Crowded. Touristy. Hot. Smelly.
That’s what we initially heard about traveling to Venice. Yes, mobs can often choke the quaint canals in summer. But early February is an ideal time to visit. Less people mean shorter lines into sights and more room once inside. We even got a preview of the upcoming Carnival festivities with the early arrival of masqueraders in full costume.
After Segafreda cappucinos, we spent our first morning taking in the lively scene at Rialto Market. We watched as a constant stream of boats stocked with food and supplies made their way in and out of the canals. A choreographed water parade. Men in waders unloaded and restocked tables. They housed every fish and mollusk imaginable. Some so fresh, they were still moving. Crossing over the famous Rialto Bridge lined with Murano glass and Carnival masks, we paused to take in a quintessential view of Venice. Motorized water taxis mixed with sleek, black gondolas. Striped mooring poles and cafés lining the bustling Grand Canal. In the distance, Palladio’s Church appeared like a mirage on the misty island of San Giorgio Maggiore.
Entering St. Mark’s Square is an awe-inspiring experience for its sheer enormity.
Considered one of the most beautiful squares in the world, Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) is as elegant as it is enormous. Our eyes immediately turned to the namesake St Mark’s Basilica with its Middle Eastern influences and gold mosaics. Nearby Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) shines as a Gothic architectural masterpiece. We could only imagine this scene at the height of Carnival with masked revelers taking over the square. After visiting both structures, we broke up our Grancereal snack biscuits to take part in the popular tourist activity of feeding pigeons. Note to self for future visits: always have hand sanitizer.
Just off the square, the achingly beautiful Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) hangs in mid-air, as if suspended on a cloud. In the Middle Ages, guards granted prisoners one last look of Venice before hauling them away to a cold, stone prison cell. It must’ve been agony.
In our guidebook, Rick Steves mentions that most tourists fail to see 80% of Venice, meaning they only focus on the main sights.
We made it our mission to seek out the locals’ version of Venice. Wandering the back alleys of the canals, we came across all sorts of interesting scenes. Little old ladies gossiping on a footbridge. Men catching up over beers after work. Families dining al fresco with their kids.
One afternoon, we headed out on a quest to find the same delicious pizza joint we’d eaten at earlier. We made our way down an extremely long, narrow alleyway. We were certain we knew where we were. Suddenly, the path ended. Quite literally, the sidewalk dropped off into the water. We stood on what felt like the edge of the earth. After backtracking, we eventually found a market to stock up on lunch supplies. In lieu of pizza, we enjoyed an impromptu picnic with the 15th-century Gothic Church of Madonna dell’Orto as our backdrop. Munching on bread, cheese, fruit and chocolate, we simply watched the world go by. Gondolas gently drifted through the canals. People milled about enjoying gelato. It was heavenly. Unplanned scenarios like this are truly what makes for memorable travel moments.
Our Venetian experience wouldn’t have been complete with a gondola ride. Touristy? Yes. Authentic? Also yes.
After observing different gondoliers in action, we decided on Oliver. He was a 30-something year old, clad in an iconic Venetian striped shirt and colorful eyeglasses. A fourth generation gondolier, his career began at 19 years old. He’d been a gondolier longer than he hadn’t been one. His two brothers are gondoliers as well.
In the 14th century, when horses were outlawed in Venice, people began using gondolas as transportation. The ancient row boat was practical for navigating the waterways. In the 1500s, the Baroque period influenced the adornment of gondolas with ornate touches. By the 1600s, there were over 10,000 gondolas in service – the height of their popularity. Today, there are only 400. They exist primarily to cater to tourists. Gondoliers like Oliver are determined to keep the tradition alive.
Welcoming us on to his beautiful gondola, Oliver held out his hand to help us safely on board. The boat was named Deborah after his young daughter. From the start, it was evident that Oliver took a lot of pride in his work. With an investment of €35,000–50,000 per gondola and a rigorous exam process, it’s not an easily acquired profession. The boat itself was a work of art. It featured a bright turquoise interior, golden dragons and plush seats with decorative trimmings. Oliver seemed to appreciate our request for a more tranquil ride, away from the Grand Canal and other popular areas.
Off we went, effortlessly winding through the charming canals in our maritime vessel.
The only sounds were a gentle splash of Oliver’s oar or when he softly called out (“oh-ay”) to announce his presence around a blind corner. Gliding along, he pointed out interesting sights like the 13th century former home of Venetian-born Marco Polo, the Italian merchant and explorer. He would’ve been alive during Venice’s rise as the greatest Mediterranean power since Rome. And now, 700 years later, here we were floating down the same waterways. It was surreal. As the sun began to set, we broke open some wine, grateful to experience a Venice that was far from being crowded, touristy, hot or smelly.