Europe Travel Log – Venice


Tuesday 30th August

The water taxis are great. We go straight from the train to the jetty. Because I’m in a wheelchair, I travel free. I soon find out why.

Venice is seems to be completely inaccessible to wheelchairs … completely inaccessible. Venice is made up of numerous islands all linked by bridges that consist of steps up to the top, then steps down to the bottom. Once again I realize how lucky I am that I can walk with crutches. Riding in the water taxi through the Grand Canal is amazing. The buildings beside the water are everything I expected, and more. There are many, many different styles of architecture, and some buildings have beautifully restored frescoes on their walls. Smaller canals empty into the Grand canal, and I can see little bridges criss crossing these water alleys. The canals are bordered by buildings at quirky angles to each other. We pass well known landmarks, including the Salute which I really want to go see.

We arrive early at our hotel, the Jolanda and Savoia. It seems very flash. I’m not sure our tatty shorts and t shirts fit in. Perhaps we are so rich that we don’t have to care what we look like! We check in our luggage, and walk to San Marco Square which is behind the hotel. I am shocked to see giant advertising billboards on the side of the Palazza Ducale (the doge’ palace). I understand that this advertising is paying for its renovation, but surely it could be more subtle. I won’t buy L’Oreal again, which is a nuisance because I use their hair, cosmetic and skin care products …

There is no quiet place in Venice.

I feel like I am caught in a slow eddy while people swarm all around me. There are queues everywhere. Still, it is possible to appreciate the beauty around us, especially looking upwards above the heads of the crowds. The mosaics decorating the underneath of archways are colourful and beautiful.

The fifteenth century clock tower, Torre dell’Orologio, is a twenty four hour clock that shows months as well as hours. It’s a beautiful blue colour with gold markings. On the hour two statues of moors are supposed to hit the bell at the top with its hammer. They do! Magical.

We’ll queue another time to see inside St Mark’s cathedral and the doge palace, right now we head off towards the Rialto Bridge through the main shopping area to the markets. It’s the most tasteful market I’ve ever seen, although there are only so many Venetian masks I can take – these must be the most popular souvenir here because there are hundreds of stalls selling them. The next most popular seems to be silk ties, some of which are very nice.

What we are really looking for are the fruit and vege markets supposedly somewhere near the Rialto Bridge. Bingo! The tourists thin out, and there are mostly locals here. We ask if there are also places that sell cheeses and bread. I’m in heaven. The bread here is wonderful, and the cheeses superb. Nearby is a square that must have provided the original centerpiece for the area. The fountain/source of household water still works and tourists are refilling drinking bottles from it. I don’t think I’m brave enough to even taste the water. Many of the buildings by the fresh food market have not been renovated, and when you look up you can see the partial remains of painted freizes, and the original brick work of the walls where the plaster coating has worn away. I like this rawness.

I’m exhausted after having walked so far, so we head back to the hotel. I’m going to have to pace myself if I’m going to walk everywhere. Yet it’s Peter that falls asleep back at the hotel … Men … No stamina!

As the sun gets low and the sky glows yellow and gold, we take the water taxi to Lido Island. Looking back we see the sun behind Venice. It’s beautiful.

The ride is short but choppy. It’s partially open to the ocean here. We get off the taxi, look back toward Venice for a few minutes then join the long queue to get back on the taxi that will drop us off at San Zaccaria Jolanda. The sun is turning from gold to red as the sun sets behind one of the towers.

Wednesday 31 August

We sit outside for breakfast, looking across the water to see the beautiful marble buildings there. It’s quiet and peaceful. No tourists … Yet.

I wait under the arches at the front of the Doges’palace while Peter gets the tickets to go inside. I notice that the grey paving slabs have marble inlay set in a simple geometric pattern. I find out later that this was laid in the early eighteenth century to replace the original pink and white marble surface that covered the piazza.

The outside of the Palazzo ducale (the doge’s palace) is made of small pink and white marble bricks in a zig zag pattern. Inside the courtyard, the soft muted colours continue. I am struck by the architectural detail of statues and cornices. Inside, one of the first rooms we encounter has a Titian painting. I am impressed. The cool muted colours, pale pink and green continue. Hung above the other side of a doorway leading to the doge’s personal rooms is another Titian, “St Christopher”. It is magnificent. When the Doge came downstairs to enter his personal area, it is said that this painting would have reminded him of the change from official to personal business. St Christopher is thought to have been chosen as the subject because he was a convert and therefore a symbol of change. The background in the painting is clearly Venice.

In Venice I’m loving learning about its political history as well as its art history. And the two are intertwined through the influence of the the rich noblemen from especially the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. If Berlin is a museum, then Venice is an art gallery. But it is a very special art gallery because the paintings are in situ, secured in the wall or ceiling by elaborate golden frames that, in the ceiling, are geometric shapes forming an amazing blaze of painting and gold. The paintings are all shaped to fit around their neighbors. The artists had to form their paintings to fit the site, the context of the room, the design, and all the surrounding paintings. Three or four prominent artists might have been working on one commission, in different studios, but to the one overall design. Some paintings were so large they had to be painted out of the studio, in some place that would accommodate the work. The very largest was painted in sections but you can’t see the joins, it’s completely cohesive.

It is becoming apparent that all the paintings in the palace have some symbolism or message relating to the power of Venice.

The palace does not belong to the doge, although it is a lifelong appointment, rather, he and his family have personal rooms in a place where the official business of the republic is conducted. The rooms on the first floor are the doge’s personal rooms, and although small are impressive. Each doge wanted to leave his mark, and there are huge fireplaces with enormous statues or carvings, often of significance to the doge. All had coats of arms or contained an important reference to the doge family.

The golden staircase leads from the ground floor to the first and second floors and hints at the excessive opulence on the second floor. It’s called the golden staicase because of the thick, heavy gold framing numerous paintings, themselves gilded.

The second floor was where all the official business was conducted and it is a display of the wealth and power of Venice from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Peter observes that everything here predates the “new world” – the american war of independence in 1776, the first fleet arrived in Australia in 1778, and Cook discovered New Zealand around the same time. It’s the history, put into this sort of context that we both enjoy. Even more interesting, fascinating, and often amusing, are the motives for commissioning the art.

Paintings were commissioned to celebrate Venice and were literally inserted in the walls within huge gold frames. It is extraordinary to see paintings in situ, as it were. The largest painting in Europe is here. “Il Paradiso” by Tintoretto. There are over five hundred individual angels and saints and is absolutely overwhelming in detail. Apart from the numerous wall paintings, there is the ceiling. The ceiling is made of framed paintings by the greatest Venetian artists. Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and so on (The best art in Venice is found in the palace and in the churches. The Accademia of art has the leftovers – apart from one small but great Titian, “Madonna and Child”).

There is so much to see, so much to absorb, that it is impossible to remember everything. We have photos though! The route through the palace is extremely well documented and it was wonderfully informative.

Justice was dispensed from the palace, and the prison is underneath, reached by the Bridge of Sighs (named for the sounds of the passing of prisoners from the palace to the prison). I want to walk down to the prison, to the amazement of the security guard. She’s on her walkie talkie, but I think nothing more of it, until my way is blocked by another security guard. I gather he’s the boss and he’s very concerned that I want to go down to the prison. “There are much steps”. That’s ok, I tell him, I don’t mind. I keep walking, and start to climb down the steps. I realize that he is behind us. He’s following me … He tries again to dissuade me. I want to see the prison! Ok. A few more steps and he stops me to tell me that there is a short tour and a long tour. “In my opinion the short tour is better for you” (Said with lovely thick Italian accent – of course.) He’s becoming quite agitated. I’ll do the short tour. I see three or four prison cells, then I’m back where the “short tour” began, and I’m going to have to go back up the steps, against the flow of tourists coming down. The stair case is narrow, everyone coming down will have to wait til I climb up. “Short tour?” I’ve been conned. He’d rather I held up traffic than go down the steps to the prison … I know that Venice is not used to tourists with disabilities. It’s kind of sad. Venice is visited by numerous elderly people with walking sticks, but I guess they don’t stray far from their cruise ships and the canals.

From the sublime to the ridiculous … We catch the water taxi to the Rialto Bridge for lunch at a cafe where water from the Grand Canal at high tide is lapping over the diners’ feet. I’m not one for balsamic vinegar, but sprayed over the salad it is magnificent! Or perhaps italians make good balsamic vinegar! Great view, great ambience, great food … And evidence of a city drowning.

Another water taxi takes us to Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Salute. (Getting around by water taxi can be so easy and quick!) We walk inside to the sounds of Bach’ s Toccata and fugue in D minor. Such amazing acoustics in this circular, domed church! Organ vespers. What a welcome!

The church has many side alters above and around which are glorious paintings by famous artists of the sixteenth century. Most of the churches here were paid for by the local nobleman who became the patron of the church, designing, building and decorating it to his tastes. These churches are sumptuous art galleries, monuments the the noblemen.

The greatest of all the art in this church, and some of the best art in Venice, is in the sacristy. The ceiling is covered by three large Titians, “The Sacrifice of Isaiah”, “David and Goliath” and “Cain and Abel”. There is a mirror on a bench, and using this, I can see the paintings much more clearly. How clever! I wish I’d seen this simple way of seeing ceiling painting earlier. I must buy a suitable mirror …

On the walls are works by Tintoretto, Gerase, Veraze. I can see where the Christian view of what Mary, Joseph and Jesus looked like came from. These artists put Mary in Italian medieval dress, with blonde, fair Italian features. I can see at least two reasons for doing this. During the fourtenth and fifteenth centurues, artists moved away from the very flat two dimensional figures, and introduced the illusion of a third dimension by putting creases in clothing, giving faces features, and so on. This introduced a sense of realism and animation which was very popular because suddenly art was accessible and people could relate to the subjects being painted. Also, these paintings originated during the counter reformation period. It became important to clergy and nobility to demonstrate worship of their religious ideals in a way that everyone could relate to. Art was an important propaganda tool! Five, six hundred years later, Christians still picture saints and god as European, rather than as the Jews and middle eastern people they were! I find this intertwining of art and political history absolutely fascinating and so much easier to understand in it’s context.

Once again, it’s on to a water taxi. This time it’s back to San Marco. We take the lift up to the top of campanile (bell tower) of the San Marco basilica. From here we see a 360 degree panoramic view of Venice. The canals disappear, and the numerous churches and bell towers dominate the landscape until we turn and see the exit of the Grand Canal toward the ocean, Lido Island in the distance. There is no greenery to be seen in Venice until we look toward here. It makes sense when you realize how little land there is in Venice. Of course, everything is built to the very water’s edge!

Thursday 1 September

Today we head for the Chiesa Della Gloria Santa Maria die Frari. We’ve heard that Titian’s “Assumption” is here. It’s hanging above the main alter and is absolutely wonderful. It’s said to be his finest work. The weird thing is, that because it’s surrounded by so many other fabulous artworks, it’s easy to be distracted … There are numerous side chapels, each with a large famous work above the alter and other works around it. Successive generations of noblemen commissioned works to be remembered by. Two of the doge had elaborate sculptures commissioned to glorify themselves, or perhaps to show the populace that they were good men, favored by god. Donatello was one of the artists commissioned. One family, Corner, had an entire chapel built on to the corner of the church. Every work included an image of the man and/or his wife. The inclusion of family members in works of art commissioned by them is a feature of this church!

The art in here extends to the choir stalls which are elaborately and intricately carved from wood and the top row includes etchings in the head rests. The receptionist at our hotel tells us that even though this is an enormous church, this small intimate area of the church can be used, and that his parents were married here forty years ago. It can still be used for weddings. It is worth noting that all these churches are still consecrated.

The chuch is full of surprises and towards the back is a huge death memorial to Titian. Opposite is a sculpture of similarly vast proportions. It represents death and is memorable for two things … It’s in the shape of a pyramid sepulchre (around which are statues)and in the centre is sculpted and painted a partially open door that is surprisingly realistic. I suppose it is a reminder that death awaits us all.

Perhaps one of the most memorable features of the church though, is the simple wooden arch in the centre, through which, as we enter through the main door, is framed the main altar and Titian’s Assumption above it.

There has been so much more here than I expected. Apart from the art itself, once again I feel as if I have had a glimpse of political life in the fifteenth century in Venice – the life of nobility that is. Artists have yet to depict the lives of ordinary people, that’s centuries away. Church and State is completely entangled and, in Venice, the Vatican has no influence, nobility has all the power.

We now move on to the Galleria del’Accademia where we see more of Tintoretto’s artwork, and more of Veroneza’s work. There is also a Cannaletto. The Gioigione is a portrait. It’s the first non religious painting we’ve seen! Artists have painted what their patrons have wanted – to be seen as godly. The other non-religious painting is a Piazzatt, “The Fortune Teller”. I love them both. There is one other painting that is absolutely amazing, Titian’s Madonna and Child”.

We see a painting of the Piazza San Marco done around the sixteenth century. The remarkable thing about this painting is that it shows the Basilica as having much more vibrant colours. The green of the marble is rich and deep. Clearly, the marble has deteriorated over time and a lot of the colour leached out.

I wouldn’t say that the Galleria del’Accademia is disappointing, but having seen the religious work of these artists in situ, I am reminded how amazing it is to be here. To see these paintings framed, in the space they were commissioned to occupy, and painted by the artist for that space, light and position is truly a gift.

I’ve been walking and standing for hours.I need to rest so we catch the water taxi intending to sit on the Salute steps and eat our picnic lunch. Uh oh, we’re on the wrong taxi. Never mind, we go instead to the San Marco Valporesso where we’ve noticed a small garden. It had been the doge’ personal garden until the eighteenth century when it was donated to the people. It’s busy, but we sit on a bench next to an elderly couple. They’re English and whe I start chatting to them I discover that they are on a day trip from Croatia where they are holidaying, taking a break from their home in Spain where they retired a few years ago. Their lifestyle demonstrates how the European Union has opened up opportunities for ordinary people to make choice previously only available to the wealthy.

Refreshed and recharged, we head off to the San Marco Basilica. The water level in Venice is high and at high tide it washes into the square and platforms are erected so visitors to the Basilica can enter. As the water recedes, the platforms are removed. We enter using the platform. It is slippery and I am careful with my crutches.

The Basilica was originally the doge’ personal chapel! It’s huge, much bigger than any church we’ve seen. However, the interior appears much simpler than that of the surrounding churches. But the soaring vaults are painted with golden friezes,the floor is laid with elaborately designed mosaics (which undulate in places – not through ground movement because there are no cracks), and the high altar has wonderful wooden carvings. We also visited the basilica treasury where ancient chalices, golden bejeweled swords, and saints’ relics (yuk, looked like thigh bones) were displayed.

That evening we treat ourselves to a gondola ride! The gondoliers are so strong and well balanced that they virtually lifted me into the gondola. Drifting through the tiny back “street” canals was quiet and peaceful, away from the noise of tourists. Passing under tiny bridges was a delight, first to see them, then to notice how they were constructed. The gondolier pointed out Casanova’s house. It immediately made me think of the masked balls.

But we also pass by apartments with washing on lines across balconies, and the back of hotels and apartments where bags of laundry are waiting to be picked up by barge.

(No wheels are allowed in Venice other than baby strollers, wheelchairs, and hand trollies for hauling goods and supplies. We saw a supermarket truck on a barge offloading its cargo at a jetty. Small motor boats carry goods as far as they can, then they are collected by men with these hand trollies. They haul them up and down steps, through narrow alleys. They are amazingly strong and well co-ordinated!)

The gondola ride is lovely and I enjoy it very much. Having watched lines of six or more gondolas pass under bridges I am pleasantly surprised to find that we are taken through a series of canals on our own before we join a flotilla again. It isn’t the romantic ride pictured in the movies because there are so many gondolas everywhere, but it is something that you can only do in Venice. The skill of the gondolier is to be admired. He twists and turns the oar so slightly yet there is enormous power behind it.

Leaving the gondola we walk behind the hotel to explore a little and find the church of San Zaccaria in front of a small square. These small squares catch whatever wind there is and it is very pleasant.

I get back to the hotel and discover a mass of blisters under the FES electode. This is not good. Maybe the walking and the heat with the electrical impulse has caused a sort electrical burn. Whatever, I can’t use the Odstock til my skin heals, so it’s lucky I brought the dictus with me.

Friday 2 September

This is our last morning in Venice, so our last opportunity to enjoy breakfast looking out over the water. The outdoor tables open at 8am so we’re there on the dot!

Notes on accessibility

Venice is not impossible to access by wheelchair. Wheelchair users do not pay to use water taxis. It can be difficult to board the taxi when the water level is below the jetty, however staff are friendly, helpful and capable. Piazza San Marco, the Basilica, and the Palazza Ducale can be accessed by wheelchair. The Palazza Ducale has a lift so much of it can be seen. The bell tower also has a lift and gives a wonderful panoramic view of Venice. A great deal of Venice can be seen from the water taxis on the Grand Canal.

The bridges all have steps rather than paving so are impossible to negotiate in a wheelchair unless a helper is strong enough to pull the chair up and down the steps. This would rule out visiting the Rialto markets and many of the churches which all have steps leading up to them. A wheelchair user would need to do a lot of research on accommodation to make sure that the hotel can be directly accessed from a jetty.

Using crutches opens almost all of Venice because most landmarks, monuments and churches are not far from the water taxi jetties. However, considerable stamina is required to walk up and over bridges.


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