Lord Byron called Venice (Venezia) "a fairy city of the heart." La Serenissima, "The Most Serene," is an improbable cityscape of stone palaces that seem to float on water, a place where cats nap on Oriental marble windowsills set in colorful plaster walls. Candy-striped pylons stand sentry outside the tiny stone docks of palazzi whose front steps descend into the gently lapping waters of the canals that lace the city.
In Venice, cars are banned -- every form of transportation floats, from water taxis and vaporetti (the public "bus" ferries) to ambulance speedboats and garbage scows. Venice is a place where locals stop at the bacaro (wine bar) to take un ombra (literally "a little bit of shade," in practice, a glass of wine) and munch on cicchetti (tapaslike snacks) or linger over exquisite restaurant seafood dinners.
It is also a city of great art and grand old masters. Venetian painting featured early masters such as the Bellini clan -- Jacopo from the 1420s, sons Giovanni and Gentile from the 1460s. By the early 1500s, Venice had taken the Renaissance torch from Florence and made it its own, lending the movement the new color and lighting schemes of such giants as Giorgione, Tiziano (Titian), Paolo Veronese, and Tintoretto.
So much for Venice the Serenissima. There's also Venice the insanely popular and overcrowded. Certainly, the tourists can seem inescapable, and prices can be double or triple here what they are elsewhere in Italy.
But visitors flock to this canalled wonder for very good reason: Venice is extraordinary, it is magical, and it is worth every cent. Its existence defies logic, but underneath its otherworldly beauty and sometimes-stifling tourism, Venice is a living, breathing, singular city that seems almost too exquisite to be genuine, too fragile to survive the never-ending stream of visitors who have been making the pilgrimage here for 1,500 years.
As barbarian hordes washed back and forth across the Alps during the decline of...
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