Venezia (Venice)

Venezia (Venice)

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The islands of the lagoon in which Venetia is situated today, provided a good refuge for people from the Veneto mainland. They were escaping the barbarian invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. and became the marshy region's first settlers. They built villages on raft of wooden posts that were driven into the subsoil and laid the foundations for present-day Venice. Traditionally the date given for Venice's foundation is 25 March 421, but there is no evidence to support that date.

Logically, the highest (and thus driest) point of the lagoon was settled first. It was known as Rivo Alto, which later became Rialto. Venice slowly evolved into a republic. Lip service was paid to the Byzantine Empire, formerly the Eastern branch of the Roman Empire. The first of Venice's 118 consecutive doges, or chief magistrates, was elected in 697. After merchants brought the remains of the apostle of Saint Mark to Venice from Alexandria in 828, Venice's name became closely linked with that of Saint Mark. Saint Mark's Basilica was built for the purpose to lay the remains, which had become holy relics, to rest. In 1094 the basilica was consecrated.

The Byzantine Empire was pillaged together with Jerusalem after Pope Urban II's First Crusade of 1095 degenerated. The Repubblica Serenissima, or Most Serene Republic, provided ships for that first crusade. The Fourth Crusade was organized in 1202. It was led by Venetians, who plundered and eventually ruled Constantinople. Priceless artifacts were looted, including the four gorgeous horses, a bejeweled Pala d'Oro altarpiece and an array of marble statuary, much of which decorates Saint Mark's Basilica. After the Fourth Crusade, Venice commanded a thriving and expanding commercial empire that stretched across most of the eastern Mediterranean. Venice became very wealthy and the finances were overseen by the Great Council, which was made up of members of the city's powerful and rich families.

The rapid expansion of Venice had not gone unnoticed by its competitors, especially Genoa, which was a similarly maritime city. Several inconclusive battles and peace treaties were the result, but things didn't change until Venice's victory in the Battle of Chioggia in 1380. After that Venice started focusing on the mainland and acquired self-sufficiency and allies to bolster its population, which had been decimated by the Black Death in 1348. Trade continued to flourish for another hundred years, but in 1453, the Turks captured Constantinople and the decline of Venice began.

Venice's importance diminished rapidly, while the Turks expanded their Mediterranean empire. They took Cyprus in 1570 and Crete in 1669. In the meantime, in Venice, corruption was on the rise and Venice had neither the will nor the manpower to equip great enough ships, let alone armies, to match those of its competitors. On top of that, the plague struck over and over again and wiped out some 30% of the city's population. Precious art treasures were lost, when the palace of the doge was set on fire. Peace didn't some to the city until the arrival of Napoleon in 1797, but that was short-lived too, as the Austrians soon took over control.

The Austrians never got the support of Venice's population and in 1848, the city joined the long list of rebel-cities that rose up against the established order across Europe. A movement of Italian unification came into existence and spread quickly through the Veneto. In 1866, the city was united with the Kingdom of Italy. During the last decades of the 19th century, Venice started blooming again. There was increased port traffic, a growing industry and a railway bridge was built, which linked Venice with the mainland. The canals in the city were widened and deepened and pedestrian zones were laid out in the city center. It was not long before tourism started taking off. Under Mussolini, a road bridge was built parallel to the railway bridge.

During WWII, 'greater' Venice, an area that includes Mestre and Marghera, was bombed by the Allies, because of its industrial importance. Fortunately, none of Venice's monuments were damaged too badly. After the war, petrol refineries and metallurgy, chemical and plastics industries were created and expanded and in the Marghera region thousands of new jobs were created. Venice's population started growing as a result and so did the problems. In 1966, the city was hit by disastrous floods, which focused the world's attention on the city's watery plight. In the following years, much time was spent on talks about solutions, including floating barriers to platform soles. In the meantime, the city's population started declining, as many didn't want to experience another flood and others can't afford the ridiculously expensive housing. On top of that, transportation is too complicated and jobs too few. There are also political problems. But the biggest problem is that Venice continues to sink. Restoration efforts are made, but a real solution has yet to be found.

Venice of often referred to as La Serenissima, or Queen of the Adriatic, but in reality it is a dirty place, which is in urgent need of repair. Some areas have been marvelously restored and are truly unique, but most of the city is a big disappointment for many who visit it the first time. There are countless canals and many beautiful palaces in Venice. The city covers and area of some 457.5 km² (178 sq miles). It is always packed with tourists. If you get away from the main drag, though, you'll find some quieter places, but they are usually more dirty and dilapidated. The city's lagoon is polluted by toxic petrochemical waste and the foundations of many buildings are rotting. It will be a daunting task to save the city.

Venice is built on 117 small islands and has some 150 canals and 409 bridges. Only three of them cross the Grand Canal, Venice's main waterway. The canals, instead of roads, are used for transportation. Along many of the canals are narrow paths that lead to almost every place in Venice, but there are no cars whatsoever. There are numerous monumental buildings and squares in town.

The historic center is divided into six sestieri, or quarters. They are San Marco, Dorsoduro, San Polo, Santa Croce, Cannaregio and Castello. The central area is only 7.6 km² (3 sq miles), but it boasts nearly all of the city's monuments. You can walk from Cannaregio in the northwest to Dorsoduro in the south in no more than 30 minutes. The Grand Canal passes through each of the districts. It has an S-shape and it runs all the way from the railway station to San Marco.

The shallow waters of the surrounding Laguna Veneta are dotted with countless islands, the most famous of which are Murano, Burano and Torcello. Acting as a breakwater to the east is the long and slender Lido di Venezia. It stretches south for some 10 km (6 miles) to the similarly narrow Pellestrina. The latter dribbles down to the sleepy mainland town of Chioggia, which marks the southernmost point of the lagoon. Inland from the Laguna Veneta is the industrial town of Mestre, which serves as a place, where 'normal' Venetians live their day-to-day life. The southern part of Mestre is dominated by the massive shipping docks of Porto Marghera.

When to Go

It is always very busy with tourists in Venice, but in spring (Easter to June) and in September-October it is at its busiest. During these periods, accommodation can be hard to find and prices usually rise even higher than their usual high levels. Around Christmas, New Year and Carnevale, in February, it is also extremely busy. In the summer, Venice is not only crowded, but also very hot and sticky. Weather wise, the most pleasant time to visit Venice is late March into May, with clear spring days and comparatively fewer crowds. September is the next best in terms of weather, but in October there are fewer tourists. Floods often occur in November and December. The winter can be unpleasantly cold, but snow is very rare.

Many events are held in Venice throughout the year, including more than 100 regattas. The first of the lagoon's regattas is the Regatta delle Befane, which starts on 6 January (Epiphany). The city's most important event is Carnevale, which is held in February. In May the Sposalizio del Mar, or Wedding with the Sea, is celebrated during the Festa della Sensa (Feast of the Ascension). Every odd-numbered year in June, the Venezia Biennale arts fest is organized. It takes place in the pavilions of the Giardini Pubblici. The Festa del Redentore is another highlight. It is held in July and includes a regatta and a fireworks festival. The Venice International Film Festival is held in August at the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido. The Regatta Storica is in September. It is a historic gondola race along the Grand Canal that is well worth seeing. In November, a bridge of boats is built to serve as a walkway for the procession of the Festa della Madonna della Salute.

On public holidays many shops are closed. The include Liberation Day (25 April), Labor Day (1 May), the Feast of the Assumption (15 August), All Saints' Day (1 November) and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (8 December).

Places of interest

Saint Mark's Basilica

The basilica of Saint Mark is probably one of the most spectacular houses of worship in the world. It is a good example of Venetia's former maritime and commercial importance. The building is adorned with a huge amount of plundered treasures. It includes the gleaming Pala d'Oro altarpiece of gold, enamel and precious jewels. The Tesoro, or Treasury, contains the bulk of the booty that was brought back from raid on Constantinople in 1204, including a thorn that, according to legend, belonged to the crown worn by Christ. On the loggia above the main door are copies of the statue of prancing horses that were also taken from Constantinople. Inside you can see the gilded-bronze original. The basilica has countless domes and arches and it was modeled on Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). The basilica was consecrated in 1094.

The building is famous for its golden mosaics. Especially the ones above the doorway in the façade and the ones that decorate the interior domes are magnificent. Inside are also numerous mosaics, as well as 12th-century marble pavement.

The basilica's campanile dates from the 10th century. On 14 July 1902 it collapsed without any warning, but it was rebuilt brick by brick over the following 10 years. You can take the lift to the top for some excellent views over the surrounding rooftops and lagoon.

Saint Mark's Square

Napoleon once called Saint Mark's Square the 'finest drawing room in Europe'. It has always been an important meeting place. Nowadays it boasts countless bars, restaurants and terraces, including the famous Florian and Quadri. Every hour you can hear the clanking of the bronze Mori, or Moors, as they strike the bell of the 15th-century Torre dell'Orologio, which is also on the square.

Originally most visitors came to Venice via the sea and arrived at Saint Mark's Square. The piazzetta's two columns bear emblems of the city's patron saints: the winged lion of Saint Mark and the figure of Saint Theodore. Nowadays that magical symbolism of the waterside Piazzetta San Marco has largely been lost, as most visitors arrive by rail. Saint Mark's Square is one of the lowest parts of the city. As a result it is always the first place to be flooded when the acqua alta (high tide) arrives. It is especially magical on moonlit nights and often occurs during winter.

Palazzo Ducale

The exquisite Palazzo Ducale has been Venice's political center for many centuries. It overlooks the Piazzetta San Marco and was built in pink and white Venetian Gothic style. The building used to house the doge, many arms of the government and several prisons. On the first floor are the apartments of the doge, while the second floor has marvelous state rooms, including the Sala delle Quattro Porte, which was designed by Palladio and features paintwork by Titian and Tintoretto. Other interesting state rooms are the Anticollegio, where you can see four Tintorettos and Veronese's 'Rape of Europa'; the Sala del Collegio with more Veroneses and Tintorettos and the huge Sala del Maggiore Consiglio, which features Tintoretto's 'Paradiso', one of the world's largest oil paintings and Veronese's 'Apotheosis of Venice'. A number of corridors lead to the small Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs, which is enclosed and crosses from the palace into the New Prisons. The main entrance is the Gothic Porta della Carta.


When you cross the Accademia Bridge from the main island you will get to a less visited area of Venice, where the Gallerie dell'Accademia is located. It is home to the most important art collection in Venice. It gives an excellent overview of the progression of Venetian art between the 14th and the 18th centuries. The meeting hall of the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità is the oldest of the Scuole Grandi, which were Venice's six major lay confraternities. There you can see Paolo Veneziano's 'Coronation of Mary' and Carpaccio's altarpiece of 'Crucifixion and Apotheosis'. In the next two rooms, works by Giovanni Bellini, including his 'Madonna with Child Between Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalen' and Giorgione's mysterious 'Tempest' are on display. You can also see works by Titian and Lorenzo Lotto's 'Portrait of a Young Gentleman in His Studio', Paolo Veronese's 'Feast in the House of Levi' and Tintoretto's 'Theft of Saint Mark's Body and Crucifixion'. The route through the building continues chronologically and you will come to characteristic landscapes by Canaletto and Guardi and interiors by Pietro Longhi. At the end of the tour you can see the 15th-century crowd scenes of Carpaccio's 'Miracle of the True Cross' and Gentile Bellini's 'Procession in San Marco'.

The Peggy Guggenheim Gallery is situated in the same area a the Gallerie dell'Accademia.

Ca' d'Oro

The Ca' d'Oro, or Golden House is the most marvelous of the fabulous palazzos that line the Grand Canal. The building was constructed in Venetian Gothic style and dates from the 15th century. Its façade was originally decorated with gilding that gave the building its name. Inside is the Galleria Franchetti, which consists of an impressive collection of bronzes, tapestries and paintings. The second floor is home to fragments of Titian's frescoes that were saved from the outside of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. It is also possible to lean out from the balconies overlooking the Grand Canal.


The area around the Rialto has always been Venice's commercial center, so it is no surprise that the first bridge over the Grand Canal was constructed there. Originally the canal crossing had quite a chequered history, but in 1588, Antonio da Ponte, a name that literally means 'Anthony of the Bridge', built the marble Rialto. Nowadays on the bridge itself, only souvenirs are sold, but just around the corner is still Venice's bustling fruit and vegetable market.

There are several interesting buildings in the vicinity of the bridge. The Fondaco dei Tedeschi is a former German trading house and nowadays in use as the central post office. It almost abuts the bridge to the north. Its blank exterior was once daubed with frescoes by Giorgione and Titian. A little further from the Rialto is the Pesceria, or fish market, with its neo-Gothic arches. The building dates from the end of the 19th century, but the tradition of selling fresh fish there goes right back to 1300. Almost at the center of the market is Venice's oldest church, the Chiesa di San Giacomo di Rialto. It was supposedly founded on 25 March 421, the same day as Venice itself.

On the other side of the Grand Canal is the district of San Polo. There you will find one of the city's most wonderful religious treasures, the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. It was built by the Franciscans and features Giovanni Bellini's marvelous altarpiece and Titian's 'Assumption' altar painting and 'Madonna di Ca' Pesaro'.


There are several interesting churches in Venice, including the fantastic Santa Maria della Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore and del Redentore. The best way to see the churches and many of the palaces that line the canals is by vaporette.

Around the lagoon


Murano is a sleepy place that has been known for its glass manufacturing since the 10th century.


Burano is famous for its fishing and lace industries. The village has distinctive pastel-colored houses.


The islet of Torcello offers a good idea of what pre-Republican Venice must have looked like. The marshy and scrub-covered flats of Torcello were a place where the region's first mainlanders sought a safe haven from the barbarian invasions.


Pellestrina is in the lagoon of Venice, not far from the southernmost tip of the Lido. It is an excellent place to see the lagoon's famous Murazzi, the seawalls of Istrian stone that protected the lagoon from the Adriatic's swell from 1782 until the floods of 1966.

Other activities

Venice's sights are concentrated on a relatively small area. As a result, the city is an excellent place to walk around and all the bridges and steps should give you a pretty good workout. Swimming is possible off the Lido and in Venice's two public swimming pools. The pools close in summer and remember that the lagoon is polluted. The only places where jogging is feasible are the Giardini Pubblici or Isola di Sant'Elena in Castello. Rowing can be practiced at Venice's oldest rowing club, the Reale Società Canottieri Bucintoro. There are several small gyms in town, as well as places where you can study Italiano, cooking, history, art and music.


Most visitors to Venice arrive via Marco Polo airport, which is just east of Mestre, some 12 km (7.5 miles) from Venice. A small number of charter flights use Treviso's small San Giuseppe airport, which is 35 km (21.5 miles) north of Venice. Departure tax is usually included in the airfares. Marco Polo airport has inexpensive bus connections with Venice. The trip takes 25 minutes. It is also possible to take a hydrofoil, which is a very scenic way to arrive at Venice. The hydrofoil takes 60 minutes to cover the distance. More expensive options are taxis or water taxis. From San Giuseppe airport there is a Eurobus service, which takes 1 hour. You can also take the local bus no. 6 to the Treviso train station and from there by train to Venice. Taxis to Piazzale Roma are rather expensive.

Venice's railway station, Stazione di Santa Lucia, is in the northwest of town, at the end of the Ponte della Libertà. Most people in Venice refer to it as the ferrovia. The city has direct rail connections with Padua, Verona, Milan, Bologna, Switzerland and France. The trip from Paris to Venice takes 9.5 hours, including the change at Milan. If you arrive from the east, including Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary, you will have to change trains in Trieste. From March to November, the legendary Orient Express runs between Venice and London via Verona, Zurich and Paris. The train runs twice a week.

Venice's bus station is on the southern side of the Grand Canal in Piazzale Roma. Buses are only marginally cheaper than trains and you should really consider if it's worth the difference. Arriving by train is a far better and more comfortable option.

If you come by own car, you should remember that there are no cars in Venice and you will have to leave your vehicle in one of the very expensive car parks at the edge of town for the duration of your stay. Once you have crossed the Ponte della Libertà from Mestre into Venice, cars must be left at one of the huge car parks in Piazzale Roma or on the island of Tronchetto. The main entry points into Italy are the Mont Blanc tunnel from France at Chamonix, the Grand St. Bernard tunnel from Switzerland and the Brenner Pass from Austria. Once in Italy, the A4 is the fastest route to Venice from east or west. It connects Turin with Trieste and passes through Milan and Mestre.

The best way to see Venice is on foot. The city looks like a labyrinth at first, but soon you will notice signs on the walls pointing toward the main tourist sights, so you will not easily get lost. It is safe to walk around anywhere in Venice, but some parts of the city are right dirty. The only other way to get around the city is by vaporetto, or water-bus. Day passes are available and fairly inexpensive. The vaporettos quickly take you to all parts of the city, as well as the outlying islands. The route through the Grand Canal is probably the most spectacular. You can also take a ride in a gondola, but it is expensive and embarrassing. Water taxis, in the form of motorboats are equally expensive, but they are a lot faster. Regular buses run from Piazzale Roma to Mestre and other mainland destinations. Taxis ply the same routes.

Cycling is officially banned in Venice.

Accommodation and food

Cheaper, but still expensive, accommodation can be found in the vicinity of the railway station. Along the Grand Canal and around San Marco square are the priciest hotels. The most expensive restaurants can be found on San Marco square and around the railway station. It is much cheaper to look for a restaurants in one of the quieter backstreets of Cannaregio, Santa Croce, San Polo and Castello instead.

Venice is 3902 km north of Roma (Rome).


Italy is 1 hour ahead from UTC/GMT. In Venice, as in the rest of the country, electricity is 220V/50Hz. Traffic is on the right. Venice's telephone area code is 041. The area code is an intrinsic part of the number and must be used at all times. Daylight savings time is used from the end of March through the end of October.


Miscellaneous Information

Latitude:    n/a
Longitude: n/a
Elevation:  n/a

Population: 300,000
Cost-of-living compared to Washington D.C.: n/a

Hours from UTC: 2
Daylight savings time: Late October through late March

City phone code: 041
Country phone code: 39

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