Venice

There is no city in the world like Venice, if only for the simple reason of geography. The city is built not on a broad stretch of land, but on 118 small islands atop a lagoon. About 150 canals run amid and around those islands, including the Grand Canal, which snakes through the city from north to south like a backward “S.” More than 400 bridges connect one island to the next, with vaporetti (public transportation boats) and gondolas cruising all around. The city has been known for its relationship to the water since its earliest days, when it was a major shipping hub on the Mediterranean and its leaders controlled large swaths of inland territory as well.

Fact

Marco Polo is perhaps the most famous Venetian trader, known as one of the first westerners to traverse the Silk Road to China. He left Venice in 1271 with his father and uncle, who also were traders, and didn't make it back home until some twenty years later. His book about his travels apparently inspired Christopher Columbus to seek a western route.

Historic Power

While there are records indicating the existence of people in modern-day Venice before the fifth and sixth centuries, it was then that barbarian invasions farther inland caused settlers to flee into the lagoon area that comprises the city today. By the 1100s, Venice was a city-state just like Genoa to the west, a prime trading center on the seafaring route between western Europe and Asia. At the peak of its power in the 1300s, Venice had some 36,000 sailors running as many as 300 ships that could be converted from commercial to wartime uses as needed to defend territory and shipping routes. The city's decline in power began in the 1400s, when explorers discovered new ocean and land routes to Asia as well as the New World.

The French soldier Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Venice and ended its history as a republic in 1797. Austria took control of the land the following year, after Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio. Control changed hands a few more times until 1866, when Venice, along with the rest of the Veneto region, became part of the new state of Italy.

Tourism as we know it today began in the late 1800s, when the beaches in Venice's Lido section (where the Venice Film Festival takes place) became popular. The city was generally spared from major bombings during World War II, though floods and general neglect have contributed to the continuing demise of many of the city's historic monuments, buildings, and artworks. You may have heard reports that Venice is sinking, a reality that residents began to notice in the mid-1900s as they were forced to move out of first floors and into the upper levels of some homes. The cause of the sinking was underground water pumping that is now prohibited, and by some estimates, the sinking is now under control.

Question

How did underground water pumping cause Venice to sink? As industrial companies sucked water out of the aquifer beneath the lagoon on which Venice sits, the soil left behind began to compact, sort of like a sponge that has been squeezed dry. The buildings atop that soil sank down a little at a time until the water pumping stopped.

Modern Perils

Global concerns about climate change and rising sea levels are particularly important to Venice and the tourists who enjoy visiting there, especially as flooding becomes more commonplace. According to the British-based relief organization Venice In Peril (www.veniceinperil.org), locations that flooded ten times a year in 1900 now flood as many as sixty times a year. The regular water level in the city is about ten inches higher than it was in 1897, with the constant wear eating away at the bricks at the base of some buildings. Donations are being accepted to help preserve historic sites, and the Italian government contributes regularly to restoration programs.

The Venice Water Authority has a plan for a series of inflatable “gates” that would prevent water from coming into the Venice lagoon from the sea when high water is in the forecast. If you want to watch a video of how this would work, go to www.pbs.org and search for “Venice gate” in the website's Nova section.

Touring Tips

Venice is divided into six sections: Cannaregio, Castello, San Marco, Dorsoduro, San Polo, and Santa Croce. Trying to find anything by street number in any of these districts is virtually impossible because the system that Venice uses is unlike any other in the world. Ask a local water taxi driver to take you to the location of your choice, and you'll find it just as easily (if not more easily) than you would by trying to decipher street names and maps.

Alert

Gondolas are a romantic option for touring the Grand Canal in Venice, but they're used mostly by tourists nowadays — and thus have price tags designed to get the most out of you during your visit. Look for larger water taxis and ferries with guides if you don't mind sharing the view with others, and you'll save a good bit of money.

The Grand Canal

One of the absolutely must-do activities in Venice is a ride along the more than two-mile-long Grand Canal. Nowhere else on the planet can you see buildings rising right out of the water. A guided tour is a must; the dozens of buildings, palaces, and other structures that you will see could take a lifetime for you to learn. Even cursory students of architecture will find a feast for the eyes in this part of the city.

Bring your binoculars if your trip to Venice will fall during the first Sunday in September. That's when the annual Historical Regatta is held on the Grand Canal, with gondoliers sailing in costume and other Venetian boats competing in various events while thousands of spectators watch from onshore and from floating stands.

St. Mark's Square, St. Mark's Basilica, and Doge's Palace

This trifecta of sightseeing delights is in the San Marco district, all within a stone's throw of one another. You will start in the square, also known as Piazza San Marco, which is the principal square in all of Venice. Think tourists, cameras, and pigeons. Grab a cool drink and maybe a panini from a local vendor, and sit back and watch the show of people go by. It's surprising how loudly the human voices echo without the noise of nearby car traffic from cars as there would be in other cities.

Alert

St. Mark's Square is the lowest point in Venice. As such, it is typically the first to flood when high water comes into the Venice lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. The Venetian phrase for such high-water occurrences is acqua alta, so if you see predictions for that — or even for heavy rain — consider skipping the square until the water level subsides.

St. Mark's Basilica (which enforces a strict dress code) is filled with gilded mosaics and marble expanses. Also inside is the Pala d'Oro, an altarpiece set with nearly 2,000 emeralds, rubies, pearls, and other precious gems and stones. The building itself is a marvel of Byzantine architecture and was, for some time, known as the “church of gold” because of its artworks and symbolism of wealth and power.

Connected to St. Mark's Basilica is the Doges' Palace, known locally as Palazzo Ducale. At one time, this was a governmental building that included offices and prisons. Today, it is a museum that you can tour room by room, viewing everything from classic oil paintings to former inmate cells. If you want to leave the crowds and view the lesser-known parts of the palace, ask for the itinerari segreti (secret itinerary), which will get you to places such as a former torture chamber.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

American art collector Peggy Guggenheim lived in Venice for about three decades, until her death in 1979. She had previously lived in Paris and owned a gallery in London, and she was married to German dadaist/surrealist Max Ernst, so it's not surprising that she amassed a collection of works by such renowned artists as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, René Magritte, and Jackson Pollock.

That collection is now on display in Venice's Dorsoduro section, inside Guggenheim's former home — an unfinished eighteenth-century Grand Canal palace. Special exhibitions regularly take place, so check the museum's website, www.guggenheim-venice.it, to see what will be on display during the dates of your trip.

Essential

If you have a membership card from New York City's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, bring it with you to Venice. All Guggenheim Museum members get free admission to view the Peggy Guggenheim collection (regular admission for other patrons is 10).

Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

This is one of the greatest churches in Venice, easy to access from the San Polo and Santa Croce sections of the city. The church that originally stood here was completed in the early 1300s, but the modern structure was built during the course of nearly the entire century that followed. The exterior is Italian Gothic, and the masterworks inside include pieces by Renaissance artists Giovanni Bellini, Donatello, and Titian. As with all the other churches in Italy, be sure you are dressed appropriately before entering. No bare shoulders or bare legs above the knees.

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