Getting lost in Venice_Thoughts on a popular myth: or why it’s possible to visit Venice even beeing handicapped!

Once again I’ve read one of those countless articles, that repeat forever and ever again the same old stereotypes of the Serenissima. Outspreading her supposedly labyrinthine and patched structure, making the place a nightmare for (especially disabled) tourists and using new and sought metaphor like a „quilt“, to describe the unique structure of one of the most beautiful cites in the world, I’m asking myself – not for the first time – if the authors of those articles ever have been there or are only copying the same apercus, that have been written for hundretthousand times somewhere else.

Well, maybe I’m a bit ticklish in this point, and maybe I should avoit to write about all the friendly things, I’d would like to say about those endless hordes of „wannabe Venetians“, trying to frighten or confuse others out of selfish reasons, at all…

..As the old Italian saying goes: Chi pensa di meno sulla vita, sperimentato più! (The one who thinks less about life, experiences more of it!)

Nonetheless, I’ll try to get orientation in a feigned labyrinthine, strange structural metaphors and visiting Venice with a handicap under one roof…

Insult or hidden truth: The quilt-metaphor

So let’s start with the metaphors. There are hundrets and hundrets of them…but for now, it should be enough to take care of the „Venice is like a quilt“-one.

It’s maybe not as bad as the enlightened idea of Venice as a haven of decadence and reaction, but that makes it not much more „real“ at all.

First, afer all I know, a quilt is made – at least before the time of the do-it-yourself Hippsters – from cheap scraps of fabric. And – judging by comments – it was not just me, in whom’s ears the strange metaphor of the US-born autor sounds almost like an insult. To say it more clear: Venice is not a dump of leftovers. It’s true, there’s might no other city, where one could found as many „reused“ antique colums, sculptures and even „ordinary pieces of brickstone“ – at least almost everything has to be brought to the city…On the other hand, this material was anything else than litter and dust…Only the very best was quite good enough for the construction of Venice and it’s priceless monuments. So Venice is indeed some sort of „giant composition“. Nonetheless, to define it as a „quilt“ sounds to European ears as if you’d define the priceless masterwork of a goldsmith as some sort of cheap fashion jewlery. But Americans do define „quilt“ as something completely different than Europeans, and this is just another tiny example of a mini-clash of both cultures…

Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about the strange metaphor. Even if inappropriate, there’s maybe some implied and hidden truth in it…


(…knowing me, you know what must come now: a long story, if you want to know more practical tips how to „orientate“ in Venice and/or you’re thinking about a trip to the Serenissima with handicap, simply scroll down until you’ll find the section under the headline „Orientation or: Visiting Venice with a handicap“…)

Because…as a „quilt“, large parts of the most famous monuments in Venice are built from „remains“ (or, more distinguishedly spoken, from „spolia“). So the bycantine columns in front of the St. Marc’s Basilika, or the famous lions from Delos at the gate of the „Arsenale“, the famouns „Mori“ next to Tizians former home, or the countless bycantine saints and encarvings. All those examples are nothing else than „remains“ (less political correct people would call them „booty“…) moved from other places to the city with the only aim to increas it’s splendour and glory. Even more; as Venice is built at a place, where – bevore the city was erected on it – not much more than swamp, water and some reed have existed – this is also true for almost any piece of „building material“ including the millions and millions of logs on which the city was constructed.

And yes, there is even another, very mysterious and complicaded story, almost unknown and unheard in detail, even to most Venetians: If you’re wandering deep into the confusing underbrush of Venetian history, you’ll find traces of a strange „moving in space“ of the whole city, or – more precisely – of it’s predecessors.  Unlike most other Italian cities, the area of nowadays Venice was almost unsettled during the roman period. So it is not easy to find them, and they have to be  sought not only at other places but also under different names.

Unlike the famous Painting in the Doges palace, the „Venetian Lion“ did not simply emerge himself out of the swamps…it has had a long, complicated and sometimes quite wicked pre-history.

The most important of this „vanished urban ancestrals of the Serenissima“ has been Altinum. Beeing an important harbour and the main place of settlement in the Lagoon area during the roman era, nowaday’s there’s not much more left of it than some archeological foundings and the name of a small village called „Altino“ next to the delta of the Fiume river, about 1 km eastwards of Venice Airport. The city was already abandoned during late antiquity and most of it’s institutions moved one lagoon further eastwards to Grado and Aquileia or westwards to the later Chiogga, or even further to Ravenna (all of them – expect Chioggia – have sunken to „insignificance“ during the middle Ages, „loosing“ almost their whole population, wealth and power to Venice). Even if Venice does look like a „ancient“ city for most modern visitors, it’s one of the „youngest“ towns in the whole area. It’s true, there have been some  settlements at the Rialto, Murano and at Lido island before the middle ages, but, unlike many visitors of the lagoon would think today, those settlements have been far away from everything we see today. In fact, until the 13th century, Venice even hasn’t been the most „important“ city within the lagoon for a quite long time. Thre was another, nowadays almost forgotten urban center in the eastern lagoon. As direct succesor of Altinum, Aquileia and Grado this city has had also a huge harbour, a own (stil standing) cathedral, dozens of monasteries and a population of about 30-40.000 people (London was not much bigger at this time)…and if youre now asking for the name…it was tje little and nowadays almost desertet island of Torcello. Together with the nabouring islands of Burano and Mazzorbo, and the city of Murano, which for long times competed with Venice in rank and size, those cities, were together with countless others in the mediterrrean area, which were conquered, dominated, and when worse came to worse, even have been looted and destroyed by troops of the aspring Republica di San Marco the „real“ and not entirely voluntary „Mothers“ of Venice.

It was not earlier than in the 13th and 14th century, when Torcello and Mazzorbo, and to a lesser scale also Burano and Murano, were abandoned and „included“ into „Venice“. At the same time the Venetians had „managed“ to redirect the fourth crusade, to destroy not only the rival Zara, but also to conquer the entire Byzantine Empire (They even thought of moving the whole thing to Constantinople, the nowadays Istanbul, but like much other highreaching plans of this time, this was never set into reality. Nonetheless, this developements included the transport of almost all „removeable material“ to Venice. So Venice is in fact the product of some sort of „city recycling“. Also the Venetians, spreading out their „empire“ covering almost the whole eastern mediterranean sea (and – at least for a certain period – even some parts of the mainland), took away everything they found „suitable“ to enrich Venice splendour.

In many cases, this „recycling process“ was so complete, that it can be extremely difficult to find any traces of the „lost places of the lagoon and the mediterrean“ which preceded, contributed and enriched, what is nowadays Venice.  In fact, there have been hundreds of temples, antique ruins, monasteries, palaces, villas and villages and even whole cities, which sooner or later „disapeared in the mist of history“ and were moved more or less completely to the Serenissima.

 The reasons for this process were manifold. Some places got „lost“ due to natural circumstances such as flooding, the sinking of the ground or sediment relocation through rivers flowing into the lagoon. Others, especially those on or near the mainland, were no longer safe enough because they could be captured easily by enemis. Some places also had the doubtful „luck“ to be captured, plundered, relocated and sometimes also destroyed forever by the Venedians themselfes (like Zara, Chioggia or even Byzantium). Another important reason for the abandoning of places was – especially in the late middle ages – the simple fact, that they had been not as „attractive“ as the Serenissima, or the lack of place for further developement (like in Grado). But, unlike most popular legends about the founding of Venice – de facto there was not one single founding act but many, many acts of settement, movements and re-movements, reaching over almost 1000 years of history – the most important factor was the advance of malaria, which followed the sanding of the eastern lagoon (now called laguna morta) and forced people to shift their settlements far out into the „laguna viva“, which means areas of the Lagoon, far away from the main-land and rivers, where water was saltier and therefore less mosquitos do exist (of course, there are mosqitos in Venice, but much less than in the Eastern lagoon or the swamps arround Aquileia and Grado!).

So, many of those places are now sunken to the ground of the lagoon or covered by swamps (in modern times also by industrial zones). It’s one of the big historical and archeologigal challenges to identify those places and their remainings, within the lagoon and the city and bring them back into consciousness).  Even the original (then mostly wooden) Doge’s Palace originally was not built, where it’s situated today, but in Malamocco, nowadays a tiny „mini-Venice“  at Lido island quite worth to visit. The reason for this placement was quite easy: this place was the most remote, and therefore most secure place all arround the Venetian lagoon (with the exception of the Genuese, enemies always came from the mainland- not from the seaside side of the Venetian lagoon). And so it’s true, the Serenissima was formed out of countless „remains“ of other places.

To make things even more complicated, Venice itself was plundered and destroyed in big parts (over 200.000 pieces of art, hundreds of palaces, countles other buildings, dozens of moasteries and hundreds of gardens have been destroyed, pulled down. removed or simply given up during the late 18th and the following 19th century under Nepoleonic and Austrian occupation and the industrial „developement“ of the town under „Italian“ rule. And even bevore the Venetians have started to melt down almost all church treasurs due to the dramatical financial shortage following the Austrian occupation of the „terra ferma“ at the beginning of the 18th century. So the Venice, we see today is only a huble and almost completely deprived shaddow of what the city has been in it’s best days in the 15th and 16th century.

Nevertheless, or perhaps exactly because of this, I would not talk of Venice as some sort „quilt“, regardless of how magnificent this may be. It simply just does not fit to the spirit of the place. The pieces used to built it where simply to precious for a quilt, insofar as this would not have been sewn from finest Byzantine brocade, Persian Jewels and Chinese silk…I’d rather prefer to characterize the city as a flamboyant and extremly precious mosaic, grown over centuries, destroyed, removed, rebuilded, with rough edges, sometimes a bit fragile, but vivid, strong enough and with enough allies all around the world to life on for another 1500 years. Maybe not in it’s today shape, maybe it will be removed and rebuilded again like it has been countless times before, but it will survive.

Orientation or: Visiting Venice with a handicap

Another stereotype, spreaded by many authors to it’s excess (the one I’ve cited in the beginning made no exception) is the topos of „getting lost in Venice“ and how difficult, if not impossible it is to find a direct way from one point of the city to another…

Actually, I never understood how anyone could get this strange impression of Venice. De facto, as any other city in the world, Venices masterplan is based on structures, which lead directly from point A) to point B), so sorry to say this: it’s absolutely possible to find a direct way from – let’s say the Piazzale Roma (the bus terminal) to Rialto or St. Marks Square. Also orientation is absolute no problem in the city, provided you do not ask for the smallest of all backyards (even Venetians living their whole life in the city don’t know each spot of the city, but who does this in other cities?). Honestly said, “The risk of getting lost in Venice” is nothing else than a myth, told by people without any sense of orientation – or even worse, told by people who don’t WANT to orientate themselfes because it’s part of the myth to get lost, so not „getting lost“ in Venice for them is synonym with not have been to this place in a „correct“ way“.

Sorry to say this, but the reality in the Serenissima is a complete different one. Frankly said, there is hardly any other city in the world, where „going lost“ is es difficult as in Venice! First. The truth is, there’s virtually no way to get really lost.

First: Venice is a quite small town, so it’s simply said much too small to get „really lost“.

Secondly: Within maximum half an hour of walking straight ahead, you’ll end up either on the shores of Grand Canal or at the banks of the lagoon, so you ARE not lost, at no time! (The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll walk a bit more than thought, but that’s in no way a loss. Cause on each step, you’ll find new wonders, especially as someone staying in Venice for the first time, whom’s eyes are still not being used to all the beauty the city offers!

So you see, only bloddy beginners and ignorants don’t know at each moment exactly where they are. And even if you woult try to get lost…it’s almost impossible: In the meanwhile, the whole city is coverd with uggly yellow-black signs, and every year there are more of them!

Thanks to those signs, even the most orientation dislexic of all tourists must easily find the shortest way to the train station (ferrovia), bus terminal (Piazzale Roma), Rialto and St. Mark’s Square within seconds!.

Allways assumed, and here I’m comming to another point, those people can read latin letters, are not completely blind and/or don’t sit in a wheelchair and

As easy orientation in Venice is for people without a handicap, for people with disabilities Venice realy can be a whole mass, not because of malice or ignorance, but simply because to it’s unique natural environment – As a „town in the sea“ Venice is constructed on about 120 islands interrupted by approximately the same number of channels and interconected with about 400 bridges – Each of them a potentially insurmountable obstacle. Luckily, within the last 20 to 30 years there are many outstanding activities like Venezia accessibile (barrier-free Venice), which try to make approachable the city also for people with disabilities.

But, honestly said, a city where streets are waterborne canals, a city where you have to climb steps of a bridge or a palazzo within every three meters, a city, where half of the lanes do end appruptly in backyards and/or in front of slippery banks, a city with lanes, so small, that in most of them two people can’t walk side by side, a city, where you always (especially within the winter months)  must be aware of the risk of high tides, flooding streets and places within short time, is not the very best place to travel for people with handicaps.

Luckily those brave ones, visiting the city despite of their handicaps, do stay under the very special protection of the local ones. And this exceptional attitude of the „Venetians“ is making more than up all the mentioned obstacles.

Judging from my own expieriences, and despite of almost 30 million tourists a year, it never will be long and one of the remaining 60.000 „natives“ will come for aid if somebody is in need for a helping hand – always assuming you’re not too proud to ask for and/or accept this help!

For more information and useful notes how to get arround in Venice with handicap: ; and (especially recomended for those, comming by cruise ships).

For all the others, there’s another, even more easy way to orientate yourself in Venice: simply look at a good map of the city and go sure, that you memorize the names of 10 or 15 most important churches together with their accompanying Campi, their approximate location in the city and the shortest ways in between. This done before your trip at home, you’ll be pleased during your visit to discover big painted white and black signs with the Name of one of this churches (more precisely their homonymous parish (parocchia)) at the entrance of each parish. So you absolutely can’t go lost…Also Venice has so much more to offer than the monuments around St. Marks square, and it’s so much easier to find, when you know where to find it and how to get there!

Of course this is even more true for people with disabilities. As there are many „unexpected“ steps, turn arounds and uneven ground, for people with handicaps it’s much easier to orientate themselfes along the boat stations (many of them also named after churches) and go around by public boats (vaporetti) – unlike in UK, public transport is very reliable, and if there’s a boat already full, there’ll be another one some minutes later, so there’s no need to hurry. Also the stuff is very helpfull in entering or leaving the boats – The secret of a successfull trip through Venice for handicaped persons is is to move by boat between points which otherwise could not be reached, and to move further into the city by land (the Venetians try their best to make as many points as possible accessable, even to people in wheelchairs…). Also don’t hesitate to use the ferry-boat from the airport to the city (the best way is to announce yourself at the ACTV box in the entrance hall of the airport, so somebody will show you the way and will organize help at the embarkment). It’s the easiest way to reach the more outer parts.

In brief: Orientation in American cities, with their square-numbered anonymous road blocks and all-the-same looking buildings is a lot more complicated than it it is in Venice. But maybe I’m wrong, and you have to be the type of human beeing, that has lived his whole life in places, where it is perfectly normal to be surrounded 24 hours a day by spectarular art and pure beauty. This kind of people don’t look at palazzos or statues…Well they do, but for them, all this is part of their everyday expierience, so they are not too impressed and confused by it… – For them, it’s much more important how to transport your purchases as quickly as possible and without bumping into millions of tourists back to home. Even more so, when they live in Venice, where you can’t use a car (and using a boat everytime you’d like to buy some fish or vegetables at the Rialto market would be far too complicated and costly).

So, in contrary to common prejudices, most Venetians have to do their daily shopping and transport by their own feet (which offers the unique opportunity to explore each wobbly stone, chewing gum or dog poop on your way, and yes, you’ve read right, there’s a lot of dog poop on the streets in Venice, because there are a lot of dogs (mainly terribly degenerated lapdogs and useless hunting dogs) and yes, we also do have grafitti (a lot of it!) ;-)). In short, visiting Venice will take some time (at least one or two weeks, there is no method to „do“ Venice in 24-hours, sorry!). If you can “explore” the city by foot, if not, use the vaporetti. Herby a small request: Waiting for a ferryboat or walking through the narrow lanes, always think of the fact, that Venice is not only a gigantic free-air museum but also a place, where people do life. So don’t scratch your names into statues, take away stones, throw your garbage around, yell at the middle of the night, walk around without a T-shirt or picnic at the steps of Saint Mark’s place, Venice is not Disneyland!

Take your time, prepare your trip well (despite the fact you’ll develope a better „understanding“ of the place and it’s people, you’re going to visit, doing this, you’ll have the tremendous and unpayable joy of anticipation, too!).

…And one last thing: Not all Italians are Mafiosi or unscrupulous scammers. Trust the locals! Learn some Italian, speak with them! Venetians, like most Europeans are bi- or even multilingual, so if one language fails, simply use the next, even if it is English, but try it first in Italian, even if you only knew a simple „bongiorno“ it’s a sign of respect, which is appreciated a lot and will open you unexpected doors! Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it. Despite the fact that they have to cope with almost 30 Million Tourists a year, the 60.000 remaining Venetians are the most friendly and helpful people I’ve ever met. You’ll see, you’ll find it perfectly easy not to “get lost” in Venice.