Venice and Its Lagoon

Venice, more than any other European city, has an endlessly seductive charm. For centuries, it was nicknamed La Serenissima, "The Most Serenely Beautiful One" — and for good reason. Along with sampling the sumptuous art treasures of Venice and exploring its back-street wonders, we'll cruise its lagoon, stopping in fiery Murano for glass, pastel Burano for lace, and murky Torcello for a sense of where Venice was born.


[201] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're exploring my favorite wetlands anywhere — Venice. Thanks for joining us. And hold ... on ... tight!

[202, series open]

[203,] In its heyday Venice ruled an empire with trading posts stretching all the way to Greece and Turkey. But today, it's just a small town of 60,000 with endless intrigue offering rich rewards for the thoughtful visitor.

[204] Venice offers one of Europe's truly great sightseeing experiences. Its main square, Piazza San Marco, with its grand Doges Palace and the Basilica of St. Marks, marked by its towering campanile, was the most powerful couple of acres in all of Europe for centuries. Like a grand boulevard, its Grand Canal winds through a city lined with once mighty palazzos. And Venice is remarkably well-preserved with an intoxicating mix of sights and experiences you'll never forget.

[205] In this second of two episodes, we venture beyond the block-buster main sights. We'll join a friend with a fast boat to explore the lagoon — and discover village Venice, see traditional artisans blow it big time, join locals in the market, get to know the leading Venetian painters, and follow the superpower's decline into the decadence of its hedonistic 18th century.

[206] In the north of Italy, at the head of the Adriatic Sea, Venice sits in a vast lagoon, connected to the mainland by a causeway. Along with the main island, we'll visit three other islands — Torcello, Murano, and Burano.

[207] Venice was born in mud like this. After Rome fell, farmers on the mainland were sick and tired of being overrun by barbarians and moved out into this marshy lagoon and hoped the barbarians didn't like water. And from that humble beginning was born one of the great cities of Europe. By the 13th century, Venice was the economic and military super power of Europe.

[208] Today's lagoon is filled with reminders of its first inhabitants, those farmers who became sea-faring merchants, dredging canals, pounding in millions of timbers for foundations, and building communities that ultimately coalesced to become Venice.

[209] But those first settlements were humble. Torcello — about a half hour by boat from main island — was one of the first places where mainlanders settled. Once a thriving community, Torcello was decimated by malaria and today only its fine church remains. Dating from the 7th century, this is the oldest church in the lagoon.

[210] The church feels ancient. Its wood frame and beam ceiling was flexible to accommodate the ever-shifting foundation underneath. Its mosaics illustrate the importance of the church to those first Venetians.

[211] My friend Piero is picking me up for a tour of the lagoon. Venetians love their boats. For Piero, it's his escape. He spends his favorite hours away from the crush of tourists, in what he calls his "parallel Venice."

Rick: When did you have a boat from the beginning?
Piero: My first boat? My first boat 6 years old.
Rick: Seriously?
Piero: Seriously. This boat mean the freedom, the freedom to escape from the stress life when town is so crowded, there is a lot of people, when there is a lot of tourism, is a perfect thing to escape from.
Rick: You step in this boat, you have your parallel Venice.
Piero: Right.

[213] The lagoon is protected from the open sea by a string of low-lying islands. Until modern times, it was accessible only by boat. Then in 1846 this causeway with train tracks — and a highway added later by Mussolini — connected the city to the rest of Italy. Well-marked channels are dredged through the shallow lagoon. Boats of all kinds shuttle back and forth. Our next stop is Murano.

[214] Venice is famed for its glass, for centuries blown here on the island of Murano. A 13th century law restricted the dangerous glass furnaces to Murano to prevent fires on the main island and also to protect the secrets of Venetian glassmaking — historically vital to the local economy.

[215] Today glass is still big business as tourists come here in droves. While savvy shoppers know the cheap knickknacks are most likely from China, the venerable art form is alive and well as you'll see in some of the elaborate showrooms. You can witness the traditional mastery of this craft in adjoining workshops. These artisans are from families of glassblowers which go back many generations.

[217] If you don't have a Venetian friend with a boat, water taxis zip quickly from island to island, while regular ferryboats connect Venice with neighboring lagoon communities in a more relaxed and less expensive way. Our next lagoon stop is Burano.

[218] Burano, with its pastel facades gracing the lagoon, was first a fishing town. Later it thrived as a lace-making center. Today, it's popular with visitors for its gentle ambience...and lace shops. Once sleepy, its main center is now crowded with tourists. Locals say "anything with a door is a shop".

[219] Burano's lace making heritage goes back 500 years. Shops proudly display these painstakingly produced works of art. Rather than using bobbins, women make Burano's beautiful lace with only needles and thread. Meticulously following time honored patterns, these traditions continue to be passed from older generations to the next.

[220] As the day winds down, shops close and the crowds return to Venice. Stay and wander Burano's back lanes for a peaceful slice of the Venetian lagoon most visitors miss.

[221] Earlier today, this place was packed with tourists. I'm here in the early evening — I've got it nearly to myself. All over Italy, to escape the heat and crowds, sightsee in relative peace and quiet late in the day.

[222] As the sun sets, Piero picks us up and we head back to Venice. In this light the timeless beauty of the lagoon is particularly striking. Piero's taking us to his favorite restaurant, on another island, Giudecca — just across from town. From this peaceful canal-side perch, the hub-bub of downtown Venice becomes a romantically floodlit cityscape.

[223] Piero's brother-in-law Roberto has joined us and after a day on the lagoon it only makes sense to opt for seafood — the obvious forte and passion of Venetian chefs.

[223a] For antipasti we have a tray of riches from the lagoon; sardines, calamari, octopus, and baccala.

Piero: This is like a cream; baccala montecato
Rick: So this would be a cod?

[223b] And along with it, a bowl of fresh mussels and clams. Spaghetti alla busara comes next. This dish is common in the north Adriatic

Piero: Venet. You know Veneto? And the first part of the Croatia that is history

[223c] It has a fresh tomato sauce, spaghetti made from farro, and it's topped with langostino. The food is fantastic and this romantic setting makes it even better.

[224] The touristy heart of Venice can be absolutely mobbed all year long. The main square, Piazza San Marco — with the Basilica San Marco and the Doges Palace — understandably attracts big crowds. Midday, the bus tour groups day-tripping in from their mainland hotels and cruise ship passengers converge, all dutifully following their guides. The waterfront becomes a human traffic jam. And tour groups in gondola convoys clog the canals.

[225] But it's easy to organize your sightseeing to escape the crowds. Five minutes on a vaporetto takes me across the basin to Palladio's dreamy church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

[226] Its 16th century façade features the style made famous by Andrea Palladio, who inspired generations of architects in England and America. Inside, his text book Renaissance architectural values are evident: clarity, orderliness, mathematical perfection. In the choir area, with its fine acoustics,  monks gathered to sing and worship. The altar is topped with a bronze globe — acknowledging discoveries of the New World and the universality of the Christian message. The statue is of God the Father, whose triangular halo is a reminder that he's part of the Holy Trinity.

[227] The church's bell-tower rewards visitors with stunning vistas of Venice and the Lagoon. The view from here is the best in town.

[228] Venice is an almost perfectly preserved car-free city built upon countless islands all laced together with bridges, alleys and canal-sidewalks. Smaller canals flow like streams into its main thoroughfare: the Grand Canal. Once a glittering center of power with luxurious palaces showing off the wealth of its merchant class, the now sinking, shrinking city is in a state of elegant decay. Venice survives thanks to government help and tourism.

[231] One place that has always survived without the help of tourism is Venice's fish market. Each morning, in the shade of the famous Rialto Bridge, the fish market is busy with locals stocking up. Observing the timeless everyday rituals of the market, it's clear — amid all this tourism — Venetian culture survives. Seafood still plays a big role in its cuisine. Small fish — anchovies and sardines — are local. Shrimp, octopi, and squid fresh from the lagoon distinguish many Venetian dishes.

[232] From the Rialto, a street called the Mercerie leads to St. Mark's. This is the tourists' main drag — with human traffic jams and a gauntlet of shopping temptations. Many tourists — as if in a knick-knack-induced trance — never get beyond this one glitzy street. If this is all you experience — as it is for so many — Venice can be more exhausting than enjoyable.

[233] But savvy travelers leave the center and explore. Walk and walk to the far reaches of town. Don't worry about getting lost. Keep reminding yourself, "I'm on an island, and I can't get off."

[234] The worst-case scenario — your island ends and you have to enjoy a drink on the edge of town while studying your map. Invest in a good map. If you do lose your way, pop into any business and ask for their card — it comes with a map and a prominent "you are here."

[235] Since there are no real street names, you navigate by landmarks. Follow the directional arrows or simply ask a local, "Dov'è" — that's where is — "San Marco?" "Dov'e Rialto?" They'll point you in the right direction...

[236] Wandering, you discover a different Venice. You may stumble upon some shy grandeur. Five hundred years ago, a big shot with some extra cash decided to update his Gothic mansion with a Renaissance spiral staircase.

[237] Over the centuries, the haphazard community coalesced. Because nobles originally settled on their own little islands, you'll find palaces (and delightful squares) scattered all over. Eventually, island communities decided to join, or literally "bridge," with others. Building bridges required shoring up the canals. Later, paved canalside walks appeared.

[238] While plenty wet, Venice had no natural source of drinking water. But a thousand years ago, residents devised a clever way of using town squares as cisterns.

[239] The rainwater would flow into these stone grills, through a sand filtering system, and on to a central well. Only after it devised this safe local source of drinking water was Venice's population able to grow.

[240] Hundreds of these rain collection systems provided drinking water right up until 1884 when an aqueduct was opened, bringing water in from nearby mountains.

[241] The city, with its pilings-in-mud foundation, is slowly sinking. Many ground floors have been vacated. Pondering this church's flooded crypt, you'll appreciate the on-going struggle. While accelerated by a rising sea level due to global climate change, this has been a challenge for centuries.

[242] With the right combination of high tide, wind, and barometric pressure, the city floods. Locals are used to it. Elevated walkways are put up. They pull on their rubber boots, and life goes on.

[244] The population of Venice is sinking too. With the high cost of living in the lagoon and the allure of a faster-paced world on the mainland with better employment opportunities, young people are leaving. More and more businesses are now run by immigrants who commute in from the mainland.

[245] But, in its prime, people clamored to live in Venice. In the Middle Ages, merchant communities from all over the Mediterranean world established a presence here in what was the trading capital of Europe.

[246] This was where the Dalmatian community from Croatia met to worship and preserve their culture. It was one of a several such community centers for various ethnic groups — all part of the cosmopolitan city of Venice.

[247] The exquisite wood-paneled meeting room, decorated with paintings by Carpaccio from about the year 1500, is one of the finest Renaissance interiors in Venice.

[248] Scenes throughout tell story of St. George, the Dalmatians' patron saint. Here he slays a dragon and metaphorically conquered paganism. George charges forward and spears the dragon in the head,  to the relief of the damsel. St. George leads the bedraggled dragon, spear still in his head, to the pagan king and queen. Finally, the  Royal couple kneels before George as he baptizes them.

[248a] The Greeks lived and worked nearby, in the shadow of their church's leaning bell tower. Stepping inside, you step into yet another culture. To this day the church serves that community.

[249] Another part of Venice's diverse population was the Jewish community. And the original Ghetto was here in Venice.

[250] In medieval times, Jews — who were the moneylenders of the day — were allowed to do their business. But they were segregated on this easy-to isolate island which was a former copper foundry. In fact, the term ghetto comes from the Venetian word for foundry.

[251] The island's bridges were locked up at night. As the population swelled in the 1600s, the ghetto had to expand...but it could only go up. The resulting eight story buildings — skyscrapers in their day — survive.

[255] To get a sense of how Venice was in earlier times head to the Accademia,  the best museum for Venetian Renaissance painting. Art is the closest thing to a time tunnel experience in our travels. It enables you to imagine life here centuries ago.

[256] The Venetian love of the good life shows itself in Venetian painting. And a perfect example: Paolo Veronese's "Feast in the House of Levi": It's a party and you're invited! Everyone's lavishly dressed. Conversation rages and there's plenty to eat and drink. It's textbook Venetian: big canvas, bright colors, Renaissance architecture...a slice of luxurious Venetian life. The original title was "The Last Supper". It showed Jesus and his disciples sharing a final meal before his crucifixion.

[257] The church considered this too hedonistic for a Last Supper. Veronese was hauled before the Inquisition and to save his hide... and the painting, he just renamed it: "Feast of the House of Levi."

[258] Venetian masters painted more reverent scenes as well. This serene "Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints" is by Giovanni Bellini. Mary and baby Jesus meet with saints engaging in a "sacred conversation" while musician angels jam at their feet. The painting's believable depth gives us mortals a chance to feel like we're part of the scene...welcome to mingle with the saints.

[260] Paintings here show how little Venice has changed over the centuries. This Procession in Piazza San Marco, painted in 1496, helps us imagine the ritual that came with Venetian society. Enjoy an intimate peek into life here 500 years ago. Linger over these timeless images... then get out and experience the real thing.

[272] The venerable Café Florian, one of the first places in Europe to serve coffee, has been the place for a discreet rendezvous since 1720. Today, when locals want to impress visitors, they bring them here for a drink. In these richly decorated 18th-century rooms Casanova, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens have all happily paid too much for their coffee.

[261] Venice peaked in the 16th century. But after the discovery of America and new trade routes outside of the Mediterranean, its power plummeted. As Venice fell, its appetite for decadence grew. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Venetians partied, as if drunk on the wealth accumulated through earlier centuries as a trading power.

[262] The palace of the Rezzonico family, overlooking the Grand Canal, is Venice's Museum of the 18th Century, and an ideal place to ponder the decadence of that age.

[263] The grand ballroom was designed with a ceiling that opens up into the heavens. Imagine the hob-knobbing here as Venetian society gathered under candlelit chandeliers.

[264] The 18th century was a time of great change. The new ideas and innovations of the Enlightenment swept more adaptable societies upward into a thriving new modern age. Meanwhile, a Venice in denial declined. Insisting it remained exceptional, Venetian society chose to dance rather than to adapt.

[265] Partygoers revel behind masks — scenes Casanova would have enjoyed. Gentlemen dressed to the max... ladies with powdered hair piled high. And everyone used a mask to be devilishly incognito.

[266] Delightful rococo portraits by the female artist, Rosalba Carriera, stoked aristocratic egos. Longhi painted wealthy family scenes — showing a society bored and, it seems, with no shortage of leisure time. And landscape painters like Canaletto captured the wonder of the city with paintings that became the rage. These served as souvenirs for rich tourists after Venice became an obligatory stop on the grand tour.

[267] Remnants of the city's decadent age of decline survive: like its many colorful mask shops. These paper mache Venetian icons — which you can see being made and artfully painted in shops around town — gave well-bred aristocrats anonymity during party seasons like Carnavale.

[268] Throughout Europe, but especially here in Venice, Carnavale provided a safety valve for people to really cut lose before Lent — a time of austerity leading up to Easter. That's when rich and poor alike enjoyed a burst of Mardi Gras-style fun ...when anything-goes and nobody knows.

[269] As life got frilly, so did the music. The Musica a Palazzo recreates a baroque evening, letting you be a guest at a noble palace. Venice was home to influential composers and for two centuries, a force in the world of opera. Tonight, it's the Barber of Seville by Rossini.

The performance — three acts in three different rooms — is punctuated with social time and presecco.

[271] The tradition of crowd-pleasing music continues every night on St. Mark's Square where café orchestras keep that uniquely Venetian dolce vita going well after dark. This scene evokes that last chapter of the Venetian Republic when it morphed from a powerhouse to a romantic traveler's dream come true.

[274] If any city in Europe lets us don a mask, escape the modern world, and enjoy a magic moment, it is Venice. I hope you've enjoyed our look at this great city. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Ciao.