What is the Real Venice?
If you ask some people they will tell you Venice is St Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs. They will inform you that the price of things in Venice are high. They will tell you they hated it, or that it smelt, or it was crowded and awful.
Or they will see something magical and fall in love.
And believe me, Venice is magical in a way I have never known another city to be. With fascinating beginnings clawed from a swampy lagoon and waging an ongoing battle against the elements and time for its survival, this is a city that continues to stand.
Its social structure may be changing, but the essence of Venice remains, you just need to look a little harder.
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In my mind, there are two Venice’s.
The first one is the one I dislike. It is busy and crowded (and I hate crowds).
Groups of humanity so thick you need to push and elbow your way through to get to the other side, but there is no end because the mass seems ever expanding.
It is noisy, has you clutching your bag with the fear of it being snatched from your shoulder at any second. And it is this mass of humanity that attracts the undesirables, the opportunists that can and will take from you what they can in a moment.
You shuffle along like you are caught in a machine. I even had the experience of one man walking on me, twice! He was moving along in his group, paying no attention to where he was going.
His head swivelled to see the “must see” sight, in this case, The Bridge of Sighs, and quite literally walked into me, on me twice as I tried to move out of his path, and still, he didn’t break his gaze. He didn’t even realise.
You can hear every language from around the world except the one you should hear. You could be trapped in that mass of humanity and still never interact with another human being. There is a sea of selfie sticks and tour groups.
Lines of people, blindly following their tour guide who they could not possibly hear, as they wind their way through narrow alleyways, taking up precious space.
With not even a moment to take in the beauty, the focus being the restaurant at the end of their trek or “must see” tourist site, with no regard to the locals who try to get on with their day. That is the Venice I am sad to see.
This is the Venice I hate, with a passion. And this is the one I immediately encountered upon my return. I could not believe that I had left this place wanting to return.
I kept wondering what had been different before; maybe it was magical the first time and a feeling that could not be recaptured.
The Venice I Remembered
And then I found the Venice I love, thank goodness.
The one I found on early morning walks, off the well-worn path and even into the tourist places, I discovered that magical Venice once again.
The stillness, the soft light extending its fingers to touch the tops of buildings and squeeze its way through crevices, to slowly light a new day, moving from cobblestone to cobblestone as the sun rises a bit, by bit, by bit.
The light was playing across the lagoon, the colours of the early morning making it so achingly beautiful.
Early morning walks including a stop at the café bar to order our espresso. To stand at the bar with the locals, to hear greetings and chatter as we add sugar, stir and gulp it down a delicious, robust and perfect elixir.
Groups of men and boys were teasing each other, laughing, seemingly happy in that early part of the day.
Looking past the main areas
A walk in the morning to the Rialto Markets and wishing I was staying in an apartment so I could buy the fresh, delicious produce and cook up a storm. The piles of freshly caught seafood with the scent of the ocean still clinging to it.
We ventured for the day to the Jewish Ghetto. There were so few people, and it had such a different feel.
We had a warm interaction with a lovely man who sold us our Murano Glass jewellery. Yes, he was gorgeous on the outside as well!
He shared his story of being a single father with two teenage daughters, exchanging the trials and tribulations of raising teenage children shared by us all. He told us about Mondays he did not work so that he can cook for the week and clean the villa.
Ladies, by this time I tell you we were swooning just a little.
Sorry, I lost focus for a second, back to the story.
Then Late one Night
And late one night spent sitting in St Mark’s Square, soft music playing, pools of water rising reflecting the beauty in front of us.
Some people thrive on crowds and excitement and energy. I thrive on quiet reflection.
Eyeing the rustic textures of an ancient building with a crumbling facade, watching the shadows play on walls of colour, reflected on the rippling water of canals intertwining through this stunningly beautiful city.
I can’t even begin to imagine what real life would be like here for the Venetians and I feel for them. I can’t begin to understand what it must be like for your home to have more tourists than residents. To be surrounded by those who come to view your home as a tourist attraction.
How to see the “real” Venice
Where to Stay
When I return to Venice, I will stay in the area near the train station, Cannaregio. It happens to be the most populated Sestieri of the six in Venice.
But because it is on the Grand Canal, a water bus pass (prebook if you are nervous about working out the public transport system there) would make it easy to access the rest of Venice without being in the thick of the tourist crush.
If you must see St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, and you should, then I would suggest pre-purchasing tickets to allow you to skip the line and streamline your time. The last time I was in Venice the lines were extremely long.
Getting off the Beaten Track
If you don’t want to venture out on your own then join a walking tour led by a local. We did one with the group I was hosting, and it was fantastic.
Our guide Simona took us to areas we would not have found on our own and showed us interesting sights like the Hospital (you must go into the foyer to have a look!)
She pointed out interesting, quirky things like unique door handles and cement pillars in alleyway corners. I bet you don’t know what they are for? She also pointed out the different architecture, water cisterns in squares and other funky facts.
I used her route to venture out on my own the next day. I explored the artisan stores I had spied the day before.
I still would suggest going to some of the most popular places in Venice like Murano and Burano. But personally, I would go as early as I could to avoid the crowds and make exploring easier.
Would I return?
I am pleased to have found the Venice I love. It is one of my recommended European cities to see.
My advice if you are planning on visiting Venice is to get up early and go and get lost.
With no plan in mind, meander through laneways, over canals, through small piazzas and take in the “real” Venice. Don’t stay on the tourist paths. Take your time, jump on the water buses.
Explore and find the magic of Venice.
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