The crowds of St Mark’s square swirled around us as we waited at the Lion of Venice column for our Venice boat tour to begin. What a fabulous spot for people watching; the brightly clothed Chinese with every inch of skin hidden from the sunshine, the couples with their selfie sticks and the children chasing pigeons. Close to us was the line for the Doge’s palace, a little further the queue for the Campanile, while on the far side of the square, tour groups were being herded towards the entrance of St Mark’s Basilica.
Thank goodness that our guide Jennifer soon led us away from the noise and crowds towards the water taxi, and we were off to see Venice by boat on our Walks of Italy tour. Our small group comprised a couple from San Diago, Sandy from Australia as well as the four of our family and in moments we were following the Hotel Cipriani launch across the lagoon towards the island of San Georgio Maggiore.
Ten minutes later and we stepped onto the landing stage in front of the pure white facade of Chiesa San Georgio, designed by the architect Palladio at a certain angle so that it would glow in the afternoon sun. This is the spot where every bride and bridegroom will come after their wedding, to have their photo taken with the view of St Mark’s square in the distance across the lagoon. There is no-where to stay on the island but it’s not much of a hardship posting for the handful of monks who still live in the Benedictine monastery.
Jennifer led us through the chuch and to the lift which took six people at a time up to the top of the campanile with 360 degree views over the lagoon – the cost of €6 was included in our Walks of Italy Venice boat tour. From here we could look down into the monastery gardens, towards the outer islands and clearly see the channels of the lagoon that are under heated discussion in Venice. The big debate is whether to reduce the number and size of the cruise ships going through the channel in front of St Mark’s square, since this would mean dredging deeper channels in other parts of the lagoon which could cause just as much environmental damage.
Once we were back on the boat, our guide Jennifer fed us a steady stream of stories about Venice – a mixture of celebrity, history and money just as Venice has always been. Soon we could point out the house owned by Elton John on the nearby island of Giudecca and the church where Verdi was the choir master.
Skirting around the Arselale district we rounded the far side of the lagoon with a view of San Michele, the graveyard island. It was Napoleon who ordered all the graves to be moved to this island since it was becoming insanitary in Venice and it is still used as the burial place today.
Beyond San Michele is the island of Murano known for the glass blowing – the glass industry was moved there due to the risk of fire and to keep the closely guarded secrets of the art of glassmaking. The Venetians were the first to perfect the making of coloured glass through the addition of gold, mercury and copper and of making mirrored glass to replace the polished metal looking glasses.
Check out the dog we saw standing at the prow of the boat alongside us as we passed the island – typical of Venetians going about their business by boat!
Next our Venice boat ride took us through the pretty backwaters of the Cannaregio district, with much more of a local feel, where the tide of cruise ship guests rarely reaches. This is the neighbourhood I’d choose to stay if I ever go back to Venice, in some crumbing but atmospheric house with a balcony overlooking a small side canal.
We passed the famous church of Madonna dell’Orto that we had already visited on our wanderings, with the huge paintings by Tintoretto who had a studio nearby. Jennifer pointed out the more mundane necessities of daily life in Venice; the hospital with yellow ambulance boats moored outside and the sports centre close to the station where the train tracks end. You’ll know you’re nearby if you see a large H for hospital on a bridge to warn you to keep the noise down.
There are only a couple of places that the famous gondolas of Venice are made and we passed one of them on our boat tour. Check out the Alpine looking buildings made of wood, since the first boatmakers came from the Tirol, north of Venice.
As we entered the Grand Canal, we heard more stories of life in Venice, and learned how there were originally far fewer streets, which since they were likely to be muddy and smelly, were only used by servants. The main house entrance was always on the canal side and everyone who was anyone would go about their business by gondola. The bridges and pavements alongside the canals were only built later and if you see a street called Calle Terre it means the canal that was once there has been filled in and paved over.
Now the celebrity stories were coming thick and fast as we passed the Gritti Palace hotel where Gwyneth Paltrow celebrated her birthday, the Mayor’s office in the Cavelli Palace, where George and Amal Clooney had their civil marriage ceremony and the ultra-luxe Hotel Aman Canal Grande where they held their wedding party.
A little further on and Jennifer pointed out the house that Angelina Jolie rented when she was in Venice to film The Tourist, as well as the building in the Rialto market where Jonnie Depp is chased along the terrace in the same film. Right next door to Angela’s house is the Palazzo where Lord Byron lived for a few years in the early 1800s and since he had a club foot, liked to exercise by swimming in the Grand Canal behind his own private gondola.
You’ll also pass the building that featured in the James Bond movie, Casino Royale, where the magic of cinema makes it look as if the whole front of the building collapses into the canal.
Beyond the celebrity gossip, our tour of Venice helped us to understand how wealthy Venetians lived in the past, since all the Palazzos, whatever their outward style, share the same internal arrangements. While the ground floor was for coming and going by gondola, the first noble floor was where the wealthy family would live and entertain, the second and third floor housed their bedrooms while the servant’s rooms and kitchen were on the top floor allowing easier evacuation if a fire broke out.
Since all the waste went into the canal, the ladies would go go up to the roof terrace to get away from the smells of the canal in the hot summer months. If you look up at the roofs of many of the buildings, you can still spot these terraces, where they would go to create the Venetian ideal of beauty, a fair complexion with strawberry blonde hair.
What you may not realise is that to achieve the look they would sit in the sun with their face shaded and their hair spread out across the wide brims of special hats to bleach it with horse urine. Lovely! Look at the picture below and you can spot one of these roof terraces on the right.
There are only a few bridges that cross the Grand Canal and the oldest is the Rialto bridge, set on the narrowest part of the Grand Canal. While the Rialto is a single arch stone bridge, it replaced older wooden bridges of the same design, always with shops above so that the rent would pay for the upkeep of the bridge.
Before other bridges were built, the Rialto was considered the heart of the financial and commercial district. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock says, ” Ha’ what now on the Rialto? ” since this is where you would come to hear all the news and gossip. Until 1860 it was the only bridge across the Grand Canal and at other places you would cross on a gondola. You can still find these gondola stations in a few places on the Grand Canal and take a short gondola ride without the €100 bill.
The next bridge we passed was the Accademia bridge, constructed of wood in the 1930s as a temporary solution, although since people like it, it keeps being restored. A little beyond the Accademia bridge was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the low building of the unfinished Palazzo housing a fabulous modern art collection that we had visited the day before – highly recommended!
Now our two hour boat tour of Venice was nearly over and we reached the Old Customs House with the dome, on top of which the golden goddess Fortuna stands, holding a sail. She acts as a weather vane, twirling around in the wind and as Jennifer told us, “who needs a weather app when you can have a weather goddess?”
We reached the landing stage at San Marco again, and sadly our Venice boat tour was over. I’ve not even had time to tell you why the chimneys look like upside down cones, how Venice showed the world how to make money out of gambling and where you find the gas station to fill up your boat.
If you want to feel a touch of that George & Amal glamour on your private water taxi while soaking up the stories and atmosphere of Venice, I guess you’ll just have to take the tour!
More information about our boat tour of Venice
We took our Venice boat tour with Walks of Italy who offer a number of different tours of Venice and other parts of Italy. Other tours on offer that looked interesting were a Venice Food Tour with a visit to the Rialto market including cicchetti and wine tasting, a Welcome to Venice Walking Tour with a gondola ride and a Venice in a day tour with St Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and a Gondola Ride. You can see all the different Walks of Italy Venice Tours here.
Our Venice Boat Tour took 2 hours and cost €98 per person which included;
- A 2 hour private motorboat ride
- A small group (9 or less) with an expert guide
- Headsets so we could listen to the guide
- Entrance tickets to the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore
Thanks to Walks of Italy who provided a complimentary tour for Heather and her family
Where to stay in Venice
For our 3 day stay in Venice I rented an apartment with Go with Oh and was able to use the voucher that I won with Passports with Purpose blogger fundraiser. We chose this apartment in the San Marco district since it was so well located for all the main sites.
Thanks to Murissa from The Wonderful Traveller who hosted this prize contributed by Go with Oh and and for her tips on what to see in Venice. Passports with Purpose is a really worthwhile organisation which supports a different cause each year and you can win some really fabulous prizes so it’s definitely worth participating.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey