On our second day in Venice, we set out to sightsee. Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square, was first on our agenda. Although our hotel was a short walk from the square, the hardest part was negotiating all the tourists, even in late September. Face it, Venice is a popular destination no matter what time of year. St. Mark’s is the largest square in the city and the only one given the designation “piazza.” The centerpiece is St. Mark’s Basilica, nicknamed Church of Gold for its opulence. As I stood in the enclosed piazza and gazed about, I was in astounded by its size, almost 240 yards long, and its grandeur.
With my back to the basilica, I studied the architecture of the historic buildings. To my right were the old offices, circa sixteenth century, and the clock tower. To my left, the new offices, circa seventeenth century, and beyond them the square opened to the water. Behind me was the Correr Museum. Despite its size, the square felt protected, intimate, and definitely romantic.
I gravitated toward the basilica, drawn by its Byzantine and Gothic architecture. Construction of the cathedral began in 829 with the intention of building a shrine for the body of St. Mark, believed to have been brought from Alexandria to Venice in the same year. Fire destroyed the church in 976, and it was rebuilt between 1043 and 1071. The exterior of the west facade is divided into three registers: lower, upper, and domes. The lower register has five arched portals that open into the narthex through bronze doors. The upper register has mosaics depicting the Life of Christ. The layout of the church is based on a Greek cross with four arms of equal length. Five domes cap the space—one over each arm and one over the center where the two arms cross.
Upon completion, the interior of the basilica was plain brick and stucco until the late twelfth century, when every surface was covered with precious materials—marble, gold, gems, and mosaic glass—a space of unsurpassed visual splendor. Although all this was captivating, my eyes were drawn to the apex of the dome, where Christ appears adorned in gold.
Outside the church, we crossed the square to the Campanile, the bell tower, which stands 323 feet high and has an elevator to the top for a spectacular view of Venice. We snapped a few shots of the city and some of the exterior of the tower, then walked on, hundreds of pigeons scattering in our wake. Relieved that we had avoided being dive-bombed by the birds, we skirted the outdoor cafés and left the piazza to explore the island, bypassing a visit to the Doge’s Palace. We were more interested in some other sites: the Rialto Bridge, the Grand Canal, Bridge of Sighs, and a few churches.
After two hours of sightseeing, and a tour of the Accademia Gallery, we made the short walk from the Accademia Bridge to Santa Maria della Salute. The domed baroque church stands on a narrow finger of land between the Grand Canal and the Bacino di San Marco. From what I have read, Doge Nicolò Contarini, before his death from the black plague, made a solemn vow to build a church to the Virgin Mary if she would free the city from the disease. He also promised that every year, on November 21st, he would lead a procession to the church. After his death, Doge Francesco Erizzo fulfilled Nicolò’s vow with the construction of Santa Maria della Salute. The plague killed almost one-third of the population of Venice.
Late in the afternoon, we strolled across the Rialto Bridge to browse the shops and take in the scenery. We had been warned that some of the stores were not selling authentic Murano glass, but we had already made our purchases on the island and weren’t interested in buying more.
On our way back to our hotel, we stopped for a coffee at one of the cafés that line St. Mark’s Square, and to give our feet a short break before we made the jaunt to dinner. That night, we had reservations at Osteria Da Fiore.
The warm evening was delightful, so we took our time walking through the maze of quaint narrow streets until we reached our restaurant. The waitstaff led us to a table for two on the only balcony in Da Fiore. It overlooked a quiet canal. The setting was very romantic, especially when the occasional gondola would cruise by and soft music would drift our way as the gondolier serenaded his riders . . . and us.
We passed on the six- or seven-course tasting menu and ordered à la carte, beginning with tiny shrimp tempura on creamy polenta followed by a seafood tower. For our mains, more fish. I had shrimp in seven spices, and Dave ordered wild bass steamed with apples. For dessert, I chose the chocolate cake and Dave an orange-apricot cream. Full, we sipped our wine and watched the next gondola as it slowly glided down the canal past our table, this gondolier too serenading us with a low, melodic tune.
Before I sign off, here are two tips from the locals. One: carry a lightweight water bottle that you can refill at public fountains. Venetians pride themselves on great-tasting tap water piped in from the foothills of the Alps, and it is cold and refreshing, especially on a warm day. Two: if you are dive-bombed by pigeons, resist the urge to clean the poop out of your hair. Let it dry, and then you can brush it out. I know this will take some restraint, but it works. However, if it lands on your clothes, wipe it off immediately to prevent a stain. On that note, see you next week!
Next week: “Europe 2011: Florence, Italy.”