I’ve heard mixed reviews about Venice. Some say it’s the most magical city in Europe. Others complain that it’s too touristy and over-rated. Yes, Venice calls to tourists like the hive calls to a swarm of bees. If you stay in the areas around St. Mark’s Square, you’ll encounter similar swarms of tourists and long lines. But even there, the magic is palpable.
We wanted to visit the Doge’s Palace and infamous prison while avoiding the crowds, so we went late in the afternoon. At one time, Venice’s powerful Doges ruled much of Europe from their palace in the sea. Anyone who opposed them was thrown into the palace’s dungeons, but eventually, more room was needed, so a separate prison was built across a small canal next to the palace and the two connected by a covered bridge. Writers later referred to this passage as the Bridge of Sighs as it was thought that prisoners sighed as they looked out at the pleasures of Venice, which they would never experience again. As we crossed into the prison, we peered out through the small, decorative window openings at a crowd of tourists taking pictures of this famous bridge.
After our palace/prison tour, we decided not to stand in the long, snaking line waiting for the elevator to the top of the Campanile, a tall tower in the square. I bet the view was amazing from the top. Instead, we found a table at one of the outdoor restaurants, ordered some food and a spritz (a Venetian specialty drink) and listened to an orchestra playing classical and contemporary music as the setting sun turned the façade of St. Mark’s cathedral to gold. Definitely magical.
We had planned to ride in a gondola, but in the small canals around St. Mark’s Square, dozens of gondolas, each carrying a couple or family, lined up like a traffic jam on a watery freeway. Many of the couples looked bored or were staring at their cell phones. Not romantic. Not magical.
Instead, we walked the narrow car-free lanes and crossed tiny canal bridges as well as large ones such as Rialto and Accademia—two of five spanning the Grand Canal. Rialto was the first built. Its premiere incarnation in 1181 consisted of a row of boats tied together side by side and planks laid on top of them. With its second incarnation in 1255, it became a wooden drawbridge allowing ship traffic up and down the canal. It collapsed in 1444 (under the weight of a crowd gathered to watch a boat parade in celebration of a wedding) and again in 1524, then was redesigned and built in 1591 as a covered stone structure lined with shops on both sides.
Instead of a tourist hotel, we opted to rent an apartment near the outskirts of Venice island. After taking some wrong turns trying to find the address while dragging suitcases behind us, we eventually arrived at a door in a building down an alleyway. One flight (but lots of steps) up, our apartment was perfect, with a balcony overlooking the small canal below. Our landlady, Sophia, lived next door and her dogs barked each time they heard us coming home. Below, along the canal, a string of restaurants and a wine bar made up the social life of our neighborhood. Sometimes we cooked our meals (there was a grocery store not far away); sometimes we ate out. We felt like we belonged there.
We also adapted to life without cars. Once we located our vaporetto (basically a bus on water) stop, we bought passes and went everywhere. The vaporettos were always crowded with standing room only, so we positioned ourselves near the “door” enabling us to get on and off easily. Coming home in the evening, the Moorish-style palaces and casinos with their twinkling lights spread golden reflections on the water of the Grand Canal.