“Sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves…. It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old post cards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one….”
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities & Memory 5
After having spent a week in Venice, I finally understood how Italo Calvino could describe this elusive city 55 different ways in his novel “Invisible Cities”. Venice was just so different a city when one experienced it by land and by water… Completely opposite in fact… By land, everything was disconnected, full of dead ends… I felt like I was lost in an urban Gothic maze that was not only claustrophobic, but it was designed to be a trap! I could imagine that if I were living here in 14th century, it would have been quite dangerous to walk around at night with all these narrow alleyways that led to nowhere. Bridges crossing canals were so limited, these one way street with no alternative escape routes made me feel very unsafe while I was exploring the city with my mother and my aunt.
By water, on the other hand, the city was open and fluid… Everything was seamlessly connected to each other as if these little canals were threads that had been woven together to hold the fabric of this very city in place. It was as if I was in two very different cities, existed on a parallel plane to each other, happened to be exactly at the same site, but they had nothing to do with one another at all! Just like how Calvino described it in his book…
Although there were water buses, I highly recommended that you take the gondola tour to experience the waterways of Venice, even if it costed 100 Euros for 45 minutes. Yes it was a touristy thing to do, but we could really imagine how people lived in the city during 14thcentury. I found the gondola trip absolutely fascinating as an architect because I could see the backside of the houses and grand buildings, most of which had private water access. This really was how the city was connected together; canals were definitely their main infrastructure. We were also more than impressed with the skills that our gondolier acquired to tilt the gondola at such precise angles to pass under foot bridges without slowing down, or when they had to give way to passing boats or other gondolas. It was like driving in narrow alleyways of London, but on water! The water traffic etiquette was fascinating, even if there were no traffic lights in sight! We went on the Gondola tour at dusk, which was perfect timing because we got to see the city both during day and night, when lantern lights began to glow like fireflies around us and the water was turning black. I had to admit that somehow I felt safer on water in Venice than on land because I could see where I was going more clearly.
On water, I could really imagine that Republic of Venice was once a major maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as well as a very important centre of commerce. Its splendid architecture was a testament that it had always been a wealthy city throughout most of its history.
In present day, however, Venice had become somewhat an outdoor museum, with its architecture and history fully preserved for tourism. It was a shame, that there were not many residential buildings on the island anymore, even though I was told that about 60,000 people still lived in the city of Venice itself. Everything seemed to have been converted into hotels, hostels, guesthouses, shops, restaurants, all catered for tourists. Only when we really ventured very far away from Piazza San Marco, almost to the opposite end of the island, did we finally found some residential quarter.
While walking around the island, we could not find any supermarkets in sight at all, so it was a blessing in disguise that we stayed in a very good hotel such as Hotel Danieli [See my previous post for more detail], because their breakfast and restaurant were just excellent. It really saved us from the pain of touristy food, which was quite a disappointment when we ventured out for our first night in Venice. Eventually, I managed to find one of the best local restaurants on the island which I will write about it in the next chapter, but for the first few meals, we were not impressed.
I would advise all those travelling to Venice for the first time to steer clear of random restaurants around Piazza San Marco because not only were the food dreadful, they were also extortion in term of price. Everyone had always warned me that Venice was expensive, and it was completely true because there was 2 Euros per person cover charge everywhere. Having said that once we managed to find our bearings, there were some of the best Venetian foods we ever tried, and would definitely go back there again. These places were reasonably priced too.
Moaning about expenses aside, Venice was definitely worth its high price tag. It was truly in a league of its own, the one of a kind medieval floating splendour, so beautiful that one had to see it and experience it to truly appreciate its beauty. Many people always said to me that Venice was a photogenic city that looked better in photographs than in real life, but I totally disagreed. Upon seeing it, I thought that its beauty and uniqueness had only exemplified by its aging, sinking, crumbling states. Photographs, no matter how beautifully captured, could not compare with the real experience of being immersed in its history and its present decay. To me Venice was an ephemeral city, which made all the more intoxicating by the traces of time… Venice of the Middles Ages and Renaissance era was no longer the same city as Venice of the Twenty-first Century…