A journey through Venice, May 2009
Venice has been described as the most romantic city in the world. How fitting then that I take my wife for a surprise visit to mark our Silver Wedding Anniversary? We went for a couple of days as tourists, plain and simple, to see and experience Venice. This was not a photographic trip, but how could I leave a camera at home when visiting Venice? Of course I took lots of pictures, many to capture memories of a great weekend visit, but there are a few others that really please me and I think say something about Venice. I could have spent many more days here to concentrate on seeing more and taking more pictures, but that will have to wait for our next trip...
(2009-0859) Gondolas at San Marco, Venice
Even in May Venice is busy with tourists from all over and the popular parts attract people like magnets. So areas like Piazza San Marco and its immediate surroundings are busy all day and queues for the surrounding buildings start early and finish late. There's also the cruise ships which will each disgorge hundreds of people into the city who all want to see the main attractions, visit the shops and get fed. To add to that crowd there are the day trippers, for apparently the vast majority of people who visit Venice come for just the day and stay outside the city. All of that makes a large number of people, and I do not like crowds or queuing! We avoided them by starting reasonably early and certainly before the main rush of visitors that descend from about 9am onwards. We simply walked away from the San Marco area to see other parts of Venice and enjoyed seeing all sorts of sights without having to push through huge numbers of people. Clearly, staying in a hotel only 5 minutes walk from Piazza San Marco helped in this.
(2009-0473) San Giogio Maggiore from San Marco, no crowds and only a pigeon for company!
Without knowing Venice it is very difficult to have a "feel" for the place, what to see, what to do and how to get around and I believe the best way to experience any new place is to take it slowly. On foot if possible. Taking a walk around will provide a sense of place, of the atmosphere and of the occasion. Our plan, if there was ever really such a thing, was to walk along the island as far as we could and then to walk back through the city. Along the way we would explore to see whatever we could see that the map and guidebook suggested. That approach worked up to a point, the problem with Venice being there are very few linear routes from end to end unless you follow the perimeter of the island! There are so many passageways, bridges over the canals, paths that do not appear to lead anywhere but just ask to be investigated that it is really easy and quite quick to become disoriented. That is not really a problem as the islands are not exactly huge so making your way to the water's edge will restore a sense of location, but watching the map carefully is essential if you want to follow a route through the city. We, however, had plenty of time and no fixed agenda, so could just stroll around and take the sights in as we pleased.
You know how in some places you keep seeing things or sights that just cry out to be photographed? Venice is just like that and with every turn there is another sight that tickles the senses. The buildings are quite wonderful, the churches stunning and the views both around the city and across the lagoon quite uplifting. We got fed up with saying "wow" at every corner and quickly learned to expect another great view or vista opening up as we walked through the city. We were not disappointed.
(2009-0839) Santa Maria della Salute, taken from a gondola on the Canal Grande
Both the interior and exterior of this huge baroque church are magnificent
First we walked along the water's edge from Piazza San Marco towards Castello. We were in Venice on the first Sunday after the Ascension which marks the Vogalonga, a rowing festival where a parade of boats row out into the lagoon to celebrate rowing. This is also to mark the damage that power and speeding boats cause to the city - the wash from a boat further erodes a city already in need of significant work. A huge number of boats take part and well worth watching to see the enormous variety, the colours and people. This of course is not as dramatic as the carnival that occurs in February, which we would love to see (along with thousands of others!) I struggle to imagine how different carnival must appear with the amazing costumes; it must feel like another world. However, festivals are an important part of the Venetian culture and of course the attraction for tourists like us that continue to bring in huge revenues for the city and its trade. However, we wanted to see, if possible, the "real" Venice in addition to the tourist highlights.
(2009-0478) Vogalonga rowing regatta, May 2009
Once we got to the Giardini Pubblici we turned 'inland' and walked through the streets to aim vaguely and eventually back to San Marco. This route took us through all sorts of streets, alleyways, round corners, over bridges and past (and occasionally into) cafes, restaurants and bars. If you have the stamina and the will to see Venice then I wholeheartedly recommend such a route that will provide a view (and taste) of the real Venice that people live in and work from. By walking through the uncrowded parts of the city you will see so much more and not be crowded out by people eager to check off the list of must-see sights. What's more, it's not very far from the tourist traps and really easy to get to (if you can read a map!)
(2009-0535) Empty street in the Castello area
A number of scenes in the Castello and San Marco areas
Having read the guidebooks there are many things in Venice worth seeing across the city and islands. In two days it is impossible to see much although we did have grand plans to visit other islands but which were rapidly abandoned when we realised just how much there was to see without going far at all.
(2009-0714) Piazza San Marco at night
A few things to think about if you have never visited Venice before:
- Take your time. Don't rush between the sights as there is much to see in between them. Whilst I found Piazza San Marco and surrounding buildings fascinating and truly exquisite (especially in the morning or evening when the crowds have not arrived!) the buildings, piazzas, churches, shops, alleyways and canals elsewhere are full of life and character that is a must see and photograph.
- Travel light. Only take what you really need, which really is very little. You will not need many lenses - just a standard zoom that will probably spend most of its time at the wider end given the tight space into which everything has been crammed. I took three lenses - a 50mm f1.4, a 24-105mm f4 and a 70-200mm f4. I took only a few pictures with the longer zoom and they were of the regatta. The rest of the time it stayed in my back pack and on day two it stayed in the hotel all day. I did use the 50mm inside a few churches and in the evening, but it is a small and light lens so felt justified taking it around. I used no other gear, not did I feel anything was missing.
- Camera will be vertical - get a grip! I found that the majority of my photographs (about 70% of them) were in portrait orientation so you will probably be holding your camera awkwardly if you do not have a body with a vertical grip (like a Canon 1D(s) or Nikon D3(x)), so I would recommend you take a grip for your camera body. I used a Canon 5D rather than taking my 1Ds and regretted not having the more bulky camera.
- Don't take a tripod unless you want to be cursed and get in people's way. Of course, at night and when there are few people around its fine, but the paths are narrow and there can be many people pushing and shoving. A tripod is more likely to be inserted somewhere unpleasant, so leave it behind (so to speak).
- Memory cards and spare camera batteries. You will take lots of photographs. I used three 8Gb cards.
Of course, if you are there to photograph the buildings, you will need a tilt/shift lens and tripod (and the time to compose). If you are able to go when there are few people about, you may be able to use other equipment. I also didn't use the polarising filter I had with me - it would have been too much of a fiddle and given the light and shade I would have been changing it repeatedly. However, for me beeing a tourist who happened to be carrying a camera was the reason for the visit and that would dictate the type of camera and other lenses to take. Next time I will simply take the camera and one lens around with me plus a spare memory card and battery in a pocket.
My two favourite photographs of the trip are below...
The first is a common enough view of the Canal Grande from the Ponte dell Accademia. I have a large print of this on the wall above my desk and have spent a lot of time just staring at it. Unusually there is only the gondola in the view, when for much of the time I stared at the real thing there were water buses and taxis and all sorts of other boats churning up the water. Whilst the day was very warm, the air clarity was not good and was hazy much of the time. So many other photographs I have seen of Venice are in fog or mist, so haze like this is not so different! But this view also, for me, epitomises Venice - canals, grand buildings, houses crammed together vertically, gondolas and just great views. Such a beautiful city. I doubt the photograph would ever win a prize, but I like it!
(2009-0744) Canal Grande from Ponte dell Accademia
The second picture is also, to me, very characteristic of Venice - tall buildings, canal, footpaths and bridges. But, for me, I particularly like the different routes one can trace through the image. The canal comes from behind and turns left under the bridge. The footpath comes from the left, over the canal and between the buildings. Then the buildings can be followed up over three or four stories - and the drainpipe drops down the picture! And the different textures that illustrate the massive undertaking that restoring Venice to its full glory will be.
A glorious city that we will certainly be visiting again. Can't wait!