Byzantine than Romanesque like the rest of Italy and it has just as many old building like Florence and Rome (Rome’s naturally much older). And then there are the people or rather, masses. When we got there on the Sunday one could hardly walk a meter or two before one has to stop and try to pass someone or let someone pass you. Today there was slightly less people, but Piazza San Marco was still crowded and the lines still long to visit places. I am not complaining, just giving a point of view, and it is definitely worth the visit. Actually I wished we could stay another day or so, to explore all the sections of Venice because we only had time to explore San Marco and San Polo sestieries. I wish we had more time to take a vaporetto and cruise up and down the canals, get a different view of the city from the water instead of just from the streets, or walk the alleys less traveled by tourists.

This morning we visited San Marco Basilica and the Doge Palace next door. The basilica was incredible. Beforehand every research on the Internet was raving about it and I must say I was not disappointed. It truly is one of the marvels of Italy. The mosaic art inside is of the best if not the best we have seen in Italy. It was worth paying the €3 to go upstairs to the balcony and to see the bronze horse, circa 4 BC, and to see the mosaics from up close. It does give one a different perspective and appreciation of the true talent of these ancient artists. A view of the piazza from above was also worth the while.

The Doge Palace or the Palazzo Ducale, next door was a bit of a disappointment after San Marco. There are no furniture in the palace. (The Doge was the ruler of Venice, like a President, but with very little real power, lots of prestige though. And when he became the doge, he was expected to provide his own furniture to the living quarters of the palace and upon death the family promptly removed it again, hence no furniture.) Walking through the Palace was like walking through a art gallery where the surroundings are really cold and non-distractive and although I think some of the ceilings were very good, most of the frescoes were not that great. But then, after you see the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi and use that as a yardstick, not many other places can hold a candle to them. However, I do think some of the doors in the Doge Palace are magnificent pieces of art in their own right.

The rest of the day we spent walking (and shopping) through San Marco and San Polo sestieries (San Polo is on the opposite side of the Grand Canal from San Marco sestieri (neighborhood)). By 4:30 PM we were exhausted and sat ourselves down on the steps outside a small church in a quiet calle, away from the main streets, and savor a gelato. (I have never eaten so many ice creams in such a short period of time in my life, but Italian ice creams are fantastic. I think it is because they taste so “fresh”, if that’s the right term to use, and because of the many flavors to choose from.)

Dinner was on the San Polo side of the Grand Canal with a great view of the canal and the gliding gondolas, but the service was way too fast, as if they wanted our money and then wanted us to leave so they can turn the table a few times per evening. The food was average to poor. After dinner, as the sun was setting, we took a gondola ride down the canal and up several smaller canals. (Right: Inside the gondola.) It was expensive, the 30 minute glide was the same price as 3 train tickets from Rome to Florence on the Eurostar, but that is what you do when you come to Venice as a tourist. You pay the money for that one time experience.

Afterwards we stood at the rail on the Railto Bridge, watched the reflecting lights of Venice in the Grand Canal, and just enjoyed and took in the moment. Behind us, in the center of the bridge, a guitarist was picking a flamenco tune on his strings. The moment and we were not anything special to Venice, but Venice, at that moment was special to us.

Piazza San Marco with the basilica and the campanile at the end of the square.

San Marco basilica façade with the bronze horses on the balcony.

The San Marco clock tower, probably the 2nd most famour clock tower in the world after Big Ben in London. Built between 1496 and 1506, the clock indicates the relative positions of five planets: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury and could be read on concentric circles, together with the phases of the moon and the position of the Sun in the zodiac (in times past these allowed seafarers to discern the most favourable times for setting out to sea) and last, but not least it tell the time in the Italian 24 hour system.

The façade of the clocktower contains the three symbols of powers that govern Venice, namely the civic authority, symbolised by the Lion of San Marco, the Christian faith, symbolised by the Three Wise Men paying homage to Jesus, and the knowledge of science and mechanics, symbolised by the complex machinery of the clock itself.

The burly Moors on the roof of the clock tower, made of gun-metal and cast in 1497, they strike the bell on the hour. We were fortunate to see the moving Moors in action at the time that we were on the basilica's balcony.

View from the San Marco basilica's balcony towards the lagoon. On the left is the Doge palace.

San Marco's Horses and Monica. These horses are bronze copies. The originals are inside the basilica. No one really knows how old the originals are, but the date from the Classical Antiquity period (7th century BC - 5th Century AD). They think the horses once adorned the Arch of Trajan and that they were also long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. In 1204 they were sent to Venice as part of the loot sacked from Constantinople in the Forth Crusade. Off course Monica is not from the same period and far younger than the horses.

The Giant Staircase inside the Doge Palace.

A view of Venice from our gondola.

Gliding Gondolas

A view of Venice at sunset from the Railto Bridge.

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