Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Sunday, Feb 19, 2006


Magic, pure and simple

Venice is so breathtaking, it is impossible to be objective about it.

Wrapped in enchantment: Venice by night. Photo: Yaj Malik

ALL of Venice is ablaze with lights at night. The dark emerald waters
of the lagoon lap against decrepit walls. As our vaporetto (water taxi)
 glides past old palazzos, open windows permit us to look directly into
 parlours with old brocade upholstery and beamed roofs, each one lit
 up with Murano glass chandeliers that surpass description. At waterside
 restaurants, people sit sipping Bellinis (sparkling wine with peach
infusions) and the air is rent by the sound of laughter and music.
At night, Venice wraps herself in enchantment. This is magic, pure
 and simple.

Great ambience
Just half-an-hour earlier, we'd been sitting at an outdoor café in
St Mark's Square, some brave souls downing grappa, which
originates here, others playing safe with wine, listening to a
jazz quartet playing "Unchained Melody". The lights from the
shops skirting the square gleamed off the golden winged lions
atop the poles; the red brick Bell Tower stood silent sentinel to
the pavement artists, and the fluttering wings of the ubiquitous
 pigeons set up a rhythm all their own. That, too, was magic.

The next morning, we find Venice by day is just as magical as it
is by night. Today, the waters are a celadon green, the
gaily-striped poles where boats are moored look festive and
the Rialto Bridge is packed with people in a manner reminiscent
 of Indian crowds; seemingly, all of the 63,000 citizens of
Venice are out on the bridge.

We are cruising the Grand Canal. This ribbon of water has an 
average depth of nine feet and winds four kilometres from
 the Ferrovia (train station) to Piazza San Marco, passing 200 
opulent palazzos in its course. It's a passing parade of 
spectacular buildings and baroque churches, and by the 
time one docks, one is on sensory overload.

On the quay are mime artistes dressed like Venetian nobles,
masked ladies, muses and priests. We stop by a Murano glass
 factory and watch the glass-makers and check the exquisite
 ware, catching our breath both in delight and at the price tags.

Getting lost in the labyrinthine lanes of Venice is something of
an inevitability, unless you are with a tour group. The city is
confusingly divided into six districts, each district subdivided
into 38 parishes. Getting lost also means coming upon
great little tratorrie. It's primarily about seafood, of course.
The exotica includes soft-shell crabs fried in an
egg-and-Parmesan batter, tender baby cuttlefish stewed
in their ink and tomato sauce, eel cooked on a bed of bay leaves.

The vegetarian soul finds solace in the many versions of
 the famous risotto; the vegetables are sharp and delicious,
the pasta great, and the thick bean soup, a must-try.
For dessert it's Venetian tiramisu, washed down with prosecco, a local wine.

The core
Ultimately, all streets lead back to St Mark's Square. St. Mark
 the evangelist is the patron saint of Venice and his remains
 are buried in St. Mark's Basilica. The Basilica also houses
the Pala d'Oro, covered with more than 3,000 precious stones
 and enamel icons inlaid in gold, arguably the most stunning
 altar screen you will ever set your eyes on. Atop the Basilica
 are the famous four copper horses believed to have been
 secreted away from Constantinople.

The Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) next to the Basilica was the
Doge's residence, the seat of many important political and social
institutions. A major tourist attraction is the 17th Century Bridge
 of Sighs traversed from inside the Palace; prisoners who passed
 through on their way to the prison cells would catch a
 tantalising glimpse of the sparkling waters of the lagoon and
 heave many a wistful sigh.

The Bell Tower of St. Mark, with its five huge cast-iron bells,
and the Clock Tower which shows the passing of 24 hours, as
well as the Zodiac and the phases of the moon, are the other
 Square attractions.

Every lagoon has its undertow. And so there is talk of Venice
being a glorified sewer, a place chock-full of thieves and
pickpockets, of decaying grandeur and a doubtful future. It's a
matter of perception. For years now, the city called La Serenissima
 has set the heart of even the most jaded traveller beating a wild
 tattoo. It is a city thrumming with possibilities, and when you leave,
 you know you will leave a bit of that aforementioned heart behind.

Written about in a hundred novels, depicted in great detail in as
many films, yet the Venice you see remains exclusively your Venice.

The mainland has a train station, the Santa Lucia station, serviced
 by frequent trains.

The nearest airport is Marco Polo airport, 13 kms from the city.

Except for the months of June, July and August, the rest of the
 time the weather stays pleasant.

The water-bus service from the mainland is a cheap mode of
transport. Vaporettos cost less than the glamorous but
expensive gondolas.

Venice should only be seen on foot and with enough time
to spare, so do pack sturdy walking shoes.

Venetian hotels are priced at US $200 upwards. You will find
cheaper accommodation on the mainland.

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