Yesterday was our first full-day in Venice. It also marked the first time I've been inside the Doge's Palace and the Bascilica of San Marco - apparently one needs four visits to the city to do these things.
My main observation - yes, Venice is a lovely place but Venice is LOVELY in non-tourist times. There are no cruise ship hordes. Shop keepers take more time with you. You can actually see things without fighting your way through people trying to get a look.
The day started quietly enough - breakfast was the usual European buffet fare - with two new fancy self-service coffee machines at the Abbazia since we last stayed here.
At the risk of showing how shallow I actually am - do you enjoy watching people go crazy at the buffet as much as I do? One gentleman filled a plate with 6 chocolate croissant. I took the high road and though 'how nice for him to get breakfast for his entire family'. Then he jammed them all in his mouth. I can see two as a splurge but six . . . really?
We had booked a tour for 8:30 so breakfast was rushed and we were out the door to buy a vaporetto pass and make our way to San Marco where we were to meet the guide. Of course we got the slow vaporetto. Normally I love a slow meander along the Grand Canal but we had a guide to meet.
We were 5 minutes late when we finally arrived at San Marco. I had messages from the tour company checking to see if I was OK. While I was chatting with their representative our guide ran up, gathered us up, and hustled us into the Doge's Palace where we met the group - two women from Singapore. Nice to have a group of 4.
The Palazzo Ducalo, Venice, also known as the Doge’s Palace, combined with St Mark’s Cathedral and St Mark’s Square make up the what must be amongst the most beautiful architectural complexes in the world.
For over a thousand years it was the residence and seat of the rulers, the Doges, of the Venetian Republic. In 1923, the palace was turned into a museum. Since then it has been one of the top draws in Italy with huge crowds going in and out of and around this pale chalky masterpiece of Venetian Gothic architecture and design.
Throughout its history, until it became a museum it has been a place where official, legal, political and commercial work took place. Its fabulous halls and rooms housed public offices, archives room, courtrooms, prisons, torture rooms, the Doge’s apartments, stables, armouries, and other facilities.
The structure, as it stands today, is the culmination of centuries of building, rebuilding, renovation, expansion and a variety of architectural styles. It has suffered the ravages of three devastating fires, the first in the 10th century, the next in 1483 and the last in 1547. No traces of the original building remain but the result of the fires and the growth and power of the Venetian state saw additional construction and extensions to the structure.
Nearly every Venetian and Italian artist, architect and designer of note has contributed to the Palace at some time or the other. The fires may have destroyed many masterpieces, but they only inspired later exquisite works. Frescoes, paintings, sculptures, staircases, ceilings and nearly every corner and cornice has the touch of some master.
Today the entrance to the Palace is from the Porta Del Frumento leading to the Museo dell’Opera containing a profusion of sculptures. The upper floors are where the Doge’s apartments are located. The second floor contains the Institutional Chambers, the Armoury and the attic prisons (immortalised by the escape by Casanova).
Venice, especially the Palace, was famed for its intrigues, conspiracies, plots, shady politics and assassinations. This led to the construction of a series of back doors, stairways, secret chambers and hidden corridors running through the Palace.Our tour, being a Secret Itinerary tour, took us through those passageways whereas others merely (merely?) saw the grand rooms below.
The tour was amazing. The history of Palace, the power that worked there, its jail cells, the legend of Casanova - this was my favourite tours I have taken in Italy. I loved hearing about the politics of Venice, and how the Doge was basically a figure head and prisoner of his own palace. I learned things I had never known, like the fact that Venice was the first place in the world to develop a form of legal aid, where prisoners of the Palace jail who could not afford lawyers were given representation by the state, and how confessions extracted by torture were not valid to convict someone early in Venice. That the Palace had little slots where people could make accusations against others. It was neat to see the government’s seat, and to hear the stories of how the head bureaucrat was paid very well to avoid any sot of corruption.
After the Palace we made our way to the Bascilica. The tide coming in was causing some high water so we climbed up on the platforms to avoid the cold seawater. Our guide, a native Venetian, had fun passing comment on all of the people she saw actually walking in the water. It was clear that if people knew what was in that water they'd be high and dry like us!
The last time we were at the Basilicia it was a Sunday so we couldn't see much as the close giant curtains to preserve the quiet for the worshipers. Yesterday the place was barren of both tourists and worshipers. We wandered about marveling at the different architectural styles and the stories behind how the various pieces were brought to Venice, mosty as plunder after the 4th crusade.
For an additional euro (normally 2 but our guide got us a deal) we visited the area behind the altar. There we saw the stunning Pala d’Oro. It’s studded with 2,000 emeralds, amethysts, sapphires, rubies, pearls and other gemstones. Biblical figures are depicted in colorful enamel, or cloisonné. St. Mark stands in the center as the saints, angels and Mary look to him. It was started in 976 in Constantinople and Venetian goldsmiths embellished it in 1209. It gives you a sense of wealth of Venice at one time. When Napoleon needed to fund his wars he pillaged Venice for gold, silver, jewelry, paintings, everything, that’s how wealthy Venice was.He never plundered the Pala d’Oro because it was so over-the-top with opulence that he was convinced it had to be fake.
At 11:30 the lights went on and we are able to enjoy a better view of the interior mosaics. Our guide explained the various styles represented on the walls and ceilings and compared them to some of the ones I had seen in Ravenna. In fact, she was impressed that I had actually been to Ravenna - most people have no clue as to the beauty that lies there.
Upstairs we saw the 4 gilt bronze horses in the Museum that date from the 8th or 9th century. When the Venetians sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, they took the horses from the Hippodrome and installed them on the facade of the Basilica. In 1797 Napoleon took them and they were used in the design of the Arc de Triomphe. The horses returned to Venice in 1815. Due to pollution in the 1980s the horses were moved inside the Basilica and replicas were installed outside.
After filling our minds and soul we needed to fill our stomachs. Our guide showed us one of her favourite restaurants near the square = Pomodoro Rosso. She warned us that it was an outpost of a chan but it served good food made with natural ingredients. We had eaten at one in Naples so we knew we were in for a good lunch at a reasonable price.Trivia - we were seated by a table near the fireplace where Peggy Guggenheim sat and planned her art exhibitions back in the 1950s during the spaces previous life as another restaurant.
Lunch was amazing - an appetizer of fried things common in the Naples area and for my main I had a pasta with pancetta, porcini mushrooms, and chestnuts. Perfect late fall/early winter fare!
Paul wanted to go up the Campanille but it was foggy so have put that on the list for today. We decided to wander back to the Accademia vaporetta stop. Along the way we passed three Chorus churches which were included in our Chorus Pass (10 euro 20 churches - an amazing deal) so we had to duck in an take in the wonders.
One of the last churches we visited was San Vitale. As we were leaving we saw a sign advertising a live performance there in the evening. The Interpreti Veneziani have performed there since 1987. The talent of the members of this group, their expertise as soloists and ensemble musicians and the high level of their performances have earned the Interpreti an enthusiastic welcome from both audiences and critics. I asked Paul if he wanted to go and he did so tickets were bought and plans made.
I figured it would require a nap in the afternoon - jet lag and classical music not being a happy combination!
Later we had the usual challenges in Venice - the vaporetto just stopped at Rialto and we were forced to get off there. Somehow we managed to make our way to San Vitale only to find we were actually early! This meant we had time for a glass of wine and a snack at a nearby bar before heading in to take our seats.
What a stunning evening it was - music by Venice's own Vivaldi played by brilliant musicians inside the stunning interior of a thousand year old church. It brought back memories of an opera performance years ago in the old Cathedrale in Lucca. Music seems to soar in such settings. We sat back and took in the wonder of it all.
After the performance we slowly made our way back to the hotel on foot taking in the beauty of Venice on a foggy night. There are few places in the world which are so atmospheric!