Of secret itineraries and ghost walks...

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Oct 06, 2005

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

16.Of secret itineraries and ghost walks...

Day 14. September 21th. Wednesday.

Our first full day in Venice! We hurry down for breakfast in the small, cramped breakfast room and find fake toast and packaged croissants with coffee (for me) and hot chocolate (for Godwin). Then we rush through the almost-familiar narrow streets to the pink-and-white marble Gothic-Renaissance Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale) for our 9am secret itineraries (itinerari segreti) tour. There is huge line-up already, and I'm not sure where we're supposed to go with our prepaid tickets and there is some confusion until one of the guards points us in the right direction. There are few people in front of us when we finally get to the right ticket window and show our reservations. We are then asked to wait for our guide inside the inner courtyard with a couple of other people.

Courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace)

I take a few pictures, and exactly on time, a petite Italian lady wearing a badge arrives and the tour begins. It is very interesting, our guide is very knowledgeable, and its fascinating learning about Venice's thousand year republic with democratic principles and about the doges (dukes elected for life) who ruled Venice. The guide shows us a kind of post box in the shape of a lion's mouth called bocca di leone(lion's mouth) and explains that they were placed everywhere so citizens had a means of complaining anonymously against authorities or other citizens.

Bocca di leone (lion's mouth)

Golden Stairway

Then she leads us towards the Golden Staircase (so called because of the intricate ceiling detailed with marble sculpture and gold filigree) that leads up to the first floor. Here our small group is ushered through a large door leading to the secret passages, and then the guide locks the door away from the prying eyes of other tourists touring the palace. The tour is very enlightening and our guide is very eloquent. We learn more than we ever wanted to know about the succession of Doge's, the world of Venetian politics, the history of the palace and the story of Casanova and his intriguing attempts to escape (which he finally did). We go to otherwise off-limits areas like restricted quarters, hidden passageways, the doge's private chambers, torture chambers, the armory (Godwin is fascinated by the swords and shields), the cell where Casanova was held, the chancellery and the questioning rooms. At the end of the 90 minute tour, we are let loose to explore the rest of the place. We go to see the Great Council Hall (Sala del Maggior Consiglio), which houses the world's largest oil painting - Tintoretto's Paradiso.

View from a window in the Ducal Palace

From here we go to the tiny doorway to find the enclosed Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) that connects the Ducal Palace to the dingy prisons. Standing on the bridge, we look out through the intricate grill and sigh (not really but I can see why the bridge is called that - this was the last glimpse of the beautiful lagoon the prisoners got before they entered the dreary dungeons).

View from the famous bridge of sighs

The dungeons are also fascinating and some of the walls are still covered by the prisoner's original graffiti. We finally exit down the Giant Staircase that is guarded by Sansovino's two statues of Mars and Neptune that symbolize the power of Venice.

Ok I couldn't resist taking that picture...

Mars and Neptune

In the courtyard of the Ducal Palace

It's close to noon as we exit onto the piazza, and we're surprised to see it completely flooded. Now I realize what the planks are for - to cross the square without getting your feet wet.

The Piazza flooded

Planks for people to walk

My feet are killing me, so I sit on the steps and people watch. Some tourists actually take off their footwear, roll up their pants and wade through the murky green water. And some are even splashing about having a nice time. All I can think of is the microscopic fungi and algae that probably infest the green water. Ugh.

Resting my feet

The Campanile

Venetians don't like standing between those two pillars because thats where prisoners were executed.

After a while, we're hungry and use the planks and cross the square to find somewhere to eat. It's unbelievably crowded and the flooding is not helping matters. We're inching our way forward on the plank along with other tourists when some emergency technicians (I think) shove their way past us with an injured, bleeding guy on a stretcher. It's quite a sight. We finally make it to the other side and take a deep breath. Whew! After lunch, we walk back to the hotel for a little rest.

Then we take the vaporetto from the stop near our hotel to the San Marco stop (I want to make use of our passes). It slowly chugs its way along the Grand Canal, and it takes more than half an hour to get to San Marco, which means it's definitely faster to walk there (from our hotel). Only in Italy will a vaporetto turn around and dock again because a passenger has forgotten to get off. No wonder nothings ever on time here. The Santa Maria della Salute looks majestic as it sits on the Grand Canal, and I struggle to get my camera out in time so I can take a picture before our vaporetto passes it.

Santa Maria della Salute (taken from a vaporetto)

We're back at San Marco for the second time today. Somehow we keep getting drawn back there. We explore the areas around the square, walking about, taking in all the hustle and bustle of everything around. Then we decide to walk back towards the Rialto for some dinner as we have reservations for a Venice ghost walk at 8pm. The meeting point is the center of the Rialto Bridge, which is close to our hotel.

View from the end of the piazza

Bridge of Sighs

A large number of people converge to the middle of the Rialto, all holding reservations for the ghost walk. Fortunately, after everyone has verified their reservations, the group is split into two, and the ghost walk begins. It isn't really much of a ghost walk, more like legends and superstitions walk. Some of the stories the guide tells us are more funny than scary. But many of the stories give us an insight into the Venetian lifestyle in the early days. One thing we do learn, is that Venice by night is truly deserted, there is an absolute lack of night life as such - the guide explains that by saying most of the tourists head back early to their hotels after tiring themselves out by sightseeing during the day.

An altar on one of the streets

It is nice to trudge through narrow calli and campi (streets and squares), listening to stories as bizarre as Marco Polo's Mongolian wife jumping off the roof of his house into the canal below and haunting it ever since (highly unlikely), and stories of how some Turk killed his mother and then, with guilt, cut his own heart out (and the guide points out where the heart actually (supposedly) thumped its way down some stairs and rolled towards the entrance of a church where it came to rest). He also tells stories of the Black Death (the catastrophic plague that swept through Europe in the 14th century) and how the then Doge, in desperation, made a vow to erect a church called the Salute, asking the Virgin Mary's divine intercession to rid the city of the plague. He tells us a gruesome story about some Doge who was decapitated. I'm not sure if any of the stories are true (and they aren't even particularly scary), but the night walk definitely portrays Venice in a different light - one with long shadows and dimly lit alleys. I like that the walk takes us off the beaten track, through quiet streets and small squares we might not have stumbled upon otherwise. The walk winds up at San Marco Square, and from there we let the moonlight guide us as we stroll back to the hotel. It is simply enchanting. It is Venice...

Coming up:
17. The glassmakers and the lace makers...(Or Marco our Gondola man)
18. Michelangelo's David
19. Florence - the heart and soul of the Renaissance
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