Each year The Italian Tribune brings the Publisher’s Tour to our readers. Buddy and Marion Fortunato have made many visits to Italy. Over the next several weeks, we will feature segments of this year’s fascinating tour. With each journey by the travelers, the sights and culture of the places visited are retold. They bring to you reviews of restaurants and places to stay. You’ll learn about historic figures, the cuisine of different regions and gain a greater appreciation for the beauty that permeates the world’s most exciting country.
After arriving in Italy, the group’s first stay was in the most remarkable, enchanting and unusual city in the world – Venice, which is embellished with monuments of rare splendor that today make it a tourist attraction like no other in the world. Millions of visitors come to take in this magical place and to experience her majestic sights. Pictures of Venice show both its grandeur and beauty, but it is a jewel that must be seen in person to be fully appreciated.
According to legend, the city was founded in 422 by Roman refugees fleeing from the Goths. However, no actual historical records exist about the origins. What is well-documented is that in the seventh century, La Serenissima (the Most Serene Republic of Venice) was built up around small islands off the mainland to ultimately become a maritime powerhouse.
The Venetians fled from barbarians and drifted out to the uninhabitable islands in the lagoon. Among these 118 islands, they created the most beautiful city in the world and the most powerful naval fleet in the Mediterranean. It was through trade, especially in spices, that Venice gained its enormous wealth, becoming a global commercial center. It was a city that was independent not only politically, but also artistically, with much of its architecture influenced by its unique association with the East. The Byzantine influence is evident in the architecture of many period buildings and in the mosaics that grace their interiors. It was during the Italian High Renaissance that the Republic reached its zenith.
Venice’s islands are interlaced with 150 canals and are connected by roughly 400 bridges. Since some bridges are private, there is disagreement about their exact number; however, one fact that is incontrovertible is that the city is a marvel of engineering. As gondolas make their way through narrow canals and under low bridges, the serenity of the historic Venetian atmosphere takes hold. Delicately ornate palaces gaze silently at passing visitors, while shop windows sparkle with Murano glass. The towering churches and campaniles stand as testament to the Venetian cultural, artistic and religious passion; while all around, reflections upon the water add to the enchantment.
The Grand Canal snakes through the center of the city. Although it is no longer crossed by trading ships, this waterway still defines the six sestieri, or neighborhoods of Venice. The area of San Marco is at the center and is the heart of Venetian life. In the Piazza San Marco, perched above a tall column is a golden lion that fiercely watches over all that goes on below. Here you will find the Basilica of San Marco and its famous bell tower, the Doge’s Palace, as well as the Bridge of Sighs.
Castello is likened to the tail section of the fish and is the largest of the six sestieri. Here you will find the Arsenale, the Gothic-style San Giovanni e Paolo and many of the finest hotels and restaurants that line the Grand Canal along the Riva degli Schiavoni.
Cannaregio is considered Venice’s gateway. This is the area that greets visitors upon arrival by train at the Santa Lucia railway station. This area is also home to the old Jewish Ghetto, the first one on the continent. Here you can also see the famous Ca’ D’Oro, a magnificent example of Gothic style which was so named for the gold that once covered the front. Art lovers won’t want to miss the Church of Madonna dell’Orto, known for its fine collection of native son Tintoretto’s works.
Just across the Grand Canal from Canareggio is the neighborhood of Santa Croce. It is divided into two areas – the eastern section, which has some of the city’s most exquisite palazzi (palaces), while the western area is more urbanely industrial.
The smallest of the sestieri is San Polo. With its thriving commercial area, this is a prime area for shopping and visitors will find much better deals here than in the area around San Marco. If you love the works of Tintoretto you will want to visit the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where you can marvel at many of his awe-inspiring works.
Finally, there is the least populated area of Venice, Dorsoduro. It is a unique neighborhood, filled with homes and lesser-known churches, but it is also a must see stop if you want to visit the internationally-renowned Peggy Guggenheim Foundation and Accademia Gallery.
It is impossible to see all of Venice in just one day so we decided on a few “must see” sites and headed off to Piazza San Marco. This immense open space is paved in marble and was originally a public atrium for the Basilica of San Marco, which is dedicated to the city’s patron saint. The piazza is enclosed on three sides by enormous buildings, one is the extraordinary Doge’s Palace and others were residences of the nine Procurators, the highest officials (after the Doge) of Venice. Built by the first Doge (chief magistrate of the Republic) in the 11th century, the palace has two arcades, one above the other. The opulent apartments and state rooms are filled with the finest artistic works of the greatest 16th century Venetian artists. There are two red marbles columns on the upper loggia where death sentences were once pronounced. The Scala dei Giganti (Giant’s Staircase) faces the piazza and is so called because of the colossal statues of Mars and Neptune.
Walking east among the throngs of people bustling through the square, one can cross the Ponte di Paglia (Bridge of Straw). From here, there is an amazing view of the notorious Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), so called because it connected the Doge palace to the infamous Piombi prison. Legend has it that convicts crossing the bridge would sigh loudly because they would never see the light of day again. In the prison, visitors can view some of the cells where condemned prisoners awaited their fate.
The Campanile di San Marco was our next stop which provided a fantastic view of the city and surrounding areas. The original tower collapsed in 1902, after years of deterioration in Venice’s damp climate; therefore, unlike other bell towers that have steep and narrow steps, we conveniently rode an elevator to the top.
After lunch, we continued our tour with a visit to the Basilica of San Marco. Also called the Church of Gold, it is one of the world’s most richly-decorated houses of worship. The Basilica is covered in 4,000-square-yards of golden mosaics, a tribute to the Venetian link with Byzantium. It is topped by a huge dome surrounded by other smaller domes and the façade is decorated with rich marble slabs and breathtaking mosaics. The interior of the Basilica is a riot of marble – floors, walls, columns and statues. You could spend hours lost in the splendor of this amazing jewel.
Before we left the piazza, we walked over to the clock tower. It is a favorite meeting point for Venetians and also the entry point for the Mercerie, the main retail street that will lead you to the Rialto Bridge. The clock tower is topped by two figurines called the Moors which strike the bell on the hour. There is also a clock under a winged lion (the symbol of Venice) which will not only tell you the time, but also matches the signs of the zodiac with the sun’s position.
We made our way along the Mercerie, with stops to browse and shop, while carefully watching for the signs to the famous and picturesque Ponte Rialto, the oldest and most iconic in Venice. It is located in one of the most ancient areas of the city. First built in 1181, it was originally called the Ponte della Moneta (Bridge of Money.) The bridge was later rebuilt, but collapsed under the weight of an enormous crowd during a regatta (parade of boats) around the year 1444. The current bridge was built in 1591 with a central portico, two ramps and a number of shops. The bridge is a major crossing point over the Grand Canal and is almost always crowded with people. It offers a superb view of the Grand Canal, so even the most casual visitor unfailingly seems to pause for a selfie.
We strolled through some of the Cannaregio area and made a stop at the Ca’ D’Oro. From there we caught one of the vaporetti (water taxis) so we could ride along the Grand Canal and take in the sights on both sides. We were tired, but delighted and looked forward to a wonderful meal in this one-of-a-kind magical city.
One of the side trips during the Publisher’s Tour in Venice was to the tiny island of Burano. The boat ride takes about 25 minutes from Venice, but draws visitors who are intrigued by the many different hues of the colorful houses, originally painted so that island fishermen could spot their homes while out on the waters. It is also well-known for its leaning bell tower. The 17th century tower of San Martino Vescovo stands 160 feet tall, but leans six feet off-center at the top of the campanile. Colorful homes and towers aside, Burano is most famous for the exquisite lace that is handmade on the island. The lacemaking art was perfected in Burano centuries ago and to this day, remains the main attraction of the island.
In the main square of Piazza Galuppi, is the Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum). The piazza also contains the Town Hall and a sculpture of 18th century Venetian composer Baldassare Galuppi, who was born on Burano. The sculpture is by Remigio Barbaro, who is also from the island.
Lunch for the group was at da Romano, which was founded by Romano Barbaro and has been run by the Barbaro family for four generations. One of the premiere restaurants on Burano, da Romano is famous not only for its food, but also for the more than 450 paintings by local artists (some famous, other less so) that grace its walls. The Italian Tribune also hangs predominantly in the restaurant with features on da Romano from many of their prior trips.