I took a day trip to Venice…
… because my mom said all I needed to see there, I could see in just one day.
I used to think it was cool of me to be the kind of person who 'didn't do tours.' For a while, I actually believed I could explore the world Lonely Planet style.
After several attempts to backpack my way through life, I have come to the conclusion that I don't really want to off-the-beaten-path it. I would rather be a dork and get all the historical facts my soul craves for via conveniently located tour guide (bring on the fanny packs!). Perhaps this is age talking, but I don't want to miss out on any significant landmarks in a place I'm probably never going to visit again, and have that be because I got distracted (read: lost). While planning for Venice, I signed up for a Walks of Italy three-hour tour of St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace and hoped for the best.
I took the two-hour train ride from Sta Maria Novella in Florence to S Lucia in Venice, feeling a little tense about the whole thing because I doubted my capacity to navigate the waterways via vaporetto. It was a school holiday weekend, so the entire city was packed. Just getting a ticket to the water taxi from the station was crazy. In a panic and rush, I ended up paying for a 24-hour pass even if I very well knew I'd only be spending a couple of hours there.
You have to wind through many, many streets before reaching Piazza San Marco, where you will inevitably think to yourself, "I! Can! Now! Breathe!" (magically, the square was still packed with people, but in comparison to the side streets, this was virtually empty). Unfortunately, my very limited camera skills cannot capture how dizzyingly expansive this Piazza is. The archways and columns of the buildings surrounding the church are so visually arresting, I probably stood frozen in one spot for a couple of seconds before spinning around a few times, trying to get everything on video.
I packed a sandwich with me (from All'antico Vinaio in Florence—one must have the Prosciutto + Truffle Cream panini, OMG) and thank goodness for that because getting from the train station to the water taxi to the city center to the square took me about two hours—almost as long as it took to get to Venice from Florence. All illusions I had of actually having enough time to visit Burano and Murano went kaput because I had a tour promptly scheduled after lunch.
Venice is really good about keeping the city clean, so you're really not allowed to just plant yourself anywhere and munch on food. I had a few bites of my enormous sandwich standing up, waiting to meet my tour group by the entrance of the Correr Museum. (The guy on the steps of the museum beside me got kicked out for having a full spread on his lap.)
Our tour's first stop was St. Mark's Basilica, which is literally, a conflagration of styles, influences, materials, and beliefs through the centuries. The mosaics front and center are impressive but easy to miss, especially when you're too busy ogling the entire Piazza. What I appreciated about being on a tour was that I was able to stop and pick out details I would have otherwise skipped.
I hadn't done any research about St. Mark's so it surprised me that the structure was more East than West. By the time I had gotten to Venice, I'd had already made back to back trips to the Duomo in Florence, and had also gone through a whirlwind of churches around Siena, Pisa and Tuscany. The Byzantine influences on St. Mark's are undeniable—from the mosaics to the floor plan, to the domes. The church looked nothing like anything I'd seen around Italy.
We couldn't take photos inside the church (I really wanted to…) so I quickly picked up a postcard at the gift shop to make sure I didn't forget anything I'd seen inside. After a tour of the ground floor, we went up to the roof deck to see the clanging of the nearby clocktower. We also got a glimpse of the original four horses first laid on the facade of the church in the 13th century. Those life-sized bronze horses date back to Roman times 😲😲😲 … I'm always super shell-shocked when I find myself face to face with anything from antiquity, so it was really quite a sight for me.
The Islamic influence extends all the way to the Doge's Palace, right beside the church. It was interesting to note that St. Mark's Basilica was originally built just for the doge. THAT. HUGE. THING. Just for one person. WHAT.
Another fun fact that I almost forgot about until I saw this picture I'd taken. The two pink columns amidst the white mass of archways are said to signify where the Doge used to stand when he would address the people. Upon further googling I found out that it's also where death sentences were read. Hmm.
You kind of feel like you're a blip in the Universe when you're surrounded by centuries' worth of history. We discussed wars, government, religion—basically how Venice evolved and grew over time. It's amazing to see how history has transformed us and how some parts of humanity have remained the same despite years and years of change.
The opulence in Venice's biggest landmarks is hard to ignore. I mean, all that gold. It was interesting to be walking through all these gilded rooms in succession, knowing exactly the eventual fate that awaited the capitalistic city state after its fall.
We toured the rooms, went through the Bridge of Sighs (named for the cries that prisoners made upon seeing their last glimpse of sun and the outside world), entered one of the prison cells (v creepy), learned about the city's CIA equivalent at that time, and talked about so much more. I wish I could have taken photos, written down notes, and memorized everything while walking through the church and the palace. We also had some time to walk into the courtyard and roam around freely.
Our tour guide, Mose, was great. His pacing was excellent—considering the amount of history packed into every square inch of Venice, it was quite the feat that we finished it all in three hours. I totally recommend Walks of Italy—for $79, the skip the line tour to both key places plus all the extra attention and information was worth it. I even made friends with a couple on the tour and went for coffee with them at the palace's café (we still WhatsApp each other!).
The tour left me pretty exhausted, but I still had an hour and a half to kill before my train back to Florence. I decided to take a walk by the Grand Canal (still so. many. people.) and ogle the sights. Something about Italy's lovely mix of pink and orange and yellow really makes its streets—no matter how crowded—stand out.
A gondola ride was not on the table for me, but it was nice to peep into the famous canals, walk over the bridges, and get a glimpse of the tourists who actually did the tourist thing. (When in Rome…)
After walking the entire stretch just behind Piazza San Marco, my legs felt like jelly and I was ready to collapse. So I took my 24-hour pass and sat my ass on a water taxi and took a full ride around Venice. It wasn't a gondola but it was good enough.
After my round trip on the water taxi, it was time to head back to Florence. Venice was cool, I liked what I saw, but I was ready to call it a day after all the walking, knowing that the crowd would never thin out. The skies were turning a sullen gray too, so my evening ride home was perfectly timed.
If I had more time in Venice, I would have probably gone off to nearby places like Murano and Burano (to take more photos of pretty pink buildings), but honestly, they weren't too high on my list of priorities. All in all, a day was good enough. I'm happy I saw Venice—my Italian leg was all the better for it.