Venice, Magical City On Water
This is my brief description of Venice: a city with priceless historical heritage; a creation of the ingenuity of minds with incomparable skill sets. Venice is a city in northern Italy known both for tourism and industry, and is the capital of the Veneto region. It is one of the world’s oldest tourist and cultural centres. Historically the capital of an independent city-state, Venice has been known by different names like: “The Floating City”, “Queen of the Adriatic”, “City of Water”, “City of Canals”, “City of Bridges”, “City of Masks,” amongst many.
The buildings of Venice are constructed on a system of wood poles buried in mud, for in the absence of oxygen under water, wood does not decay. Instead, it is petrified to become a stonelike structure. Long wood poles were first driven into the mud until they reached the much harder layer of compressed clay.
Wooden planks were then laid on these palings, and layered crosswise to obtain a marble like structure. Not forgetting that the landscape is challenging and potentially inhospitable, some buildings had instability problems and are visibly crooked today.
I had to choose between Paris and Venice, gentle reader. Avie, with whom I was travelling, gave Paris the thumbs-down, saying only lovers need go there; it is not meant for single ladies like us, she claimed, rightly or wrongly.
We both had a laugh at that. This was a trip on our own, seeking adventure around Europe. We started by making our own travel plans: we booked our tickets online four weeks ahead. It was summer and that meant: if you are not careful, you will not get a flight; and if you are able to get one, it will be expensive. Next step was booking the hostel that we would stay in; we could not afford a hotel. There are plenty of student hostels all around Europe that backpack travellers like us can stay in. We would stay just one night.
The day came. Armed with descriptions and all the information we could cull off Google, we boarded our flight. We arrived at the Marco Polo Airport and got on a bus to Piazzale Roma, from where we would make our way to our hostel.
Walking in circles
We set off asking for directions and, according to the mail in our hand, our destination was about 15 minutes from the busstop. After a couple of minutes we realised something very important: the landmarks are only arrows pointing towards San Marco and Rialto, if we were going forward. “Great,” I said. Then we resorted to asking for the number of our destination.
Venice is not like your normal city where there are street names and the rest. It is a walking city, with over 400 connecting canal bridges called Ponti. As I was to learn, it is Europe’s urban car free area, the only sizeable functioning city in the 21st century without motorcars or trucks. The framework of canals and narrow streets has prevented vehicular intrusion.
For a projected destination of 15 minutes, we spent about 90 minutes walking round before we were able to find our hostel. On getting there, we discovered that we should have been directed to take the water taxi; our hostel was actually only about 10 minutes from the water bus-stop. So much for information. Secondly, I would have appreciated being told to wear flat soles or comfy flipflops. My feet ached. After quick showers, we set out in search of the San Marco di Basilica, for the museums were already closed by the time we were done with settling in.
Economy and Government
Venice was the symbol of wise government and freedom in historical times, symbolising democracy and civilisation. The city was governed by the Great Council, made up of members of Venetian nobility. A council of ten, known as the Ducal Council or the Signoria, controlled the administration of the city. One member of the great council was elected “Doge”, or duke, the ceremonial head of the city, who normally held the title until his death.
Gateway to the East
The city’s only defence is the lagoon while the sea is its parade ground. Venetian origins are on water, with an invisible canal network that made navigation possible only for those who knew its intricate path. For centuries, the lagoon was Venice’s main defence as it was difficult, in fact almost impossible to breach.
Venice dominated the sea trade until the 17th century; its ships were able to navigate from Southern Russian rivers to the French coasts. Venetians are known for having sailed all over the world on powerful, safe ships at a time when seafaring was difficult and risky; and the city became known as Europe’s gateway to the East.
By ship, Venetians transported silk, spices, gold and silver, and wood. An important factor in the Venetian economy was the production of sea-going vessels in its own public shipyard, the Arsenal, built in the 18th century.
The naval superiority and importance of Venice became reduced when the city’s trade empire was taken over by countries like Portugal. After its fall in the 17th century, Venice reinvented itself in the 18th century as a major agricultural and industrial exporter.
Today, its economy is based mainly on tourism, shipbuilding, services, trade and industrial exports. The breathtaking sights of the cityshow why the tourist dollar keeps pouring in. In 1987, thewhole of the city of Venice and its lagoon were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This article was first published in 234NEXT.com on October 15, 2010.