The city is not a city. It’s actually a mirage – few people know that about Venice…it is a fata morgana of the seas, something that a shipwrecked traveler might wake up in, believing himself in a different world. The layout of this floating city is just too unique. I imagine it drifting away overnight, and myself waking up in a lonely bed floating in the lagoon. The city’s history is very unreliable. Nobody knows when, why or by whom the city was founded.
It is built on what is called an archipelago, a number of small islands, connected by channels. It is one of the few entirely car free cities in the world and probably the only one where a boat is the most convenient mode of transport. There are doors leading out of houses straight onto the canals.
This uniqueness is Venice’s burden. The city attracts thousands upon thousands of visitors each year. In fact the number of actual Venetians, people who were born and live in their own city, is rather small in comparison. It is said that – at almost any given moment – the visitors considerably outnumber the residents.
Venice is a city of visitors and travelers…and it can bear them. No matter how many people fill the main routes – like the one leading from the train station along the Rialto bridge to San Marco square where you can at best creep forward on a busy summer day – you can always take a quick turn and vanish into one of the smaller side streets and look for the true Venice…if there is one at all.
You must know, Venice is also a city of masks. The culture of the city was one of appearances and show but also of deceit and lies. You must never give yourself away entirely, always keep the others guessing and entertained by who you are. Go into a church. Any church. You will see that the paintings are without depth, like shimmering colors on the waves. Nothing solid and monumental would feel at home here.
A celebration of that aspect of the city still exists in the yearly Carnival of Venice every winter. It’s a celebration of the city’s secretive history and its love for the uncertain. People from all over the world fill St. Mark’s square wearing the most elegant masks and costumes.
Walking through the city you will see masks looking at you from every corner. Some are a reminder of the history of Venice – for example, a long nosed mask is reminiscent of those worn by plague doctors during the time the Black Death haunted the city – others are pure fancy.
Venice has several outlying islands. One, the island of Murano, is world-famous for its production of glass and jewelry which has a century long tradition and is often visited to see the glass factories and glass blowers at work.
Another island is reputed to hold an old sanatorium and to be more than a little haunted. That is probably just a story – why not rent a boat, try to find the island and make sure?
The decayed glory, the canals, the boats, old churches, squares full of people…Venice always offers something for a short or longer visit. Perhaps you will even see it during high water once, when many streets are flooded and visitors have to walk along makeshift piers to see everything they want to see.
There is one secret that the founders of the city managed to keep, for the most part. They were all seafarers and most of them were pirates, plunderers and thieves. In fact the entire city is a gigantic magpie’s nest of stolen goods, bits of temples and statues that were nabbed far away. Look at the Palace of the Doge, if you don’t believe me. On the middle balcony there is a group of statues on a chariot. They were brought here from different places and then the architects played a game. Where does this statue fit? The one that looks slightly angry. Even the lion on top of the pillar, even that symbol for the city came here on a boat from Africa and never felt, let alone saw a Venetian chisel.
Knowing this pleasantly scandalous morsel, don’t you feel like putting on a mask and walking around the city, feeling slightly superior and a little proud of yourself? No matter where you are from, the mask surely makes you a bit Venetian, no? Perhaps you understand how important, how essential, a bit of scandal was to the city?
Perhaps the next time (the first time?) you come, you will look for your own secret Venice? They say it is right around the next corner and over this bridge. Just walk past the shops selling masks, ice cream and pizza. Perhaps it’s somewhere in the Jewish part? Perhaps it is in a street that suddenly ends, in a window above a sea-smudged wall and the dance of light on the waves…