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A Skeptic’s Venice

By Daryl L. Hunter

Blue Hour, Grand Canal, Venice

Blue Hour, Grand Canal, Venice

Gondalier, Grand Canal, Venice

Gondolier, Grand Canal, Venice

Everything there is to say about Venice has already been said; well maybe I can dig deep for something to contribute, as all that has been said, hasn’t been said by me.

Venice was never one of my bucket list destinations; however, it was on the way to the twice bucket listed Dolomite Mountains, from Naples where I had been hired for a speaking engagement. I rationalized; it wouldn’t hurt to have a touch of Venice in my photo portfolio. A night in Venice entered my itinerary

Venice, population 270,000 is located in the northeast of Italy on the northwestern edge of the beautiful Adriatic Sea and hour and a half short of my real destination high in the limestone peaks of Northern Italy. Venice is much bigger than the European villages I prefer to shoot, village hell, it is a city, and I hate cities. When I travel, I fly into a city then leave as fast as I can for villages beyond. Although I have driven through Rome, Naples, Florence and Milan I have never stopped. Venice’s oddity though sucked me in.

The history of Venice begins around 400 A.D. The first people to settle in the Venetian Lagoon were a frightened people coming from the nearby Italian mainland. For centuries, these folks had enjoyed prosperous lives in prosperous cities of the Roman Empire strung along the northeastern shores of the Adriatic. During the fifth century the Roman Empire was unraveling rapidly, Northern Italy was devastated by the barbarian invasions; some led by Attila the Hun. Many people moved to the coastal lagoons, looking for a safer place. Here they established a collection of lagoon communities built on 117 low marshy islands at the center of a lagoon. The numerous canals that evolved over time provided an ideal location for a city in that day and age because they formed a natural defense against attackers. At first, it was an enclave of last resort, over the centuries though it morphed into a trading juggernaut and a dominant maritime power.

I found it fascinating how refugees from the mainland developed the engineering knowhow to first, to drive hundreds of thousand of wood pilings into the mud and sand of the marshy islands, placing wooden footers atop the pilings, then stone foundations around and over the pilings and footers that would support multistory buildings.

Venice, canal, Italy

Venice, canal, Italy

A Byzantine fleet sailed into Venice in 807 and took over. During this time Venice grew into its modern form and was marked by the expansion of Venice toward the sea via the construction of bridges, canals, bulwarks, fortifications, and stone buildings. The modern Venice, at one with the sea, was born. Later Venice prospered as a jump off point from Europe to the Middle East. Venice was also a point of departure for the Crusades almost from the very beginning.

The renowned merchant and adventurer Marco Polo, Venice’s most famous son, traveled from Italy across Asia from 1271 to 1295 establishing the trade route that became known as the Silk Road. He has since experienced a resurgence of fame because of a game played by kids around a swimming pool named for him. While in Venice I didn’t see any children playing Marco Polo in the canals, I was oddly disappointed.

Today, thanks to the causeway from the mainland to the islands, you can park your car at the entrance of this island city. I was surprised to find the parking lot was a ten story-parking garage. The only parking still available was on the roof, as I ascended, I hoped that the engineers had learned the mistakes of the Leaning Tower or Pisa. Pisa’s foundation is high and dry, for a peak at a foundation of Venice requires a snorkel, my consternation increased. From the parking garage or the train station it is a short walk to the flotilla of waterbuses and water taxies. You can also reach the historic town center by foot if you wish. This was not an option for me as my roll along suitcase was down two wheels since a one-mile walk across the cobblestone streets of the Isle of Procida. Sharon and I took the waterbus, cheap and efficient. Just like any land bus, these waterbuses have routes and stops that pick/drop-you off at different points in the city. In my pre-trip study I had resigned myself to the high cost of a forewarned water taxi, as I was unaware of the very affordable waterbus. This waterfront is a place to be careful of hustlers and thieves.

sunset, Railto Bridge, Grand Canal, Venice

Sunset, Railto Bridge, Grand Canal, Venice

For a place so visibly tethered to its past, Venice is having a mini renaissance; maybe a poor choice of words considering the breakthroughs of the real renaissance of Michelangelo and da Vinci who hailed from Florence. Few places can lay claim to such a spectacular setting, untainted architectural heritage, or jaw-dropping main drag as the Grand Canal. With a huge boost from the cruise lines Venetian entrepreneurs of the twenty-first century are experiencing a new prosperity. Before you pay a vendor, they ask you whether you will sit while you eat your slice of pizza or scoop of gelato or take it with you. We discovered you are charged a premium if you sit.

The Grand Canal is aptly named, despite it’s seemingly opposite of the Grand Teton Mountain Range back home. Grand as a preposition can illustrate a whole gamut of things. The Grand Canal, the watery avenue lined with the glories of Venetian architecture rising above it’s legendary waters is understatedly grand. Mercifully for the resident and non-photographer tourist the Grand Canal is rather windy which moves around some of the humid air. We photographers would rather choke on the humidity and have the antiquity of this ancient city’s reflection upon the water. The many curves of the canal make beautiful leading lines for photographs, a pleasant surprise.

I doubted ahead of time I’d do much shooting from the Iconic and clichéd Rialto Bridge; surprisingly though, I found the leading lines and canalled city chaos there quite captivating and the evening light alluring. Icons become icons for a reason.

Sunset, Grand Canal, Venice

Sunset, Grand Canal, Venice

The buildings in Venice have changed little over the centuries a fascinating amalgamation of influences from Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Italian around every curve of the canal. They lack the colorful fresh paint of Cinque Terre, Procida, and the Amalfi Coast probably because there is nowhere to plant the scaffolding to do so.   This accentuates the antiquity of the place and was a photogenic aspect.

The iconic and ubiquitous gondolas are the most famous and romantic means of transportation for experiencing the city. I though thought the eighty Euro fee killed all my romanticism, much to the chagrin of my wife; however, she did have to concede my point. I did however acquiesce explaining; when I pay the gondolier’s extortionary rate, I want it to be in sweet morning light so I can capture the experience with the camera for the portfolio. Not during the evening when an effective shutter speed from a moving boat would be unobtainable. By morning Sharon was eager to skip the gondola ride in favor of setting out early for our mountain destination, Cortina, I sighed as I suddenly felt eighty Euros richer despite an obvious hole in the Venetian portfolio.

Sharon insisted that we stay on the islands of Venice; I wanted to stay on the west side of the causeway where we could drive to our room. Sharon won. We got a room on the island and instead of telling about it I’m just going to post a screenshot of my Trip Advisor Review of Hotel Al Vagon the cheapest hotel in Venice.

Trip Advisor, Hotel Al Vagon

Trip Advisor, Hotel Al Vagon

The legendary Venice may be hard to grasp on a steamy day in midsummer when this city’s population can swell to twice it’s size with the tourists milling about the Piazza San Marco, and crowding Rialto Bridge, I was glad I was visiting in May. It’s important to remember that, even at peak visitor times, you are never more than a bridge and an alley away from a more secluded waterway or cobblestone avenue of surprises for photo opps.

Moose, Grand Teton National Park

What, then, makes Venice so special? Most of Venice looks exactly as they did four or five hundred years ago. Maybe apparitions of centuries past seem trapped within the ancient brick and marble of the ancient city. Maybe the beautiful decay and the juxtaposition of both the darkness and brightness of the place. Maybe because it has lingered into the imagination of most of us since we first heard of the place.

Although there are days when tourists outnumber locals by two to one, Venice never loses its capacity to enchant the first time visitor or the seasoned traveler. Or in my case, the detester of cities. Despite the crowds, I was enchanted.

Although midday lacked photo appeal to me as a photographer, evening provided some sweet light, a thunderstorm, and a muted sunset. I love thunderstorms.   Upon clearing of the storm, the city took on a delightful sheen and a blue hour that glowed with architecture and accents that can only be imagined then captured in a centuries old city of canals.

Before the dawn I was up and looking for the calm reflective water I can often count on at mountain lakes of my home, not so in Venice.   Five AM and the canals were alive with boats and barges full of supplies to keep the city alive. It wasn’t as busy as it would be at nine AM, but it did take lots of waiting for sections of canals to become free from boats if not the hoped-for tranquil reflective waterways. I was treated to a nice sunrise and some warm light that lit up the place.

netian Baker, Venice Italy

Venetian Baker balancing a box of bread on his head,

While exploring some back streets and canals I was shooting a rain puddle that was reflecting a portion of the neighborhood, when a man with a box of fresh bread balanced on his head walked by. Seeing what I was doing he offered top pose casting his reflection in the water. I couldn’t say yes fast enough. After a moment of shooting I offered him some Euros thinking that maybe this was his gimmick for cash, but he refused. He must have just been an authentic baker taking his goods to market on his head.

In our disposable 20th-century society, Venice matters more than ever. Compared with a New York that compulsively rebuilds whole neighborhoods every three or four decades, Venice knows its future is dependent upon it’s past a past that must be apparent in it’s present as it’s present is also its future. A place to reflect on the lapsed glories of ancient civilizations showcased for the civilizations that follow.

I was delighted with my foray into this oddity of civilization despite my natural aversion to cities. For the sake of our portfolios, and to satiate our curiosities we must exceed our comfort zones. Venice made my portfolio richer and it wet my appetite to learn more of this curious place, and it sent me to the books upon my return home. If I had the luxury of more time, patience, and money, I could see where and extended period of time here could be time well spent as a photographer.

Venice! Venice! When thy marble walls are level with the waters, there shall be a cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls, a loud lament along the sweeping sea!

Lord Byron

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