We’ve all seen photos of Venice, like those on these pages, before. We all have a picture of the iconic canals in our minds. So unique is this city at the top of Italy’s Adriatic coast, that with the mere mention of its name, we can close our eyes and be transported to a scene we saw in a film or heard about from a lucky friend, just returned, whose romantic tales swell with colorful memories from Venice.
Sometimes, having such vivid images of a place can create obstacles to the enjoyment of a trip. Reality never quite matches the vision.
Such could be the case with Venice, were it not for the fact that the reality here is so enchanting. Yes, the homes along the canals are in disrepair. Yes, the famous pigeons in Piazza San Marcos are more interested in stealing your food than posing for your photos. Yes, the smells of the sea can overpower the perfect café moment you had dreamed about.
But when you step into your first gondola—the long narrow boats poled through intricate system of canals that replace roads here—you are overcome. The real Venice has you now.
The gondolier begins singing a song whose words you don’t understand. Perhaps it is an aria from one of Puccini’s operas, perhaps a folk song his father used to sing on this same boat, perhaps just something he is improvising as he plies the waters he has come to know like the back of his hand.
Whatever he sings, it is your song, the song of Venice.
The song is flawed like the city itself, which is built on wooden pilings centuries old. Tourists like us can overrun the city squares just like the regular floods that make the first level of many buildings here uninhabitable. But every flaw is forgivable because the beauty of this place has not decayed alongside its buildings, and its spirit remains as inspiring today as it was when Marco Polo gazed out at its harbour in the 13th century.
It is a song whose composition, performance, audience, and scenery are one and the same. You do not know all the words to the song just as you do not know all the stories that have played out here.
Drifting beneath Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, you wonder how many men have proposed to their wives there, how many couples have kissed beneath those ornate arches. You see a woman’s face in a window framed by flaking plaster that has needed repainting for at least 50 years. You don’t know who she is, you will never see her again, but you know that she has a story. She has a line in the song of Venice.
When you visit most of the great European cities, you navigate your way through modern metropolises, hopping from one famed site to another, strolling through museums, looking at curated displays of time gone by.
Venice has museums, like the Gallerie dell’Accademia, (classical art, including that of the city’s great painters dating back to the 13th century) and the Guggenheim (a modern art collection worthy of the building’s namesake), as well as many others.
Venice has palaces, like Palazzo Ducale and other magnificent structures built at the height of the region’s prosperity and artistic influence.
Venice has churches, like Santa Maria della Salute and Basilica di San Marco, places that bring you to your knees with their devout beauty.
Venice has theaters like La Fenice—after all this is the city where Bel Canto opera was born, the city that Baroque masters like Antonio Vivaldi called home.
Venice has everything you could want for a sight-seeing tour, but it is the unequalled allure of this city itself, as it stands today, that you come to visit.
You come here as much to hear the gruff voice of your gondolier as to hear a famed soprano on a grand stage. You come to see the maid sweeping the steps of an old house along a unknown canal as much as to see the sunset from the tower at San Giorgio Maggiore.
Venice is a city to experience, not just to see. It is a city that takes over your life for however long you stay. You become a part of its song, its scenery, its never-ending story. A part of every resident and every visitor who has ever floated along these waterways remains here, and a part of this place remains in them.