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Venice can only be compared to itself.
- JW Goethe
Venice, or Venezia as it is known in Italian, is an architectural delight, an entire city built on an artificial island in the middle of a lagoon. With palaces, churches and ordinary houses which have not changed since the 16th century, Venice wallows in the past, remembering a time when it was the richest city in the world, bearing the title 'The Most Serene Republic of Venice'.
Nowadays, much of the city is falling down, which enhances the charm or detracts from it, depending on your point of view. Many people hate the place, finding it dirty, smelly and crowded with tourists. But for others, it is the ultimate destination. Everybody knows the clichés about Venice, with canals and gondolas. You will be surprised to find that it really is like that, only more so.
The Layout of the City
City on Water
The Venetian Lagoon is about 30 miles long and about 6 miles wide. It is separated from the Adriatic Sea by a long thin island called the Lido. In the middle of the lagoon lies the city of Venice, which is about 3 miles by 2 miles in size. This is not so much a city on an island as a city on the water.
For most of its history, Venice was entirely cut off from the land, only reachable by boat. In the 19th Century, a three-mile causeway was built for a railway to reach the city. In the 20th Century, this was expanded to allow cars access to the city.
Although cars can now get to Venice, they are not allowed into the city. When you arrive at Piazzale Roma, the end of the causeway, you must park your car in one of the giant car parks, because Venice is entirely pedestrian. This is hard to grasp for most people; we are used to a small pedestrian area in the centre of a modern city. In Venice, it is the whole city which is pedestrian.
Venice has one wide canal, the Grand Canal, which snakes its way through the city. There are also many smaller canals. Motorised 'bus' services operate along the Grand Canal, in boats known as vaporetti, as well around the lagoon. Locals also use boats for day-to-day work such as deliveries to shops, moving furniture etc. The Gondolas, these days, are run mainly as a tourist attraction, much like the horse-drawn carriage rides around many European cities. There are also some plain functional gondolas which operate as ferries across the Grand Canal. More of this later.
From the Railway to Saint Mark's
The recognised two 'ends' of the city are the railway station of Santa Lucia (normally just signposted as Ferrovia - railway), and St Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco). There are signs everywhere directing pedestrians to these two destinations. In between is a maze of streets and alleys, some so narrow that you have to turn sideways to get through. There are no wide boulevards, as you might get in other cities. The nearest thing to a wide street is the Strada Nova (New Street) which was carved out in the time of Napoleon by order of the General himself. Even so, it is only about ten metres wide. The only thing approaching a boulevard is the Grand Canal itself.
There is no 'official' route through the city and many shopkeepers put up signs directing you past their shop. Nevertheless, one of the charms of Venice is getting lost in the tiny streets; you never know where you'll end up.
However, if you feel that life isn't worth living without a map, make sure you buy one immediately. In some places even the map won't help, but it might make you feel better. If paranoia is your constant companion, you'll also need a compass: if you think just a map is enough, you're wrong. Take the compass. Honestly, you'll need it.
But if you can cope with the anarchy, just wander. Trust us. It's delightful. And you can't get really lost - there are helpful yellow signs everywhere in Venice directing you to somewhere of importance, and you'll be able to find your way from there.
The other way to get from the station to St Mark's is by the Grand Canal, on a vaporetto. These water buses traverse the length of the city and are a great way to see the sights from the water.
Most visitors will arrive in Venice by air, and it's likely you'll land at Marco Polo Airport. A new arrivals hall was built at the beginning of the 21st Century, and it's an excellent and well-appointed gateway to the lagoon. Frequent buses go between Marco Polo and the main Venice bus station at Piazzale Roma, and also to the railway station on the mainland at Mestre. They're cheap, costing about a euro per head from the airport to Venice.
The exception to the rule will be those flying in by Ryanair, who will pitch up in Treviso, something between half an hour and an hour away to the North depending on traffic. There's a coach service between Treviso airport and Piazzale Roma - buy your tickets in what passes for the arrivals hall. (This is more like a glorified shed than an airport terminal; if your flight is delayed, there is very little to do and it's not the most hospitable of places)1.
If you're coming to Venice by car, it can be a lot cheaper to park in Mestre or Porto Marghera and take a train or bus than to drive into Venice and park at either Piazzale Roma or Tronchetto. Entering Venice by road or rail is quite special - you come in through the mainland suburbs of Mestre, past the industrial morass that is Porto Marghera, and then enjoy the views across the lagoon from the causeway that links Venice to the mainland.
But if you've a little more time on your hands and a little more money to spare, you can enter Venice the traditional way - by water. Marco Polo airport is right on the edge of the lagoon. You can buy a ticket in the arrivals hall for the Alilaguna Ferry Service to the city. It's literally only a five minute walk from the terminal to the water side, or you can take a shuttle bus. The ferry will take you to San Zaccaria right by St Mark's Square for €10, or to the Fondamente Nove on the North side of the city for only €5. The journey takes about 40 minutes to an hour depending on the destination, and the boats only go once an hour, so this may involve some waiting. The trip comes highly recommended for the first-time visitor, but still retains some of its magic every time you return.
The history of Venice starts on a different island, Torcello, in the north of the lagoon. The inhabitants of the Roman city of Altino fled to Torcello in 639 AD to escape from invading barbarians. Torcello grew in population, eventually reaching 20,000 people. Because the inhabitants were completely at home in boats and on the water, in 811 AD, some of them started to live on a mudbank called Rialto in the middle of the lagoon. They started to convert this into a proper island, sinking wooden piles into the mud and building quays and flat areas on which to build houses. The city of Venice was born. Eventually, Torcello was abandoned with all the population moving to Venice.
The Golden Age
Protected by the lagoon from attackers, Venice had literally no natural resources and nothing going for it except its security and the ability of the people to handle boats.
Everything needed to be shipped into the city so the Venetians became experts in moving merchandise, in short, traders. At that time, trade between Europe and the Orient was just taking off and the Venetians were in there from the start. Marco Polo, a Venetian trader, did much to open up trade routes to China, bringing back to Venice such exotic eastern dishes as rice and pasta, both still a staple of the Italian people. Situated on the trade route from the Orient to Europe, the Venetians became fabulously rich.
As the city became richer, the Venetians developed their military skills and their navy became the best in the world, ruling the Mediterranean. They built huge fortifications on islands such as Corfu and Crete. There was never any need for fortifications in the city of Venice itself, however. Due to the huge navy, no attacking ship could get anywhere near to the city.
Venice was a republic, calling itself La Serenissima - the most serene. It was ruled by a Doge (Duke) but the title was not hereditary. The Doge was elected by the residents of the city, although it was far from the one man one vote system of today - effectively, a small group of noblemen had all the votes. They ruled the city between them and passed the honour of being Doge around among themselves.
The biggest ceremony of the year was the 'Marriage of the Sea', in which the Doge went out in a ceremonial boat and threw a ring into the lagoon, saying 'We wed you, Sea, as a symbol of our perpetual Rule'. This symbolised both the dependence of Venice on the bounty of the Sea and the rule of it.
Venice's Golden Age was in the 13th to 15th centuries.
The discovery of America in 1492 and the opening of the trade route around the southern tip of Africa in 1498 spelled the beginning of the end for Venice. No longer did the Venetians control all trade with the East. With the rise of the power of the Turks from 1450 onwards, Venice gradually lost control of the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, there were other city/states in Italy, each anxious for a slice of the action. Venice was under pressure and went into decline. Despite this, it was still a great city, with a flourishing culture of art and music. Painters Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese are world famous, as are composers Monteverdi and Vivaldi. Most of the buildings standing today were built in this period. The end came when Napoleon decided to finish the Venetians once and for all and conquered the city as part of his Austrian campaign in 1797. After Napoleon's own defeat, Venice became an Austrian possession until it was passed over to the newly-founded Republic of Italy in 1866.
A Sinking City
During the decline of the city, a new problem became evident. Venice was sinking into the lagoon. Built on wooden piles sunk into mud, the weight of an entire city was pushing the island down into the mud. As the centuries passed, tides rose higher. By the 20th Century, the city had sunk so far that St Mark's Square was flooded every spring tide, that is, every two weeks. In November 1966, storms washed six-foot waves against the outside of the Basilica.
Numerous studies examined the problem. It was found that the wells in Venice were at least part of the problem. Every square in Venice has a well in the middle, which is drilled deep into the bedrock below the mud on which the city stands. But as water was drawn out of the well, seawater was percolating down to replace it, washing away the foundations of the city. The decision was made in the late 20th century to close all the wells and to pipe all water into the city from the mainland. Decades later, the city appears to have stopped sinking, but the damage has been done.
Elaborate plans are being discussed to lower the level of the lagoon by building movable barriers at the three 'gates' where it opens onto the sea. Pumps could then pump out the water and lower the lagoon to an acceptable level. Such a plan, as well as being ferociously expensive, is difficult, because the city needs some ebb and flow of tides to wash out the canals and keep them clean, and the wildlife of the lagoon also depends on the inflow of sea water.
Things to Do in Venice
Go for a Gondola ride. It's clichéd and touristy, but you won't forget it. Gondolas are expensive so pool resources and go as a group.
A stylish and slightly cheaper2 alternative to a gondola is to hire a water taxi. These small and speedy launches can take several people and their luggage - the Venetian equivalent of your own personal limo. They're built to a standard size and shape, and the older ones built from wood rather than fibreglass are particularly lovely. They also happen to be just about the quickest way to get from anywhere to anywhere else.
If you just have to go on a gondola but can't afford the price, there is a cheap alternative - there are public gondolas known as traghetti (ferries) that cross the Grand Canal at certain points between the bridges. The places are usually marked on maps, and can be identified by a small landing stage and a sign sponsored by 'Paul & Shark Yachting'. These gondolas are functional and lack the comfy cushions of the tourist ones, but they cost just 50 cents, and hey, you're crossing the Grand Canal in one at a fraction of the price and the view's just as good.
Eat a pizza. The Italians still make the best pizzas in the world. There's an excellent and extremely cheap shop that sells wonderful pizza by the slice; it's on the Calle Mondo Nuovo, just off the Campo di Santa Maria Formosa. That's north of the Piazza San Marco - you won't find it without a map, but it's well worth it!
Drink an espresso early in the morning, standing up at a bar. It's half price if you don't occupy a seat. For many Italians, this is breakfast.
Get lost in the streets and see where you end up.
Buy a painting from one of the many street artists. These are everywhere, but particularly at the Molo beside St Mark's Square. There's everything from views of the city to portraits of you or your loved ones, done on the spot.
Spend a fortune on a drink in Florian's or Quadri's Café in St Mark's Square. These exclusive spots have their own string orchestra to calm you as you contemplate the massive bill.
Take a ride on a vaporetto (water bus) along the whole length of the Grand Canal.
Don't be afraid to go into the smaller churches - some are surprisingly beautiful on the inside. Much like lonely, single men in pubs before the drinking takes its toll... but that's another thing altogether. Ahem.
Shopping - see further down for details.
Waterbuses in Venice come in various different sizes. The standard vaporetto is the most common - these ply their trade up and down the Grand Canal, round by the Zattere, and out to the Lido. Vaporetti have open sections at the front and back, a standing platform in the middle and a seating cabin at the back - the open seats at the back are recommended for the best views... there's nothing quite like it. The smaller motoscafo is used on the circular routes that go around the main Venetian island and out to Murano and Burano - these have enclosed front and back cabins and a standing platform in the middle. Most fun if you're in the holiday mood are the bigger steamers which go between San Zaccaria and the Lido and outlying islands, and these have open air decks on top. There are also craft that go out from the Fondamente Nove to Burano and Torcello, somewhere between a steamer and a vaporetto in size.
You can buy tickets for unlimited travel valid for one or three days3, but unless you're planning on some serious island-hopping you can get by on single tickets - if you're staying on the main island, it's generally quicker to walk even in the high tourist season when the streets are crowded. It's worth bearing in mind that an unlimited day ticket costs the same as three single tickets - and if you plan to stay on the main Venetian island, you're unlikely to need to use a waterbus more than three times.
Most of the larger waterbus stops have a booth nearby selling tickets - otherwise, you can buy them from many of the small tobacconists, grocers or news stand. It's vital to buy a ticket before you board - ticket inspections are quite common and if you're caught without one, you have to pay a standard penalty fare. If you've no option but to board without a ticket, declare yourself to the ticket inspector as soon as you can - you pay a little more than usual, but it beats forking out for a penalty fare...
Main Waterbus Routes
Full details are available from the official Venice Transport Website but here are some of the main ones:
Number 1 - a classic. It starts from Piazzale Roma and Ferrovia, goes down the Grand Canal, past San Zaccaria and Sant'Elena, and across to the Lido. The main drawback is that it stops everywhere on the Grand Canal, which makes it very slow.
Numbers 3 and 4 - these summer-only circular routes take in the Grand Canal and the Canale della Giudecca (the wide one between Zattere and the Giudeccca). One is clockwise, the other anti-clockwise, and both also call at the giant car park island of Tronchetto.
Number 6 - these are the big steamers that provide the non-stop service that links San Zaccaria to the Lido.
Numbers 41 and 42, 51 and 52 - further good options for taking a look at Venice from the water. These motoscafi circumnavigate the main Venetian island but don't go down the Grand Canal. The route takes in Piazzale Roma, and Ferrovia for links with the mainland, Fondamente Nove for the services that go out to Murano4, Burano and Torcello, San Zaccaria for the Piazza San Marco, and also Sant'Elena, the Giudecca, and Zattere. The 41 and 42 (one operates clockwise, the other anti-clockwise) also go out to Murano calling at Cimitero (the peaceful cemetery island), and the 51 and 52 (likewise, one clockwise, one anti) ignore Murano but take the trip across the lagoon to the Lido.
Number 82 - a better bet for the Grand Canal than the no. 1 as it doesn't stop everywhere, it serves the Grand Canal, Tronchetto and Canale della Giudecca. In the summer, the route's extended to the Lido.
Route LN - the Northern Lagoon service that runs from Fondamente Nove, on the north side of the main island, out to Murano, Burano and the mainland peninsula at Punta Sabbioni. As a more long-distance route, these are less frequent than the other services mentioned here.
Unfortunately, the official transport website doesn't include a map, but some of these routes are illustrated on this Vaporetto and Motoscafo Routes page. The waterbuses tend to get full at either end of the working day (the rush hour's still much the same even when it's on water) but without question the best time to travel is the hour before sunset, and particularly out on the open water of the lagoon. The quality of light is a joy to behold - you realise that it's not just the architecture that's attracted painters to Venice for hundreds of years.
Shopping in Venice
Central Venice is well supplied with souvenir shops, particularly on and around the Rialto Bridge. They tend to specialise in Murano glass ornaments and ashtrays, and carnival masks - and very nice they are too. If you're concerned about buying a genuine souvenir, always ask 'E fatto a Venezia?' if it doesn't have a 'Made In Venice' sticker on it - Murano-style glass made in Asia is quite common these days. It's also probably fair to say you'll get a better deal the further away from Rialto you are. The best deals for Murano glass, naturally, can be found on Murano itself direct from the manufacturers - where you can often see it being made.
For the traveller on a budget, there's a small supermarket (a midget by usual standards, but far and away the largest in Venice) called Billa - it's the cheapest place to buy picnic food if you're looking to save a few euros. It's about halfway along the Strada Nova, by one of the many bridges. Another small supermarket is in the Dorsoduro area, just off Campo Santa Margherita, at the corner of Rio Tera Canal. There's a similarly-sized Co-op supermarket on Murano - which features a jumbo-sized lift to take you and your trolley up to the first floor. There are also some stalls in the middle of the Strada Nova selling fruit and veg - usually fresh and cheap, the produce is often grown on the nearby island of Sant'Erasmo.
Shopping in General
A few of the multinational chains (such as Benetton and Foot Locker, for example) have branches in Venice, but if you fancy some more normal shopping Italian-style, you're generally better off taking a train to the mainland and going round the shopping district in Mestre, where you'll find everything you need in the area north of the train station. The one exception worth going out of your way to find in Venice is the department store Coin5 on the corner of the Campo San Luca, north-west of San Marco. It's something like an upmarket equivalent of Marks & Spencer, and specialises in Italian clothes, housewares and the like.
San Marco and the Piazzetta
St Mark is the patron saint of Venice. You will see his symbol, a winged lion, everywhere. St Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) is the centre of the city. Elegant palaces and hotels line three sides of the rectangular piazza, while the fourth side is occupied by the Basilica of St Mark, an 11th Century Cathedral. The Campanile (bell tower) of this cathedral stands separately in the piazza.
Joining the Piazza to the lagoon is the smaller Piazzetta (little square), with the Doges' Palace. At the lagoon end are two pillars, one with a statue of St Theodore, the other with the winged lion of St Mark. They separate the Piazzetta from the wharf known as the Molo, which is the hub of transport in the city with vaporetti, motorboats and gondolas calling continually.
The Basilica of St Mark
The many-domed Basilica dates from the 11th Century. It contains the remains of St Mark the Evangelist, writer of one of the four Gospels. The Basilica has a very Eastern look with its domes and arches and is distinctly different from the Gothic cathedrals of the rest of Europe. There is much use of gold and mosaic within to show the opulence of Venice - the Basilica supposedly has 43,000 square feet of mosaics! It was here that the composer Monteverdi performed his works - his 'Vespers of the Blessed Virgin' would have sounded wonderful in this setting.
Admission is free into the Basilica. Queues can be very long, but they move fairly quickly so it is not as bad as it looks. Once inside, however, there are a few attractions that you can only see by paying. It can take a long time to get into these:
The Palo Oro - this altar screen is made from solid gold, with literally thousands of precious stones set into it. The tiny pictures show saints and scenes from the Bible.
The Horse Museum. Pride of place goes to the four larger than life bronze horses. These were looted from the Hippodrome in Constantinople when the Venetians helped sack the city in 1204. They stood outside on the front of the Basilica for nearly 800 years, but were taken indoors about 20 years ago. Now some replicas of them take their place outside and you have to pay to see the originals. You can also go from the museum to stand right beside the replicas and get a pigeon's eye view of the Piazza. This museum has on display a lot of the original mosaics which had to be replaced during renovation work.
The Treasury - more treasures plundered from Constantinople, as well as the gifts of kings to Venice.
If you are visiting the Basilica, you are advised to make sure you are properly dressed. Italians are conservative when it comes to religion, so bare shoulders are frowned upon. Short trousers are also a no-no, and women should avoid miniskirts. Rucksacks are also not allowed - there is a place in a nearby street where you can leave your rucksack. Check the signs for details, and make sure to do this before you join the queue!
The Campanile is the bell-tower of the Basilica and the tallest tower in Venice. It is 99 metres high. It has an enormous bell which rings out at all sorts of times with its deep voice. The tower itself is a relatively recent construction: the original 10th century tower collapsed in 1902, killing no one except the caretaker's cat. The marble 'loggietta' at the base is original. It was pieced together and rebuilt after the collapse.
You can ascend in a lift to the top of the campanile, from where you get a great view over the city. The only trouble is that if you go up expecting to see the canal network, you'll be disappointed: pretty much all you can see is the roofing.
To the left of the Basilica, set into the facade of the square, stands the tall thin clock tower. This dates from the 15th century, although the workings of the clock have been changed many times since then. The main face of the clock shows the hour, the phase of the moon and the current sign of the zodiac. Above this is a platform where on rare occasions, a mechanical procession of figures led by an angel with a trumpet troop in front of a statue of the Virgin. The rest of the time, the Virgin stands between two windows that show the date in digital format. Above this is a beautiful statue of the winged lion in front of a blue star-strewn background.
On the top of the tower stand two bronze figures known as the Moors because of their dark colour, although they were originally intended to represent shepherds. Between them is a bell, which they strike on the hour with giant hammers. It is possible to climb the stairs to the top of the clock tower and to see the Moors at close range as they strike the bell.
The Doges' Palace lies along one side of the Piazzetta, with elegant facades in pink and white marble facing the square and the lagoon. The palace has very elegant interiors with paintings and ceilings by Tintoretto and Veronese.
The Palace was not just where the Doges, the titular rulers of Venice, lived; it also includes all the various council chambers where the different councils of the government met. The biggest of these rooms could take the full council of 2,500 Venetian noblemen. This room features one of the biggest oil paintings in the world, Tintoretto's 'Paradise', along the end wall. One Researcher described this as the world's biggest 'Where's Wally' picture, as it features more than 500 people; many a bored Venetian must have stared at it in wonder in the past.
The Palace is rather expensive to get into. But if your shoestring is running tight and it's late, you can consider sneaking in the exit when the guards seem to have taken off early.
The Bridge of Sighs
Possibly Venice's most famous bridge, this joins the back of the Doges' Palace to the prison. Supposedly, the prisoners received their sentence from the Doge and then crossed this enclosed bridge to serve their term in the prison or to be executed. You can cross the bridge on a trip around the palace, but the best view of it is from outside on the quays.
The main quay serving San Marco is the Molo. Many vaporetto routes call here, and you can go on trips to just about anywhere around the lagoon from here. The official name of the Waterbus stop is San Zaccaria and this is the name you'll see on all the waterbus maps and timetables. It's also a great parking place for gondolas, so you will be pestered by stripy-shirted men offering their services.
The Molo is also the number one spot for artists to hang out, displaying their wares and filling in time by painting more. If you want a portrait of your loved one, or of yourself, there's someone here do a do a quick sketch or a full oil painting.
The Grand Canal
It is thought that the present Grand Canal was originally a river which flowed through the lagoon, with mud islands on either side. The canal was deepened as the islands were built up into the present city, but the shape of the river remains, in a giant backward 'S' snaking through the city. There are no footpaths on either side of the Canal; houses open directly onto the canal. Most have their own small wharves.
The Rialto Bridge
The Rialto is the area around the middle of the city. It is the oldest part of the city, where the original mudbanks on which the city was founded would have been. Here is the Rialto Bridge, which for much of the history of the city was the only bridge across the Grand Canal. The bridge is steep, so that the central arch is high enough to let a warship underneath. The bridge is lined with shops on both sides.
Around the Rialto area are the vegetable and fish markets.
All along the Grand Canal are big houses known as palazzi or palaces. There are two hundred of them. These would have been the most expensive houses in Venice, but now are suffering from centuries of damp. The Cà d'Oro was the finest; originally its entire facade was plated with gold. Unfortunately the inside of the Cà d'Oro has been changed so often that it no longer gives any indication of what a Venetian palace was like.
More worth visiting is the Cà Rezzonico, which has been done up as it would have been in the 18th century. There are elegant ballrooms, drawing rooms and bedrooms, with fine works of art throughout, although the art exhibition on the top floor is rather monotonous in its acres of exposed flesh.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection
The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, an important collection of European and American art from the first half of the 20th Century.
Off the Beaten Track6
Cannaregio - this is the area to the north of the Grand Canal just east of the railway station. It's a slightly less touristy area, a popular place to live and work among Venetians, and the atmosphere reflects this. At the north-western end, near the Tre Archi waterbus stop, there's a lovely quiet quay called Fondamenta di San Girolamo with a great view of the northern lagoon.
Zattere - a wide quay on the Canale Della Giudecca facing the Giudecca, which in terms of atmosphere is the nearest thing Venice has to a seafront. Again, the view's good, and there are a couple of cafés that sell particularly fine ice-creams, even by Italian standards. At the western end of the Zattere is the Stazione Marittimo San Basilio, the terminal used by the big ferries for Croatia and Greece.
Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore - not only is the Chiesa di San Giorgio well worth visiting in its own right, but the view from the Campanile (bell tower) is infinitely superior to the view from the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco. It's cheaper to go up (don't worry, there's still a lift), the queues are invariably shorter, and as it isn't in the Piazza San Marco, you can see the Piazza San Marco. And the Grand Canal. The only snag is that the only way to get on to the Island is the no. 82 vaporetto - although it runs quite frequently from the Giudecca, Zattere, San Zaccaria or anywhere on the Grand Canal.
Castello - the poorest area of the Venetian island, at the eastern end between San Marco and the Gardens (Giardini) at Sant'Elena. As it's furthest from the railway and bus stations and east of the main tourist areas, in contrast to the slightly more upmarket Cannaregio, it's less desirable to outsiders wanting to move into the city. This means it the highest concentration of native Venetians living there, and is a great place to go to get a feel of Venetian life being lived.
This gallery has a huge collection of paintings, among them works by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Canaletto.
Santa Maria della Salute
This elegant white church with its enormous dome was built in the 17th century. It is positioned on the narrow spit of land right at the end of the Grand Canal. Inside, it is laid out in a spacious octagonal shape.
Venice's Ghetto, which is in the Cannaregio area, was originally a foundry - 'Ghetto' means 'foundry' in Italian. When the Pope issued a proclamation saying that all Jews should be evicted from cities, the Venetians couldn't agree, as the Jews were an important part of the business of the city. They gave the New Foundry island to the Jews with the agreement that they would be confined their during the night. Initially this was for the protection of the Jews, but it gradually became a prison, with huge gates and guards. The Jews couldn't leave, so they started to build upwards; the buildings in the Ghetto are taller than the ones elsewhere in Venice, up to 7 stories high. Eventually there were too many people and they spread to the Old Ghetto (Old Foundry) as well, so the Old Ghetto as a home for Jews was later than the New Ghetto (the original). Of course, the name Ghetto is now used for any place where a section of society is imprisoned or forced to live.
The gates to the Ghetto were removed by Napoleon when he conquered Venice in 1797, but Jews were forced to live there up to the mid 19th century. Now there is a Jewish museum and a few Jewish shops.
AS Venezia are probably one of the only football clubs in the world to play on their own island, and well worth a visit for the tourist with an interest in the Beautiful Game. But get your skates on, because there are plans to build a new stadium on the mainland near Mestre. The Stadio Pierluigi Penzo is at the eastern end of the main Venetian Island, between the Arsenale and the Sant'Elena vaporetto stop. On match days (usually Sundays) the Venetian authorities operate 'football specials' - ferries that go direct to Sant'Elena from the Ferrovia, Piazzale Roma and Tronchetto. The arancioneroverdi7 traditionally play an attractive passing style of football, which is probably preferable to continually asking passing gondoliers to give them their ball back. They're not the most successful of Italian teams, their natural home being in Serie B, the Italian Second Division. However, when they're doing well - like when they won promotion back to Serie A in 1998 after an absence of 31 years - they have a very strong local following. After the crucial match in 1998, an armada of small boats decked out in orange, black and green set out from the Stadio Penzo and the locals reclaimed the Piazza San Marco from the tourists for a giant knees-up.
The Giudecca is a long thin island that is part of the city of Venice. Separated from the rest of the city by a wide body of water, the Canale della Giudecca, it is slightly too far for a bridge, so it must be reached by boat. Like the rest of the city, it consists of houses, pedestrian streets and canals, but there are no major sights to see.
Because there are no big attractions to visit there, it's worth going to the Giudecca just for that - they say that in going there you get the best idea of how Venice would be without the tourists. There isn't much to do there beyond walk and look and soak up the atmosphere, but it's charming, picturesque and much quieter than the main island. It's a great place to go if you need a break from the crowds.
In July, the Feast of the Redeemer is celebrated in the Redentore church on the Giudecca, so a 'bridge of boats' is built out to the Giudecca from the main part of the city, to allow free access for everybody.
Murano is a small island north of Venice. It can be easily reached in about 15 minutes by vaporetto from the Fondamente Nove. Murano has been the centre of the Venetian glass industry since the 13th Century. Murano glass is stylish, colourful and blobby. There's a museum of glass and you can go on tours of the glass factories. A piece of Murano glass can be as simple as a tiny elephant for about two euros, or as complex as a giant chandelier costing tens of thousands.
The Lido di Venezia
Not to be confused with the Lido di Jesolo (a tourist resort about 15 miles north of Venice), the Lido di Venezia is normally just called 'The Lido'. It is the long thin island which separates the lagoon from the sea and is about 15 minutes from the city by vaporetto. It has an expensive resort dating back to the 19th Century. There are hotels, a casino, restaurants and a long beach. Many parts of the beach are privately owned by the hotels. Cars are allowed on the Lido, which will come as a shock after a few days on the lagoon. The Venice Film Festival is held here each year.
You can avoid paying to use the beach by getting the bus from the main Lido waterbus terminal to either end of the Lido island - access is free to the public at both the northern and southern ends. If you've bought a waterbus ticket with unlimited travel, then it'll be valid on the 'normal' bus as well. Otherwise buy one from one of the ticket booths at the waterbus terminal.
At the north end of the lagoon, about 45 minutes from Venice by vaporetto, lie two tiny islands which are worth visiting.
Burano is famous for two things: the houses are painted in lots of different colours, and the locals busy themselves making lace. Lace from Burano can be bought everywhere in Venice, but it is nice to go to the island and see the people making the lace. Many sit outside their houses, making lace while the sun shines.
Torcello is the island from where the original people of Venice came. It is quiet and peaceful, although there are vicious mosquitoes! The main thing to see here is the old cathedral, most of which dates from around 1000 AD and has the most amazing mosaics. One which represents the End of the World takes up the entire end wall of the cathedral. There's also a small museum and a strange stone seat known as 'Attila's Throne'. Legend has it that anyone sitting on the seat will be married within a year.
To get to Torcello, you must get the Route T waterbus from Burano. It's only a few minutes on the boat. Most of the tickets to Burano include the trip to Torcello in the price.
The Carnival of Venice
Venice is famous for its Carnival, which takes place for a few weeks around Mardi Gras, the last Tuesday before the season of Lent8. Everybody dresses up in fancy costumes with masks. Unlike the Rio Carnival, which is famous for noise, colour, displays of merriment, and is hot, hot, hot, the Venice Carnival is ultra-cool, concentrating on style. It is like the Paris catwalk taken to the streets. To demand respect from the crowd, one must dress to the nines and be more outrageously elegant than everyone else.
Photos of the Carnival and the beautiful masked revellers are for sale everywhere in Venice, at all times of the year.
Venice on Screen
Because it's instantly recognisable, Venice is often used as the setting for movies, TV ads, music videos and even computer games.
Death in Venice9 - a film by Visconti based on a book by Thomas Mann, this portrayal of an elderly man visiting Venice in the 19th Century is famous for its music, its dramatic backdrop and its lack of action.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - Dr Jones finds a crusader's tomb, deep beneath the city, which has strangely managed to remain dry.
Venice was the setting for the scary, scary film Don't Look Now - Donald Sutherland played a father whose daughter had drowned. He kept seeing a fleeting glimpse of her, wearing a red cape, running away in the alleys of Venice. When he eventually catches up with the person in the red cape, she turns - and it is an ugly old hag.
Madonna's 'Like a Virgin' video featured the singer in a gondola.
Venice is famous for many things, but for some lost souls its chief claim to fame is that it was the setting for the trailer that introduced Monty Python's seminal film The Life of Brian. The trailer starts off as a fairly innocuous travelogue that keeps flicking between different countries and Venice. When Venice is featured the voice-over keeps mentioning the lovely: 'Gondolas, gondolas, gondolas!' Then just after the trailer goes to Bulgaria ('You wouldn't think, to look at these happy folk, that they are dedicated to world domination,' warbles the commentary) we're back to Venice once again. 'More ***ing gondolas,' screams John Cleese (for it is he). 'I didn't want to be a presenter...'
The James Bond film Moonraker has quite a long sequence set in Venice, including a visit to Venini, the famous glass manufacturers (they have showrooms in St Mark's Square and on Murano). The highlight of the Venetian sequence is the gondola chase, which depending on your point of view is either a degrading farce or Roger Moore at his finest. Bond is pursued by gun-wielding heavies and his gondolier is assassinated. The gondola converts into an armoured speedboat, Bond escapes and then for some reason the gondola converts into a hovercraft. Our hero leaves the water at the San Zaccaria ferry stop, drives into St Mark's Square as distracted waiters pour drinks over customers, and exits the Square through the arches at western end. The funniest thing is that when you go there, you find out that the streets on the other side of those arches are only about six feet wide in places, crammed full of tourists at all times of day, and in the unlikely event of your having a gondola-cum-hovercraft, you'd find it impossible to drive it down there.
Tomb Raider 2 - the computer game: Lara Croft gets to drive a cool speedboat around the canals, crashing into walls and bridges (if this Researcher's experiences are typical)
As with any Italian city, act like the Italians do. Get up early, see the city wake up, have a kip at lunchtime and go out again in the evening. They do it that way for a reason, you know: it's amazing to see Venice as a working city rather than as a postcard.
If you can, go in winter, as the city can really stink in the summer. You'll never really avoid the tourist hordes but there are fewer visitors in winter.
All the towers in Venice lean. Don't confuse them with 'the' leaning tower in Pisa.
Most of the cheap hotels are around the train station. If you have a couple of thousand euros to blow, you should be looking around the Grand Canal. Don't even think of affording the hotels around St Mark's Square.
Four days is about right for a trip to Venice. The city can start to feel a bit claustrophobic after that.
Venice is crowded with pigeons. So many, in fact, that one Researcher has a theory that somewhere in Venice is an entrance point to another dimension from which all pigeons come. But it's only a theory.