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A floating world

Water buses are an easy way to get around Venice, but sometimes you just have to walk through its history-filled streets, says Seow Kai Lun

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Seow Kai Lun

The Straits Times

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THERE is something magical about Venice.

 

Apart from the fact that it seems to float on water and there are no roads, only canals, this northern Italian city is home to fabulously ornate buildings, enchanting streets and a rich culture that underscores its historical position as a centre of art and commerce.

 

A Unesco World Heritage site today, Venice was one of the most prosperous cities in Europe during the 13th century, and influential families would vie to build the grandest palaces with the help of the best artists and architects of the time.

 

Tourists may get a thrill moving from one canal to another, but for the Venetians, it is just a way of life.

 

They also take a bus to work or school — it just happens to move on the water instead of on land.

 

The alternative to travelling by canal is to leg it through the labyrinthine lanes.

 

The streets are narrow, as are the bridges that help you cross the canals that divide the hundred-odd islands that make up Venice, but be warned — one wrong turn can get you lost or with one foot in the water!

 

Get lost

 

But if you are not in a rush, wandering about on foot — and sometimes getting lost in the process — is the best way to discover the city and get to know its people.

 

The locals are generally laidback and friendly, and a smile goes a long way when you need their help for directions.

 

Here’s a tip — do not rely on the road names as they were named after significant establishments nearby. That’s why the city has 45 streets bearing the name Bakery Street.

 

And when I found myself in one of the city’s deserted corners, the handy map of Venice with a GPS function came in handy for finding my way out.

 

No-frills gondola ride

 

Though walking around Venice is great, it would be criminal not to take a ride on a gondola — one of the city’s most iconic symbols and its primary mode of transport between the 12th and late 20th centuries, when speedboats invaded the canals.

 

As it is a popular tourist attraction, a gondola ride can be expensive.

 

I checked with one operator and was told that an hour’s ride would cost at least €80 (S$122). Thankfully, I found a cheaper option.

 

“Introducing the cheapest gondola ride in Venice — the ride is short, but easy on the pocket. Just €2 and you get to tell people that you sat on a gondola in Venice,” chirped my guide Simone, when asked about gondola options by someone in my tour group.

 

Simone was referring to traghetti, passenger boats that ferry people across Venice’s Grand Canal at certain points when the nearest bridge is some distance away.

 

Traghetti lack the usual decorations and brocaded chairs, but they are gondolas. For your no-frills ride, head for the nearest traghetto pier and get rowed to the other side — and save €78!

 

Simone also shared a few more travel tips with us.

 

“Stand at the counter to eat and drink instead of sitting down, that’s what the locals do,” she said.

 

On using public toilets, she advised: “They cost €1.50 per entry. You should instead buy a drink of water from a café for just €0.50 and they’ll let you use their toilet.”

 

Practical tips aside, Simone was a fount of Venetian information.

 

As she took us from one island to the next, she shared interesting stories about its famous residents like merchant traveller Marco Polo, musical genius Vivaldi and adventurer Giacomo Casanova, who was known for his exploits with women.

 

That sinking feeling

 

I also learnt that Venice was sinking, bit by bit.

 

“See the door that is a little submerged underwater?” gestured our guide.

 

“That was where the shops and garages where families stored their boats were located. However, as the city is sinking due to rising water levels, the ground floors have been abandoned and everything starts from the first floor these days.”

 

Today, the sea level is about 20cm higher than it was in the past, and it continues to rise 2mm every year, according to scientists.

 

Flooding in Venice is also increasing in frequency, particularly during winter. Locally, it is a phenomenon known as the “acqua alta”.

 

Acqua Alta is also the apt name of the quaint bookshop I visited. Inside is a jumble of all sorts of books, piled into a gondola in the middle of the shop, and in bathtubs and buckets.

 

It is a pragmatic and novel (pardon the pun) response to the flooding.

 

When the ground level of the shop gets flooded, the books are protected as they float in their containers.

 

The shop’s unique “shelving” system was created after an episode of flooding damaged the majority of its books.

 

The damaged books have been innovatively re-purposed; they are stacked together to form the “stairs of knowledge” at the back of the bookstore.

 

No trip to Venice is complete without a visit to St Mark’s Basilica at St Mark’s Square. Also known as the church of gold, the stunning interiors of the multi-domed basilica are covered in golden mosaics featuring biblical scenes.

 

When you are done admiring the opulence within the walls of St Mark’s, the nearby square is the perfect place to end the day as the sun sets against a backdrop of neatly docked gondolas, bobbing up and down in the water.

 

InBrief

 

Getting there

 

I flew from Singapore to Venice on Lufthansa, with a stop at Frankfurt. From the airport, I took a bus to the Piazzale Roma to start my Venice adventure.

 

Traveller’s tips

 

- Travel on Venice’s vaporetto (water buses) can be expensive if you pay per trip. Instead, get a tourist travel card that is available in one-, two-, three- and seven-day options.

 

- Accommodation is expensive — a bed in a dorm costs the same as a private room elsewhere in Europe. If you are travelling on a budget, bring your own sheets to save some money.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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