By: Connie Kwan-Wong
Seven Days in
Travel with the Publisher for
Photography by Estella Lanti
In the Winter/Spring issue of CKW LUXE, I took you with me to fabulous Milan and Verona, which I experienced in the summer of 2017 with my dear friend Katya Dow and Houston Grand Opera’s (HGO) operatic tour. With both, I made picture-perfect memories I’ll never forget.
After saying, “Goodbye” to my HGO friends, I continued to Venice, the fabled city of canals, gondolas, exquisite art, music, majestic architecture, and romance. This time, I was accompanied by my dear friends Birgitt van Wijk and Anna Dean. I would like to share that experience with you, too.
Located at the northwestern end of the Adriatic Sea, Venice is unique among European cities. The first thing you notice about it, of course, is that there are no roads, only waterways. Sometimes called the Floating City, Venice actually consists of 118 islands connected by bridges and canals. An interesting fact about Venice is that the buildings weren’t constructed on the islands, but on wooden platforms supported by stakes driven into the ground.
Upon arriving in Venice, I was immediately struck by its beauty. The combination of sublime buildings, strikingly blue Adriatic sky, graceful bridges, and winding canals filled with elegant gondolas make for a visual experience unequaled by any other city in the world. One can understand why, over the years, it has been the subject of countless pieces of literature, works of art, and films.
One of Venice’s many beautiful bridges
Gondola ride on the Grand Canal
Also known as Canalazzo by Venetians, the Grand Canal, which cuts Venice in half, wends its way through the city in the shape of a giant “S.” Beginning at a lagoon near the Santa Lucia railway station and ending at St. Mark’s Basin, the city’s most important waterway is roughly 2.36 miles long. And it’s deep: about 16 feet.
Four spectacular bridges span the width of the Grand Canal. Each one was built in a different era. The most recent, built in 2008, is the Ponte della Costituzione (the Constitution Bridge). The Ponte degli Scalzi (the Barefoot Bridge), which is made of stone, was built in 1934. Venice’s most important and famous bridge, the Ponte di Rialto (the Rialto Bridge), was completed in 1591. It’s a massive structure with a 24-foot arch designed to allow galleys to pass underneath. The architect Antonio da Ponte, whose name fittingly means Anthony of the Bridge, competed against the likes of Michelangelo and Palladio for the contract. The Ponte dell’Accademia (the Accademia Bridge), built in 1953, sits at the southern end of the Grand Canal near the San Marco (Saint Marks) district and tantalizes visitors with its spectacular views.
While enjoying a ride down the canal on a vaporetto (water taxi), the best way to travel the length of the Grand Canal, I was struck by the magnificent buildings I encountered all along the way. By the tenth century, the canal was a safe seaport and center of trade. For that reason, some of the earliest homes built along it belonged to merchants. As time went on, grand houses, one more opulent than the next, were constructed. By the 13th century, Byzantine-style decoration had become di rigour. An excellent example is the Ca’ da Mosto, a 13th century palazzo, and the oldest building along the canal.
In Venetian Italian, Doge means duke. Holding the highest office of the Republic of Venice from the eighth to the 18th century, the Doges, who had extensive power up until the 12th century, were elected for life. Their residence, the Doge’s Palace, was also the seat of government. This is such an iconic building that I didn’t think I would be particularly surprised by it. However, seeing it in a picture or a movie can’t compare with seeing it in person. The extraordinary structure, whose original wings were built in the 14th and 15th centuries, is composed of three large blocks integrating previous constructions. I was fascinated to discover the palace once held a jail. In the 16th century it was removed and a new prison, linked to the structure by the Bridge of Sighs, was built.
Bridge of Sights
Basilica de San Marco (Saint Mark's Basilica)
Piazza San Marco ( Saint Mark's Square)
Ca' Rezzonico Museum
Ca' Rezzonico Museum
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Basilica di San Marco (Saint Mark’s Basilica)
Visiting this glorious Byzantine structure is humbling, especially when you know its original purpose. It was built in the ninth century to house the body of Saint Mark, which had been smuggled out of Egypt in a barrel of pork fat by a group of Venetian merchants. Today, the main alter shelters the Saint’s simple sepulchre. The original structure burned down in 932 and was replaced by the sumptuous Byzantine building we see today. You may be inclined, when viewing the basilica’s glistening ceiling, to shield your eyes, as many of its mosaic tiles contain 24-carat gold leaf. Fused onto the exterior of the glass, the purpose was to represent divine light. Incredibly, this splendid building was the Doge’s private chapel until 1807 when it officially replaced the Basilica di San Pietro as Venice’s cathedral. One thing to be aware of when you visit the basilica is that you must dress modestly with arms and shoulders covered.
Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square)
Commonly known as la Piazza, Saint Mark’s Square began as a modest space fronting the original Saint Mark’s Basilica. Over the years, the square, which has always been a central gathering place for Venetians, has been enlarged considerably, and is now the most spacious in the city. The Doge’s Palace; Saint Mark’s Basilica; and the bell tower, which, at a height of 323 feet, is one of Venice’s most prominent landmarks, surround the square. Not only is it a popular meeting place for people, pigeons like it, too. Unfortunately, the presence of the massive numbers that gather there has caused much damage to the delicate mosaics of the piazza’s ancient buildings. In an effort to control them, visitors are no longer allowed to feed these birds.
I would just like to mention here that my knowledgeable tour guide for the above three sites was Luisella Romeo. She provided me with many insights and made my sightseeing so much more informed than it would have been otherwise. I highly recommend her.
Ca’ Rezzonico Museum
Originally built as a private residence, this mansion became the Ca’ Rezzonico Museum, named after the noble family that completed its construction, in 1935. At that time, it was bought by the City of Venice to house its 18th-century art collections. Famous tenants prior to that include Robert Browning, who died there in 1889, and Cole Porter, who rented the premises from 1926 to 1927. This unusual museum gives the spectator the ability to see priceless works of art from a prolific period in Venetian art history within the setting of an 18-century Venetian mansion. One of the most astonishing displays is that of a 19th-century gondola on the ground-floor portico complete with the traditional felze, a removable cabin protecting passengers from onlookers, thus ensuring their privacy.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Peggy Guggenheim devoted her life to the advancement of 20th-century art. Viewing her collection in her former home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an unfinished 18th-century palace on the Grand Canal, was exciting. Experiencing these modern masterpieces in such a remarkable setting was something I’ll never forget. The permanent collection consists of works by Picasso, Mondrian, Miró, Klee, Duchamp, and many other works that make up Guggenheim’s personal collection. She opened it and her home to the public from 1951 until her death in 1971. The collection was opened for the first time under the management of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1980.
Teatro La Fenice
Colorful Buildings in Burano
Street corner near
"Cholon" in Saigon where I was born
This dish is called "Mi Xao Don" in Saigon, Vietnam
Teatro La Fenice
Being a music lover and a devotee of opera, I had to visit Teatro La Fenice, the opera house of Venice. In the 19th century, the theater staged premieres of numerous operas, including many by Rudenz and Verdi. More recently, it has also supported contemporary productions, hosting the world premieres of Stravinski’s The Rakes Progress, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, and Maderna’s Hyperion, as well as many other modern classics. I was struck by the theater’s lavish beauty characterized by the auditorium’s neo-Baroque style of adornment. As well as seating over 1,000 guests, Teatro La Fenice features excellent acoustics, a 98-member orchestra, and a 66-person opera chorus.
The Outer Islands of Venice:
Murano and Burano:
A group of three islands makes up the outer islands of Venice: Murano, Burano, and Torcello. I chose to visit Murano and Burano. I’m so glad I did. Both can be reached by vaporetto, and going from one to the other only takes about half an hour.
Murano is the most famous of the islands. Because it is known for its glass-blowing industry, I made sure I had the chance to observe the process while I was there. It was enthralling. There are many factories and shops on the island that display the lovely finished products. If you can, I recommend you explore some of them and choose a favorite piece to take home with you as a gift for someone special or as a memento for yourself.
Burano is famous for its delicate handmade lace. The Burano Lace Museum, with its special exhibits of the fine needlecraft, is a wonderful spot to visit. Also known for its brightly painted structures, Burano has become a favorite of photographers. Visiting it was one of the best parts of my holiday. I fell in love with its picturesque pastel homes and pretty shops.
You learn to live in the moment
Art at Biennale di Venezia
I Musici Veneziani
Most of us believe that pasta and pizza are Italy’s main foods. The truth is, Italy is home to many types of cuisine. Don’t make the mistake of eating at touristy locations with only these items on the menu. Genuine Venetian cuisine consists of tasty refined dishes that incorporate fresh fish and vegetables. If you can, try to experience what Venetians really eat. One way to do this is by taking a food tour.
Jewish Ghetto and Cannaregio Food Tour
I chose the Jewish Ghetto and Cannaregio Food Tour for my tasting of authentic Venetian fare. It offered the chance to experience the Cannaregio district, the former Jewish Ghetto, on foot, while sampling authentic delicacies from kosher dishes to creamy risottos and gelato from six selected restaurants. I enjoyed discovering Jewish-Venetian dishes like Sarde al Saor (sweet and sour sardine fillets) and artichoke bottoms for the first time.
Not only was the tour a culinary experience, it also enlightened tour members on the rich history of the area pointing out buildings and places of interest and describing their historical significance. A combination of art, culture, fine food, and wine tasting, the tour immersed us in a variety of Venetian traditions. I especially enjoyed the Jewish bakery we visited; walking along the streets and squares of Ghetto Vecchio (the old ghetto); drinking in the vistas of the city from the Rialto bridge; and strolling along the fondamenta, the canal walkways.
Venice is a treasure trove of cultural experiences and unforgettable entertainment. From festivals to theatrical experiences, gondola rides, lush gardens, and theme parks like Aqualandia, something is available for everyone in this captivating city. I was there in the summer, but I understand the Carnival in winter is magnificent to behold. This is a time when crowds of celebrants don fantastical masks and costumes and encase Venice in a magical vibrant atmosphere.
Biennale di Venezia
I was lucky enough to be in Venice during its famed Biennale. One of the most renowned art exhibitions in Europe, the Biennale has been serving important art and culture to Venetians and visitors from around the world for over 120 years. It began with art in 1895 and later added music, cinema, theater, architecture, and dance.
I attended the 57th International Art Exhibition, Viva Arte Viva, which ran from mid-May to the end of November, 2017. The two major venues exhibiting were the Arsenale and Giardini, the traditional sites of the festival since its inception. Several other locations also participated. The exhibit featured 120 invited artists, 103 of whom were first-time participants.
I Musici Veneziani: Le Quatro Stagioni di Antonio Vivaldi (The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi)
During my last night in the magical city of Venice, I had the great pleasure of seeing a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons performed by the remarkable I Musici Veneziani. The performance was one of the highlights of that portion of my trip. Listening to the orchestra, whose performers were dressed in traditional Venetian costume, made me feel like I had traveled back in time to 18th-century Venice. The spectacular setting of the breathtaking Salone Capitolare at the Scuola Grande di San Teodoro, in which the performance took place, raised the experience to even greater heights.
I loved every minute of my time in Venice and found the city captivating, friendly, and unlike anywhere I had ever been. One of the reasons for that is that I come from a city with so many transportation options. Seeing a complete city running only on waterways was fascinating. It also presented some challenges, which I was able to work out.
As Venice has its own unique way of doing things, I’ve put together five quick tips to help you navigate it when you visit:
Be prepared to get lost, even with your map and navigation system. Just understand that you will get lost. Don’t allow this fact to frustrate you; just go with it and enjoy the city.
I recommend you book a hotel near a water taxi stop. It’s not easy to drag your luggage around or travel with anything heavier than a carry-on bag in Venice. Also, moving around the city usually requires walking (with many footbridges to cross) or taking a vaporetto, so it makes sense to stay near a convenient point. Gondolas, which can take you through the side streets, are also a wonderful way to get around and provide a different perspective of the city.
Try to visit some of the Outer Islands of Venice, like Murano and Burano. You’ll be delighted you did. Spend time in the neighborhoods. There is so much to see and so much to learn about Venice by doing so. I especially enjoyed visiting Cannaregio and Dorsoduro.
If you plan on doing a photo shoot in the city, the best time to avoid the crowds is early in the morning, so get up early. I did, and even in the famous Piazza San Marco (St. Marks Square) I had the entire place to myself.
Venice is one of the world’s great cities. Culture, history, scenic vistas, extraordinary architecture, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences converge here. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to get to know this remarkable city and I invite you to do the same. If you do, I know it will be one of the highlights of your life, just as it was mine.