Venice is a city for fools and lovers.

I guess that makes me a fool, as Louise couldn't make the trip this time, We plan to go to the Venice Carnival so this was by way of a short scouting trip, to get the lay of the land. Or sea I should say, as Venice is actually made up of several hundred islands, slowly sinking into a shallow lagoon at the base of the River Po.

All important buildings have a water entrance, often more grand than their land entrance which leads into a maze of narrow twisty passages linking more spacious plazas full of shops and churches. Because of the height of the buildings shutting out the light, the passages can actually be quite claustrophobic, and very spooky at night when deserted. There are no cars in Venice; even bicycles are excluded as all the bridges have steps, so transport is solely by foot or by boat. And since the biggest waterway, the Grand Canal, has only three bridges over it, that means frequent use of the waterbus, unless you want long detours.

Venice is focussed around the Piazza San Marco, which contains the Duke's palace, the basilica, a tall clock tower, many museums and, most importantly for Venicians, the cafes that are fashionable be seen in. Oh, and lots and lots of pidgeons.
Piazza San Marco

Venice was an independant country for a thousand years, ruling a trading empire through diplomacy and naval might. The naval might was supplied by the Arsenal, a boat yard that invented the production line nearly 500 years before Henry Ford, and from which we get our word meaning weapon store. The diplomacy came from the Duke (or 'Doge'), a 'first among equals' who was appointed for life to lead the secretive Council of Ten, part of Venice's unique political structure which balanced aristocrats against wealthy Schole (a cross between trade unions and free masons).
Palazzo Ducale

I went around the Duke's Palace, where the grand council of aristocrats met. Amid the ball rooms, map rooms and throne rooms there were also signs of a very ruthless side to Venetian politics - prisons, torture chambers, and a statue whose mouth was a letter box. People would write letters denouncing each other for treason then anonymously post them them into this locked box which could only be opened when three seperate officials were present, each bearing a different key.
The Lion's Head

However this intense political system had another effect. Because the competition made status and appearences so important, much of the wealth they gained from trade and empire has been converted into an unequaled artistic heritage. Even humble churches seem to prefer Renaissance masterpieces to wall paper. Venice, being by nature damp and prone to plagues, raised many new churches and momuments praying for intercession from the Virgin Mary, every time a big disaster came around.

And the finest of these churches is the basilica of Saint Mark, the patron of Venice. The outside is covered in loot from Constantinople.
Basilica San Marco

The inside is entirely covered with murals made from tiny gold leaf covered glass tiles.
Gilt or Guilt?

And it is filled with loot too. A veritable armoury of relics. A screen made from gold and gems. Swords, candlesticks; enough gold to feed all of Venice for ten years. But their biggest piece of loot is something special. They stole a saint. St. Mark died in Alexandria where his body was kept until two Venetian merchants smuggled it out of the country. Perhaps it is appropriate that his symbol is not just a lion, but a lion with wings, since his body was certainly not left a lying at rest.
The long arm of the church

The tradition is kept up today, by swindlers and by tourist traps. I went on a boat trip to Murano, an island famous for its glass, and found my self trapped in a single glass factory with no access to the island itself, just to a hideously over priced shop. Still, the glass was nice and I did get to see a glass blower create a statue of a horse in about 40 seconds. Venice at one point was very keen on keeping the knowledge of how to make good glass mirrors to itself - they used assassins to kill any foreigner suspected of learning the secret.
Glass Work

I did buy a glass horse - but not until the tour reached Burano, the next island over, where they were one fifth the price. Burano is famous for its brightly coloured fisherman's houses and the lace of its women.
I visited the lace museum there, and got the impression that working at stiches that small for many years is not kind to the hands.
The Hands of the Lace Maker
I spent most of my time in central Venice, looking at art. I loved the globes showing the constellations with the mythical figures traced over the stars. I loved the Comedia dell' Arte, with Arlecchino, Pantalone, Dottore Balanzone and Capitano Spavento. I loved the fantastic paintings of angels by Tintoretto, Titan and Tiepolo. I loved the music, the pizza, the pistachio ice cream. I loved the silly bits of history, such as throwing rings into the sea, or holding yearly pitched battles on top of bridges for sport.

But I did make one serious visit. The Ghetto. The original one. "Geto" means foundry, and in 1515 when the ruling council of Venice confined the, mainly Ashkenazi, Jews in the city to a small walled area near a metal works, their German accents changed "Geto" to "Ghetto" and a new word was born. And a new concept, because the practice was then copied through out medieval europe.
Death Train

My flight back was somewhat delayed, but it did give me time to think. There is little to do at night except wander the canals, so bring a book or two. I'd suggest the Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, and the Shadow of the Lion (both available free online). You do need to watch out for the prices (especially water taxis, gondolas or anything near San Marco) but a little forethought can go a long way. I avoided gondolas entirely, as I'm saving that experience up for next time, when I go with Louise. It says something about a city when the number one tourist attraction is not walking over its famous bridge, but going under it by boat. Even the trip to the airport can be done, door step to door step, by boat, which is a good thing too as it gets very hot in the summer - most locals seem to take a break between 12 and 4. I advise taking your time, not trying to fit too much in, and enjoying your strolls. I did.

Thank you to those who have sent me feedback. Comments and Venice links submitted include: