One summer in high school I took a whirlwind tour of Europe as part of a concert band. We stopped in various cities for a day or so each to give concerts and do a bit of sightseeing. Many of the memories have blurred and faded, but I do recall our day in Venice. It was the middle of July, and it was very hot and humid. As if the heat wasn’t enough, we visited a glass-blowing factory. Glass was not the only thing that melted that day!
My return nearly 25 years later was completely different. The weather was cool, the city wasn’t crowded, and we had enough time to get to know the city.
We took advantage of Europe’s excellent trains to get from Seefeld in Tirol to Venice, connecting at Innsbruck (home to the both the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics) and Verona (home of Romeo + Juliet). The scenery changed drastically along the way. We began in the Alps, whose craggy peaks tower over valleys far below. Pine forests serve as sort of a buffer between the snow-capped mountains and the towns huddled around the streams that snake along the valley floor. As we made our way into Italy, the valleys grew wider. Vineyards were everywhere: tiny ones wedged between houses or next to gas stations; larger ones on the valley floor outside of towns; and many clinging precariously to steep hillsides when there was no other land available. The occasional stone castle stood watch over nearby towns. Toward Verona the mountains gave way to gently rolling hills and ultimately a large plain that stretched toward the Adriatic Sea.
Venice is – famously – an archipelago. The train crossed a long causeway to reach the islands, and deposited us at the main station. Exiting the station is like stepping into a theme park exhibit. The station itself is unremarkable, but just outside is the Grand Canal – the main artery of commerce in Venice. The canal is full of all sorts of watercraft going about their business. Across the canal are beautiful (if a bit tired-looking) pastel buildings built right up to the edge of the water. It’s a bit of a shock to see – in a good way! It looks like no other city we’ve ever seen, and is what we came for.
From the station we took a vaporetto (Venice’s nautical equivalent of a bus) to the apartment that would be our home base. The next order of business was to find a grocery store. It’s always a relief to figure out where our food will come from!
The following day we headed to St Mark’s Square, one of the main tourist attractions in Venice. There are plenty of travel horror stories about the square. During summer months the square can be mobbed by the tourists that descend on the city like locusts. In winter months the square can be flooded by Acqua Alta (exceptionally high tides). We were lucky and didn’t have trouble with either tourists or tides. While we didn’t quite have the square to ourselves, the boys were delighted we had ample space available for chasing the ubiquitous pigeons. Lauren and I listened to the excellent, entertaining Rick Steves’ audio guides to Venice on our phones as we had a lovely, hassle-free stroll around the square.
From the square we started to wander, doing our best to get ourselves lost among Venice’s 400 bridges and countless alleys. Lauren and I love to wander around a city without a specific destination or route in mind. Leaving the tourist circuit is essential if you want to get a feel for the character of a place!
Every alley and turn led us to another photogenic sight. Buildings, slowly decaying in the salt air, rose above narrow streets. Plaster peeled off the walls on the lower floors, exposing the underlying brickwork. Many buildings looked buttoned-up for the winter, their wooden shutters shut tight. Some buildings showed signs of life, with the week’s washing hung out to dry on clotheslines above the street.
Each of Venice’s 118 islands has at least one church. Most are small, unassuming neighborhood affairs set back from the square formed by the crossroads for that part of town. The squares themselves are never square.
Stone or brick bridges connect the islands, often at strange angles when the alleys on one side don’t line up with those on the other. The bridges offered views down the narrow, serpentine canals that make Venice famous. Away from the tourist spots and Grand Canal, the smaller canals were mostly deserted. Sometimes we’d see small motorboats or work boats tied up alongside a small pier, or next to the stone steps that sometimes led from the street directly down into the water. In other spots boats were tied up at the water-level entrance to a building.
The next day we toured the Doge’s Palace, another of the “must do” sights in Venice. The palace sports beautiful, ornate marble on the exterior. The interior has beautiful, ornate woodwork, sculpture, and artwork. All of these failed to capture the kids’ attention and we rushed through fairly quickly. The palace tour then takes you across the famous “Bridge of Sighs”, where convicted criminals would see their last view of Venice as they were shuffled from interrogation in the palace to execution in the prison across the bridge. But wait – it turns out that this narrative was made up, and that prisoners weren’t being sent to their execution anymore by the time the bridge was built. Plus, you can’t really see anything from the bridge!
We also took a boat to Murano, one of the outlying islands of the archipelago. Murano has been the center of Venetian glassblowing since at least the 13th century, and we intended to see a demonstration at a factory. We started at the Museum of Glass, which had a collection of interesting glass pieces. Sadly the boys successfully foiled our plans to visit a factory by fighting, whining, and generally being monsters. We even tried to appease them with gelato, which somehow made things worse. I suppose the lesson here is that when you strip away all of the travel and adventure, we’re still a family with kids, and kids can’t be expected to be on best behavior every single day for a year. (Note from the kids: the adults in the family are not perfect either).
We wrapped up our time in Venice with an early-evening gondola ride. During the summer months the canals are jam-packed with the famous black gondolas, but on a 45 degree day in January we had the canals practically to ourselves. Our gondolier was a gentleman on the far side of middle age who has been plying the waterways for more than 20 years. He lamented recent trends such as people moving away from the city for opportunities elsewhere, and of course complained about “kids these days” who don’t respect either traditions or the environment. He was less-down on the influx of tourists though – clearly they are good for his business.
Contrast that attitude with other locals we talked to, who see the hordes of tourists as choking the life out of the city. When summertime trains and buses and gigantic cruise ships vomit more than 100,000 people a day into the city, the narrow streets become impassible. Locals cannot do their shopping; delivery people cannot resupply stores; and everyday activities like going to school become an exercise in swimming upstream in a sea of humanity. On this trip we’ve been a number of places where overtourism threatens the very things that are attractive to the tourists in the first place. Some sites like the Galápagos and Machu Picchu have adopted strong regulation to preserve these irreplaceable pieces of their – and our world’s – heritage. Venice, on the other hand, seems to be struggling. More than 20 million people descend on the city each year (on par with Disney World!). On the one hand the visitors are the main driver for the economy, and on the other hand they overtax infrastructure, services, and patience. Achieving a balance is difficult, and it sounds like Venice is still searching for the right combination of freedom and regulation to preserve the city’s heritage. Time will tell if recent efforts like taxing visitors and limiting the number of cruise ships will help.
Back to the gondola ride…complaints about “kids these days” notwithstanding, the gondolier was excellent and we had a tranquil, delightful cruise through the canals just after sunset. We drifted past landmarks such as Marco Polo’s house and Casanova’s house, and cruised under the Bridge of Sighs to wrap up our time in Venice. The next day we’d be on a morning train to Rome!