A beautiful museum

April 7, 2024

An architectural marvel; there’s no place quite like Venice

A beautiful museum


There are fifty thousand inhabitants and more than twenty million visitors—a staggering ratio of 400 visitors to every local annually. If Italy is the crown of the European tourism circuit, Venice is its veritable jewel.

Against this backdrop of immense popularity and historical intrigue, my son, niece, and I decided to travel to Venice after our other travel plans fell through.

Venice was the centre of one of the most remarkable empires in Europe in the last millennium. Starting as a modest cluster of fishermen’s homes in a lagoon, it grew into a formidable maritime power. At its zenith from the 12th to 15th Centuries, this empire dominated the Adriatic Sea and secured a monopoly over lucrative trade routes linking the Silk Road to Europe.

They developed sophisticated financial systems, including the setting of exchange rates and letters of credit; variants of some are still in use today. The Venetians were tremendous patrons of art, too, with Wagner, Vivaldi and Maria Callas having performed at several historic venues.

Journeying from London, Toronto and Dubai, we converged at the Termini Station in Rome to catch our train to Venice. We were early, so we enjoyed lunch at the station’s food hall, with stalls of top chefs in Rome showcasing their skills.

After a comfortable four-hour journey, we were in Venice. It was dark and we were too tired to notice the city sights but not too tired to skip dinner.

We started with dinner at Rosa Rosa, which had an amazing atmosphere and pasta. Italians take their food seriously. The server politely asked me to place our phones, scarves and hats on the extra seat rather than the table. The main reason was that the aesthetics of the table would be affected. The sincerity of the request moved me to comply.

Our lodging, a cosy Airbnb within metres of the Grand Canal, was conveniently located near a Vaporetto (water bus, the local transportation) stop.

The city, built on marshy land, stands on millions of wooden poles. Over the centuries, the foundation has petrified into stone-like pillars.

The next morning, we started our day with breakfast at Florian Cafe, a historic establishment where many famous personalities have filled their appetites over the last 300 years. Florian is conveniently located at San Marcos Square, a focal point of Venetian life and history.

A beautiful museum

We ascended the Campanile di San Marco. This tower, which once housed Galileo’s first telescope, provides a bird’s-eye view of Venice’s sprawling beauty. This was followed by the Palazzo Ducale and the Basilica di San Marco, each site narrating stories of power, faith and artistry. The Doge’s Palace, with its opulent halls and sombre prisons, and the Basilica, reminiscent of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, with its cavernous domes and glittering mosaics, left us in awe. The basilica houses a small museum on the first floor and has the famous Pala d’Oro, the largest surviving gold panel of Byzantine art.

We walked to Venice’s second most popular destination from San Marco Square: the Rialto Bridge. This picturesque bridge on the Grand Canal separates the two main islands of Venice. The little lanes around the bridge were choc-a-bloc with tourists rummaging through the souvenir shops and local cafes.

During our walk, we also enjoyed cicchetti, a popular local snack. It is a small bread covered with cheese, fish or vegetables. It is prepared with great care and presented attractively in snack bars. This remains popular with tourists and locals, who would rather eat cicchettis as they walk around the city than have a sit-down meal.

A multitude of circumstances, including the discovery of alternate trade routes by the Portuguese, Spanish and British, contributed to Venice’s collapse during the Renaissance. Vasco de Gama’s discovery of India via the Cape of Good Hope in Africa caused a significant shift in the spice trade away from Venice. Venice was fighting costly wars simultaneously with the Ottoman Empire and several of its neighbours in Europe. The plague struck the city twice, killing off a significant section of the populace. I should also mention that as sailing methods and technology advanced, the Venetian galley-style ships became outdated. These elements played a part in Venice’s decline from prominence as a major European power.

Nevertheless, the empire was so vast and wealthy that it took many centuries to collapse, culminating in its surrender to Napoleon in 1797; but not before leaving works of architecture, art, music and science for the admiration of future generations.

The server politely asked me to place our phones, scarves and hats on the extra seat rather than the table. The main reason was that the aesthetics of the table would be affected.

The following day, we woke up early and took a boat tour of the islands of Murano, Torcello and Burano. Murano’s glasswork, Torcello’s historic churches and Burano’s vibrantly coloured houses paint a picture of a community deeply rooted in tradition and craft. The glassworks were moved to this island to reduce the risk of fire in Venice proper and to protect the tradecraft secrets. With its five inhabitants, Torcello is also home to the first (now world-famous) Cipriani restaurant. On our return, we had a standout meal at the Michelin-starred Bistrot de Venice, with a tiramisu to die for. An unexpected encounter with a friendly Indian American family from Ohio enriched our experience.

We also did what every tourist in Venice is obliged to do - that is to take a gondola ride. As expected, it was overhyped, overpriced and underwhelming. The gondola ride underscores Venice’s transformation into a museum-like entity sustained by tourism. This is also true of many popular parts of Italy, but it is experienced in its most visceral form in Venice. Its success has proven a double-edged sword for the Italians. While it brings in valuable income the tourist avalanche is extremely disruptive and does take away from the experience of enjoying these wonderful places.

A beautiful museum

Our venture into the less-touristy neighbourhood of Castello, led by my son’s curiosity, unveiled the authentic Venetian life, away from the souvenir shops and crowded landmarks. This walk, off the beaten path, was probably the highlight of our trip. We walked through neighbourhoods, crossing canal after canal, and saw how the Venetians lived. Clothes were hanging outside the windows. The buildings were slightly shabby but not ugly. Thankfully, there were no gondolas. The streets were quiet. Along the way, we came across an ancient shipbuilding factory and several old churches that were not as glamorous as the ones in San Marco Square but impressive. Our walk ended at the Giardini della Bienalle, a park commissioned by Napoleon. We stopped at the very pretty Caffe La Serra, a converted 1890s glasshouse. As we tucked into thick and delicious hot chocolate, we ruminated on our experience in Venice. All three of us concluded that Venice is a place that has to be visited. However, it is questionable whether it should be visited more than once.

The next day, we took a train back to Rome, where we had a day to wander around aimlessly and enjoy (more) food. Rome, the eternal city, was, as I have always found it to be, magical. The highlight of this trip, though, was Venice.

Venice has an odd beauty. It is a photographer’s fantasy, but this can turn into a nightmare if you are not careful. Everywhere you look, a picture is just begging to be snapped. The same area appears different under the cloudy sky, in the morning light, and at night. The photographer in you would want to capture every angle. You would soon run out of stamina and forget to enjoy the experience.

I had been warned that the people in Italy were fed up with the tourists and could be quite brusque. I had quite the opposite experience. People were extremely courteous and the shopkeepers patient; even the taxi drivers were well-behaved.

A beautiful museum

The absence of branded or chain stores in Venice was a welcome change from other cities. With the exception of the area around San Marco, most businesses were family-run boutiques. They catered to tourists by offering artisan crafts like leather goods, masks and glassworks.

Venice is an architectural marvel. It is a city built over 114 islands, linked by canals and over 400 bridges. As Alexander Herzen, the Russian writer, famously said, to build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build one of the most elegant and grandest cities is the madness of genius.

There is no other place like it. I am glad I had the privilege of enjoying its hospitality.

*I dedicate this article to my niece, Laila, who was the architect of this trip but couldn’t make it due to visa issues.

The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai. He tweets @travelutionary1

A beautiful museum