Venice is one of Italy’s major seaports, and capital of the province of Venezia in northern Italy. It was the greatest seaport in late medieval Europe and Europe’s commercial and cultural link with Asia. It is also one of the world’s oldest tourist and cultural centres. Aditi De writes of her visit to this most romantic of cities.
Venice is such a strange city. It is built on an Italian lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. It has canals instead of roads, which means there are no cars or buses, no trams or trains or bicycles whizzing past us. Best of all, we could walk or jump or play hide-and-seek on its cobbled streets or its countless bridges whenever we chose to.
Daily life in Venice skims over its waterways, especially the sweeping double curve of the Grand Canal and the 180 smaller water passages that run through the 118 islands that make up the city.
As we stop by a bridge over the canal for a minute, we spot blue ambulance boats weaving past red fireboats and police patrol boats. It made us stop for a minute to rethink. Weren’t these in place of the Red Cross ambulances, red fire engines and blue police vans we knew in other cities? Of course.
But then, Venice is ruled by the lagoon it is built on. Leaning over the railings of St. Marcos Square in the city’s heart, we realise this as grey boats tow away the garbage, bright soft drink and ice-cream barges hawk their wares, and tooting tug boats guide huge ocean liners into Venice harbour.
Just then, we spot what’s typical of Venice – a gondola! We hop into a gondola to be ferried from one canal bank to another, a ferry service known as traghetto, for 1,000 Italian lire (about Rs. 20). This typically Venetian watercraft, with gondoliers or boatmen in striped jumpers over black trousers with jaunty berets on their heads, now number only about 400. In the 16th century, there were 10,000 gondolas on the canals.
For generations, tiny boatyards have built these lop-sided boats, with one side curving further outwards than the other. Why, we wonder? To balance the weight of the oarsman at the stern.
All day long, we walk through the 3000-odd solid streets or passageways that dot the ten main islands apart from the mother city of Venice. We discover that Venice’s historic centre is built upon an archipelago or islets and mud banks that are just two miles long and a mile across. We stumble upon an amazing fact – that the house numbers in this unusual city run by the district, going up streets, through alleys and over canals.
A Venetian friend tells us that Italians call the city Venezia, or La Serenissima, the Serene City. Venice was originally built on piles of stones dropped into the lagoon, over which planks of wood were laid. Of course, the bricks of the grand mansions on the canal often felt damp to the touch.
That’s easy to believe when we hear about the aqua alta or high water. Caused by either spring tides atop the lagoon or an underground movement of the Italian peninsula, high water often causes the beautiful squares around Venice’s churches to turn into lakes, the roads into gushing rivers.
That doesn’t however, stop Venetians from putting on their raincoats and gumboots, and going to school. For the government provides wooden platforms all over the city that are used as step ways to survive the aqua alta.
This Italian city is known for its festivals, especially the popular ten-day Carnival in April. Children, teenagers and adults dress in freaky costumes, weird stockings and shoes, then don masks before they take part in this celebration. It’s difficult to make out who is behind each mask, but it’s easy to make friends during this constant party in the streets. What fun!
On other occasions, Venetians celebrate with a regatta or boat race. The city loves the Vogalonga, on the first Sunday of May, best of all. That’s when anyone who can row with oars is welcome to join the other boats on the great Grand Canal, especially in fancy dress. Imagine the sight!
Venice is an unusual city, but an equally unusual threat looms over it right now. It’s sinking. Since it’s built on a lagoon, the weight of the city on the silt beneath it threatens its very life. “Venice today is sinking three times as fast as before, at 300 mm per century,” explains an environmentalist.
We shudder at the thought of beautiful Venice, with its stunning churches, its collections of art and its happy spirit, buried under the Adriatic. May the winged Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of Venice, never face that day.