So, the day after checking out Padua, we found the train station that time forgot near our hotel and hopped a regional line into Venice. My genius daughter had made online reservations for the Basilica San Marco and Doge’s Palace so we were able to skip the looooong hot line and go right in. Both are definitely on the short list of major tourist attractions that are totally worth seeing.
The Basilica was founded in 828 to house the body of St. Mark, stolen from its resting place in Alexandria, Egypt by enterprising Venetians who knew a world-class tourist attraction when they saw it. Most of what is visible today, however, dates from the 14th century. It is in the Byzantine style, and really an incredible place. Beautiful mosaics cover most of the walls on a background of gold tiles. (Photos are not allowed, but of course I took some anyway.)
We discovered almost immediately how to avoid feeling like a salmon swimming up a stream of tourists. Just go upstairs. Anywhere in Venice, the population drops by about 90 percent as soon as you simply climb a flight of stairs. I even overheard one tour guide telling someone that she was sorry, but they couldn’t go up to the museum in San Marco because some members of the group might have trouble going up the stairs. Really, I have seen much steeper stairs in my time, but I guess in that heat, and with the average age and weight of the tour group participants, they do have to be careful. It’s a shame, because some of the neatest stuff is upstairs—on a crowded island with a tendency to flood, you can see why people thought vertically and kept the good stuff well above the waterline!
The Piazza San Marco is Ground Zero for tourists, crowded with people waiting in lines, taking pictures of each other, and feeding and fussing over the
flying rats pigeons. I remember there being a lot more pigeons the last time we went to Venice about ten years ago. It was honestly kind of disgusting. There are far fewer now, because the city government has outlawed feeding them and patrols the square telling people to knock it off. Nevertheless, I saw a bunch of giggly girls feeding the nasty critters and taking pictures of one girl with a pigeon on her head. As I turned away, a collective EWWWW came from the group. The pigeon had pooped on her head. Well, that’s what birds do, isn’t it?
After touring the basilica, the upstairs museum, and the terrace, we went to the Doge’s Palace. Once again, almost all the tourists were on the main floor. Go upstairs and it’s easy to get around. Go downstairs for the “full tour” of the dungeons, and you practically have the place to yourself. It’s spooky!
After taking it all in, we ducked down a side street and had a most excellent lunch of seafood risotto, house wine, and one of the better coffees I’ve ever tasted. Even a couple of blocks from the Piazza, the lunch was less expensive than in central Vienna, and the wait staff were remarkably nice. In fact, I was really impressed throughout this trip with how patient and civil the Venetians are. Especially considering that they are completely swamped by tourists. There are only about 60,000 permanent residents of the city, and as many as 18 million visitors every year. Wow.