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Italy's Grand Finale: Venice

The Most Beautiful City in the World

sunny 87 °F

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Venice's waterfront in the late afternoon sunlight

Out last day of sightseeing dawned, and it was another magical, sunny day in Italy. We loaded up on the bus from where we were staying in Treviso, and drove about a half hour down to the docks of Venice. We boarded a chartered boat which dropped us off at the Isle of Guidecca, where we would attend a demonstration in the art of Venetian glass blowing. Glass is one of the city's most famous souvenirs, and this place was justifiably famous as making some of the best. After the demonstration, we were ushered into the gift shop -- surprised? The glass here is very high quality, but also very expensive. A pair of wine goblets bought by one of my travelers was 150 Euros.

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Beautiful, waterfront scene in Venice
We reboarded the boat and were dropped of along the Grand Canal, that backwards "S-shaped" waterway that is the main thoroughfare in Venice. There are no real streets in this city. No cars or trucks -- only boats of various sizes glide along the large and small waterways which are traffic web of Venice. Pedestrian walkways and alleyways run throughout Venice, crossing the water in quaint arches. This is an artist's city. Plop down your canvas nearly anywhere in Venice and you can paint a gorgeous panorama or lovely, little backwater street. I often categorize cities into "laundry list" cities (like Rome) where you have an expansive tally of places you want to see before you leave. Or I label them "experience cities," where the goal is to just absorb the vibe and color of the city. Venice is the second type, and to this day I still call it, "la piu bella citta" (most beautiful city) in the world.

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Atop one of the bridges across the Grand Canal
We met our guide, who began his commentary about the city's layout and sights. He walked us along the Grand Canal past the Doge's Palace and St. Mark's Square, then plunged into the city's back streets and alleyways. He stopped at various churches and buildings and explained the history, art and life of Venice. He took us to some hidden spots that were definitely off the beaten path and very colorful. However, for my taste, he did not spice up his delivery with questions or pauses to make sure everyone understood. Unfortunately, he kind of pressed "Play" and began his lecture and continued it nonstop. After a half hour or so, I could tell he was losing some of the travelers. The Whisper technology's sound was always a bit shaky, and when you throw in the accented English with the nonstop monologue under the hot sun, the kids began to fade a bit. We retuned to St. Mark's Square, where the guide finished and handed it back to Elvira.

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An iconic part of any Venice visit -- a ride on one of its gondolas
From there, we walked to where she'd arranged for us to hire gondolas for a ride through Venice's canals. The price of 20 Euros each was excellent, and all of my travelers took advantage. We gingerly stepped on board, six to a boat, and they began to pole us through the waters. We began along the bustling and choppy Grand Canal, then quickly ducked into the quieter side canals. Our gondolier did not sing (though apparently if we'd tipped him he would have, I found out later), but instead bantered back and forth with other gondoliers. Still, it is a cool experience to quietly float through the canals, passing beneath arched bridges as you watch people walk by overhead. Seeing the homes along the back alley canals is always atmospheric, too. It is as if you are getting a secret glimpse into someone's gorgeous, backyard patio.

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Venice's Rialto Bridge along the Grand Canal
After disembarking, we followed Elvira through the streets to a square which housed a number of cafes. Everyone was hungry, so we scattered to check out menus, eventually splitting into several contingents. Once lunch was over, I collected most of our group and told them I would lead them to the Rialto Bridge, one of the most famous and picturesque of the three over the Grand Canal. I used the map Elvira had given each of us, supplementing it with the my iPhone's map app (which tracks your location with a moving blue dot). We stopped a couple times for souvenir purchases, but I was pleased to navigate us through the back streets to exactly where I wanted to emerge alongside the Grand Canal. Unfortunately, half of the Rialto Bridge was covered in scaffolding. So much for my postcard view I wanted to give them! At this point, our group splintered. Some wanted to take their time and shop, while others wanted to explore the city. I led the exploration group across the Rialto Bridge and we plunged through one of the city's markets. This led to frequent shopping stops. Some of the group began to worry about our pace. Our goal was to return to the meeting point in time to visit both St. Mark's Cathedral and the Duomo's Palace. We worked it out, though, and found a happy compromise. We even found time for a gelato stop in one of the squares. I was happy with my navigation, leading us into only one dead end. We made a circuit of the opposite side of the Grand Canal through the Santa Croce, San Polo, and Dorsoduro districts before emerging at the Accademia Bridge. We took numerous photo stops along the way, and I think my travelers got a good taste of Venice's beauty.

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St. Mark's Cathedral, bathed in the golden rays of the evening sun
I left us with about about a half hour less time than I'd aimed for to explore St. Mark's and the Doge's Palace. We managed to get inside both, but for abbreviated tours. I had visited St. Mark's before, and love its dusty, golden glow of the mosaic and fresco-lined walls. There is a definite Eastern feel to the church. You can see and feel the Byzantine influences. This was my first time entering the Doge's (or Duke's) Palace. It was much more sprawling inside. Magnificent chambers stretched away before your eyes, decorated with the wealth and taste you would expect of one of the Medieval and Renaissance period's most powerful cities. The merchants of Venice showed off their riches by decorating their homes and buildings. The palace -- actually all of Venice -- is a testament to their proud role as patrons of the arts.

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Exploring the back streets, canals, and alley ways of Venice
We had to cut our exploration of the palace short to reach our rendezvous with Elvira and the rest of the group. Previously, I'd made arrangements for any of the group who wished to extend their exploration of Venice to stay on with me and travel back by train. The rest could return to the hotel with her. I could tell that the long day in the sun had worn many of them out. They were ready to return to a shower in the hotel and relax in the air conditioning. Three students chose to stay on with me, though. We returned to the square for some photos, and then decided to take the elevator up the Campanile, or bell tower, for its views of Venice. The panorama of the world's most beautiful city laid out beneath us was exhilarating. I could feel it inject fresh life and energy into the kids and myself. When we first arrived top, one student pointed out the massive bronze bells above our head. They asked if they would ring while we were up there and I said I doubted it. At 6:30 pm, I was proven loudly and clamorously wrong. The ringing was deafening, but we were all laughing at the hilarity of the situation.

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The Campanile, or bell tower, and my three travelers who took me up on the option of an extended, evening tour of Venice
The kids and I began a slow, evening tour of Venice. I had wanted to show my travelers what Venice was like after the hordes of day trippers and cruise ship passengers were gone. Our stated objective was to visit the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, but it ended up being too far of a walk from our starting point. We did explore quiet squares, bustling waterfronts, and streets shaded by the slanting sun of early evening. We enjoyed a dinner on a waterfront cafe, watching people cross the bridge or stroll along the streets. We then boarded our train, and headed off towards Treviso and the rest of our group. It was an extra taste, a dessert of sorts, to our grand finale of our tour of Italy -- my favorite city in my favorite country, Venice.

As the darkness descended on our ride back, I knew the memories of my students would forever be lit up by their magical week in Italy. Before I left, I wasn't sure how I would enjoy leading a student group overseas. Normally, I don't take guided tours and prefer individual travel, instead. True, we did not always get to spend as much time at every place I wanted -- nor to see everything I hoped to show them. Deep inside, though, I knew one of my goals was to open up their eyes to the world out there. I wanted them to get a taste of overseas travel, to experience a different culture. It was every bit the success I had hoped for. What I hadn't expected, though, was the warm glow it gave me to see their joy, wonder, and excitement light up their faces. Through them, my heart experienced the same magic they were feeling.

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:23 Archived in Italy

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