The City of Water

Venice, Bride of the sea

La Dominante. La Serenissima. Queen of the Adriatic.

Venice is enchanting, mysterious, monumental and rich in history. Many believe Venice is overrun by tourists but the City of Water has so many secluded streets, hidden canals, twists and turns, arched bridges and lonely squares that, even before the pandemic, I easily got lost alone in the less frequented neighbourhoods which are just as charming and beautiful as the rest of Venice.

The tale of Venice begins during the fifth century after the fall of Rome, and the ongoing Barbarian invasions drove the mainland Venetians to flee to the nearby marshes and islands. To save money, I decided to stay in a hostel in Mestre on the mainland and catch the early train each morning to the islands. Big mistake.

Not only was the hostel cheaper due to the location, but the shared dorm’s door was made out of glass paired with a hallway light that passers-by never seemed to be bothered to turn off. Additionally, the only working bathroom was in the reception downstairs and my new roommate, who apparently had chosen the creakiest bed in the hostel, also enjoyed a good night’s snoring session, which is probably why his wife had selected the bunk bed on the other side of the room. However, my trip to Venice is still one of my favourite trips to date as the city’s beauty is incomparable to any other place I have ever been to.

Many feel the same, which is why throughout the centuries many have had their eye on Venice, and it was Napoleon Bonaparte, or Little Boney as the British liked to call him, who finally conquered the city. Funnily enough, Napoleon wasn’t actually short and this belief was only a rumour spread by cartoonists and British propaganda during the Napoleonic Wars. He was actually around 169 cm tall, the average height for the era.

The world’s oldest ghetto can be found in Venice and dates back to the 16th century. For over six centuries, Jews had been traveling to Venice to work but were not allowed to settle in the city. However, in 1385, Venice found itself once again at war and was in desperate need of money.

The city turned to the Jewish community for loans and allowed them to reside in Venice under a special Jewish tax. Later on, in 1516, the first ever ghetto was erected when the Jewish inhabitants were forced to live in an enclosed and segregated part of the city where they were only allowed to leave during the day and had to wear yellow patches and berets to distinguish them from the rest of the Venetians. Sounds familiar.

Now, as I was saying, not all was bad following the fall of the Venetian Republic. In 1797, Napoleon opened the enclosed gates to the Jewish Ghetto and recognised them as equals and true Venetians. The remnants of the Jewish Ghetto still exist today and it is one of the less frequented neighbourhoods that I referenced earlier, whilst still boasting the same charm and beauty that Venice is known for.

However, tourists or no tourists, come night time everyone seemed to disappear from the streets and the once charming Venice by day quickly turned in to the spine-chilling and impoverished slums of 19th century London. Having run out of battery on my phone, I could not access any maps and so I got lost in an infinite maze of small, dimly lit, brick alleyways as I expected to run into Jack the Ripper standing over a mutilated corpse at every turn. This is probably why Venice is home to such legends and myths ranging from everything from witches, murders, ghosts, spirits and even entire haunted islands. I could probably write a whole book on the amount of chilling Venetian stories.

Apart from day trips to Venice taken by train, you can also, from the city, take day trips to more remote islands by boat, Burano being the one that is well worth a visit.

Venice is charming for its wrought-iron black gates, the salty exposed brick walls and washed peeling paint paired with the turquoise canals. However, Burano is completely different. Burano is a small fisherman’s island and the houses are painted in every colour under the rainbow. As soon as you step off the boat, it is like you are stepping into a fairy-tale town or somewhere out of a children’s book. Maybe the remote island is not different from Venice after all, and somewhere there is a witch living in a house made of candy waiting for a couple of children to wander in.
Legend has it that the houses were painted so colourfully by the families of fisherman so that the fishermen could easily find their way back home on foggy nights or after long periods away at sea.

Another historical island of interest, although admittedly I only went to Burano, is Lazzaretto Vecchio. In the mid-14th century, the Black Death was sweeping across Europe and Venice was severely affected. Therefore, the only solution was to separate people and Venice introduced a quarantine. Ships arriving from highly infected areas had to quarantine first for 40 days on the island Lazzaretto before entering the city. This again sounds horribly familiar.

All in all, Venice, the Floating City, Bride of the Sea, is the most enchanting city of them all and I can’t wait to visit her once more when my own modern-day quarantine is lifted, so I have the chance of discovering more of her untold stories and adventures.

By Jay Costa Owen
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them. 

Photos: Jay Costa Owen

Burano the Fishermen’s Village
Queen of the Adriatic
The City of Water