Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

World Heritage: Venice

Sometimes called the “City of Water,” “The City of Bridges,” or “City of Lights,” Italy’s Venice  stretches over 118 islands in the marshy Venetian Lagoon. This location in the Adriatic Sea naturally lends itself to some of the most spectacular urban scenery in the world. The Republic of Venice was a major maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as well as a vital center of commerce and art in the 13th to 17th centuries.

The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, in recognition of its architectural integrity and for the presence of some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.

Everything I’d heard about Venice I found to be true. The art was spectacular, the architecture enchanting, the cafés quaint. The pizza was thin and authentic and the gelato rich and creamy. The maze of canals and the floating gondolas seemed to have appeared out of a picture book. Not even the sweltering summer sun could disturb my euphoria.

When I visited, I reveled in the opportunity to stand in front of Saint Mark’s Square  with the pigeons pecking around my feet, to explore museums like the Ca’Rezzonico and the Palazzo Ducale, and to study the works of Titian up close for the first time. I discovered that the best way to experience the city was by getting lost in its intricate maze of canals, crossing bridge after bridge and enjoying the happy accidents of grand piazzas and new neighborhoods.

To me, Venice seemed bathed in an aura of romanticism. The Grand Canal, flanked with the pristine colored buildings, was speckled with boats returning to dock for the evening. The dim lights in the Santa Maria della Salute church accented the detailed interior of the opulent church and inspired a stilled awe in the travel-weary visitors. The sun setting on the Adriatic bathed the city in a fiery orange glow. However, as an aspiring world traveler, and curious individual, what I desired most during my visit was to truly experience the culture of Venice rather than observe it. The best way to infiltrate the local culture, it seemed, was through the Italian’s unyielding penchant for fútbol.

The year I visited Venice was also the year the Italian soccer team clinched the FIFA World Cup Championship after narrowly defeating France in the semi-final. Staying true to our American roots, my travel group and I sought out a bar with a television and jockeyed for seats in front of the small screen only to watch Ghana tie with the U.S. team and oust them from the running, paving the way for Italy’s ascension to the final match.

Sitting in the small bar in Venice, we bit our nails and hoped for a U.S. comeback. The Italians laughed at us, and cheered for our opponents. Their cheers were so boisterous and chants so comical that we couldn’t help but laugh, even in the face of our imminent defeat. Bottles of Birra Moretti and Peroni were passed around and the general noise level in the bar heightened and diminished with the excitement of the match. Truly this kind of public enthusiasm for fútbol was foreign to us Americans.

At the end of the match we were somewhat dejected by the U.S. defeat, but more importantly we were enchanted by the Italians’ enthusiasm for the sport. After staring at Renaissance masterpieces and reading the English translations of brochures I knew a lot about Venetian history, but little about Venetian, and Italian, culture. It wasn’t until we interacted with the locals, joked with them despite the language barrier, and opened our eyes to their culture that Venice really came alive. I found the Venetians to be outgoing and amiable. The youths seemed passionate and even hip, despite living in one of the most historic cities in the world.

While sitting in a local bar we started noticing the Venetian life rather than the Venetian past. It was in those lively neighborhoods along the watery canals where my desire to learn about the local history, see the local art, and to experience, really experience, the local culture became a reality. In Venice, my long-term love affair with Italy began.

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