Europe vacation: Explore Venice by vaporetto, the cheaper alternative to gondolas

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The Grand Canal at sunset after the day’s water traffic has subsided. Photo / Getty Images

Everything happens on Venice’s Grand Canal, so hop on a vaporetto and enjoy the view, writes Marian McGuinness.

A nun walked across a small arched bridge, followed by her flock of small charges. When she reached the path, she stopped and turned to the children. She sang a few lines and the children responded with a song as she banged a wooden spoon on a saucepan lid to keep them in time. Everyone went away singing.

Italy has its share of alluring cities, but few can capture and hold your heart as the water goddess herself. The Serenissima. Venice.

The singing nun with her students, simply going about their daily business along the Grand Canal.  Photo / Marian McGuinness
The singing nun with her students, simply going about their daily business along the Grand Canal. Photo / Marian McGuinness

Venice’s extraordinary history began when Attila the Hun drove settlers into the swamps of the Adriatic Sea. They began connecting the 117 islets with bridges, more than 400 of which now span the 150 canals.

For the past four centuries, this limestone city has been underpinned by a petrified forest of 10 million oak and pine poles. Embedded in airless mud, the wood was naturally preserved.

Some might see Venice today as just a tourist theme park, but if you surrender to it from the moment you arrive, it will carry you along its jade waters into its 1200-year history, whether you travel in a romantic gondola, elegant, Teak water taxi or, as I did, by vaporetto.

A piece of everyday life

It’s dusk as I board vaporetto number 1, the water bus that serves all the Grand Canal stops, at Santa Lucia train station, and embark on the 8 km and 40 minute journey through the heart of Venice. I slither to a ledge and squeeze in next to costumed passengers. Three are dressed as Statues of Liberty, complete with masks surrounded by seven golden spikes. It’s February. Winter bids farewell and the city celebrates its annual Carnevale di Venezia, as it has every year since 1094. Carnevale derives from the words carne vale, or farewell to meat, as it anticipated the tradition of Lent leading up to Easter.

Just a few of the many colorful costumes at the Venetian Carnival.  Photo / Marian McGuinness
Just a few of the many colorful costumes at the Venetian Carnival. Photo / Marian McGuinness

The engine grinds and we drive into the breeze on the most beautiful avenue in the world. We glide past candy-striped anchor pilings and share space with FedEx couriers, garbage collectors, and barges laden with crates full of TVs and microwaves. There is a smell of oil as we drive through the rippled waters of the canal. We pass a construction boat balancing a crane and an excavator. An ambulance silently overtakes and suddenly there is a commotion on the starboard side as we have a near miss with a group of blue striped gondoliers. It’s Venetian-style street hoopla as insults and gestures fly between the vaporetto captain and the gondoliers.

The famous Rialto Bridge with a row of gondolas parked outside.  Photo / Marian McGuinness
The famous Rialto Bridge with a row of gondolas parked outside. Photo / Marian McGuinness

The sailor pushes through the crowd to get to the gate as the vaporetto passes a creaking, jerking pontoon. He lassoes the thick rope around the mooring post, pushes open the gate and the passengers disembark into mysterious, narrow alleys.

A small motorboat putts by. Two older Venetians sit like kings and queens on stately cane chairs. They sip Prosecco and eat nuts from a bowl and soak up the atmosphere of their evening drive. It’s that magical moment of twilight when one takes time to relax and celebrate the wonders of the day.

And so the collision with everyday Venetian life continues as we zigzag across the canal’s 20 pontoon jetties. Harmony and rhythm reign on the water. It is the choreography of a water ballet.

Vegetable shopping in canal style.  Photo / Marian McGuinness
Vegetable shopping in canal style. Photo / Marian McGuinness

A barge with a rack of plastic-wrapped dry cleaning, engines by. Geraniums flow from terracotta pots that line the steps of a dock crusted at its pock-shaped base with the moss of ages. Some houses have barred windows, and fact or fiction, it wasn’t to keep the women inside, but to keep the unscrupulous local Casanova out.

A city steeped in history

The channel curves. Like masks of alabaster, rouge and ocher, the palaces and churches slide by, adorned with Moorish windows, Baroque facades and Byzantine domes. They are the ancient palaces of popes and doges. They have hosted the superstars of writers, artists and musicians.

A notable swimmer of the Grand Canal was the romantic poet Lord Byron. At night he would often swim naked the 7km stretch from the beach island of Lido, propelling himself with his right arm while holding a torch with his left to warn sleepy gondoliers of his presence.

As I dream of Lord Byron’s Derring-do, the 16th-century marble-vaulted Rialto Bridge comes into view. I’m looking for Shakespeare’s Shylock from The Merchant of Venice in the crowd of tourists snapping their cameras. With so many in capes, wigs and masks, Shylock might well be one of them.

This is the location of the famous fish markets, where fishmongers sing as if they are Pavarotti. This is also the stop to visit the house where explorer Marco Polo lived. Nearby is the statue of a hunchback named Il Gobbo. It was the terminus for criminals who were forced to walk naked from St. Mark’s Square as punishment.

Another tribute to the area’s nudes is the pink-painted Ponte delle Tette, the Bridge of the Breasts, where prostitutes displayed their wares in the 15th century.

Music, machismo and mosaics

Venice is also home to the 17th-century Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. Carnevale was often a time of extramarital love, producing many illegitimate children. Vivaldi served as music teacher at the Ospedale della Pieta, now the exclusive Hotel Metropole. In Vivaldi’s time it was a monastery, orphanage and music school for abandoned girls. It was here that Vivaldi wrote the well-known Four Seasons, and an ensemble of 40 girls in white robes and crowned with pomegranate flowers played his music to the churchgoers from a brass trellis gallery.

Music is never far from the Grand Canal. In 2021, the 12m Noah’s Violin, named after the Biblical ark, stopped onlookers as it drifted down the canal with a string quartet on board playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It was designed as a musical message of hope as the world navigates the Covid-19 pandemic.

As our vaporetto continues, we pass the Accademia Bridge, one of only four bridges that cross the Grand Canal. Adjacent is the pillared Gallerie dell’Accademia, which houses Venetian Renaissance masterpieces.

Nearby, a waiter carries a huge burgundy parasol along the pedestrian promenade to an outdoor cafe and places it over a table. There’s a group of gondoliers drinking a smoko. “Be careful, Signorina,” one calls out to a group of schoolgirls who are out and about in one of the polished, black beauties, “he thinks he’s Casanova.” The girls giggle and the handsome gondolier laughs. He adjusts his sexy shades and nudges his rudder with more Italian machismo.

A Venetian gondola driver demonstrates the classic foot technique.  Photo / Marian McGuinness
A Venetian gondola driver demonstrates the classic foot technique. Photo / Marian McGuinness

Bells ring to welcome the end of the day as Venice slips into the evening. The canal has become a trail of hammered tin. Chandeliers twinkle from the 12th-century palazzo’s windows, and I become a voyeur of the painted ceilings, ornate furniture, and velvet curtains that frame their marble balconies. I imagine aristocratic ladies leaving their palaces in sumptuous robes and high platform shoes to hold their clothes above the filthy streets as they board their gondolas to be transported to a ball.

We round the last bend of the Grand Canal and I glimpse the mosaics of St. Mark’s Basilica, my last stop before the vaporetto rumbles into the darkness of the lagoon towards the island of Lido. The mood of the goddess has changed. The sun has set and the moon hovers in the sky like a blood orange, illuminating the Duomo and Campanile of St George on the island across the water, just as it was 100 years ago when Claude Monet sat here painting San Giorgio Maggiore at dusk .

The Doge's Palace on the famous St. Mark's Square in Venice.  Photo / Getty Images
The Doge’s Palace on the famous St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Photo / Getty Images

I step into the chaos of St. Mark’s Square and the flood of masked revelers pulls me into the maelstrom of carnival. It’s like stepping into a Cirque du Soleil opera, complete with stilt walkers, fire-eaters and acrobats. No wonder Napoleon described this piazza as “the most beautiful salon in Europe”.

I am framed by the arcades of the public prosecutor’s office and the Doge’s Palace with its baroque Bridge of Sighs. Byron wrote of this bridge, where prisoners could catch their last glimpse of Venice while being moved from the prison cells to the execution chambers, when “I stood on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison at each hand”.

Before me stands the sky-piercing bell tower of the Campanile, the pyramidal spire of which is crowned by a golden weather vane in the shape of Archangel Gabriel. To my right is the ornate five-domed St. Mark’s Basilica, where 828 merchants from Venice brought the stolen body of St. Mark from Alexandria, Egypt. According to legend, they hid his body in a barrel under layers of pork to smuggle it to Venice.

My journey ends and begins. Now it’s time to enjoy a fine meal at Caffe Florian, which shares the same space as Casanova and Dickens, or maybe I’ll head around the corner to Harry’s Bar, Ernest Hemmingway’s haunt, for a Bellini . And while I’m there I might even consider getting lost in Venice.

For more travel ideas see visitvenezia.eu/en

Checklist: Venice

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