Venice, Scenes of Everyday Life

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It’s easy to imagine Venice as some sort of Renaissance wonderland. From many of the pictures people take and the art done of the city, it’s very easy to miss that this is as much a vibrant commercial and residential city as it is a a beautiful historic site. In paintings hanging in the museum, the merchants, sailors, craftsmen, and tradesman filling the canvas are, to our modern eyes, part of the decor of the time. They were in fact vital to the growth of the city, just as they are vital to its life today.

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The canals are the life blood of the city. Everything comes in by boat, and travels to the correct destination via increasingly small canals. During the day it’s mostly moving people and tourists around, but in the morning it’s moving everything else.

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Until about noon, you can find these market boats pulled up along the canal, usually near clusters of restaurants or grocery stores. They stock the local vendors and it looked like they were doing brisk business. Cramped quarters leads to minimal storage space, so everyone gets a daily shipment of most food goods.

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There are some dry markets that sell to normal customers who walk through the stall lined aisles. These markets are, unsurprisingly, also supplied by boat.

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One of the semi-enclosed areas near the water is reserved for an incredibly pungent fish market. The stone tiles around there are treacherous.

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In addition to keeping everyone supplied with food and other wares, someone has to maintain the city itself. A lot of buildings rely on piers and supports that are jammed in the water. Building new ones or replacing old ones is a pretty delicate affair that the tradesman handle with ease. I know I’d fall into the water if I tried walking the planks the way they do.

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The effort it takes to keep such a city in good repair is incredible. We were utterly fascinated by the way boats were customized for their particular jobs. Just like construction crews on land, these long, wide, and flat boats carried cranes. Unlike land based cranes, these swing low and are relatively light weight, and the crane boats carry their own building supplies with them.

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For moving boxed cargo, there are very similar flat boats that run around dropping off boxes, which are shuttled to their destination by a runner with a dolly. The early morning bustle is full of people taking things to and fro, getting ready for the day.

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It’s not just on land – the early morning fog falls on a seemingly endless stream of boats zipping up and down the canals.

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One of the major things that (probably) no one thinks about when they think of Venice is hauling out the trash. We sure didn’t, so when we saw these garbage boats roaming around in the morning hours, we were amazed. They’re a lot like the crane boats, but their cranes have only one job – to lift and empty the garbage carts.

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The carts are slim and on wheels. Workers run them along alleys and across plazas to the various businesses and residences, collecting trash. When the cart is full, they run back and drop it off at the boat, which lifts the cart and through a door in the bottom, empties it. In part because they don’t have a lot of time to cover the island, and because their carrying capacity is relatively small, garbage day is every day. Like the fresh food, the fresh garbage needs to be carted regularly – there’s no place for storage like there is on the mainland.

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It’s not just on the water that the city gets repaired. These workers are installing phone and internet cables – it’s very cool to see Venice wiring up for the future.

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Venetian Architecture (and also boats)

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The look of Venice is fairly unique. Not too many places in the world can boast canals paired with Renaissance architecture. It’s a good fit, and wonderful for taking pictures and drawing. A fun fact we learned : most of the people drawing at any given time are not art students from one of the nearby colleges, but are tourists. It’s pretty fun to join them too!

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While there are plenty of famous scenes and views all around the city, we strayed a bit from the travelled path and took pictures of mostly anything that caught our eye.

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There was no shortage of interesting views, even just out our hotel window.

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I personally love the semi-planned stacking of buildings that look like they’ve grown from the water, huddle together in a very visually pleasing arrangement.

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It’s hard to ignore the boat-lined tunnel canals – the only way to get to a lot of these doors and boats is to have someone else drop you off.  There are many, many doors, that lead to a tiny dock and boat, or worse, drop straight out into the water. The best are private bridges – smaller versions of the canal-spanning bridges that lead to a single door.

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Between the crowded living spaces spring up massive cathedrals. It’s an odd contrast.

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One of the amazing and frustrating things about Venice is the constant haze. It comes from being warm and on the water, and it makes for some exciting and terrible photo conditions. During colder parts of the year the atmosphere is probably clearer and the photos come out crisper.

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We really enjoyed getting lost and seeing the smaller details of the city. It’s easy to miss in light of the surrounding grandeur.

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Walking is really the best thing to do. Every bridge, canal, and tiny alley offers a new and unexpected view.

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Sometimes the alleys are extremely small. This one, we think, was meant for people. Notice the streetlamp in the center. Definitely not for the claustrophobic.

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There are big life goals and small life goals. After we decided to come to Italy, and specifically Venice, I knew I had to recreate the View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana, by Bernando Bellotto. It’s one of the few paintings I know by name, and since seeing it at the Getty have wanted to see this view in person.

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Of course, since we were here in person, there was no doubt we’d eventually see the Dogana up close. It’s fantastic in its size and detail.

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Each one of the statues lining its parapet is a work of art unto itself, and the structure as a whole is breathtaking, especially in the low setting sun when its lines and minute details are thrown into sharp relief.

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Next stop, Venice!

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Venice is a beautiful and fascinating place. I’ve always wanted to visit, Natalie not so much. It turns out that it’s got a little bit of everything, good and bad. Its beautiful, winding alleys interspersed with canals and bridges and spires are inspiring. The measures taken to keep buildings from falling and the island from sinking are a testament to human ingenuity and stubbornness. Its attitude towards tourists and the costs (and sometimes smells) of living on the island are saddening. In my view visiting Venice is worth it for two things – the history and architecture, and the marvel of engineering that keeps the city alive. Most of the tourist traps should be rightfully avoided, and it’s best to stay away from popular areas at peak hours.

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There are basically two ways to see Venice. The cheaper and arguably more lively route is to stay on the mainland at one of several campsites or large hostel-like buildings, and bus in in the morning. The other way, significantly more expensive, but better for seeing Venice the way we wanted to, is to stay on the island itself. It’s not cheap, but for a very short stay, the value of waking up before dawn and walking the empty streets is worth the extra fee.

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We took the bus out of Sant’Agata, then on to the next bus to Rimini, and finally on to the train north to Venice. Midway through the trip our train stopped and a bunch of announcements came on in Italian. We did not understand them. The train stayed in the station and eventually people started shuffling off. A conductor came by and told us, in slightly broken English, that the train would not be moving again soon, and we should go on to a different track to catch the replacement. We’ve been through worse transportation adventures, but the feeling of an impromptu change of plans in a language we don’t understand is always exciting.

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There is the last station on the mainland, and then the open water. The train tracks cross over a narrow bridge, on either side the Venetian Lagoon. Technically, the mainland just before the crossing is also part of the district of Venice, but what everyone thinks of when they hear the name is found across this bridge.

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Right out the gate, Venice does not disappoint. The church of San Simeon is literally the first thing most people see when they leave the station. It’s gorgeous and only a taste of what’s to come.

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There are a few ways to get to the inner islands – all of them are connected by bridges, with a bus ferry, or with ferry taxis. The ‘bus’ is actually fairly expensive, and the distances are short. With so much to see the natural choice is to walk everywhere. If we were here for a week or more, maybe the bus ferries would have been a more appealing option.

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In the fading hours of the day we made our way to the hotel. Despite the day’s journey and the weight of the packs, we still lingered and turned in all directions staring at the city around us. In short order we were introduced to both the magnificent Italian architecture, the tightly clustered houses and apartments, and the occasional but persistent vendors of tourist things.

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We also found that the city of Venice has an attitude, and the people are not shy expressing themselves on the walls. This was probably the largest demonstration we saw, but there are plenty of smaller ones scattered alone or in clusters around the city. The topics range from banning tourists to saving the planet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change is often on the minds of those living here.

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Night fell and we left our hotel in search of food. To set expectations, hotels in Venice are not very similar to most people’s idea of a hotel. Unless you pay a lot of money, it will resemble something of a walk-up, 2 to 3 stories of three or four rooms on each floor with a shared bathroom. Much like a hostel in any other part of the world. Similarly, the food is not reasonably priced. This is entirely expected in an extremely popular and difficult to supply city, but it’s good to be aware.

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Luckily for us, right near our hotel was a Bigoi. This is a small, almost fast-food version of pasta, where you pick your noodles, sauce, and meat, and they make it fresh for you. It costs about 5 euros and each bowl is enough for a person. Not the best in terms of nutrition, but they taste great and they’re cheap! There are also small grocery stores available, but they still run fairly expensive, and they do tend to run out of key ingredients at night, especially bread. We relied pretty heavily on Bigoi and the snacks we brought with us while we were in Venice.

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Also pastries. We didn’t eat a lot of fancy food in Venice but we did make room in the budget for coffee and pastries in the morning. The coffee is still very affordable – 1.20 Euro. The pastries can be a little expensive but are still around a few euro each. This one is called a sfogliatelle. It’s small, packed with cream and syrup, and somehow amazingly crunchy and flaky. It’s fantastic and we found the one we liked best was in the pastry shop Pasticceria Toletta. The lady working the counter in the morning is super nice, and their pastries and coffee are fantastic.

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Next time – Venetian architecture!