TRAVEL TRIP VACATION – tip: Venice Carnival 2008 is Friday, January 25, 2008 – Tuesday, February 05, 2008. BOOK NOW!

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By Katy Hyslop

Canals, gondoliers, romance, swaying buildings and mystery persons wearing painted masks. This guide will help you get behind the mask of Venice in just 48 hours.

Providing you haven’t spent the better part of the day trying to locate your accommodation you may find some time after checking in to do some exploring. One of the first things you will notice is no traffic. Vehicles are restricted to the last piece of solid ground near the train station, Piazzale Roma. This is where the bus terminal and public carparks are located and where your journey begins.

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As you walk across the first of 409 bridges spanning the 150 canals you may wonder what inspired the original inhabitants to build their city afloat on 117 tiny islands in a marshy lagoon. The key reason was safety and protection from the marauding non-swimmer Attila the Hun. However the locals soon learnt that the centralised location was equally important in terms of European trade.

Walking the streets of Venice is an attraction in itself. The architecture is a mix of Byzantine, Renaissance and opulent Austro-Hungarian tastes. Narrow alleyways lead into decorative courtyards or twist around corners to hidden gardens. Some of the buildings have taken on a seriously disturbing lean that can leave you feeling dizzy and hoping that they remain standing for a few minutes more as you pass beneath.

There are three main street signs mostly visible with arrows pointing to either Piazzale Roma, or ‘Ferrovia’ (the train station) or towards Piazza San Marco and more often than not, in both directions. There are wider street arteries which allow the majority of crowds to find San Marco with ease but to get a real sense of Venice it is recommended to get off the beaten track.

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Turn a few corners and after a few hours you will have been totally lost and found again, either ending up at the Ferrovia or hopefully in Piazza San Marco.You will notice first the campanile towering above you.

The campanile was built as a lookout and lighthouse on foundations that dated back to the Roman period. Added to and enlarged over several centuries the end result was a total collapse in 1902 and a huge international effort to rebuild it brick by brick. The logetta base relief at the base of the tower was painstakingly pieced back together after being completely shattered by the falling bricks. The climb to the top of the campanile is worth it for the view across the lagoon to the outlying islands and a great way to orientate yourself. Gallileo even demonstrated his telescope to the Doges up here.

The other obvious thing to dominate the square is the sheer number of pigeons. They are usually seen covering small children which kindly parents have doused in birdseed in hopes the birds will fly away with them. On a slightly more serious note the rumour is there is a $500US fine for anyone caught kicking the pigeons. It’s really tempting but…

Looking south out between the pillars topped by the winged lion, the symbol of Venice, and the statue of St Theodore you will see water craft bobbing about including the vaporetti, Venice’s metro system, ferrying workers and tourists from island to island. Then there are the delivery boats, fire, ambulance and police boats, water taxis and the distinctive black gondolas.

You would have seen these gliding effortlessly through the canals between the houses during your walk carrying couples and groups of tourists, propelled by striped shirted men with a long oar and quite possibly singing an opera tune.

Continuing past the Doges Palace and turning left will bring you out onto the most south-eastern edge of the square. There is yet another bridge to cross but it may look crowded with tourists looking up a canal at another bridge. The object of their fascination is the Ponte Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs. It is an enclosed bridge linking the palace courts to the old prison. A last breath of fresh air could be gasped by prisoners at the tiny latticed window before being dragged off to the ‘leads’.

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Now to head back towards the Rialto Bridge. There will be a few signs directing you towards this and again they may appear to go in both directions. The bridge is the oldest one of three in the world that is occupied by shops.

The Rialto was mediaeval Europe’s trading centre with traders from the orient bringing goods to wealthy Venetian merchants. Usury, or money lending, was also practised contributing significantly to the city coffers making Venice extremely prosperous.

The current stone bridge was constructed in the 1500’s after a competition was run to find a solution to the regular problems of flooding and fires that kept destroying the wooden ones.It was successfully won by architect Antonio da Ponte. It also had to be tall enough to allow warships to pass beneath on their way to the crusades.

Depending on where you are staying or how tired the feet are it might be time to catch a vaporetto up the Grand Canal. For a fraction of the cost of a gondola trip you can take the 40 minute ride up the Grand Canal, go beneath the Rialto as well as see the magnificent mansions, palaces and plush Venetian hotels that line the banks.

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Venice by night is far more peaceful as the noise of the boats going about their daily business subsides and the canals are left to the gondolas and the odd taxi. Dinner can be an expensive affair unless you know where to go. A rough guide is the further away from Piazza San Marco the cheaper, however there are some good value places around in places such as Cannareggio, Dorsoduro, San Polo and Santa Croce. Look more for osterias while some bars also serve bar snacks and light meals.

Many Venetian locals no longer live in the city due to the high living costs, preferring to reside on the mainland in Mestre. As a result there isn’t a particularly energetic nightlife after hours. There are a few jazz bars where you can get pricey cocktails. Venice’s most famous establishment is Harry’s Bar in San Marco, where the Bellini was born. This is a tasty combination of champagne and peach juice.

For the continuation of this article, click here for part 2.