I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t a big fan of the literary works of cuzin Shakespeare in high school. He wasn’t the easiest man to understand, and he made many an English period a rather unpleasant experience. But we eventually got on a first name basis and, strangely, I seem to remember more of his than my other setworks like The Grapes of Wrath and Lord of the Flies.
So I reckon he must have smiled, even just a little, when I found myself on a recent trip standing under none other than Juliet’s balcony in the city of Verona in Italy.
Okay, I know it’s a little kitsch, but Shakespeare did set the story in this city, and the balcony, though added to this old house only in 1936, does seem to fit that scene perfectly – the whole “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” scenario.
The balcony is above a tiny, typically Italian courtyard that has a statue of Juliet and one or two shops selling trinkets. Before entering the courtyard, you walk through a short tunnel inside which millions of messages of love have been written. Scribbling love messages on the tunnel is no longer allowed – star-crossed lovers can now buy a lock from one of the stores in the courtyard, write their lover’s name on it, and then lock it to a railing in an area dedicated to this purpose.
Or one could give the statue of Juliet a hug and a squeeze for good luck. Or, if you’re really in the mood, you could visit the house itself for e4 (R40) and have a quick walk around. It contains a collection of Renaissance frescoes rescued from other demolished palaces, and the bed from a 1968 Romeo and Juliet movie. But the courtyard being so tiny, make sure you get there early, because it gets very crowded.
The next day it was The Merchant of Venice time and, yes, we boarded a train for Venice, which took an hour and a half and was an eye-opener in that, as you get closer to Venice, you realise just how serious the land versus sea battle being waged there really is. Having said that, you never feel like the ground beneath you in Venice is sinking or anything and, yes, most driveways are certainly of the watery kind, but the lack of waves makes it all quite bearable.
Now, before we get into some of the great sights and sounds, there’s a few things about good ol’ Venezia you need to know.
First, you will get lost. The streets don’t run parallel to each other, the bridges over the many little canals all look the same, the little alleyways are just that – little – and with the tallish buildings, your sense of direction will be severely challenged. We got lost on the first night, even though our hotel was just two passages off the famous St Mark’s Square – so trust me when I say you will get lost.
But try not to panic, because there’s no reason to. Contrary to what you might think, Venice is not all that big, and the major canals divide the major areas, so at worst you will have a couple of strange city blocks to contend with. Step two is to memorise two names, so repeat after me: St Mark’s Square and Rialto Bridge.
The former is about the most famous attraction in Venice, the latter a famous bridge that links the piece of land the square is on to what seemed to be the other major side of Venice. So you’re generally either close to one or the other. But here’s the cryptic clue: keep an eye on the corners of the buildings in the passageways, because they’re generally marked with directions to either landmark. If only we knew this when we arrived!
The next most important piece of advice I can give you is about time: you don’t need lots of it to see Venice’s main attractions. Depending on what time of the day you get there, I reckon you could sort it all out in a day and a half, but with the right company (and budget) it’s a cool spot to take your time doing so. In fact, let me say this up front: it is one of the few places I’ve been too that has exceeded my expectations in terms of history, culture and, obviously, romance.
Start with St Mark’s Square, with its many restaurants and shops, the millions of pigeons, the great classical music wafting through the air, and the Grand Canal right next to it.
Yes, you’ll have to re-mortgage your house to have a meal there, but it is ambience – especially at night – with a capital “A”.
Not to mention that it sits before one of the most beautiful churches in Europe, St Mark’s Basilica, which should be your next stop.
But some advice here: the Basilica closes at 5pm daily, and on a Sunday opens only at 2pm (although it opened earlier the Sunday I was there). Visitors are not allowed in with backpacks (there’s a storage area nearby) and taking pictures is forbidden. Entry is free, though, and the queues, although long, move quickly enough.
With its relics of saints and many gold mosaics, the Basilica is truly a masterpiece. Spend e2 on a donation to get behind the golden altar and see works of art by generations of Venetian goldsmiths. The art is recognised as being an example of some of the most accomplished Byzantine craftsmanship.
You’re not allowed to sit and pray in the church’s main area, but there’s a side area where candles can be lit. It’s certainly worth lighting a candle and reflecting – this is a special place.
If you have the time and enjoy a bit of history, venture upstairs to the museum (e5 entry fee) and wander around the small halls to look at more Venetian art, crafts and holy relics. But, museum aside, the real secret up here is the balconies that overlook the square and the Grand Canal, and the balconies inside that overlook the floor of the church. These alone are worth the cost and the effort.
Also on St Mark’s Square is the clock tower and famous bell tower, as well as the Doge’s Palace – which you can tour and is the seat of the Venetian government. It was once also the residence of the Doge, the ruler of the city. At e20 it’s not the cheapest attraction, and you will need a fair amount of time to tour it, but it is said to have an impressive combination of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Its prison cells are also those from which Casanova escaped.
Then there’s the main reason you visit Venice – the canals.
And before we go any further, yes, the smaller canals do have a funny smell that can kill the moment. But Venice is on a mission to get the canals clean and, especially in the larger canals, there is generally no smell and the water has a good colour to it. But, no, I wouldn’t jump in for a swim any time soon.
There are many ways to slice cruising the canals, but let’s start with the postcard way – the gondolas. There are points all over Venice where you can grab a gondola, but, again, it’s not cheap. Prices range from e100 per person to e300 per gondola, depending on the length and route of the cruise, and whether the gondolier rows, sings and rows, sings, rows and serves you drinks, or all of the above.
But ask your hotel’s concierge for tour company guide books. We found a gondola ride for e28, but these are available only a few times a day from specific points, and must be booked well in advance, so make it one of the first things you do when checking in.
Should you want a more extensive canal tour, there’s always the option of chartering a faster private motorboat, which in the same amount of time as the gondola ride will cover more of the Grand Canal and the smaller canals. The pilot is also generally a tour guide and will give you a rundown on the lie of the land. This is a slightly cheaper option than the gondola, but, let’s be honest, it’s not a gondola.
What I thought worked well, after getting the gondola out of the way, were the water taxis, which are the equivalent of the London Underground on water. For a few euros, you can cruise the waterways and embark and disembark at will at many stops. The service runs 24 hours a day and gets you through Venice easily and cheaply. They’ll even get you to and from the train station and airport.
Venice is also famous for its music and theatre, and even if you’re there for one night, you’d be crazy not to take in a classical concert or theatre production. Again, the guide from the concierge lists the famous shows. For e25, we attended a string orchestra concert at which the artists used original instruments to play all the classics, such as Vivaldi and many others. The unforgettable concert took place in a grand old building housed in one of Venice’s many squares.
Should you have more time, go through the guide books and take in a few smaller museums and exhibitions. I found a fascinating exhibit dedicated to Da Vinci that showed many replica working models of some of his work (his flying objects, measurement tools and war machinery, among others).
There are also islands a little way outside Venice. We visited Murano and saw first-hand how the famous glass is created by specific families who have been practising the craft for generations.
And try to choose a good hotel. Like most things in Venice, they don’t come cheap, but the better establishments with the right views make the evenings that much more special. Our hotel, the Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal, was on the Grand Canal and had superb views. It’s really something to sit on the terrace at night with the water from the canal almost lapping over the stairs in front of you.
So, yes, everything you’ve heard about Venice is true. It’s quite a gem and certainly a must on any traveller’s bucket list. Just budget well.
And as you leave, remember another of the famous quotes from the Bard: “Good Night, Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow…” - Saturday Star