Venice Tests Flood Barriers

Engineers in Venice have successfully tested a new flood barrier that they hope will protect the city. The BBC reports that the first four flood barriers of a planned 78 were floated in the entrance of the city’s famous lagoon.

Venice suffers annual floods due to unusually high tides that threaten irreplaceable buildings and a destination essential to Italy’s tourism industry. It’s also sinking at a rate of one to two millimeters a year, Discovery Magazine reports.

The barrier isn’t complete and has already cost $7 billion. It will take another $800 million and two years more work before it can protect the city. While Italy is suffering badly from the global economic crisis, the government has promised to complete the project by 2016.

Venice Gondoliers Should Take Breathalyzer And Drug Tests, Their Chief Says

Venice
Wikimedia Commons

The president of the gondolier association of Venice says all boat operators in the watery city should be screened for alcohol and drugs, the BBC reports.

Nicola Falconi suggested this after a video was posted on YouTube showing a hazing incident of a new assistant gondolier who was ordered to strip naked and jump in a canal. This was just the latest of numerous reports of inappropriate, boozy behavior.

We can add this to the other scandals hitting Italy’s tourism industry, including a group of tourists being charged $84 for a few ice cream cones, dozens of baggage handlers arrested for stealing bags at several Italian airports, and the continuing decay of many of the nation’s underfunded ancient monuments.

On my recent trip to Venice, the gondoliers I saw were all behaving professionally. I have heard a few secondhand stories, however. Have you been to Italy? What was your experience there? Tell us on the comments section!

Venice: Grand Vistas And Little Details

Venice
Sean McLachlan

On my first day in Venice I walked the streets without a camera in order to savor the beauties of this unparalleled city. I was leaving the next afternoon so that morning I got up at dawn in order to catch Venice at its abandoned best.

It’s a different city, more peaceful. You can linger on a bridge or take a shot from the middle of a street without getting trampled. You can capture the way the light plays on the water or on the side of an old, crumbling building without half a dozen heads getting into the shot.

Venice has a different character in those early hours. Instead of gondolas, cargo vessels ply the canals making deliveries to this city without cars. The streets are empty but for local workmen cleaning up or getting ready to open up their shops and kiosks. The only other tourists are lone photographers like me. My idea was a pretty obvious one, after all.

The low-angled light makes for some nice play between the tops of the buildings shining golden in the morning and the still-dark recesses of the alleyways and narrow canals. The low-angled light puts faded details into higher relief, like the faded Latin inscriptions on the lintels of church doors or the weathered escutcheons on Renaissance palaces.

%Slideshow-693%The early hours are also the time for visiting the big attractions. There’s something eerie about seeing the Piazza San Marco with only half a dozen people in it. One pair was a newlywed couple. A tuxedoed man was fiddling with the camera while his stunningly beautiful wife, decked out in her bridal gown, gave instructions and adjusted her veil. Beyond them the Grand Canal shimmered in the early light. I’m sure their wedding photo is the envy of their friends.

As stunning as these broad vistas are, Venice rewards a close look. There are details in the buildings and streets that make for great close-ups. In the Piazza San Marco, for example, you have this little bronze figure, one of a set.

At the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica is the square’s most historically important work of art, a porphyry statue of four armored men clinging to one another in mutual defense. I’ve wanted to see these little guys for years.

They’re the Tetrarchs. In 293 A.D., the Roman Emperor Diocletian decided the empire was too big and had too many enemies for one man to rule. He created the Tetrarchy, with an Emperor and a Caesar for both the West and the East. They were supposed to rule in harmony but of course the rivalry more often than not led to civil wars. In another century the Western Empire was a nonentity, while the Eastern Empire, known today as Byzantium, lived on until the 15th century. This famous statue originally stood in Constantinople but was stolen during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and brought here.

Many people photograph this statue, yet miss something even more interesting a few feet away. On a stone bench at the entrance to the basilica there’s a strange design scratched into the surface. It’s been almost worn away by centuries of bottoms, but you can make out a square within a square, partitioned into several segments. This was a Renaissance board game that people would play while whiling away the hours on the plaza. It’s a reminder of the regular folk who lived in Venice in the shadow of the great rulers, artists and priests.

This fired my imagination. Perhaps some other detail will fire yours: the dusty icons in an antique shop, the mosaic advertisement for a pension set into a street, the half-finished Renaissance fresco in the entryway of an obscure church. When you’re strolling around Venice or any great city, keep an eye out for those little details that catch your fancy as well as the grand views that everyone admires. That way you’ll end up with a photo album uniquely your own.

Strolling Through Venice Without A Camera

Venice
Wikimedia Commons

I’ve wanted to visit Venice all my life. Who wouldn’t? It has the reputation of being the most beautiful city in the world, and with my love of architecture my first glimpse of it was going to be a lifelong memory.

After a rainy week in Slovenia, I arrived in Venice on a gloriously cloudless afternoon. I had less than 24 hours in the city before family obligations would take me home. After checking into the Hotel Alex, a basic but wonderfully central one-star hotel, I left my camera in my room and headed out.

Wait, I left my camera in my room? Yep. I wanted to savor Venice without the distraction of trying to create abstract memories. Living in the moment is one of the five reasons to leave your camera at home.

(Of course I did take photos on my second day, otherwise my editor would have had an aneurysm. Those are coming up tomorrow.)

With so little time I was free to enjoy Venice without a must-see list. My time was too short to visit even a tenth of the places I knew I wanted to see, let alone all those I didn’t. So I saw nothing, or more precisely I saw whatever the city gave me. I decided to take a suggestion from Stephen Graham’s classic travel book The Gentle Art of Tramping and go on a zigzag walk. A zigzag walk is a simple travel plan. You start by taking a left. Then at the first opportunity take a right. Then left. Repeat. You will soon be happily lost and seeing things you never thought you would.

Taking a left out of the hotel brought me to a strange little bookshop with a “Going out of Business” sign in its window and a display of odd books with titles like Il Libro dei Vampiri. I’d come across Venice’s only occult bookshop, which was about to close after 24 years because the owner was retiring. I had a pleasant chat with one of the employees, helping him plan his first trip to London, and bought a worry stone for a friend. These are little jasper stones with a groove worn in one side. You rub the groove to reduce stress. My friend is a government employee in a European country and is inextricably linked to her nation’s slow slide into the Dark Ages. If anyone needs a worry stone, she does.The bookshop had sucked me in so quickly I hadn’t even seen anything of Venice yet, so I determined not to go into another shop for a while and wound my way through the city’s narrow lanes, my gaze lifting above the shopfronts to admire carved balustrades and Renaissance coats of arms set into a background of faded, flaked paint from which the rich Italian sunlight was able to coax a hint of its former brilliance.

Luckily I looked down as well as up, because another left took me down a dank little alley that ended abruptly at a narrow canal. There was no railing or sign. The pavement simply ended.

A gondola glided by so close I could have touched it, its wake slapping against the mossy stone foundations of the buildings to either side of me. Water dripped from a carved cornice above to fall into the canal with a loud ploink.

It was quiet here. I was alone and the sounds of the city sounded muffled and distant. Leaning against the wall, I looked out and saw a white marble bridge arching over the canal a few feet away. The map could have told me its name but I didn’t bother to check. People filed past while a gondolier wearing the trademark straw hat and black-and-white striped shirt sat on the railing calling out, “Gondola ride. . .gondola ride. . .”

On a zigzag walk if you come to a dead end you retrace your steps until you can make a another turn. That took me from the cool seclusion of the alley to the warm, crowded sunlit bridge. I sat down near the gondolier and looked down the canal flanked by tall, narrow houses decaying in that graceful Mediterranean manner. Burgundy and peach paint flaked off to reveal islands of plaster or brick, or clung onto their backing long enough to fade to near whiteness. On windowsills and rooftop terraces were sprays of greens and reds and yellows from carefully tended houseplants.

I sat there maybe five minutes and that gondolier must have had his picture taken a dozen times. Nobody took my picture. In fact I think they all framed me out of the shot. What, a dreamy eyed travel blogger doesn’t symbolize the essence of Venice?

Another zig and a zag brought me to San Paolo Apostolo with its unassuming 15th century exterior hiding a rich collection of art. But first I was drawn to the Romanesque bell tower, which for some reason was situated across the street from the church. Tufts of grass grew from between its crumbling bricks. A low door of thick, ancient oak barred entry. Above it was a Latin inscription. As the radio from the trinket shop across the street played Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds I ran my fingers over the faint letters, worn nearly smooth by centuries of weather and curious tourists. I made out the date 1459 and nothing more.

A pair of lions flanked the doorway. One was fighting a serpent, the other held in its forepaws a decapitated head that looked at me with a serene expression. I headed inside the church to admire the art, including a Last Supper by Tintoretto and Piazza’s St. Silvestri Baptizing the Emperor Constantine (an important moment in the death of paganism). Every church in Venice is an art gallery. Then I continued my jagged course across the city.

Or at least I tried. Canals and dead ends kept forcing me retrace my steps, and after another half hour I found myself back in front of my hotel just when I was in urgent need of a bathroom.

Angels watch over the tourist who abandons his timetable. Soon I was back on the streets. My camera remained in the hotel room.

10 unforgettable experiences in Venice, Italy

Visiting Venice is a lot like living in a painting. The colors and reflections feel ephemeral. You blink and the picture changes. The size of Venice ceases to exceed its usefulness as no corner, road, bridge, or shop seems wasted or useless. Each thing plays a part in defining her character. The peeling paint reflects glories of the past, with the new layers an homage to the upkeep of a starstung legacy. The beauty is so effervescent that even a blind man could make a career as a photographer here. While people may come and go, none forget. Hemingway hunted, Napoleon conquered, Monet painted, Leonardo invented, and millions more have gasped and gawked in the shadows of this most storied settlement. It is to be savored like some early morning dream that surreptitiously impacts the remains of the day.

In Venice, the ambiance alone is so beautiful and otherworldly that just wandering aimlessly provides fantastic results. Beyond errant exploration though, Venice provides many gorgeous sights and enchanting islands for travelers to explore. Here are 10 things to do in Venice and around the lagoon.

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Carnevale
It was a damp Venetian evening, and I lobbed my luggage off the Vaporetto at Piazzale Roma. A massive crowd buzzed about the station, cackling and hooting. It was mid February, and I had not prepared for such crowds. During my flight in from arid Sharm el Shiekh, I had envisioned a wintry Venice where steps echoed across abandoned squares and snowflakes fell undisturbed to the ground. I was greeted with the opposite. A raucous party of some sort was in full swing. As I stood, trying to make sense of the madness at the station, a line of eight Lego men walked past, robotically one arm before the other, in slow deliberate motion. They disappeared into a menagerie of goblins, Baroque aristocrats, and tourists firing off rounds of photographs like young mujahedeen soldiers. I had unintentionally staggered upon Carnevale – a treat for the over prepared and uninformed.

Carnevale starts about two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday, more commonly known stateside as Fat Tuesday. The costumes were introduced as a way for revelers to obscure identity and social class, allowing equal opportunity for debauching. The party spreads out across the heavily trafficked parts of Venice, with evening performances in Piazza San Marco and hordes posting up along the Rialto Bridge. While many European students make the trip to party, it is notably tamer than Mardi Gras, catering to a higher end demographic.

The Original Ghetto
If you have ever found yourself contemplating the etymology of the term “ghetto,” but were to lazy to do the wiki legwork, then you will at last be united with the term’s origin. The term is derived from the Venetian word for slag (gheto – a byproduct of smelting metal), and was attributed to the Jewish neighborhood in Venice that shared an island with a metal foundry. The old neighborhood still stands and is, in fact, the original ghetto. This ghetto was once the heart of the Venetian shipping empire and the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. To reach the ghetto, exit the San Marcuola station along the Grand Canal Vaporetto and head northwest.

Piazza San Marco
At the heart of Venice is one of the most ambitious and breathtaking plazas in the world. A vast open space flanked by historic sights, its gravitational pull has attracted travelers for hundreds of years. The Clock Tower, Basilica di San Marco, Campanile di San Marco, and Palazzo Ducale are some of the most popular sights in Venice and each is situated on the Plaza. While this is the undisputed tourist destination for cruise boat daytrippers, even the most jaded anti-mainstream traveler will marvel at San Marco’s splendor.


Burano
Burano is an explosion of color. A residential archipelago about 30 minutes from Venice, Burano boasts buildings in every color as if created by a kid gone mad with a box of crayons. An order exists among the technicolor chaos though, as the government controls specificity regarding color choices for each home. If one of the 2,800 residents decides to paint, then he must first have his choices approved by the government. This process has fostered an aesthetic that is more Curacao than Caravaggio. While Venice has no shortage of photogenic subjects, Burano is the most vivid and unlikely. Even the locals’ hanging laundry bursts with a myriad of colors. Be sure to bring a camera and drop by a bakery to sample some S shaped Burano cookies. To reach Burano, take the Vaporetto on the LN line from Fondamente Nuove, and depart when you hear the Italian man shout “Burano, Burano.”

Torcello
Once a heavily populated island and Byzantine settlement, Torcello is now largely ruins and farms. A malaria epidemic and dead lagoon transformed a bustling trading hub with the East into a veritable no-man’s land in the Twelfth century. Today, the population hovers around 20, and is most recently noted as being a favorite hunting ground for Ernest Hemingway. Torcello is a quiet place to stroll through history undisturbed passed sheep and edifices of the past. A main draw is the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, built in the Seventh century. It is one of the few remaining structures from Torcello’s boom days. Torcello Island is located directly across from Burano and can be reached by Vaporetto or private boat taxi.

Murano
In the late Thirteenth century, after repeat fires in Venice were attributed to the foundries used by glassblowers, the craft of glassblowing was outlawed within the city walls. The blowers relocated to the island of Murano in the Venice lagoon. To keep the craft of glassblowing as secretive and local as possible, the blowers were not allowed to set up shops beyond the lagoon, and if caught doing so, would be brutally separated from their hands. This insured Murano’s continued status as the center of the glass blowing world. A visit to Murano is not complete without dropping by a glass studio and watching artisans blow some fine pieces using red hot furnaces while they carelessly drink cold Peronis. To see a glass blowing demonstration look for a “Fornace Glass” sign exiting to the left at the Colonna Vaporetto stop. To reach Murano, take the LN line from Fondamente Nuove.

Gondola Ride
Few things are as romantic and storied as a trip down the Grand Canal in a Gondola. Gondoliers are almost entirely male and wear the signature black and white striped shirts. Reportedly, there is a lone female gondolier among the ranks of nine-hundred that ply the waterways as a trade. Negotiating with a Gondolier can be difficult, but the walk-away tactic could knock five to ten Euros off of the price. Eighty Euros for forty minutes is fairly standard, though expect to pay more between 7pm and 8am. The best time to ride is near dusk, follow it with dinner at an authentic Venetian restaurant like Al Covo.

Sunset over Lagoon, Gelato in hand
Sitting on the banks of the lagoon in San Marco, with a gelato-filled cone in hand, is a beautiful way to end the day. Watching the sun disappear beyond the beauty of Venice feels like being a smudge in some dusky Monet painting.

Charting the reign of the Doge
The Doge ruled Venice for over a thousand years. They built grand palaces and ruled undisturbed until the eighteenth century. Perhaps their most impressive contribution to the Venetian landscape is the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) adjacent to Piazza San Marco. The palace holds a variety of splendor that reflects the wealth of Venice’s rulers, but some of the most interesting features are those that do not glisten and shine. A damp jail that once housed Cassanova, as well as various torture chambers, speak for the darker side of Venetian politics. Entry to the Palazzo Ducale costs 13 Euros, but opt for the 16 Euros admission which includes the secret passageways tour.

Lido
Off the beaten track, Lido is a seven-mile sandbar southeast of Venice – an authentic sliver of beaches and film festivals. The annual Venice Film Festival takes place in early September, and during the summer months, travel cognoscenti from all over Europe spread out across the chic beaches. Renting a bicycle will allow the speed to explore the long narrow island, and be sure to watch the sun set behind Venice to the west. Accommodation is cheap relative to Venice, so for travelers on a budget, Lido is a great option. The island can be reached via Vaporetto from Venice or by using the Alilaguna Waterbus from the airport.