See Venice and die? Maybe. See Venice and lose your mind? If you’re photographer, definitely.
Whether you’re a photographer, or just a wannabe like me, you can go nuts in Venice. The reason is simple: There is a good shot, or a great one, just about everywhere you look, in any direction, at any time of the day or night.
Some cities are just naturally photogenic — San Francisco, New Orleans, London, Paris, Rome, Hong Kong. But for a “shooter,” Venice may be better than all of them.
Nor are we talking about special events like Carnavale, which in its own way is as visually breathtaking as Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. The majority of Venetian beauty is an every-day affair.
Once, this was a city-state. Now, its 118 islands form one of the world capitals of travel photography. Close up, medium or panoramic, wide-angle or telephoto, color or black & white, it JUST……..DOESN’T………MATTER! Whenever and wherever you stare through your viewfinder, odds are that something visually compelling will be staring back at you.
There are three main reasons for this, I think.
The first is age. No one even knows exactly how old Venice is. The best guess is that Roman refugees fleeing from Huns, Goths and other Germanic invasions built themselves a community on the marshy islands of this lagoon.
(What? Germans invading their neighbors? You’re kidding, right? Sure glad they got THAT out of their system early! Oh…wait. Never mind!)
IF YOU GO
Venice can be reached by car, bus, air, rail…and perhaps most fittingly, by water. You emerge from the Venice train station directly onto the Grand Canal, where private water taxis (swift and pricey) and public boats (not that slow and super-cheap) await. Ferries come and go from the mainland and cruise ships call here on a regular basis.
The centuries of building and rebuilding, wear and tear, have turned Venice into a palette of colors, gray stucco here, red brick there, all layered in varying shades by sun and water. Colors, textures, light, shadow, shapes, faces. It’s all built to the human scale of centuries past, before builders began catering to the automobile.
Venice may sprawl for thousands of acres across its lagoon, but from where you stand, you can’t see anything but the centuries-old apartment building or cathedral in front of you. You’re in your own very little world.
Water is the second element in Venice’s beauty. It’s everywhere, mainly in the Grand Canal and its scores of narrow tributaries, as well as the lagoon that surrounds — and now threatens to engulf — the entire city.
It’s under your feet — and several times a year during winter storms and high tides, over your knees and even up to your waist.
Venice is a warren of footpaths navigated by street signs stenciled onto the sides of buildings and a variety of landmarks, including massive graffiti. It also is home, you will be told, to 400 bridges. By your second day there, you will be convinced that you either have crossed each of them at least once, or four of them a hundred times each.
BRIDGES AND BOATS
There are other European cities with more bridges — Berlin, for one. While you’re Venice, however, you won’t believe that for a minute.
Public boats called vaporetto run the Grand Canal the way buses run grand boulevards in other cities, essentially one-deck ferries with banks of bench seats. Boarding is amidships from floating docks. If you’re willing to put up with crowds, they are by far the cheapest way to get around.
The rest of the boat traffic consists of overpriced water taxis, small private motorboats, police boats, even ambulance boats that run the canal at high speed with lights and sirens. Utility boats with cranes thread their way between the Coast Guard fire boats.
It’s wonderful to roam the narrow alleys and passageways alone, armed with your favorite camera and your eye for detail — but you don’t have to. There are organized photo tours of Venice for visitors whose focus is photography. If anything could be more fun than shooting one of the most beautiful cities on Earth, it just might be doing it with a gaggle of other photo enthusiasts who feel the same way you do.
You’ll find links to photo tours in Venice and other great cities on the Cool Travel Sites page.
Then, of course, there is that flotilla of gondolas, either the quintessential Venetian cliche or the ultimate floating symbol of a floating city. Either way, you ultimately will grab a few frames of gondolas and gondoliers. No use fighting it. Sooner or later, you will succumb.
It’s like a photographic equivalent of the Borg. Resistance is futile.
The third element involves something that’s not there. There are no cars in Venice. No trucks, no minivans, scarcely as much as a Vespa scooter. No traffic lights, no parking meters, no billboards.
No, you haven’t died and gone to Photographers’ Heaven. It just looks that way.
The “traffic” on Venetian streets is that of people walking by you. That makes for a much more serene urban landscape, one that gives you time to notice the small, appealing details around you — without the threat of being run over by a bus.
Dorsoduro, one of those 118 Venetian islands defined by all those canals, is a good area to stay in if you want to be more or less in the center of things in Venice.
It’s a lot quieter than some of the islands on the other side of the Grand Canal, the side that has St. Marks Square and the Mussolini-era train station and the cruise ship docks.
VENICE, VENICE…GOING DOWN
There are a lot fewer reasons for tourists to troop over to Dorsoduro — and for me, that proved to be one of its attractions. To find yourself more among the locals and less among the tourists is almost always a good thing.
Another advantage in Dorsoduro: Prices seem to be cheaper.
The Bible tells us that all things passeth away. Venice is sinking. It’s been sinking for a thousand years, but scientists say the process is accelerating thanks to rising sea levels.
The Italian government is looking for ways to save this treasure. It’s been looking for decades. There’s no guarantee of finding one. Many Venetians have already resigned the city to its apparent fate and moved away.
With that in mind, the best advice I can give you is:
See Venice…before Venice dies.