I started to write this blog and quickly realized that I could not cover all that are “the streets of Venice” in one blog of reasonable length. So there will be at least 2 installments.
There is a reason I have the word, “streets” in quotation marks. While there, we took in a couple private tours, and in so doing, learned a bit of the “culture” of Venice (and perhaps, of the nation of Italy). One tidbit of information I picked up was that the “official Italian” word for “street” is strada, and of the hundreds of small streets and alleys on the island, there is exactly one of them that has the strada in the name (Strada Nova). So I am taking some license when I call them all “streets.” While it may come as a surprise to some of us “Ugly Americans,” other countries have diverse geography, culture and local customs and usage, too. I am told that in Venice, the citizens do not speak the “official Italian” language—they speak Venetian. The “streets” have different denominations, depending on their location and use. “Streets” (not really streets at all, but broad walkways that separate canals from the buildings along the canals) that border any of the canals are referred to, for example, as fondamenta. Most of the remaining streets are referred to as calle. The smaller canals that must be constantly crossed, are called a rio.
Venice is divided into 6 districts, each known as a sestiere (plural, sestieri). In each of these districts there is a least one main square which is built around a church. Some are quite larger and in Venice, all but one of them are referred to not as piazza, the Italian word that generally describes a large square or plaza; but as a campo. These can serve as navigational landmarks, as no matter which direction you walk, and which turn you choose, you will invariably come upon one of these. There are also smaller squares which are generally designated campiello. These campos often have one or more small restaurants, often with outside seating. We ate at several of them, and it was pretty obvious that they were populated as much by local residents as by tourists.
Piazza San Marco is a, if not the, primary center of interest for visitors
One of the other things that we commonly encountered in these campos, were cisterns. From its beginnings centuries ago, one of the challenges for Venetians has been fresh water. The cisterns would collect rain water that drained into them to be stored for fresh water. Today, the Venetian water supply, which still at least partially makes use of the cisterns, is treated and clean. In a number of locations, there are running fountains on or near the cisterns and we were told that it is perfectly safe for drinking. It was not at all uncommon to see people re-filling water bottles from these fountains.
Many of the streets are very narrow, with buildings on each side. Often, they appear to be a dead end (and sometimes they are), but there is more often than not, a turn and sometimes even an opening into a campo. Some of these quiet little streets yield the most photogenic scenery of Venice’s streets. And they often hide other nice surprises like great little out of the way restaurants, and the very popular wine bars, known as baccari (singular: baccaro), where they serve great Venetian wines, and the Venetians’ own special version of tappas (small bites appetizers), called cicchetti. One of our tours was a sort of Venetian “pub crawl,” which involved a small group of 8 people going from baccaro to baccaro (6 of them) and tasting the Venetian wines and different cicchetti. Each baccaro specializes in its own menu of cicchetti. I highly recommend it if you visit Venice.
Some of the most fascinating things I saw, especially from a photographer’s perspective, were when we took a “wrong turn”
The one piazza in Venice is Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square or Plaza). San Marco is generally one of the destinations in Venice (the other being, generally, the Rialto area or the Rialto Bridge – Ponte Rialto). This is not to say that other areas and landmarks are less interesting or important. Quite the contrary. Some of the most fascinating things I saw, especially from a photographer’s perspective, were when we took a “wrong turn” and ended up somewhere completely away from these major centers of interest. But some of the most prevalent signs you see, try to follow, and use as primary navigation aids, designate these areas (per San Marco; per Rialto). Piazza San Marco is, of course, a, if not the, primary center of interest for visitors to Venice. It borders the Grand Canal, near the entrance from the southeast (where world trade traffic has to Venice for centuries). It is surrounded by the two perhaps most famous Venice landmarks and attractions: St. Mark’s Basilica, and The Doge’s Palace. I will devote some time to these historical places in an upcoming blog. The Piazza San Marco is a pretty impressive sight from almost any vantage point.
One of the biggest challenges for a photographer is negotiating the crowds of people. If you want an image of the piazza, or surroundings that are without any people, you are going to have a difficult, if not impossible task. My concern was not to exclude people altogether, but to be able to get a perspective and view of the piazza and surroundings where “people” were not a hindrance to composition and framing. There are two times when you can probably accomplish this. The first is in the early morning. This needs to be during the early twilight, just before official sunrise. By the time you have seen the sunrise, there are already lots of people in the piazza. The second time would be at night. I didn’t stay on the island and really didn’t make the opportunity to shoot Venice at night. An additional challenge is unfamiliarity with the area. On other trips to new places, I have studied maps, and done “dry runs” to my intended shooting destination. It took me 4 full trips from the Ferrovia (train) station on Venice to St. Mark’s to finally get familiar enough to get there on my intended deadline! I did make it there early on 2 of our mornings, though. Not only is that time of day conducive to good photography (good light and less people), but it is a wonderful, peaceful time to be walking around Venice. Many of the local residents are out then, walking dogs, doing other errands, and stocking restaurants and shops. It is quiet and peaceful, and the absolute grandeur of your surroundings makes this a special experience. I enjoyed some shooting and a cup of “caffe Americano,” which was uniformly quite good.