"La Serenissima" — the "Most Serene Republic" which Truman Capote said is "like eating a box of chocolate liquers at one go." There's nothing like your first ride on the Grand Canal or your first view of the Veneto, the Venetian Lagoon, shrouded in mist. The city is unlike any place on Earth — a medieval Disneyland filled with the spirits of merchants and boatmen.
The Veneti, who by the 13th century had achieved so much in terms of social values, lived on an ill-defined triangle of land formed by the River Po, the Alps, and the Adriatic Sea. Set in a seaside lagoon dotted with small islands, Venice appears to float upon the water like a magical mirage, a living museum to its former glories.
It rose to greatness during the Renaissance of the 15th century when its merchants traded the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. After the fall of Constantinople, the Venetian galleys returned home laden with riches — gold, spices, silks, brocades and works of art — including the golden horses of St. Mark's, caught at full gallop with an unrestrainable forward motion, now the symbol of the city's liberty.
As a result of its geographical position and the way it developed over the centuries, the art and culture of Venice remained Byzantine in style, as can be seen in the Basilica of St. Mark, one of 107 churches whose ringing bells still regulate community life.
Motorised vaporetti, gondolas, and boats of all sizes glide under 400 bridges along its canals taking people and goods from dock to dock. Even coffins float down the canals in serene majesty. Three thousand alleys and thoroughfares make up the labyrinth of Venice, all in a tiny four-square-mile area. Even today, particularly during the summer months, it's the cruise ships that ply the Mediterranen that account for a great deal of the visitors to Venice. If you're one of them and planning on doubling up your cruise experience with time on terra firma, make sure you're completely covered for all eventualities and take out a travel insurance policy with cruise cover, before you leave home.
Lose yourself in Venice. The area of the Rialto Bridge, the center of city life, is home to the bustling City Market, best seen as the sun creeps up over the horizon. Then wander the alleyways and piazzas, stopping for an espresso at a neighborhood coffee bar or stop to watch a florist prepare a funerial spray in the open air. Make your way to Piazza San Marco, the place to see and be seen, then visit the marble Gothic Palace of the Doges, a symbol of Venice's beauty. Palazzos filled with art will dazzle your senses.
After following a gondolier to a local café for a plate of pasta, set off in a vaperetto to visit the islands of the Veneto — the church of Torcello, the lace of Burano, the glass of Murano. On your return, admire The Arsenal, where Venetian ships had been built for centuries. And as the sun settles behind the palazzos, treat yourself to smooth Italian ice cream along the Zattere waterfront as the lights flicker in the water of the canal.
Venice deserves to be savored like fine wine in sips rather than gulps. But, unfortunately, most people visit for the day — scurrying around like mice in a maze. Rather immerse yourself in the tapestry of Venice. You'll be glad you did.