Staying Afloat in Venice

When I decided to study abroad in Italy, I knew there was no way I could spend three months here without visiting Venice. I’m not sure what first attracted me to Venice, but every time I would see pictures of the canals and buildings stretched along the water, it would take my breath away. This past weekend, I was finally able to see the city I had dreamed about for so long, and the whole experience still feels surreal.

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It seemed that every corner I turned in Venice revealed something beautiful and unique. The canals are generally much wider than the footpaths, and the maze of narrow alleys would often open into small squares each with their own unique vibe. I learned that the foundations of many of the buildings in Venice are petrified wood, the original wood pillars having absorbed the sea water to become stronger. There are no cars or motorbikes allowed in the city, so any movement is done on foot or by boat, which was fine with me – it was nice to not have to worry about dodging cars all the time like I do in Florence!

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It was a foggy day, and looking out across the Grand Canal, it seemed that the buildings were floating rather than anchored to pillars in the water—they had a very airy quality to them, as if they could break free and slip away at any moment.

Of course, despite concerns over fears that Venice will one day sink into the sea, for now it is a fully anchored and thriving city. Though the population has declined from a Renaissance high of around 200,000 inhabitants in the historical city center to fewer than 60,000 today, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy, hosting 26 million tourists annually. 26 million!

One draw is the Murano glass markets. Murano, one of the islands of the Venetian Lagoon, has been producing beautiful glass objects since the 13th century. Shops across the city sell figurines and jewelry in all colors and shapes. While some of these items can be on the expensive side, many of the outside street stalls sell beautiful glasswork for low prices—I was able to buy a very pretty pair of glass earrings for only 3 euro.

For lunch, my friends and I tried a restaurant next to the Grand Canal where plates of polenta and freshly fried fired seafood could be found. When I say fresh, I really mean fresh—the sardines still had their heads, the shrimp their shells, and the octopi their legs. The sardines, especially, had a potent fishy flavor that was too strong for my taste, but it was nice to have something different than pasta for a day!

I was worried that a gondola ride would be too expensive on a student budget, but split between five friends it was only 16 euro each. I couldn’t pass up the chance. Besides giving me an opportunity to see hidden areas of Venice, it was also one of the most peaceful times I’ve had in Italy. Though I am constantly battling homesickness, moments like this remind me why I decided to study abroad, and I’m so grateful that I will be able to have such wonderful moments to look back on. The sunlight reflecting on the water gave it a soothing, teal color, and the architecture was an interesting mix of Gothic and Byzantine styles, very different from what I see every day in Florence. I also had some real nostalgia for the afternoons I spent at the oar on my high school rowing team. I’m sure we made it into a lot of tourist pictures that day—everyone on land got very excited when the gondolas passed by.

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The lion of Venice, a symbol of the city and its patron St. Mark, was everywhere, carved onto buildings, on flags, and of course in St. Mark’s Square itself.

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Being in a place as culturally renowned as Venice was a dream come true, but seeing all the hidden alleys and canals that I didn’t get to explore made me wish that I had time to simply set out with my camera and see what I could find. While I love traveling with friends, on this trip I could see the benefits of traveling alone, and I realized that the idea doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. Having only a few hours in Venice, I tried to soak in as much as I could, while making the promise that I would one day return to this magical city on the water.

Sarah Haselton is a student at Saint Michael’s College and an official API Student Blogger. Sarah is studying abroad with API in Florence, Italy.

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