Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

St. Mark’s Basilica (above) reflects the apogee of Venetian influence: gilded ornamentation, including equine figures looted from Constantinople in 1204, caused it to be known as the Chiesa d’Oro (Church of Gold). (Rick Steves)
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The cathedral, a richly decorated mess of mosaics, domes, mismatched columns and proud Catholic statuary, is more ornate than most of the orderly buildings that define the square. Simple neo-Classical halls stand like stern school mistresses overseeing a vast playground filled with people and pigeons. Marble columns, arches and porticoes border three sides of the square. As if Venice were still a powerful city-state, the cathedral's red brick bell tower stands three times as tall as the other buildings on the square.

When I lead tours in Venice, I like to approach Pia a San Marco through tiny alleys. That way, I can pop the charms of the square on them like the sudden burst of a champagne cork.The sight of tired faces lighting up is my reward. I'll never forget the woman who broke into tears. Her husband had dreamed of seeing Venice with her but died too soon. Now, she said, she was here for both of them.

Today, I'm alone, kicking at the pigeons like a carefree kid kicks October leaves. A dog charges in and the air is suddenly filled with the birds. But the dog's task is hopeless and, within seconds, they are back in full force. Kids join in, flapping imaginary wings.

These pigeons are a problem. The locals call them "rats with wings" and complain of laundry put out wet and clean only to be collected covered with pigeon droppings. Early in the morning, local crews shoot nets over the square catching piles of these birds. But still they fill the square.

Two café orchestras wage a musical tug of war to entice strollers to sit down and order a pricey drink. It's Paganini, ma urkas and Gershwin versus Gypsy violin serenades, Sinatra and Manilow.

Venice got its start as a kind of refugee camp. Sixth-century farmers from the mainland, sick and tired of being overrun by barbarians, got together and—hoping the marauders didn't take to water—moved onto the island.

Above the door to St. Mark's, a mosaic celebrates the day in the ninth century that Venice made it onto the religious map of Europe. The bones of St. Mark were "rescued" (as local historians put it) from Egypt in 828 and buried under Venice's basilica. The mosaic shows the exciting event: saints carry Mark's relics into the basilica, already glittering well beyond its importance.A grumpy Mark glares out at the noisy line of tourists waiting to get into his church.

While many of them will be turned away for wearing shorts, I scoot right by the decency guards and climb a straight flight of stone steps to the loggia of the basilica, high above the square. It's a long-view balcony with a pitted pink marble banister held in place by rusty iron support rods. Four huge and regal horses stand in the middle, as if enjoying this grandest of Venetian views.

From this peaceful perch I find my own one—a place where I can be alone, surveying the greatness of Venice. While pondering the crowds filling Pia a San Marco below me, I close my eyes. The caf orchestra stops, and I hear only a white noise of people. With no cars, this audio mash is broken only by the rare whistle, snee e or cry of a baby.

Piazza San Marco sits in the lowest partofVenice.From atopthechurch,I spot small puddles—flood buds— forming around drainage holes in the paving stones. When wind and tide combine at this northern end of the Adriatic Sea, the acqua alta (high water) hits. About 30 times a year, mostly in the winter, Venice floods. Squares sprout elevated wooden walkways, locals pull on their rubber boots and life goes on. Today's puddles will recede almost unnoticed. And most visitors assume the scattered bits of walkway are benches, offering a convenient place to rest between the city's great sights.

About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

Rick Steves is a travel writer and television personality. He coordinated with Smithsonian magazine to produce a special travel issue Travels with Rick Steves.

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