As one of the world’s most beautiful and historic countries, Italy is an unforgettable experience. Some years ago I was fortunate enough to spend roughly three weeks touring the country. Not only was I overwhelmed with the culture, art, architecture and romance, but Italy offered a beautiful kaleidoscope of regions with unique experiences in food and wine.
With such contrasting landscapes, the north eastern regions of Italy are fascinating to explore. In the far north towns are a mix of medieval castles and modern day ski resorts, taking in the stunning backdrop of the Dolomites, while the heart of the region has cities renowned for their architecture, museums and country villas. But it is the beautiful and romantic floating city of Venice, stretching across hundreds of small islands in the Venetian Lagoon that is a ‘must see’ when travelling around Italy.
Venice, is unlike any place I have ever seen; built on low mud banks amid tidal waters of the Adriatic, the city is regularly subject to flooding, and getting around the city can be done by hopping on board a water taxi or gondola that can wind its way through the waterways of the city, or you can do what I did, and walk (the latter being far less expensive and an adventure in itself with chance of getting lost walking over the city’s numerous bridges and through its narrow streets is high).
Although Venice is comprised of islands and canals, the longest of them all is the Grand Canal stretching almost 3.5km through the heart of the city. Travelling on the Canal allows for spectacular views of the palaces built over five centuries that line the waterway and present a beautiful panoramic history of the city. But just as famous as its waterways and palaces are the bridges that criss cross the cityscape. More than 400 bridges link parts of the historic city together, yet only a handful are worthy of mention for both their beauty and ties to the past.
The Rialto Bridge is among the most beautiful bridges in Venice and is the main pedestrian crossing over the Grand Canal. Marking the ‘heart’ of the city, each side of the Rialto Bridge is lined with shops and markets making it one of the busiest hubs of Venice. It was the only bridge to cross the Grand Canal for more than 200 years.
Arguably the most famous of the bridges is the Bridge of Sighs. This enclosed bridge, for all its loveliness has a rather sad story behind it. The Bridge was a passageway between the Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace) – the home of the elected ruler of Venice at the time – and the prison. As the last view of Venice the convicts had, the Bridge got its name from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh in heartbreak at the view before being led down to their cells. Considering how Venice is hailed for its romance, especially if you’re gently rocking on the water in a gondola, there is an overwhelming contemplative silence as I stand looking at the Bridge of Sighs.
The Piazza San Marco, with its magnificent architecture is a popular destination, and locals and tourists alike flock here for two of the city’s most important historic sights – the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale. Another thing to ‘flock’ to the Piazza are more than 120,000 pigeons. Daring visitors – those without a phobia for the ‘flying rat’ – could once enjoy feeding the birds, buying seed from one of the dozen or so licensed vendors, but increased concern over the damage the pigeons caused to the historic buildings and the danger to tourists’ health has seen the practice banned. But back to the ‘real’ attractions…
The Basilica di San Marco blends the architectural and decorative styles of East and West. In its early years, Venice was the gateway to the Orient, and the Basilica’s exterior highlights the many treasures brought from the overseas empire. It is an extravagent building and the facade from thePiazza provides the best view. The many fascinating details are in coloured marble, mosaic and carvings adorning the arches and all of incredible detail. The oldest of the facade mosaics is a detailed tale of the body of St Mark being taken from Alexandria.
In addition to the extravagent architecture, Venice is famous for its colourful, elaborate and skilfully made glass. Although Venetian-style glassware can be found in almost every city in Italy, its beauty pales in comparison to what you can buy in Venice (and especially on the island of Murano and to a lesser extent, Burano). A demonstration in glass making with a Venetian artisan is a must! Zig zagging through narrow back streets before crossing a rickety wooden bridge led me to a glassmaker’s workshop. The only light provided was by the fiery furnace that would be used to heat and soften the glass. With the glass attached to a hollow rod not dissimilar to copper piping, my artisan used pointy-ended pliers to shape the red-hot piece. Without a word, and with the speed of a greyhound, he twisted and turned the rod and moved his tools over the softened glass until he was happy, and then using a pair of large clippers he dislodged the finished product and revealed a delicate wine glass with a short, stout stem.
Moving into the store front, rows of cabinets display everything from water jugs and glass sets, champagne flutes, vases, platters and statues. The detail is incredible and the colours, mind blowing. My guide says that colour varies depending on the look the glassmaker is going for; copper and cobalt compounds make aquamarine, whereas gold creates deep red. Multi-coloured glass is achieved using a technique called ‘murrine’, and the most common result of this technique is known as ‘millefiori’ (thousand flowers) where the glass is layered and shaped into a star. Let the shopping spree begin. I was so overwhelmed with a desire to purchase every conceivable design and colour of glass pendant and figurine that I had to be dragged from the shop to the water taxi that was taking me to the island of Burano for lunch.
On my way to Burano, I passed a fairly nondescript villa that my guide said once belonged to Casanova, and legend has it that he was the only prisoner to have escaped from the prison located behind the Palazzo Ducale. As the most colourful of the lagoon islands, Burano is identifiable by the brightly coloured houses that fringe the waterway. Fisherman are said to have painted their houses in these bright colours so that on their return from sea they could make out their homes from a distance. The cute houses, you cannot help but smile when looking at them, are painted every year and always in the same colour. Too bad if you don’t like pink!
The traditional trading links in Venice’s history have given this region a Middle Eastern flavour, and while pasta is eaten polenta and risotto are favourites. Most surprisingly is the use of butter as opposed to olive oil in many of the region’s dishes. Frutti di mare(seafood) featured heavily at lunch, so if you want to celebrate the flavours of Venice during Italian Week have a go at the traditional Sarde in Saor (Soused sardines). For those with a sweet tooth, try this tiramisu as rumour has it that the delightfully rich pudding of mascarpone, sponge fingers, coffee and marsala originated in Venice. (My Mum’s recipe is the best, but I can’t possibly give you that.)