‘There is still one of which you never speak.’
Marco Polo bowed his head.
‘Venice’ the Khan said.
Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’
The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’
And Polo said: Every time I am describing a city, I am saying something about Venice.’
– Italo Calvino, Invisible cities
I feel that Marco Polo‘s home has been underestimated as a winter travel destination. Being lucky enough to be able to visit it several times a year, I have witnessed many different versions of it and appreciated each one of them for different reasons.
It was sunny and welcoming in spring, sultry without a dash of wind during a hot summer afternoon, but with the most beautiful sunset; gloomy under the fog in autumn, cold and reserved in winter. Only “acqua alta” or the high water is missing on my list. But that must be an adventure too. I would like to share this special winter version with you.
Name: Venezia (Venexia in Veneto dialect)
Area: 414.57 km2
City areas (Sestieri): Cannaregio (including San Michele), San Polo, Dorsoduro (including Giudecca and Sacca Fisola), Santa Croce, San Marco (including San Giorgio Maggiore) and Castello (including San Pietro di Castello and Sant’Elena)
Population (2018): 260,897
Patron Saint: Saint Mark the Evangelist
Saint day: 25 April
Municipality (Lagoon area):
Venezia (historical city) plus islands Murano and Burano (Venezia insulare)
- The six fingers on gondola’s bow represent six historical city areas (sestieri).
- Venice is sinking approx. 1-2 mm a year.
- Spritz Veneziano originates from Venice during the Habsburg domination in Veneto in 1800s. It is very popular drink, in Veneto served with an olive, a slice of orange or lemon, and extra chips.
- Venice consists of 118 islands, linked with more than 400 bridges, with 72 of them being private.
- Some words with a Venetian etymology include: arsenal, ciao, ghetto, gondola, imbroglio, lagoon, lazaret, lido, Montenegro, and regatta.
- Classical mean of public transport in Venice is vaporetto, which means steam boat. The name remained although today’s boats run on fuel.
The city is a unique one in the world. It was built on small islands in a marshy lagoon, which foundations consist of densly spaced wooden piles. The same wooden piles are holding the city nowadays after centuries of submersion. It grew into the most powerful republic between 697 – 1797, whose cultural heritage still shine proud like back in the day. You can always say that there are many cities on water, water canals being their veins, but you cannot say you’ve seen one like Venice. Because none of them is even close when it comes to its long history. Walk with me through Venice on a cold December day.
You probably know already all of the “must see” points but I will list them here just in case:
Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto)
Accademia Bridge (Ponte dell’Accademia)
Saint Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco)
Bell Tower (Campanile San Marco)
Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
Saint Mark’s Basilica (Basilica San Marco)
Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei sospiri)
Now let’s deviate from this well known path and discover more.
Get lost in calle
Strolling along Venice’s narrow streets can often bring you to small cul-de-sacks. It can make you spin in circles, but it can also take you to the most wonderful corners, completely hidden from the eyes of the tourists. Just let yourself get lost. You don’t have to worry about being completely lost too. Almost every corner is marked with arrows taking you to Rialto bridge, San Mark’s square or to the main train/bus station. Explore the city‘s hidden gems. One interesting part I can recommend is Jewish old ghetto with colourful houses and less crowd.
First thing you will notice is the complicated house numbering, different in each of six districts (sestieri). Too complex sometimes even for a Venetian postman. Streets will be narrower until you find the narrowest, only 52 cm wide! Back in the day when the main means of transport were small boats, each house had an entrance from the canal. That is the reason for the existence of these narrow streets. They were rarely used. The idea was to move with boats, but nowadays that is not the case anymore. If you love photography like I do, you will find your missing inspiration for sure.
Fondaco dei Tedeschi
This december, I went for the first time to terrace of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. It is a historical building next to Rialto bridge, once being the Venetian headquarters of the Italian post. Today it hosts a shopping mall full of designer stores. It’s paradise for fashion lovers. If you are one of them, don’t miss the chance for authentic shopping experience within such an old building where modern and timeless collide. The terrace on the top offers a great view of Canal Grande and numerous bell towers. If it is not too foggy, you can still see Saint Mark‘s Basilica and the Bell Tower in front of it.
Doge‘s palace interior and prisons
Venetian gothic style building hosts a magnificent museum that whispers you the history of Venetian republic from its golden times to its decay. You will learn a lot about the advanced political system of the Venetian Republic by strolling through the numerous institutional cabinets (Council Chamber, Senate Chamber, The Chamber of the Council of Ten, Compass room etc.). Even if you are not so much into politics (like me), you will be amazed how advanced was the Republic Serenissima in this field. And it is not all about politics and history. From each wall, various masterpieces will take your breath away. You will enjoy the works of Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Grimani, Veronese, Palladio and many others. I found the most fascinating Il Paradiso (Paradise) from Tintoretto.
Visiting the Doge‘s palace in winter is much more appealing. The queues are shorter, you can warm yourself up in case of rain, and enjoy the palace‘s interior with less crowd. Cold winter day will also bring you that spooky atmosphere when you pass the Bridge of Sighs on the way to Prisons. Try to put yourself in the shoes of some poor condemned soul, who saw Venice for the last time from this bridge. Prisons are gloomy even in summer. You can just imagine the impression they will leave on you during this unappealing time of the year, foggy and humid. Cover yourself well and dress in layers.
Acqua Alta Bookstore
When you cross Rialto bridge and pass by Fondaco dei Tedeschi you will still be in the crowd river. You have to take turn left, turn right, get away from the crowd and when you notice the first moment of peace and silence, you will miraculously be in front of the cutest bookstore in the world. Actually, you will have to follow Google maps or something because it is not as easy to find as it sounds. In that bookworm paradise, there are so many books that you have no idea where to start looking. Used, new, old, yellowish, to a true book lover is just the same. Interior is especially interesting with a true gondola exposing you the newest books, separate rooms with cozy reading corners, the friendly staff and cats jumping around and making you a company (if they decide to).
In winter it’s not that warm and cozy for sitting there and reading but it is the definitely worth the visit because it‘s truly unique. For retro fans, there are also LPs at disposal.
Don’t listen about it, go and see.
You haven‘t experienced true Venice if you haven‘t squeezed yourself in bacaro at least once. It is believed that name derives from Bacchus, Roman God of wine while second theory says that it derives from Venetian phrase/verb „far bácara“ or „to celebrate“ when translated to English. It is a small bar/osteria, with long bancone or counter, usually made of glass, that exposes the various small snacks called chicchetti. The most famous chicchetti from the region are tramezzini.
A small glass of wine is called l’ombra (shadow) because vendors of the wine on Saint Mark’s square, back in the days placed their wine stands under the Bell Tower shadow to protect their wine from the sun.
Bacaro tour is always a good idea. In winter you can warm up with a glass of wine and in summer you can enjoy your snack and wine next to the Canal grande. Make sure you don’t get too tipsy and fall in a canal 🙂
The best about Venice is that with every visit you discover more. It never fails to surprise. Use the opportunity to visit some of the expositions in numerous museums, sometimes accompanied by wine (art and wine events). Climb the bell towers for fantastic views and visit the lagoon area islands like Murano, Burano and Torcello.
As the city is coping with the mass tourism pressure in the last decades, please remember the saying „leave nothing but footprints“ and stick to it. Sinking is already enough of a problem, so let‘s do our best to keep Venice beautiful for the generations to come too. Be a traveller and not a tourist.