There is only one true way to arrive in Venice and that is via the water itself. It is that most unique of experiences, of speeding across the lagoon, the water spraying in your face as the boat meanders around the various markers, islets and sandbars. The skyline of Venice emerges from the horizon, offering tantalising glimpses of the Campanile of St Marks and other landmarks, silhouetted against the water and sky. No other city can compete with such an introduction.
Venice is a city of districts or sestiere, stretching from Giudecca in the far south to Cannaregio in the far north, not including the various outlier islands such as Burano and Murano. The Dorsoduro lies on the southern edge of Venice proper, a slim, finger shaped peninsula situated between the Grand and Giudecca Canals. Home to Venice’s principle art installations, namely the infamous Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim, this district is far from being off the tourist trail. However, given its proximity to the San Marco district it is still possible to sample a more authentic Venetian experience. As one ventures further from the Ponte dell ‘Accademia Bridge which connects San Marco to the Dorsoduro, there are a wide range of scenic spots where one does not have to queue for the clichéd scenes of Venice.
The Zattere runs along the south side of the Dorsoduro and is one of Venice’s principal water frontages. Its south facing promenade and water front cafés bask in the afternoon sunshine. In fact, such are the vagaries of the Venetian climate, the temperature on the south facing Zattere is said to be several degrees warmer than the northern edges of Venice. This may be a Venetian myth, but seems plausible. As the evening draws in, locals and tourists alike mingle, in a relaxed and somewhat less frenetic atmosphere than one might find in the San Marco area. The fabulous interior of the Santa Maria della Rosario which dominates the corner of Rio Terra Foscarini and the Zattere is also worth a visit.
By far the greatest attraction of the Zattere is its view of the Giudecca canal. It bustles at all hours with water buses, taxis and car ferries, more akin to the Bosphorus. The regular passage of cruise liners to and from the City’s growing cruise terminal also provides the somewhat surreal spectacle of seeing these 21st Century, gleaming floating palaces towering above their medieval equivalents.
A visit to Venice would not be complete without a visit to the San Marco district, home to arguably the quintessential Venetian sights from the Doge’s Palace to Piazza San Marco and St Mark’s Cathedral. Naturally, crowds jostle along the main thoroughfares and there is a competitive edge to capture the best photo spots. St Mark’s Square is an expansive space which can accommodate even the largest of high season crowds, and is frequented by nearly as many pigeons who entertain and harass visitors in equal measure. Under the columns that frame the square, are housed the finest of boutiques with the finest of prices. This includes that original of Venetian establishments, the Caffé Florian. This supremely ornate coffee house with its white gloved waiters and band to entertain the clientele is more reminiscent of Vienna than Venice.
As one meanders the principal shopping streets to the north of St Mark’s Square, one eventually reaches the Rialto Bridge, one of Venice’s iconic sights; however more recently, this is surrounded in scaffolding, testament to the continuous process of repair and renewal in a city such as Venice. The bridge itself, much like San Marco, is a chaotic mix of shoppers and tourists scaling its steps; the view of the Grand Canal is certainly worth it.
The Grand Canal is the city’s beating and pulsating thoroughfare, akin to the Thames or the Bosphorus but still uniquely Venetian with its sleek motorboats, gondolas and water taxis. The public water buses that ply the Grand Canal, teeming with commuters are a timely reminder that the Canal is a working artery of the city and not a mere museum piece. Admittedly, many of the apparent commuters are in fact tourists craning for the best view. The Grand Canal is best viewed from the water. Either side grand palazzo compete and jostle for your attention. These grand residences which front the canal provide a fascinating insight into the layers of Venetian history and the key movers and shakers of Venetian society over the course of centuries. They range from long-standing trading families to more colourful characters such as the infamous Casanova. Today, whilst the northern end of the Grand Canal still houses many Palazzo in private ownership, the remainder are more likely to be museums or hotels or institutions of some kind. This is indicative of the realities of a Grand Canal residence being their high cost of maintenance.
Venice is a remarkably walkable city and the central districts of San Marco and the Dorsoduro provide an invaluable introduction to this city centred on water. However, there is far more to explore beyond the primary tourist trail and our ‘Hidden Venice’ feature explores the hidden corners of the city, as well as looking at the future challenges and opportunities for Venice.
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