How do you even begin to write about a place like the city of Venice?
Italo Calvino wrote an entire novel describing magical and imaginary cities the world over, but really he was only trying to describe one place. Wikipedia contains lists of dozens of places that like to call themselves Venice of the East, or North, or even the South. Even allowing for such highlights as St Petersburg or Ayutthaya, the fact that so many places want to compare themselves to the original only highlights how special a place it is.
Venice started life as a collection of muddy islands in the Adriatic, which were colonised in late antiquity or the early dark ages, possibly as a refuge from marauding barbarian hordes. As maritime trade recovered Venice found itself in a convenient stopping location between the wealthy Byzantine Empire and the new kingdoms of Europe. Venice’s direct control expanded to the mainland, various mediterranean islands and strips of the Balkans, but the real source of its power was in trade and finance. For a period it was the effective Western terminus of the Silk Road from China. Venice was even able to fund an invasion of Constantinople by Catholic troops in the 13th century, and many of the most famous sculptures and decorations on the major churches were stolen in this period.
Inevitably Venice faded. The discover of the routes to the Americas and sea routes to Asia relegated it to being a very beautiful backwater on a mediterranean lake. Spain, Portugal, Britain and France became the new mercantile powers, and Venetians sulked until the 19th century when the city was rediscovered and celebrated by a new generation of poets and artists.
My most recent visit to Venice was during the period of the thieving Italian nun debacle. I was travelling with only a backpack and on someone else’s lire, so I was determined to milk my short stay as much as I possibly could. From the minute I got off my train I started walking – through piazzi, across little stone bridges, between buildings crammed up against each other, along waterfronts and through churches.
The key to travel in Venice is using your feet. Apart from the glossy black gondolas which will offer to ferry you around the main islands, the only way to get from place to place is by walking. There are no cars and very few wheeled vehicles of any kind. Luckily this emphasis on individual effort tends to weed out most of the other tourists, so you generally don’t have to walk very far to find yourself away from the crowds. In most cities walking for half an hour away from the main attractions would place you in a sketchy industrial suburb or amongst rows of apartments. But in Venice, given its great antiquity and total absence of development, you just find yourself amongst even more beautiful buildings.
Around just about every corner is something magical and medieval. My hotel room was shaped like the letter F and felt like an oubliette, but had a glorious view across a small square which contained a minor church and a vegetable market in the mornings. All the streets are paved with stones and none of them go in a straight line. Getting lost is a near certainty and finding your way back to your hotel a near impossibility. But it hardly matters. There’s always a small bar or restaurant to while away the time while you reorient yourself. The medieval character comes out in the pores of the buildings – although they are all clean and tidy for the tourist trade, stonework shows the passage of time and strange bits of metal are bolted on to the walls in narrow passageways. It feels like a grown and evolved environment – there’s no top down design and the place has been modified to fit around the needs of people’s lives, much like the Medinas of North Africa.
All this charm and fascination doesn’t come without a price. Unfortunately Venice can feel a little like an open-air museum, as if no actual Venetians live there any more. The Adriatic trade is no longer as profitable as it was, and the tourist dollar is where it’s at. Although Venice isn’t a near-total fabrication like Warsaw, there’s little to no feeling that you are in a real, living city. I suppose I shouldn’t be too ungrateful; after all the site has been preserved fairly effectively and every corner is an architectural masterpiece. Questing after perceived authenticity is a fool’s errand, but occasionally it would be nice to visit somewhere and feel like you’re the first person to discover it.