As you approach the city over the bridge from the Italian mainland, you leave behind terra firma and, with it, earthbound notions of how to see and experience a city. Venice is not solely the spill of churches and palazzi on either side of the Grand Canal, but rather a city of islands, 118 in all, some of which are little more than the weedy, humps you see in the Lagoon of Venice. And yet these mud flats provided haven for the people who fled here (without benefit of a bridge) from Huns, Visigoths, and other marauders in the fifth century. And those refugees gave birth to a culture that ripened into a thousand years of greatness.
As you near the end of the bridge, you see at first only the back side of the city itself. But in the time it takes to walk through the train station, you begin to hear sounds peculiarly Venetian–the low rumble of boat motors, a humid incubation of voices, water lapping insistently against wood and stone. And then Venice confers her greatest gift: No matter how many times you’ve been here, it always seems, in that first glimse, like the first time.
If you are smart, you will immediately start a tour down the Grand Canal by hopping on a vaporetto (water bus) or gondola or water taxi. If you are lucky, it will be during those few hours before sunset when the light shines most kindly on the venerable facades that line this liquid boulevard. If you are particularly observant, you might even notice that neither the light nor the colors are quite Italian, not like the tawny earth tones of Florence or Rome.
The canal is a murkey green, the palazzi a mix of faded, grimy sherbets–watermarked mint and sun-blanched apricot and deep overripe peach. Sunlight shatters into spangles on the water, gondolas knife bach and forth, the Rialto Bridge looms overhead, and then, beyond one final curve, the Palladian church of Santa Maria della Salute and the Campanile (bell tower) of San Marco come into view.
Piazza san Marco is Venice’s grand salon–expansive, familiar, picturesque, pigeonesque. It is anchored at its eastern extreme by the Basilica di San Marco, which is not only the spiritual seat of Venice’s patron saint but also one of the most glittering monuments of Christendom.