Venetian Discoveries

Pigeons outnumber the Venetians.
The interior of St. Mark's Basilica sparkles in all its glory.
By Rick Steves

I love the insight a visitor gains by wandering through a great city with a local guide. Here's a sampling of my notes from one trip, taken while exploring the streets of Venice with a Venetian guide:

Venice is not only sinking but shrinking — its population half what it was 30 years ago. While the city is bribing locals to stay, the cost of real estate is so high that young adults cannot afford an apartment here. Students are going away to universities and not coming back. Chinese immigrants are buying up the small businesses. My guide says, "They pay cash."

While its population is small, Venice attracts as many tourists as any major city. With 12 million visitors a year, Venice rivals Europe's major capitals (Paris and London) in popularity. But since its visitors are sharing a small town, tourism is more dominant and visible.

Rats and pigeons also outnumber the locals. They say each Venetian has two pigeons and four rats.

Venice has always been an ethnic mix in flux. The Greek Orthodox community — established here since the 1500s when the Orthodox St. George Cathedral was built — is down to about 30 now. But the Russians have moved in, revitalizing the Orthodox church, filling service jobs, and becoming a valued part of the community. 

The Romans divided towns in four with two crossing roads. This is why we refer to a town's neighborhoods as "quarters." In Venice there's no such Roman order. It's a jumble. But there have always been six districts; therefore you don't find quarters here but sixths. The city is divided into six sestieri.        

The sestieri are easily connected by boat. Riding the vaporetti (bus-like city boats) is a way of life here. Locals even take public transit to the hospital to have their babies. Most Venetians have a car, though as my guide said, "We're not very much beloved on the road."

Exploring the back streets, you'll come across cicchetti bars serving great Venetian-style tapas. Only a few are open on Sunday. It's a working-class tradition, the selection and ambience are best on workdays (Mon–Sat lunch and early dinner).

Venice is dominated by St. Mark's Basilica — which seems old even in this old city. Great cities and nations need roots, even if it means fabricating their historical legitimacy. St. Mark's Basilica was built in the late 11th century, modeled after a church in Constantinople 500 years older. This retro church gave the implication that Venice had quite a long history. Relics give a church even more importance, putting it on the lucrative pilgrimage route. By stealing the bones of St. Mark (from Alexandria) and housing them in this ancient-looking church, Venice made itself seem very legitimate and powerful indeed.

St. Mark's Basilica is two feet above sea level — the lowest part of town and the first to flood. There are a hundred floods a year. The basilica is also deluged with pickpockets. It's a crowded jostle — any bump can be a wallet gone. But the church is always worth a visit, especially when it's illuminated. To enjoy the gilded, mosaic-covered church in all its medieval glory, see it when it's lit up.

The marble mosaics on the church's floor were "inherited" (Venetians have a tough time saying "looted") from Constantinople. Looking up at the ceiling mosaics, my guide pointed out the prominence of Noah's Ark. Venetians, who were great ship builders, had an affinity to the story of the Ark. (At its peak, Venice's warship-building industry employed 3,000.) The adjacent mosaic of the Tower of Babel looks just like the famous Campanile bell tower outside the church. In the 12th century, the powerful Venetians saw things on their terms from their perspective — much the way Americans do today.