This is my seventh visit to Venice and each time is like my first. I would gladly go for the eighth, ninth, and even tenth time. There is nothing I particularly dislike about this infamous city known for its romantic appeal, other than the swarms of frantic tourists from around the globe that you have to push your way through– and the blazing summer heat makes everything feel overwhelming. The place is always heaving with people of various nationalities; Russians, Swiss, Cubans, Tunisians, and an American asking if there’s a Starbucks anywhere! Never-ending tourists flock to this city on an annual basis. Is it any wonder? And even though there have been countless accounts of travelers gushing about this city, I myself feel like my numerous visits to this marvelous city merits a personal post. And that is why I would like to devote my story to why I find Venice so alluring and attractive.
This enchanting, and somewhat otherworldly city with buildings flanked in the waters, exudes a distinct mysterious vibe like no other. It’s historical character with crumbling and decaying yet beautiful facades makes it mesmerizing. Strolling through darkened cobblestone passages lit by yellow lanterns hanging on stone walls makes it feel as though its historical spirit has unchanged overtime and remains authentic until this day. When taking moonlit walks you feel you’re in love. It’s strange because Venice sets a specific dreamy-like mood, and has that special power to illicit this feeling like no other place I’ve been to.
When we arrive to Venice, we would normally board off the Vaporetto (water taxi) and proceed to look for our hotel through the maze-like streets. As we wheeled our suitcases through the streets, we lose ourselves in alleyways taking us to new and unexplored spots sometimes meeting dead ends and canals that are impassable without a boat. That’s the charm of Venice.
As we wander and meander our way through a network of hidden streets, we make random turns into narrow paths that weave through the floating city, offering us something new just around the corner; whether its a teal-blue canal, a gondola drifting past, a shop full of colorful masks, a beautiful courtyard, or a view of balconies with laundry swaying on clothespins.
Sometimes I can’t help but think of Venice as touristy place, and its easy for it to lose that allure once you see how touristic of a place it really is. Street vendors stand everywhere with carts overflowing with souvenirs, gondoliers advertising their rides expelling herds after herds of tourists, and stands after stands with the same Venetian trinkets at every corner. But when I stop to see balconies with clothes hanging out to dry and hear locals shouting to their neighbors out their windows -through the closely-clustered buildings that are close enough to reach over and touch-, it makes me look past the crowds of tourists that steal the stage, and find that there are few residents left on this marvelous watery city. Walking through Venice I wonder what its like to live in a place like this, and what kind of lifestyle people live by where everything is by water. Police cars, ambulances, DHL, are replaced with boats and roads are replaced with canals.
I am reminded of a fascinating, yet, creepy, occurrence the time my mum and I were walking past an old church and there happened to be a funeral taking place. We spotted a casket being carried out and placed onto a boat using a lifting machine. The boat then drifted away to a separate Island, known as San Michele (or Island of the Dead), that houses a cemetery for dead Venetians to be taken to. I found it spooky, yet incredibly interesting. Because the island itself is small the burials are temporary, meaning that, after 10 years or so, the deceased are exhumed to make space for newcomers. The wealthier and more privileged families get to keep the bodies of their friends and relatives in the grave for longer, but other graves have to face the grim possibility of having the bones dug up and transferred to an ossuary (a container or room where skeletal remains are kept and stored).
The hotel we stayed in had an antique Victorian style interior with classic old-school Venetian furniture. Usually the windows opened onto a moldy green canal or a view of the port. The room would tend to have a musty smell-I’d like to think its the scent of Venice. One of my most memorable moments was hanging out with my mother, father, and brother in the hotel room at nighttime and seeing my mum look over to the window and to her surprise and shock saw what looked like a gigantic building drifting past. She gasped, and we gasped with her when we rushed to have a look. We crammed at the window and watched as an enormous cruise ship glided along the lagoon playing “Con te Partiro”. We were all awestruck at the sheer size of that ship, and what appeared to look like something out of a movie. I am glad that my instinct did not tell me to whip out my phone and capture what I saw, leaving me to miss out on this rare moment.
So as we arrive at the hotel to freshen up and unpack, we shortly leave the hotel again. We walk past rows of parked bobbing gondolas and the sight of gondoliers steering their tourist-filled boats effortlessly with a 15-meter long wooden oar as they carol and call out certain signals. We find our way to the San Marco Square and then lose ourselves again through the alleyways. It was not a bad thing, as we were always rewarded with new and unexplored places. It’s safe to say that after our numerous visits to Venice, it was easier to find the same places again by simply following the familiar cues that lead us there. As much as it is easy to get lost, you eventually find your way.
On our journey we were attracted to the many different small shops offering hand-made jewelry and Murano glassware, along with perfume and glove boutiques, mask shops, and luxury brands. This is when it started to pour buckets of rain and we hid under a small protruded roof of one of the stores. A Bengali man took this as an opportunity to sell us raincoats, but we thought we could manage without them and hid in Gucci. The weather was cooler on this most recent visit to Venice, and the sky was not the usual blue with the scorching sun. This was the first time it rained heavily during our stay, and I enjoyed being in Venice under the gloomy weather with dark clouds looming overhead.
After waiting for the rain to stop, it was time for an Italian meal of pasta with clams or also known as Spaghetti Con Vongole! And of course, pizza. No matter how cheap a restaurant is in Venice, expect the pizza and pasta to taste delicious! Gorging on fresh seafood (especially mussels and clams) was always a must.
From my very trip to Venice, I instantly fell in love with the enormous variety of exquisite, artistic, ornate, and uniquely hand-painted Venetian masks. I consider every trip to Venice incomplete without buying at least one mask- a highlight of my trip. The moment I entered a mask shop my eyes would dart everywhere at the different faces adorned in feather, gold-leaf, gem, and glittery embellishments. Masks ranged from traditional ones, to more luxurious ones dressed up in gold and Swarovski crystals, and to much more modern ones like an avatar or robot mask. Upon walking into a shop, I’d always find a mask-maker working intricately on a mask at his desk. Mask-making has turned into an art, and mask-collecting turned into a hobby for me, each time bringing a new one home. As I browsed through all the masks, it was hard to decide which one I liked the most. I made sure each one I got was different. I always went for the hand-made authentic masks made of papier-mache and never for the cheaper plastic masks sold by street vendors. In the early days, they used to be make them from porcelain, leather, or even glass.
I was intrigued by the history behind these masks dating all the way back to the 1200’s. Columbine, bauta,medico della peste, arlecchino, jester, moretta, and volto are among the various types of traditional masks from which different characters were born with a history and interesting meaning behind them. The volto, for instance, is a full-faced mask that was mainly worn by the common people while there were specific types of masks worn only by aristocrats. Every year the famous “Carnival” (Carnevale) festivities take place, an opportunityto dress up in elaborate Venetian costumes and masks and parade the streets. The celebration has extended beyond its religious roots and became a world known event, an event that revives the tradition of the city and a time where masqueraders show off their extravagant-looking costumes. The purpose of masquerades back then was that the wearer of the mask could not be identified and hence, concealed their social status and gave them a chance to be whoever they wanted to be in disguise-mysterious and even mischievous. It was the only time of year that provided a chance to mingle anonymously with different social classes. Any form of identification like age, religion, or gender, was hidden behind a mask. The male Bauta mask, for example, was shaped in such a way around the nose and mouth, that it altered the wearer’s voice to remain unrecognizable. Masks served a symbolic purpose centuries ago, but now they serve as more of a decoration and souvenir.
Part of my mask collection
A lot of people have that pre-conceived idea of Venice as a romantic place, but the crowds and “smelly” canals disappoints many. I beg to differ. To really fall in love with Venice you have to roam away from the touristy areas to unmask its secrets. Our favorite places to roam around was where locals reside, more towards a completely different and quiet atmosphere and away from the more chaotic touristic areas. These places have been untouched by the hordes of tourists and remain unaffected by them (sounds like a zombie apocalypse). Venice is especially at its most enchanting at dawn. Sitting at a cozy local cafe and hearing old neighbors chatting away and greeting one another from their windows, spotting a Venetian lady rearranging Italian produce at her market, and just enjoying the overall great atmosphere makes it a much more fulfilling experience.
Tucked in my memory bank I also remember the time when my mum, dad, and I would have nice long sunset strolls. We crossed bridges over bridges and the further we went the quieter and darker it became. We always passed a big beautiful yacht with huge sales parked in the pier…
…and then we stopped at a cafe to have thinly-crusted cheese-laden Italiano pizza and some drinks, and then ambled our way back. It is this type of quiet, relaxing, and soothing quality that makes Venice so unique. A city so old and so prone to flooding, still stands today with it’s century-old architecture complete with rich art and strange tales.
It is best not to get swept along with the tourists, unless it is your first time visiting and you want to see the world-famous spots. But lingering in these places for too long is not advised, especially if you plan on staying for a few nights! Venice is best when its not rushed. Before it sinks one day, you have to really take some time to sink yourself in and soak up the city.