The Venice Lagoon
There is no other place like it
I absolutely love Venice. Specifically, I’m referring to the Venice Lagoon. It is unique. There is no other place like it anywhere in the world. It is a fascinating and majestic city with a colourful and rich history, and an undeniable charm that sweeps everyone off their feet. Yes, it’s romantic, captivating and enchanting, but it’s more than just those things. When walking around the centre of Venice, it’s like stepping back in time to the medieval ages. It is an experience like no other. Truly magical.
Venice is the capital of the Veneto Region and is located in the Northeast of Italy. The Venice Lagoon is what we refer to when we think of Venice, the unique formation of many islands close together. It is an archipelago in shallow, marshy water, spanning over an area of 550 square kilometres.
Getting to the Venice Lagoon
A bridge connects the lagoon to the mainland of Italy in Mestre. Cars and buses can drive over the bridge and stop at the ‘Piazzale Roma’, but can go no further. This square is also close to Venice’s Santa Lucia Train Station. A train ride from Milan is about 3 hours long.
Or you can fly directly to Venice Marco Polo Airport on the mainland part of Venice, which is how my family and I got there. Then we took a waterbus from the airport with all our luggage and we stepped out of the boat, straight into our hotel foyer at Liassidi Palace. Such a unique experience. What an exciting way to arrive in Venice! Worthy of any Bond movie.
The main part of Venice is called the ‘Centro Storico’ (historic centre), which is considered one island, made up of many islets (small islands). This is where most tourists congregate. The main thoroughfare through here, shaped like an ‘S’ in reverse, is the ‘Canale Grande’ (Grand Canal) with 4 bridges crossing it. The most famous and recognisable bridge here is this one, the ‘Ponte di Rialto’ (Rialto Bridge).
In the past, everyone wanted to live on this main canal. From the 12th to the 18th century, huge homes were built along the Grand Canal called ‘palazzi’ (palaces). They were built by the noble families to display their wealth, with fancy marble facades and ornate embellishments. These opulent palaces were also quite high for those days with several levels.
It’s difficult to say how many islands there are in Venice because it depends on what exactly constitutes an island. Not all the islands are inhabited and some are tiny with just rocks. Officially there are 118 islands that make up the Venice Lagoon, but I’m not going to list them all.
They are all within easy access from the main centre, some only a few minutes away, others about half an hour by boat. I definitely recommend venturing out to visit some other islands.
How did this unique city come about?
The first settlement in the lagoon was in the 5th century when people fled the mainland to escape attack from barbarians after the fall of the Roman Empire. They set up raft homes on the swampy lagoon with wooden stilts underneath for support and were connected by wooden walkways. Slowly a unique town grew on the lagoon, like no other in the world. It presented numerous challenges, as you can imagine. The people fished and traded in salt, as the lagoon is salt water connected to the Adriatic Sea.
When Venice was officially formed in the 8th century, it had its own ruler, the Doge (Duke) of Venice, and was a separate country, called the ‘La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia’ (The Most Serene Republic of Venice). A beautiful title, for a beautiful city. It was serene because the country was wealthy and prosperous.
But I’m sure it wasn’t always serene, as the Republic of Venice was involved in many wars and crusades throughout its history, albeit not on their territory. The Plague also devasted Venice which came to the lagoon via shipping and killed tens of thousands of people over the 2 outbreaks in history.
Due to its unique geographic position, it flourished in the major trading route between east and west and became a powerful maritime nation. For more than 1,000 years it dominated the Mediterranean, trading in gems, silk, textiles, lace, spices, perfume and more. Venice became an extremely wealthy country. By the 13th century it was the most prosperous city in Europe. In the 14th century Venice acquired parts of the mainland and this was one of the high points in Venetian history.
Then in the 1860’s, Venice was forced to officially become part of the Kingdom of Italy, ruled by Rome. Needless to say, the Venetians weren’t happy about losing their autonomy that they worked hard to achieve and enjoyed for a thousand years.
Venice is also unique for the diversity in architecture, due to its complicated and long history, and trade relations with different parts of the world. I’m no expert in architecture, but I can certainly appreciate the beauty of historic monuments. Buildings of different architectural eras and styles line the canals, including Byzantine, Islamic, Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance styles.
Some examples of the amazing architecture are:
Ca D’Oro (House of Gold) is a 15th century Venetian Gothic style palace and one of the most famous palaces in Venice built for one of the wealthiest families. Now a shadow of its former self, it used to have gold leaf embellishments, hence the name, on its marble facade. It is now a museum displaying Venetian art, paintings and sculptures.
The stunning ‘Basilica di San Marco’ is of Byzantine style architecture. Built in 1096, but took centuries to complete all the intricate decorations and gold mosaics. It’s the resting place of the Patron Saint of Venice and is famous for having one of the richest altars in the world with gold and 3000 gems!
The Doge’s Palace is Venetian Gothic Architecture. Building commenced in the 9th century and took centuries to complete. It has lovely white and rose coloured marble on the facade. It’s now a Museum, where you can see the Doge’s residence and the prison that was attached.
Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo is a unique building combining several styles – Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance. It is tucked away from the main canal amongst the small streets. It’s purely by accident I discovered this gem. The main feature of the building is this beautiful spiral staircase you can see on the outside.
Today Venice is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Everybody knows Venice and everyone wants to go to Venice, to visit this remarkable city. They want to have all the quintessential experiences:
- take a romantic ride in a gondola,
- hang out in the ‘drawing room of Europe’, Saint Mark’s Square with the pigeons,
- buy a Venetian mask,
- walk over the Rialto Bridge, and
- sigh when they see the Bridge of Sighs (aah).
Venice is of course, listed as a heritage city with UNESCO. However, the organisation is extremely concerned about the conservation of this historic city and has threatened to put it on the UNESCO Endangered List (yes, there is such a list) if things don’t improve. Normally, only war-torn cities and third-world places are on this list.
Many factors are contributing to Venice’s decline. Rising sea levels, buildings are sinking, salt water damage, erosion of foundations and buildings crumbling. All of these serious issues threaten Venice into extinction. Some experts predict the Venice Lagoon could disappear under water by the year 2100. This is a very sad state of affairs.
The ground floors of most buildings are in fact no longer habitable because they have water permanently, from the steady rise of sea level that has been occurring over many years. The sea level here has risen by 26cm since 1870.
The city has always been prone to flooding, as it is characteristic of its location being in a low lying lagoon. High tides that go in and out every 6 hours roughly, are normal. The ‘acqua alta’ rises and water sometimes inundates the lowest point of the lagoon, which unfortunately happens to be Piazza San Marco, and other low-lying parts of the city. However, this occurs a lot more frequently now than it used to in the past.
It has become somewhat of an attraction in itself, with tourists taking photos of the Piazza looking like a lake. Planks are installed across the flooded areas to walk on when it gets very deep.
To save Venice, the multi-billion dollar MOSE Project has been underway for many years now. This will enable protective flood gates, that are fitted underwater, to be activated when needed to protect the city from flooding tides. But this project has been delayed many times due to financial problems and is not yet functioning. Hopefully it will be completed soon, but don’t hold your breath.
Approximately 20 million tourists visit Venice each year, about 10,000 tourists per day! What…?I know. These figures are staggering. I don’t know where they all fit. Venice is small in size, with very narrow walkways, narrow bridges and no roads. It very quickly gets overcrowded, especially in the popular Summer months. It’s not easy to get around, with limited access and steps everywhere too.
It’s no wonder some locals get a bit cranky whilst trying to go about their daily lives amongst the congestion. However, the tourist trade is what the city survives on these days. So the locals also need to be tolerant.
But tourism has got so huge here, it is crippling Venice. It struggles to cope with the numbers flooding in (pardon the pun) and the damage it causes – overcrowding, pollution, and destabilising the natural ecosystem of the lagoon from all the ships and water taxis constantly ferrying people.
Once upon a time, large ships couldn’t reach Venice. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why the early Venetians chose this location, so people couldn’t get there easily. But since a shipping channel was created in the lagoon years ago so ships could enter and dock at the pier, cruise ships have easy access to Venice directly from the open sea. They have become a threat to the city causing huge waves in the water which are felt for hours after they leave. In the photo below you can see how massive some of the cruise ships are, compared to the city buildings. These ocean liners come precariously close to the floating city. Passengers and other day trippers disembark in large herds and descend on the Venice Lagoon causing all sorts of problems for the city and it now struggles to cope.
As tourist numbers continue to rise, the opposite is happening with the number of local inhabitants, which is currently half what it was in the 1970’s. Sadly, they are packing up and leaving. “Ciao Venezia.” Just over 50,000 Venetians remain in the lagoon area now.
They are moving away for many reasons – the rising cost of living, housing owners prefer to rent to tourists for more money, difficult living conditions, not enough jobs, damage occurring to the buildings, climate change, rising sea-levels, slow sinking of the buildings, frustration, corruption and more. Many of them have had enough and have been protesting with slogans of ‘Venexodus’. It’s a huge problem, because at this rate, no one will be left. It could turn into a ghost town! This makes me very sad.
As this art sculpture depicts, Venice needs propping up, desperately. And that’s why Venice is now implementing a Tourist Tax for day visitors only, starting from 3 euros, as of May 2019. This is to help pay for cleaning and much needed restorations. There are some exemptions. Overnight stayers already pay a levy included in their accommodation charge.
Tips for tourists
1. It’s important to be respectful of the locals who are living there. In such a small city with so many people trying to get around, we need to be considerate when visiting. So don’t block the passages.
2. The best way to get around Venice is by walking and taking water buses, which run all day.
3. Don’t just stick to ‘Piazza San Marco’ and ‘Ponte di Rialto’ where the crowds are because the food and souvenirs are overpriced. Venture out a little to other beautiful, less busy parts of Venice where prices are a little cheaper, the food more authentic and there’s lots of hidden gems to appreciate.
4. The historic centre can really be enjoyed best in the early mornings before day trippers arrive and in the evenings when they have all departed, especially in the warmer months.
5. You must visit some of the other islands of Venice. There are many gorgeous spots waiting for you to explore and are less crowded. All of which you can get to by taking a ‘vaporetto‘ (waterbus/ferry). Alternatively you can hire ‘motoscafi’ (private water taxis), just like normal taxis. Walking around these islands is free. So I thoroughly recommend visiting some of them.
Islands to visit
- Murano is world famous for its glass making industry. For centuries Venetians had a monopoly on glass manufacturing and furthermore, were the only ones in the world who could make mirrors. Here, you can watch the artisans at their craft and shop for all sorts of artwork made out of coloured glass.
- Burano is known for its beautiful pastel coloured houses and lace making.
- Chioggia is like a mini Venice with little canals and gothic ‘palazzi’ buildings.
- Lido is a beautiful beachy area, deserted most of the year except for July, August and early September when locals go to their holiday cabins and when the Lido Film Festival is on. On Lido there are cars, yes cars, so don’t get a shock!
There are so many islands to explore with beaches, vineyards, ponds, orchards, gardens, resorts and even flamingoes!
Interesting facts about Venice
- Houses are numbered by district, not streets.
- San Marco’s Bell Tower was built in the 12th century, then rebuilt after it collapsed in 1902.
- Marco Polo, the famous explorer, was born here.
- There are colonies of flamingoes in the lagoon near the islands of Burano and Torcello.
- Occasionally Bottle-Nosed Dolphins enter the lagoon.
- The 1st casino in the world was built in Venice in 1638.
- the Italian word for greeting, ‘ciao’ comes from the Venetian dialect for ‘schiavo’ (slave), pronounced as s’ciao, meaning ‘I am your slave’, the formal greeting.
- Sunglasses were invented here in the 14th century to wear while riding in a gondola in hot summer, called ‘gondola glasses’, and were made on the glass-making island of Murano.
Shall I stop now? Or do you want more?
Ok, if you insist.
Here’s more facts:
- The Bellini cocktail was invented in Venice, by a bartender at Harry’s Bar, named after a Venetian artist.
- The waterways have speed limits, just like roads.
- Don’t walk between the 2 columns in Piazza San Marco, as this is where public executions used to take place, thus it’s considered bad luck.
- There are apps you can download for Venice’s high tide information.
- The Prosecco wine region in Italy is near Venice.
- Having your espresso standing up at a cafe window is cheaper than having it sitting down inside, and finally
- The Cafe Florian in Venice is the oldest cafe still in business since 1720. However, a coffee here will cost a small fortune, if you have it sitting down whilst enjoying the orchestra in the piazza. Best go round the corner where it’s cheaper. You’re welcome.
Carnivals and festivals
Lastly, I have to mention some of Venice’s world famous events, that I would absolutely love to attend.
The Annual Venice Carnival is held 40 days before Easter for 18 days. One of the biggest carnivals in the world, which attracts 3 million people each year. Many events are held around the city, some free and some very pricey. Events include the famous Regatta on the Grand Canal, water parades, costume parades, food events, handcraft events, parties, balls and heaps more.
The costumes are simply amazing. As you can imagine, costume shops and mask makers do a roaring trade at this time of year. This event is steeped in tradition and has been celebrated on and off for hundreds of years. I believe the masks were to hide people’s identity, which meant they could get away with breaking a few rules without anybody knowing who they were. Perfect for aristocrats of the time to let their hair down! but not the mask (ha).
The Venice International Film Festival is held on the island of Lido at the Palazzo del Casino every year usually in early September. If you love films and parties, this is a very popular event, similar to the Cannes Film Festival in France, drawing many celebrities to Venice. In 2018 Lady Gaga stole the show here in a beautiful feathered Valentino pink pelican-inspired gown.
Wherever you go in Venice you will see beautiful, interesting, amazing things on every walkway, canal, corner or bridge. Venice will stay with you for life.
I hope you have enjoyed my article on the Venice Lagoon, the most unique place in the world.
Have you been to Venice? I’d love you to leave me a comment below.