Last week I was invited by Walks of Italy to come to Venice to sample their Legendary Venice tour. I accepted with alacrity, hopped on the train and arrived in La Serenissima with time to spare. Time for cicchetti and an ombra, not far from Piazza San Marco, our designated destination.
My blogger friend Tom Weber, aka The Palladian Traveler, was also invited, so we downed our caffè macchiati and, cameras in hand, headed off to meet our guide at a pre-designated spot close to Palazzo Ducale; the Doges’ Palace.
Underneath the wings of the famous Lion of Venice we were met by Federica, our guide for the afternoon.
Entering the Doges’ Palace, an enormous twelfth century edifice, visited by more than one million visitors each year, which – according to Federica – was the seat of power for the Doges (governors) of Venice until 1797 when the city fell to Napoleon.
Fast-tracked through the ticketing area, we arrived in a large courtyard where Federica pointed out an ornamental cistern, or water tank, and explained that the water which used to supply the city of Venice back in the day was, in fact, rainwater which entered the specially constructed drains and rose up into the cistern. Seeing how the city is constructed on wooden pilings driven into sand, this was a particularly clever feat of engineering.
As we ascended the four long flights of stairs which took us up to the Doges’ reception rooms, we were struck by the wonderfully decorated ceilings. These were, apparently, designed to impress overseas ambassadors who would journey for weeks by ship, then climb these endlessly steep steps, arriving at the top completely exhausted, breathless and intimidated before being made to wait in one of the large reception rooms for a limitless period of time before finally being granted their audience with the great Doge himself.
After being shown these lavish rooms, we progressed to the most lavish of them all: the largest room in Europe, a fantastic architectural triumph, having no pillars to support the ceiling. This vast room also contains the largest complete oil painting, Il Paradiso by Tintoretto.
Our next port of call was the prison which is reached by crossing the famous Bridge of Sighs. This bridge was so called because the little windows gave the prisoners their last sight of Venice as they crossed to the grim dungeons on the other side.
Unfortunately, the Doges’ apartments were closed on that particular day due to a pending art exhibition.
Emerging blinking into the bright piazza once more, we made for the Basilica of San Marco. For once there were no queues, being off season, though Walks of Italy does organise fast-tracking for its clients, wherever they go.
Heading straight up a very steep and narrow flight of stairs, on the right hand side of the main doors, we emerged onto the gallery of the Basilica. A birds’ eye view greeted us. The rich golden mosaics which stud the vaulted ceilings and walls are spectacular. Federica showed us the various samples of mosaics and explained how they were made.
We gasped at the magnificence of the four original bronze horses, brought from Constantinople in 1204, which used to adorn the front of the Basilica but now reside indoors to preserve them while the ones on the façade are actually replicas.
From the external terrace, the view of the piazza and the island of San Giorgio was highly photogenic.
Descending the stairs, we entered the main part of the Basilica and walked to the front where we were shown the spectacular altar which houses the remains of San Marco (Saint Mark), patron saint of Venice.
The entire tour took three hours and was truly fascinating. Having visited these sights previously without a guide, I realised how invaluable – particularly for those making a quick trip to Venice – a good guide can be. Federica gave all of us invaluable information and background on these most wonderful sights in the most beautiful city on the planet.
For details, click HERE to visit the Walks of Italy website.