Europe Travel

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Venice Sightseeing

Piazza San Marco
The Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark's Square, is one of the world's great squares. It's also a honeypot for swarms of daytrippers and other tourists, but don't let that bother you: The square is vast, the crowds are good-natured, and backpackers coexist peacefully with the well-heeled tourists who enjoy overpriced drinks and orchestral music at the café tables.

Some Venetians claim that pigeons outnumber the tourists. Certainly there are plenty of them, although their numbers have dwindled since the city began enforcing an ordinance against feeding the birds. (Tip: Rick Steves suggests letting pigeon poop dry before brushing it off; this may work on clothing, but it's less effective when the poop is sliding down a balding scalp.)
Basilica di San Marco
The Basilica di San Marco (in English, St. Mark's Basilica) is both a house of worship and a monument to plunder: It was built to house the bones of St. Mark, whose remains had been stolen from Egypt by a pair of Venetian merchants, and the building is filled with sculptures, religious objects, and other booty that was hauled back from Constantinople and other faraway places during the Christian Crusades.
The cathedral's exterior is a riot of Byzantine architecture, with five domes and more decoration than a nouveau riche wedding cake; the interior is spectacular, with gold mosaics that come to life from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., when the church is illuminated.
Entrance to the Basilica is free, though it's polite to leave a donation. You'll need to buy tickets if you want to visit the San Marco Museum, the Treasury, and the Golden Altarpiece. For visitor information, click the article link below.
Venice's Waterfront (St. Mark's Basin)
As you leave the Piazza San Marco and the Piazzetta (the branch of St. Mark's Square that leads past the Doge's Palace to the water), turn left and follow the Riva degli Schiavoni, the first section of the waterfront promenade that runs continuously (with several name changes) to the Giardini Pubblici park and beyond.
Along the way, you'll pass the Zaccaria and Pieta waterbus platforms. Zaccaria is a major stop for several Actv vaporetto lines; Pieta (shown in the inset photo) is the turnaround station for double-deck pedestrian ferries that connect central Venice with suburbs on the Lido and points beyond.
If you're lucky, you may see one or more ships tied up along the waterfront: possibly a river vessel like CroisiEurope's Michelangelo (shown at right), or perhaps a yacht, a sailing ship like the Italian Naval Academy's Amerigo Vespucci, or a small ocean cruiser.
You'll also pass hotels, cafés, exhibition venues, and--after 15 or 20 minutes--the site behind the public gardens where the Biennale di Venezia art exhibition takes place during odd-numbered years.
Unless you're pressed for time, keep going until you reach Sant'Elena, a relatively modern 19th and early 20th Century residential neighborhood with parks, the city's football stadium, and a marina.
Grand Canal
The Canale Grande, known to English-speaking visitors as the Grand Canal, is the main aquatic thoroughfare in central Venice. The S-shaped waterway follows an ancient riverbed from the Tronchetto parking island, the Piazzale Roma transit center, and the Santa Lucia railroad station station to Piazza San Marco and St. Mark's Basin. The canal is about 4 km or 2.5 miles long, with a width that varies from 30 to 70 meters (98 to 230 feet).
The best way to see the canal is to ride the No. 1 vaporetto from the Piazzale Roma or the railroad station in the direction of San Marco--preferably in the evening, when the daytrippers have gone home and the palazzi along the canal are floodlit or illuminated from within. If you're on one of the older boats with an open bow, sit up front; otherwise, grab a seat in the covered open-air section at the boat's stern, beyond the doors at the rear of the vaporetto's enclosed passenger compartment.
As the water bus zigzags between stops on both sides of the canal during its 40-minute journey from the Piazzale Roma to San Zaccaria, you'll pass under three bridges and see dozens of palaces that were built from the 12th to 18th Centuries.
Another way to see the canal is from the bridges that cross it. The Ponte di Scalzi is just upstream from Venice Santa Lucia Railroad Station; the Rialto Bridge is about halfway up the canal, just after a sharp bend, while the Accademia Bridge is the last bridge across the canal before St. Mark's Basin. (The newer Ponte della Constituzione, or Constitution Bridge, crosses the Grand Canal between the Piazzale Roma and Santa Lucia Riailroad Station.)
Go the top of any bridge, find a place at the railing, and watch the constant stream of vaporetti, barges, water taxis, police boats, ambulances, gondolas, and other boats.
Finally, if you'd like to ride a gondola but aren't willing to spend €80 or more for the privilege, you can cross the Grand Canal in a traghetto gondola ferry for pocket change. (A traghetto crossing is the cheapest transportation bargain in Venice.) Consult your map or follow the nearest "traghetto" sign to a boat landing.
Rialto Bridge
The Ponte di Rialto, a.k.a. the Rialto Bridge, has been the main pedestrian crossing between the two banks of the Grand Canal since 1591. In fact, it was the only bridge across the Canal Grande until a predecessor to today's Accademia Bridge was built in 1854.
You might think that, with Venice being a city of traders, the shopping arcade in the centre was built to separate tourists and locals from their money. In fact, the shops have a structural purpose: The rows of covered arches that run up the centre of the bridge and over the top help to stiffen the bridge, making piers unnecessary and allowing 7.5 meters or 24 feet of clearance for boats (including the galleys that existed in the 16th Century, when the current stone bridge was built).


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