By the time we emerged from our suite at the Palazzo Rosa in Cannaregio it was more lunch than dinner time so, conscious of having already lost what amounted to a full day, we donned layers of icebreaker (in my case singlet, long sleeved T, cotton short sleeved T, icebreaker jersey, knee length jacket, scarf, hat and gloves)and set off on a mission- to get lost.
There are many curiosities in Venice, or 'Serenissima Repubblica' (the serene republic) as it was once known, one of the most obvious being the fact that it is built on not one but 117 small islands, connected by mostly stone arched bridges with steps on either side which were often occupied not only by winter boot clad feet but also by the tiny wheels one might find on the bottom of suitcases or loading trolleys or of the sort of shopping trolleys the elderly use bumping their way up and down the other side. Either side of the canals are candy coloured multi storey attached houses many with entrances directly off the canal creating picturesque images of doorways to nowhere and little boat ramps often marked by striped poles.
According to tradition, Venice was founded in 421 AD on April 25th, Saint Mark's day. The most important village in the lagoon, at the time, was not 'Venice' but Torcello, where in 639 a beautiful gold mosaic Cathedral was built.
Step by step, as the city grew, more islands were built on and bridges were constructed to link them to each other. To make the marshy islands stable and solid enough to build on millions of wooden pilings were driven through the mud and into the more solid base of sand and clay below. Oak planks were placed on top and then layers of heavy, water resistent marble for the actual building foundations. Over the years the salty sea water has petrified the wooden struts making them harder than stone but the weight of the marble foundations and the stone and brick buildings has slowly driven them further into the sandy base to the tune of a few centimeters a century. To add to the slump the hundreds of wells around the city were once used to remove water from subterranean aquifers eventually 'deflating' the bubble that was propping Venice up.
Because of Venice’s tendency to flood between November and March- the frequency of which has increased markedly over the years due, they say, more to global warming than to the idea that Venice is sinking- many of the residences have abandoned the first or ground floor but 'calle', or street, facing houses and shops still have to cope with the regular influx of the canals not so clean water. Most use wooden or metal barriers across the bottom of the doorway but the water still seeps through.
I woke twice, in the three nights we were there, to the otherworldly sounds of the acqua alta warning tones that echo off the walls of the city and rise melodically with the severity of the expected tide. Christmas Eve, the night before we left, I was again teased out of sleep by three tones eerily reminisent of the alien lure in 'Close Encounters'. I've found an example here press 'tone 3' to hear what we did. We were very lucky that high tide was in the early hours or we would have found ourselves with the prospect of getting our feet wet although the raised platforms you see here
are used by pedestrians which is most people as the streets of Venice are car free. The locals are well prepared with wardrobes of colourful gumboots, hip high waders and even, for tourists, disposable plastic knee high 'boots' to keep your toes dry. Still the prospect of lugging our packs to the nearest vaporetto thigh deep in freezing smelly water and then sitting for four and a half hours in wet clothes on the train to Rome was not very appealing.
Throughout history many have been seduced and enchanted by the fairytale like beauty of Venice with her cobbled labyrintine lanes and curved stone bridges. The water and closeness of her buildings seem to play with the light at all hours of the day and with the shadows at night. We were immediately betwitched. It was hard not to take photos of every canal and from the top of each 'ponte' and around every corner. There is an empyral, gossamer, whimsical feel to Venice. The boundaries between reality and fantasy become blurred in window boxes and plush gondola seats, in leaning bell towers and crooked doorways. Every few steps is a corner and around every corner is a painting.
We walked and walked, stopped for coffee and hot chocolate- which was more like pure melted chocolate- poked around christmas stalls and peered into warm shop windows and then walked some more.
Eventually we rounded a corner and caught our first glimpse of the San Marco Basillica.
Saint Mark, an Apostle who is said to be the author of the biblical book of Mark, is the patron Saint of Venice. He is also the Patron Saint of insect bites! The story goes that Mark was asked to write his 'book' by Peter. He did this in Rome. The Venetians chose him as their Patron Saint because of his ties with Rome which allowed them to declare their independence of the Byzantine Church.
The original Patron Saint of Venice was St.Teodoro (Saint Theodore of Amasea) whose body, when he was usurped by Mark, was moved to Brindisi. Mark's body was originally buried in Egypt after a particularly brutal very public death that was rumoured to have coloured the streets with his blood-literally! The story of San Marco's remains says that two Christian merchants smuggled him out of Alexandria to protect him from desecration and, alledgedly to deter detection by Muslim boarder guards, hid him between slices of pork. His remains were initially buried in a chapel in the Doge's Palace but later a church was built that was to be his perpetual resting place.
The majestic San Marco Basillica has, over the years, undergone many modifications including after a fire during the rebellion in 976 that was thought to have destroyed the saint's remains. They were eventually found in a pillar by a Doge in 1094.
St.Mark's main facade is unique. Modelled on typical a Byzantine design it is really more Gothic with soaring columns, ribbed arches, vast reverberant domes and fine spires ... oh and the reliefs, incredibly descriptive reliefs like pages of a story book. The five arched entrances all have richly tiled lintels with more tales told, this time of Saint Mark himself. During the Middle Ages owning a saint's remains assured attention and prosperity. There would have been just as many tourists crowding the churches corridors and spacious belly as there are (or are usually)today. Venice didn't possess just any Saint either- Mark was one of only four Evangelists- and they had his whole body! A feat almost unheard of.
Of the five arched doorways only two were open whenwe got there and, in complete contrast to what we had been warned, there were no queues. Two guards stood at the entrance doorway checking bags (usually backpacks are not allowed in but J was able to take in the small one he was wearing) and we passed a sign saying no photos so although they are supposedly lax about enforcment we respected the rule and our cameras stayed in our bags.
Just past the guards is a long hallway that runs horizontally the lehgth of the front of the church. Just as with all the other churches we were to encounter in Italy the structure was magnificent in the omnipotent sense of the word. Inside the five domes create a space grandiose and commanding which it needs to be to accommodate the brilliance of the 8000 sq meters of golden mosaics that depict scenes from the Gospel. The tiny squares of colour lean in different directions in order to catch any light there is which makes them appear to glitter like stars. The Basillica has one of the most extravagant and treasured altar screens in the world too. Covered in more than 3000 precious jewels and icons it is inlayed entirely in gold.
The square outside, Piazza San Marco, is the only square in Venice big enough to be legitimately called a piazza (the smaller ones are called campo's) and can sometimes be heard refered to as 'The Living Room of Europe'. It is the lowest place in Venice so is one of the first places to flood during an acqua alta and as the 'centre' of Venice is also one of the first places tourists visit. Here it is the night before we left, on Christmas Eve.
Shining bright in the rain like a Christmas ornament.
The bit that runs from the Basillica past the Doge's Palace, which we ran out of time to visit this time round, towards the lagoon is called Piazzetta San Marco and used to be a dock but was filled in in 1177.
This was a stance oft seen in Italy, necks bent as far back as possible, eyes trained skyward gazing at all the embellishments the roofs, spires and towers were holding. The boys are standing with the Doge's palace behind them. They are probably looking at the clock on the clock tower opposite which is distinctive in that it uses the signs of the zodiac.
The lion you can just see on the top of the pillar at the end of the Piazzetta is the symbol of Saint Mark.
At the end of the Piazzetta is a wide promenade where you can catch ferries to the islands or gondola's for a ride back through the canals. It is here where, on Ascension Day (40 days after Easter in the Christian calendar), a Doge and the city's most important members sailed out from into the Adriatic and to the Lido port where he threw a ring and pronounced: 'We wed you oh sea, in the sign of true, eternal dominion'.