Kathryn Snyder | Jul 26, 2016
Where to even start about Venice? Between the history, the hidden side streets, and the picturesque canals, Venice is truly magical.
Before I visited Venice, I didn’t know much about the history, or how different it is compared to other parts of Italy. Later, I learned that Venice had its own very powerful republic from 697 AD until 1797 when Napoleon came along. During those years, Venice was ruled by a powerful ruler, called the Doge who was chosen via election by Venice’s rich and famous. All the major goings-on in Venice’s political world happened at the Doge’s palace, which is situated right on St. Mark’s Square! Visiting this place was amazing — it has been around since at least the mid-14th century, with various portions being added on over the years. What I found particularly interesting was the contrast between the Gothic architecture and that of the Renaissance period.
If you decide to visit the Doge’s Palace (which I highly recommend), following the audio guide from the front desk will give you a pretty good idea of how the Republic of Venice was run. The history of the republic is full of secrets, spies, and failed coup d’états — very interesting!
One of my favorite parts of visiting the palace was walking through the prisons. By doing this, you can see the prisoner’s view of the legendary “Bridge of Sighs.” Apparently, back in the day, those sentenced to prison were taken from the courtroom of the palace over this bridge. There are two small windows in the bridge, where the convict would get his last look at the outside world and, with a sigh, be taken on to serve his sentence.
If you travel all the way to Venice, you absolutely cannot miss going inside St. Mark’s. This place is a great example of the intermingling of different cultures that happened in Venice. I will warn you — there is always a giant line here, so try to visit first thing in the morning. Also, if you want to see the treasury, relics, or stunning jeweled altar piece, bring at least 5 euros in cash to pay for it (although the entrance to the main church itself is free)! Another Pro Tip: either dress in church appropriate clothing (shoulders and knees covered) or be prepared to pay a few euro for a super attractive brown poncho!
As fantastical as the outside of the basilica appears, the inside is truly breathtaking. The entire ceiling is made of gold mosaic with different biblical figures and saints interspersed throughout, so the interior seems to glow. In these different mosaics, you can see the effect the Byzantines truly had on this church — the mosaics look more like something you would expect to see in a Greek Orthodox church and is very different than what you see in most other Italian cathedrals. Additionally, the onion-shaped domes present on St. Mark’s are another sign of eastern influence. These very round domes are reminiscent of those you would find on a mosque. Because of Venice’s prowess in trading, they certainly were in contact with these cultures and were actually some of the only westerners to do business with the Muslims in those days.
If you want to get a fuller description of the cultural influences found in St. Mark’s, I highly recommend downloading Rick Steve’s audio guide. It’s only a little cheesy, and contains a lot of great information!
Honestly, my visit to a couple of the islands near San Marco (the main island where Venice proper is located) was just by chance. One afternoon, when I returned to the Airbnb apartment where I was staying, my host was there cleaning. We got to talking, and I mentioned that I wanted to go to the beach on nearby Lido. My host recommended that I instead visit Burano and Torcello, so I did! And it was spectacular! Both islands are easily reached via the same vaporetto (water bus) line and were just a scenic 40-minute ride through the Venetian Lagoon. My first stop was Burano, which was beautiful and unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. All the buildings there are painted a different bright color. The overall effect is that of a rainbow on either side of very picturesque canals and bridges. Burano is also known for its lace, so there are many cute shops that sell handmade lace. There are also lots of cafes, restaurants, bars and gelaterias, despite the fact that the island itself is so small! I walked around for a while, and then took the vaporetto to Torcello.
Visiting Torcello was honestly one of my favorite outings in Italy. It’s tiny, smaller even than Burano. When I went, it was later in the day toward evening, and there were not many other visitors. This was a nice change from Venice — as wonderful as it is, it’s a tourist city and can get very crowded. When you get to the vaporetto stop, there is a little path on one side of the canal that leads into Torcello. This is lined by flowers and the occasional boat passes by. Walking down the canal, I first came to a restaurant and stopped for some tiramisu (YUM!) and then passed a small inn/restaurant before coming to a little bridge. This bridge was literally 3 bricks deep in the middle. So of course I had to stand on it to see if it was really functional. Later, while doing some research, I discovered this is Devil’s Bridge. Legend has it, the devil gave someone the plans to build this bridge, which is why it’s able to work even though it’s so thin!
After testing Devils Bridge, I walked into where the canal dead ends into the town, although the town is really just a few buildings including a courtyard, the Torcello museum, and two very old churches. This courtyard is full of strange stonework and marble pieces. My favorite of these was a giant marble chair! What do you do when you find a giant marble chair? You sit in it! This chair is called the Throne of Attila. Legend says it belonged to Attila the Hun who sat there when he made judgments. As fun as this story is, it's far more likely that the chair belonged to a bishop of the region. Another legend associated with the chair says that good luck will come to those who sit in the chair and if unwed people sit in it, they’ll be married within a year! I guess we’ll see how that one turns out for me ...
Torcello’s quirky and ancient history and haven-like atmosphere is very charming and well worth the visit. If my opinion is not enough to convince you, maybe Ernest Hemmingway (one of my personal favorites) can. He spent some time on Torcello and even wrote about it in a couple of his books.
Kathryn Snyder is the daughter of Seven Corners Travel Blogger, Angela Borden. She's enjoyed studying abroad and being a guest blogger for us.