Sailing the Canals of VENICE

Text & Photos by Farah S. Kamal

Many of us have romanticised the canals of Venice; I did too while reading Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice in my English literature class. On a road trip around Europe, crossing the border of Italy from Insbruck-Austria, I finally came face-to-face with this flattering city, another majestic UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to 400 AD, made of 118 tiny islands and 400 bridges.

Venezia, as the Italians call it, is entirely built on water. Lugging my camera, I got off the bus and headed towards the taxi, which was no ordinary public transport, it was a Vaporetto a water bus. Cruising the grand canal of Italy towards the city I felt like one of the merchants from ancient times arriving at the port. My fingers were continually on the shutter button capturing endless images of the Grand Canal of Italy overlooking the Rialto, the oldest bridge in Venice built over the Grand Canal where merchants would gather and trade their goods.

I got down from the water bus thrilled at the thought of what comes next – narrow streets, little bridges, old rundown buildings, a network of canals and the singing gondoliers. This was my first ever Venetian experience with a full day ahead to explore this romantic floating town. Venice is a city where there are canals instead of streets, commute is possible only by walking or boats. I got a whole new perspective of city scape and architecture knowing that the buildings are supported under water. I liked the absence of speeding, honking cars, traffic jams and the noise of motorised vehicles – I did not even spot a bicycle here. I knew I can do only so much in a day, specially when every corner and bridge appears to be an architectural wonder carrying history, promising insight into culture and stories from people.

Strolling by the shops that lined both sides of the canal, I listened to the tour guide who explained that Venetians come here for the fish and vegetable market, and tourists hunt for souvenirs, an age-old tradition that still continues. The fun-looking masks hanging at every souvenir store unlike any other Italian cities I visited, caught my attention. As I was trying on a mask for a fun selfie, the vendor told me that masks are a long-lived Venetian tradition and people wear them at different occasions.

When in Venice, ride the Gondola – yes, one of my dreams since the 80s after watching the Bollywood song Do lafzoun ki hai dil ki kahanii, filmed in the same city on Zeenat Aman and Amitabh Bachchan singing while riding a gondola. A great benefit of being on a packaged tour is that you don’t have to line up for attractions, so right away without any wait, I was assisted by a handsome gondolier wearing a red-and-white striped shirt and red ribboned hat, and hopped on an elaborately decorated iconic gondola. Soaking up the dreamy beauty, I glided from the Grand Canal through the narrow passages between a few of the city's numerous islands. All the while, the accordion player and one of the gondoliers sang a sweet melodious Italian song adding romance to the environment.

My next stop has been referred to as the most beautiful salon in Europe by Napoleon, it’s none other than the most famous and visited tourist destination in Italy, the St. Marks Square. A spectacular site unfolded right in front of my eyes, historical landmarks including Saint Mark's Basilica, Doge's Palace, the Clock Tower and the Belfry stood before me and I felt like I was in a postcard that has come to life. It was time to take a break from my camera and just roam around and experience the magic. It was a crowded place, reminding me of Kabootar Chowk in Karachi, watching people feeding pigeons flocking the centre of the square and taking photographs with them perched on their hands, shoulders and heads. I turned to a side alley in search of an eatery, though the square was lined with some of the finest restaurants but most are expensive tourist traps. I found more interesting and affordable choices at one of the smaller restaurants. A lunch of pizza and tiramisu was just the perfect thing to celebrate this much awaited trip complimented with a tête-à-tête with some fellow tourists.

After a short side trip to a glass blowing factory in Murano, we left for the next town. I marvelled at the fact that 70,000 tourists visit the town everyday of summer as compared to 60,000 residents of Venice. I figure one day is not enough to experience the magic and spirit of this town. I have to be back here for a more detailed exploration to witness all the beauty it has to offer and explore through its history, culture and lifestyle.