Ye olde travel guide: Venice 1500

Roger Crowley offers his advice to travellers visiting Venice, a great maritime trading hub which caters for all tastes

Illustration by Jonty Clark

When to go

May’s the month when Venice promotes itself as the venue for fairs and spectacle; then the city’s busy with pilgrims and traders and the canals don’t smell too bad. If coming by road, the Alpine passes are open, and if by ship, the sea should be not too rough.

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What to take with you

The place lives on trade, but if you come with goods to sell they may be impounded and taxed. Lightweight commodities – jewels or precious stones – can be sewn into clothes to avoid probing customs officials.

Cost and money

Venice is pricey. You even end up paying for drinking water and you’ll need to hire a guide to avoid getting lost. On the other hand you won’t be ripped off on the basics – food prices and weights and measures are carefully controlled and markets are regularly inspected.

Sights and activities

This is the ultimate tourist destination. The whole place is a continuous show, catering for all tastes. For the landlubber the shipping alone is mind-blowing.

Must-see attractions include: a boat trip down the Grand Canal, which will transport you to another world; entry to the doge’s magnificent palace (with the right connections) and maybe an audience with the doge himself; a guided tour of the naval arsenal, the greatest industrial complex in the world, where they can turn out galleys at lightning speed; mass in the splendid basilica of St Mark’s with its new organ; the glass furnaces of Murano – like the fires of hell; the fantastic processions of Corpus Christi and the illuminations of Pentecost. Ascend the campanile of St Mark’s (on foot or on horseback) to get a bird’s eye view of the city.

If relics are your thing, Venice has them in spades. Thrill to the head of St George, the sponge offered to Our Lord on the Cross or Goliath’s teeth (all looted). For something more secular, admire the fashionable women with bare shoulders on two-foot-high platform shoes. If you’re lucky there may be an elephant (“huge and terrible”) on show. Above all don’t miss the colourful festival of Ascension. Blag a place on a boat or hire your own to follow the doge’s golden barge to the ceremony of the marriage of the sea.

Dangers and annoyances

Venice is not exactly a health spa, so make a will before you go. If someone in your inn dies suddenly, flee the city. Venice has lately been plague-free but ships put in from everywhere and the city’s the quarantine frontier of Europe. If you’re partial to courtesans beware the French Disease.

Otherwise Venice has all the usual city troubles: cutpurses, gangs of unruly gallants, Ottoman spies, mass fist fights on the bridges, and endless building work on new palazzi. Watch the slippery walkways besides the canals if you can’t swim. Better still travel by gondola – safer and more direct than walking. Get lost in the labyrinth of streets and you’re really in trouble.

Where to stay

Venice caters for the full range – from budget to deluxe. You’ll find backpackers’ inns in the area around St Mark’s, through to grand houses if you are attached to a VIP. For mid-range, the St George (Rialto) wins many plaudits (“large and respectable”).

Try to get accommodation with an altana – a roof terrace, pleasant for viewing the scene below. Those in holy orders may get good lodgings in a monastery – San Domenico has great gardens. Merchants will be able to stay in the lodging house of their particular nation.

Eating and drinking

Food’s a mixed bag. The meat is poor, but fish, fruit and vegetables are abundant and fresh daily. Go to the retail market at the Rialto to see the boats laden with beans and cherries, the stalls of cheese and butter. You’ll be tempted to snack – the smell of fresh bread from bakers in the piazza of St Mark’s is irresistible.

Skip the water. Try the exotic range of foreign wines instead – red and white, malmsey and muscatel.

Entertainment

The list is endless: church services, mummers plays and comedies, musicians, firework displays or games of chance. Take in an execution between the twin columns in St Mark’s piazza or see tightrope walkers, flagellants and Turkish gymnasts. The shopping’s good too. If the world makes it, you can get it: spices, religious souvenirs, the latest fashions, silk, glass goblets and even ground-up Egyptian mummies. Books are a snip: scoop a breviary from the newfangled printing presses for just a ducat. When it all becomes too much, hire a boat to an outer island and idle beneath the vines.

Roger Crowley’s latest book City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire was published by Faber in August 2011.

Venice today

Nowhere on earth is as simultaneously feted and threatened as Venice is today. Around 50,000 tourists, many from huge cruise ships, come every day. And the city’s population has dwindled to 60,000 as the price of property and difficulties of living in Venice drive out locals. Plans are afoot to charge visitors to come into the city.

The reason visitors come is that Venice is an unparalleled beauty, a car-free warren of winding lanes, separated by canals and bridges. The Triumphal Quadriga, the four bronze horses outside St Mark’s basilica, copies of the originals snaffled from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade, are the first of many architectural and cultural delights. Chief among them is just being here and, if possible, getting lost, discovering quiet corners where Venetians still live away from the beat of feet heading from the cruise terminal at Tronchetto to St Mark’s.

The best way to see Venice is to stay a night or two. Most visitors just come for the day but nights are magical, quiet and in some ways better for strolling. Also stop off in some of the city’s osterie, tiny bars serving prosecco and bar snacks that retain a local clientele. And do come: despite its issues Venice is a wonderful destination.

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This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine