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     Volume 8 Issue 89 | October 9, 2009 |

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Napoleon Bonaparte designated Venice (Venezia) as the drawing room of Europe. He conquered it in 1797 and the republic lost its independence after a thousand years. Floating in water, Venice is an unusually elegant city. It is close to the Adriatic but the Grand Canal and innumerable other smaller canals completely engulf this old city of distinctive architecture. One does miss walking on grassy land and the shade of trees in the August sun. There was very little of that. Instead, wherever you look, you see canals with blackish water in the midst of which the city seem to be precariously raising its head. It has been described as the city of mirrors, the city of mirages- at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone. Visiting Venice this summer, we had the constant worry that the buildings and hotels, like the one in which we were staying, would suddenly collapse like a house of cards, their foundations eroded by water over many centuries.

When we landed by plane at the Marco Polo Airport after a long transatlantic flight, we had to walk about ten minutes with luggage not to a taxi or bus, but to a pier on the sea and a public transport called Vaporetti (water bus.) It took nearly an hour to reach the pier near San Marco's Square. My wife and I then had to pull our luggage through the cobbled lanes of Venice, overcoming the obstacle of a few of the picturesque 350 bridges on the canals which uniquely thread the various parts of the city. The alternative was an expensive water taxi which you had to book in advance. It would carry you in shorter time from the airport pier directly to your hotel's back door on one of the canals. The city of Venice is made up of 117 inhabited islands separated by a network of 180 canals cut through by the Grand Canal. The city was originally founded in the 5th Century.

For a congested city visited by millions of tourists, Venice appeared quite clean though it was crowded at the height of the tourist season in August. People seemed to enjoy walking around the city which had no cars and sitting outdoor-merrily eating, drinking coffee or tasting gelatos. Tourists, both Italians and others, would form long queues on canal sides to get into one of the shiny, slender gondolas for a half-hour ride on the narrow canals going under the interesting bridges of many kinds with fine, colourful buildings on both sides. The lone boatman slowly rows the decorated gondola while simultaneously acting as the tour guide. The ride seemed obligatory for the tourists to get a hang of what life and style of Venice was supposed to be. In the evenings, couples with roses in their hands and glasses of wine, would sing songs quietly as they enjoyed their slow voyage in the gondolas. It looked all so romantic. These gondolas have been used by the dwellers of the lagoon for more than a thousand years.

Colourful Old Houses in the Island of Burano. The Famous Ponte di Rialto Bridge. And Piazza San Marco, the heart of Venice.

The place where thousands congregated day and night was the ancient Piazza San Marco, the heart of Venice. The grand piazza, rectangular in shape, is surrounded on three sides by historic buildings, which housed museums, art galleries, fancy shops and restaurants. On one of the sides is a fine looking old church and a clock tower. In the year 830 AD, the body of St. Mark the Evangelist having been transported from Egypt, became the patron saint of the Republic. His relics are housed in St. Mark's Cathedral confronting the piazza. This piazza has a unique charm and a carefree ambience, which attract people many times a day as if everything should start and end there.

Being at the San Marco Square was captivating, particularly after sunset when it cooled down, the lights come on and melodious songs and music could be heard from the two stages on opposite sides. Hundreds of chairs and tables are nicely laid out with white linen and finely attired waiters would serve the people, particularly in the evenings, their meals in the open air with violins and pianos being played. As the night came, the mood became sweet and somber and the music would turn melancholy and deep. Spontaneous dancing at the piazza followed amidst repeated cheers and clapping for the musicians and the dancing couples. It is difficult to leave the place even past 10 pm though people are tired after a long day of sight seeing and walking in the sun. We saw some young couples from around the world enjoying there till late with their babies fast asleep in the strollers.

Visits by boat to the two nearby islands of Murano and Burano are a must for all tourists. Glass blowing and creating artistic figures in heavenly colours was going on for centuries at 1000 degree heat in huge kilns in Venice. Due to serious fire hazards, the artisans and factories were later relocated at Murano at a distance of 30 minutes by watercraft from Venice. The factories are organised as cooperatives- we visited the only one that was open during the holiday period. Glass making and shaping these into collectible items were demonstrated before us by a father and son-master and apprentice team. That is the only way to learn the ancient craft. Prices were exorbitantly high for the exquisite decorative pieces and though the tour was instructive, we literally came back empty handed except for a few small and affordable souvenirs.

We went by another motor boat to the nearby island of Burano, which is known for centuries for silk and cotton lace-making. We looked around the factory outlets with fine products. Equally impressive were the small canals and the cluster of small houses and shops painted in red, yellow and blue colours, giving me the impression of sets in the Los Angeles movie studios. We had outdoor lunch at the pier-side eatery in a friendly atmosphere. Interestingly, like elsewhere in Italy, we found that wine and bottled water were being sold at the same price.

Meeting interesting people of many nationalities in a tourist place like Venice is quite common. Not surprisingly, we met a young woman from Bangladesh selling gelatos in the San Marco Square. She was from Dhaka district, had come two years ago and doing well. At a local restaurant, we were efficiently and warmly served by a Bangladeshi- handsome, smart waiter speaking fluent Italian. He was as good, if not better, than the other servers in that restaurant. Knowing restrictions in our diet, he was especially careful in making suggestions for the items to be ordered. At the piazza one late evening we met a young French couple who had driven from France to Italy. They were jolly, friendly and curious. We had a fine discourse on the current economic malaise in the western world and even the real cause of Napoleon's death. They gave us some tips about our next destination-Lake Como in the northern part of Italy, which they had just visited.

We had long wanted to go to Venice but somehow our wish was not fulfilled. Having recently visited it, we consider the wait to be very worthwhile. It will remain as one of our most memorable travel experiences.


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