Venice: Kaleidoscope of old and new

By Peter Bills

The picturesque waterways and alleyways offer different experiences. Photo / Jim Eagles
The picturesque waterways and alleyways offer different experiences. Photo / Jim Eagles

It costs just a paltry €6.50 (about $12). At that price, it has to be the best value boat ride anywhere in the world.

In the time it takes to travel between San Marco and Ferrovia, at either end of the Grand Canal, the unique sights and sounds of Venice pass serenely by your boat. The same ride on a gondola would cost you around €100.

You can and should explore Venice's many tight, twisting little alleyways on foot. Around every corner of this island city there is something intriguing, a new sight to stun the senses.

But to gain a more comprehensive, overall view of this city which attracted so many of the greatest artists and writers in the history of mankind, there is no finer way than cruising slowly up or down the Grand Canal by boat. Do it by day and then again after nightfall and you enjoy two quite different panoramic experiences.

This intriguing city is revealed to you in myriad ways. On the water, an ambulance cruises slowly by, its patient perhaps collected from a hotel or apartment.

Basic, simple wooden boats with outboard motors, delivering boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables to the market close by the Rialto Bridge jostle for space with gondolas conveying tourists down the canal. Nearby, there are boats delivering heavyweight building supplies to houses.

Venetian boatmen manoeuvre their twin-oared craft up the canal with a technique Canaletto would have witnessed. And all the while, the kaleidoscope of sights and sounds pass by, Venetians about their daily lives.

The ferry service is precisely that, a service used primarily by locals and residents. The ferry criss-crosses the canal to a series of landing points on either side where passengers wait to embark. Step on board for the journey of a lifetime.

Elegant balconies with exquisite carvings, so many clearly influenced by the Moorish period, overhang the water. At night, with many buildings lit up, the rich colours of red and gold that line the walls or hang as curtains are easily visible from the water. Public buildings, private homes all jumble together; here is a grand old palace, there a private hotel, with its garden running down to the waterfront.

Of course, the ancient element of Venice is everywhere to be seen. Decay here stands side by side with the modernity of McDonald's, a bizarre hotchpotch of buildings. Peeling paint, crumbling masonry and old, fading murals pass gently by. The omnipresent scaffolding seems to be a crutch to many old buildings. But then, this is a journey through the heart of one of Europe's greatest cities and certainly one of its most ancient.

The intricate wrought iron that protects entrance gates and windows is eaten by rust on many buildings. Above, on the upper floors, the morning washing hangs in the cold, damp winter air. It is a mystery how it dries.

Vast, elegant churches, many with beautiful stained-glass windows, are squeezed in beside individual houses and buildings housing galleries of art. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is in a building down the lower end of the canal, not far from San Marco. At the other end, past the Rialto Bridge, stands an impressive building housing the Gallery of Modern Art.

On the walkways beside the canals, people hurry about their business. Some are laden with produce from the markets, others carry planks of wood or similar building materials. On the upper floor of an elegant building, a lady, beautifully dressed, snuggles up to her husband as she clutches a bunch of red roses. Together, they pose for the cameraman on the veranda of a building.

All the while, the little boat chugs along towards its destination. Prepare for a few bumps along the way; at one landing stage, a dent records where one ferry bashed into its side. The boat captain propels his craft forward aggressively, often slamming into the landing stage at some speed. But no one on board seems to mind the lurches and bumps; the scenery is too great a distraction.

On a Sunday morning, the bells peal as you approach St Mark's Square, the great booming bell sending hundreds of pigeons scattering skywards. The scene marks, too, the end of your journey. But in the 40 minutes or so it has taken you to sail down Venice's Grand Canal, you have been offered the sights and sounds of Venice's real world and a peep into its glorious past.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily via Hong Kong or Los Angeles to London with connections to Milan and Rome with partner airline Alitalia.

Further information: The official tourist website for Venice is here. Or for an English perspective you could try visitvenice.co.uk.

- NZ Herald

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