On The Road Travel Essays

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Vaporetto: The vaporetto reigns supreme along the watery thoroughfares of Venice. Once powered by steam (vapore), these diesel-operated water buses crisscross the city and offer a splendid sightseeing experience. Tickets are purchased prior to boarding. A ticket enables you to travel any distance along a single line. It must be displayed on boarding and kept for the duration of the trip. You can purchase tickets on board, but at a higher price, and must be requested to the staff as soon as you are on board. The vaporettos start at 6:30 a.m. and continue to midnight.

Water Taxis: One of Europe's most bizarre sights is the Venetian "rush hour," when the vaporettos bulge with commuters packed in like sardines.

On Foot: In the central city, your two feet are the most convenient way to get around. A walk from St. Mark's to the stores around the Rialto won't take more than a half hour.

Gondolas are less for getting to your destination than for going nowhere, so we'll talk about them separately.

Banking  During the glorious centuries when the Serene Republic ruled the waves, international banking and finance were almost a Venetian monopoly. It was the Venetians – or rather one very famous Venetian named Marco Polo – who brought the custom of suing paper currency from China to Europe. The banks are all clustered in one fairly small area, in and around the Piazza San Marco. Bring your passport when cashing travelers checks, and look for the till marked Cambio to start the paperwork. Then stand in a second line at the Cassa where the Euro notes are actually doled out. In the vicinity of St. Mark's, find the nearest bank under the western arcades (at the far end away from the basilica). Hours for banks generally: 8:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Local Holidays  Italy observes Roman Catholic holidays, including St. Joseph (March 19), St. Anthony (June 13), the nation's patron: St. Francis (Oct. 4), Easter Monday, and the Assumption (Aug. 15). April 25th is the Feast of St. Mark, the city's patron. By coincidence, this date also marks a political holiday (the Resistance in WW II), and is celebrated nationwide. On these holidays, museums, banks, offices and most stores are closed.

Shopping  Shops observe the traditional afternoon riposo (siesta). Shopping hours are usually 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Shops in the arcades around St. Mark's usually keep going until 9:00 p.m. Most stores are closed Sunday and most of them also on Monday morning.

The splendor of an Oriental Bazaar is what you will find in the shopping district known as the Merceria. It starts at the archway under the Clock Tower of the Moors in St. Mark's Square, and unravels through a labyrinth of calli (paved footpaths) and sotto-porteghi (covered passageways) all the way to Rialto Bridge. Once at Rialto Bridge, browse through the jewelry shops along either side of the bridge.

Local Color a la Veneziana  On the other side of Rialto Bridge is shopping of another sort. In the early morning when the canals are still shrouded in mist and the city sleeps, gondolas offload produce and fruits. Around 7:00 a.m., the first intrepid shoppers appear, string shopping bags in hand. What ensues is a circus of colors and sounds, with much tapping of melons and haggling over prices. A feast for photographers. Get a shot of the fish stalls with their gleaming piles of Adriatic bounty. The vendors here, by ancient laws still in effect, must be at least sixty and have been real fishermen for twenty years.

The Treasures of Murano are for lovers of glassware. The art of converting minerals like gold, platinum and silica obtained from sand into precious colored glass was a secret passed along by the Romans, who got it from the Syrians. The amazing thing today is that you don't have to spend a fortune to get a string of Venetian glass beads, vases, perfume atomizers and decanters. Shops of Murano glassware crowd the arcades of St. Mark's Square. Even the train station has its glass boutique.

San Marco Then and Now  Beneath the Storied Arcades. It's the city's throbbing center, and your starting point for everything. The life of the city has always been on display in the square. The Venetians were (and are) proud of their reputation as the most elegant, best-dressed signori on the peninsula. When Yankee Doodle put a feather in his cap and became a dandy, it was a dandy a la Veneziana – that's why he was called "Macaroni"! All of Europe followed the city's sophisticated lead. The lords and ladies of Venice indulged in personal adornment, sometimes bankrupting themselves in the process, until one Doge decided this madness was bad for business, and banned all colored and bejeweled clothing. But the Venetian spirit found a way around it, and soon all Europe was imitating a new style from Venice: black and white costumes called the Domino, which provided the namesake for the game still popular today.


Sightseeing on the Grand Canal is best on Line 1, the local vaporetto that makes frequent stops on both sides. Keep your camera handy for the panorama of faded palazzi, tiny branch canals, the Rialto Bridge, the Accademia museum, and finally San Marco.

St. Mark's Basilica is a riot of mosaics, marbles and gilding. In the foyer, note the "bathtub rings" left from floods, and the dazzling shrines and altars inside. Admission to the basilica is free, but there is a charge for the Chancel (gold altarpiece) and for the Treasury (booty from the sack of Constantinople). Hours for these two are usually 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. in the winter and 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. in the summer.

The Campanile (Bell Tower) of the basilica takes you up by elevator for the best panoramic shots of the city. Fee. Open 9:30 – 3:30 p.m. in the winter and 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. in summer.

The Doge's Palace, seat of government during the Venetian Empire. Spacious Courtyard, Giants' Stairway, Doge's Apartments, Grand Council Chamber and reams of paintings by the city's masters. Winter hours 9:00 a.m. – 5 p.m. and summer 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The Bridge of Signs (Ponte dei Sospiri) leads from the Doge's palace to the dungeons where Casanova plotted his escape and Lord Byron spent a night. Entrance from the Doge's Palace.

Gallerie dell'Accademia (Academy of Fine Art), on the Grand Canal. (Vaporetto: Accademia.) Revel in Bellinis, Tintorettos, Veroneses, Giorgiones and Titians. Monday 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. From Tuesday to Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The Lido  This narrow sandbar hosts some of Europe's most famous resorts, including the luxurious Grand Hotel des Bains. Vaporetto Lines 1, 2, and 4 will take you there, and local buses ply its length. Beach cabanas available for rent.

Gondolas  Much of the mystique of Venice is embodied in these sleek boats, which skim soundlessly along the canals. At the height of the Venetian Empire, there were more than three thousand such craft. Now there are fewer than three hundred, but they still reign supreme in this watery environment, ferrying passengers back and forth across the Grand Canal, delivering fruit and produce to the open-air market at Rialto – even serving as hearses dressed in black velvet and flowers, making a solemn voyage to the Isola di San Michele (the city's cemetery-on-its-own-island).

No one should leave Venice without taking a gondola ride. Their rich lacquer-black hulls and luxuriously upholstered seats give you the sensation of gliding over the canals on a living room sofa. Special gondolate (gondola excursions) can be arranged with musical serenades. There are official "rates," but what you actually pay can and should be negotiated in advance. Convince your gondolier to take you under the Bridge of Sighs.


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