Every day while in Venice I stood watching St Mark’s Square awash with an unrelenting tide. I saw it sweeping through its wide-open spaces and submerging every inch of the Piazza, filling every available space. It would flow between the stark white arches of the Doge’s Palace, lap around the base of the soaring 98-metre Camanile tower and slop through the columns supporting the golden-frescoed arches of St Mark’s Basilica. It scurried and flowed with pace and fervour, only pausing to listen to the commentary of a guide or take photographs.
While the much-publicised Aqua Alta caused by high lagoon tides, flood the square around a hundred times a year; the 50,000 daily visitors deluge it every day. The city is usually frantic as tourists from the 500 cruise ships that dock every year merge with school trips, package holidaymakers, romantic city breakers and, in the days I was there, with fellow guests off my Uniworld River Countess river boat. This constant barrage of visitors wash around the must-see sights in what, at times, can feel like tidal waves crashing over its surface.
There is a hurried fervour in St. Mark’s Square as tourists struggle to settle on which of the lines to join. These snake outside all of the main attractions: the ornate and opulent Doge’s Palace dating back to 14th Century with its enormous Sala del Maggiore Consiglio hall that used to host the 2,000 members of Venice’s Great Council and the infamous Bridge of Sighs leading to the prisons; the 11th Century Basilica with breath-taking gold mosaic splashed all over its vast domed interiors and the Campanile Tower itself where the energetic can venture to the top for spectacular views of the city.
While St Mark’s Square is a major draw card, the Grand Canal which snakes right through Venice turns into a bustling thoroughfare as vaporattos (river busses), gondolas, water taxis, private speed boats and commercial craft delivering every conceivable product turn this water highway into a carefully choreographed game of aquatic dodgems. The most popular stop is the Rialto Bridge, the oldest and grandest of the four bridges crossing it. Here the hoards wash up and down the steps, pushing their way against the retaining walls at the top to take selfies of the classic canal view behind them and to photograph the craft playing out their intricate water dance below.
There are more quiet and reflective parts of the city that you can escape to. Like exploring art in the Academia, where over five centuries of Venetian art is on display, or crossing over the Grand Canal to visit the less busy white-domed Santa Maria della Salute church. Most people just photograph it from the banks of the lagoon.
But my favourite is heading away from the popular tourist icons to the backwater canals and narrow streets in areas like the Castello. It is just 10 minutes walk from Piazza San Marco along the lagoon front. This is where most Venetians live. Here there is just a trickle of humanity, gondolas glide through the slim quiet waterways and you can find small coffee shops and local stores. It is a relief to escape from the tourist tat shops in the busier areas, as they are cluttered with replica Venetian masks, corny gondola ornaments and dubious glassware trying to replicate the more authentic Murano product. In these alleys you find more authentic experiences.
It is almost certain you will get lost exploring here, as there is no logic to the flow of the streets. This is not surprising since Venice was created from over 100 small islands meshed together by bridges. The buildings were created along the canals by driving closely compacted wooden poles metres into the ground and then laying stone foundations on top of them. The wood does not rot as it is buried under water and never exposed to oxygen. As you stroll around these backwaters you stumble across leaning towers and some signs of subsistence from the weight of the buildings settling. Some bridges have more steps on one side than the other, as the adjoining island was lower, or higher, than the one it has been connected to. St Mark’s Square is prone to flooding as it was already on a low lying island but the weight of the massive buildings and, many argue, the pressure of the constant flow of tourists has contributed too.
Although Venice has a reputation for being grubby, polluted and smelly, this was not my experience. It was remarkably clean, especially considering it has to cope with the needs of its 50,000 residents and an equal number of daily visitors. Refuse collection is made daily and requires rigorous adherence to sorting of rubbish into recycling types. It has to be put out first thing in the morning and is collected by water-borne collections shortly thereafter.
Venice is magical, despite the crowds you have to share it with. While you have to fight the floods of people in the main attractions, take time to head off into the less explored areas and get lost. This is the real way to see the city and experience the charm.
Watch my Tips For Travellers Video of must-see sights and attractions:
See over 120 photographs I took of the city: Tips For Travellers Venice Photos
Disclaimer: I travelled as a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and Titan Travel UK on a 7-night cruise on the River Countess.