Sunday, May 22, 2016

Venice - After Hours Tour of Doge's Palace and San Marco Basilica

Having an adverse experience years ago when we took the public tour of the Vatican Museum and were herded like cattle with hordes of other people, Rich now always looks for the opportunity to participate in smaller tours, albeit at a higher price. He found the solution in the "Exclusive Alone in St. Mark's & Doge's Palace Tour" run by Walks of Italy.  For $195 Canadian per person, we would take a 3.5 hours tour these two famous and heavily visited sites after hours in a group of no more than 15 people.  Although the price was steep, this sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  When booking the tour, I found a promo code for 10% off this tour if I could quote something from one of the Rick Steves Italy guide books which I happened to be able to access.  So our tour came out to $171 per person and was well worth the money.

The tour started at 5pm in San Marco Square and we were already in the Rialto area earlier in the day for our Hidden Venice City Tour, so we decided to have a leisurely lunch and then stroll around the famous square.  But before we arrived at San Marco, we experienced what I can only refer to as "Rich and Annie's No-So-Excellent Adventure".  We lost Rich and could not find him for almost 45 minutes!!  This all started on the Vaporetto boat ride from Rialto to San Marco.  Knowing that there were several stops for San Marco, we had agreed ahead of time that we would get off at the one called Vallaresso.  The boat was crowded as usual but somehow, Yim, Murray and I scored prime standing room right next to the rail by the exit so that we could get some excellent photos of the Grand Canal.  Rich decided that he did not like the crowds and moved to the covered part of the boat where there was more room. Yim and I were happily snapping our photos and talking to the lady next to us when we pulled into the first Vaporetto stop for "San Marco".  Not remembering whether we wanted the first or second one, we looked for the word "Vallaresso" and did not see it and therefore thought it was the next one.  In the meantime, a stream of people flowed off the boat and apparently Rich was one of them but we did not see him.  It was not until we got to the next stop (San Marco Zaccaria) that we realized we missed the stop and that Rich was gone!

We devised a plan to find him again, but it was a case of "Where's Waldo" since there were so many people in the area.  Walking in a parallel line about 20 feet apart from each other so that we would cover more ground, we slowly headed back towards the first boat dock, thinking maybe Rich would wait for us there.  When he wasn't there, we decided he must be waiting in San Marco Square and probably in front of the Basilica where we had something special planned.  But he wasn't there!  So now we spread out with one person standing at the entrance to the Square on Riva degli Schiavoni (the main street following the canal), one person retracing the steps between the two Vaporetto stops and one person combing the area in front of the Basilica.  We even checked in on Harry's Bar since we had joked earlier about going there for a €25 Bellini.  This went on for what felt like for ever and I must admit I was starting to panic and wonder where on earth he could be, when finally I spotted him about 100 feet away from the Basilica.

It turns out that while we were racing around in the heat searching for him, Rich had ducked into the Jaeger La Coultre watch store in the Piazza and was enjoying an air conditioned seat and a glass of ice water while trying on expensive watches.  It was with a mixture of relief, happiness and annoyance that I hugged him. And it did not help that he had gotten off on the correct stop and we were mistaken, since he lorded this fact over us for quite a while.

Luckily we had headed out to San Marco with plenty of time to spare before the tour, so we still had time to do what we wanted in the Square.  While planning for the trip, Rich had discovered that there are live-feed webcams positioned in various parts of Venice, including the Grand Canal and San Marco Basilica.  He used it for weeks prior to our trip in order to check out the crowds at San Marco Square and basically came to the conclusion that it was always busy except for early in the morning and late at night.  We happened to look at the feed for the Grand Canal on the day of the annual Volgalonga Regatta (which was just 4 days before our arrival .. too bad!).  We were delighted to watch kayaks and row boats of all shapes, sizes and number of occupants sail by in this 30km paddling/rowing race through the city of Venice and the lagoon up to Burano.

Seeing that the web can feed of San Marco Square was positioned with an excellent view of the area right in front of the entrance to the Basilica, I got the idea that the four of us in our group could do a "Webcam Selfie".  Based on the angle of the image, we guessed that the web camera was probably up in the clock tower adjacent to the Basilica.  If we stood in a line directly across from the Basilica's entrance and did something unusual, streamed the webcam from my IPAD and then took a screen shot, we would in effect have a selfie photo of ourselves.  I came up with the idea of doing the "YMCA" pose since there were four of us, and made sure that I wore a bright red top that day so that I would stand out and it would be easier to find us.  We had difficulty trying this at 4:30pm prior to our tour, as the square was packed with people.  We decided to try it again after our tour since it was almost 9pm at this point and the crowds had significantly subsided.  We still had trouble getting our act together due the the 2-3 minutes time delay before the feed shows up online, so this is what we ended up capturing.  Murray and I are valiantly holding our "Y" and "M" poses, Yim was not quite ready with her "C", and Rich was too busy looking for us in the IPAD to even attempt the "A".  Not the greatest success but it was still so much fun to do.  We attracted attention from the surrounding tourists as well and they started taking photos of us :)

Our After Hours Tour started in San Marco Square where we again heard about the history of Venice and then learned about the two tall columns that guard the entry into the square.  On top of one column is the winged lion, the symbol of Venice while the sculpture on top of the second column depicts St. George killing the dragon.  As we walked through San Marco Square, we were told that it is considered bad luck to walk between the columns and we therefore walked around them. We also passed a group of youths reenacting an old tradition which stated that if a prisoner could edge his way around a large column without falling into what was then a canal, he would be pardoned and not have to go to jail.

Built in 810AD, the Doge's Palace housed the Doge's residence as well as government offices, courts and prisons for over 700 years.  As we walked towards the palace, we first stopped and looked at the sculpture depicting drunken Noah being helped by his sons Shem and Japheth while ridiculed by son Ham, whose sculpture stands apart.  We would see more of this biblical story in the San Marco Basilica mosaics.  Looking down the canal, we got a good view of the Bridge of Sighs, which connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace with the New Prison.  The bridge received its romantic nickname from English poet Lord Byron, who alluded to prisoners sighing in despair as they were led to their imprisonment.  We would actually get to take this walk through the bridge later on in the tour.

The "Porta della Carta", which features a sculpture of a kneeling Doge facing Venice's winged lion, is the main gate into the palace.  The entrance opens into the central court yard where the giant marble staircase (Scala dei Giganta) is guarded at the top by huge statues of Mars and Neptune. Taking an alternate entrance, we ascended the L'Escalier d'Or (Golden Staircase) whose ceiling is decorated with frescos surrounded by 24-carat gold. This ceremonial staircase, with sculptures of Hercules and Atlas at its entrance, leads up to the Doge's private apartments and state government chambers.

One of the first things we were shown in the Doge's Palace was carving of a menacing face with an opening for the mouth and instructions underneath encouraging citizens to turn in their neighbours who might be tax evaders, by slipping an anonymous note through the mouth opening.  We learned that Doges were elected mayors of Venice as opposed to kings who are born to their position.  In order to prevent dynasties of corrupt Doges, it was forbidden for the next Doge to be the son of the previous one.  Because they were not Kings, there was never a throne in the council chambers.  Instead, there were padded seats for the Doge, his council, lawyers and judges, with the Doge sitting in the middle.  We were taken into various chamber rooms that were decorated with large paintings and friezes.  One room had two interesting clocks.  First there was a 24 hour clock with roman numerals where XVIII (6pm) was located at the top where the 12 usually sits on a 12-hour clock, apparently because in ancient times, the day started at sunset.  Also, the numbers progressed "counterclockwise" to simulate a sundial.  This makes you wonder why a modern clock has "clockwise numbers" these days?  The hand of the second "clock" pointed to the various zodiac symbols.

One of the most interesting stories was told in the Hall of the Great Council, where the walls were covered with a series of paintings by Tintoretto representing the first 76 Doges, each holding a scroll depicting his most important achievements.  There were two Doges' portraits per painting, except for one that depicted only a single Doge and a black veil next to him.  The black veil is a placeholder for the 55th Doge Marino Faliero, who was beheaded in 1355 for plotting a coup d'etat to take power away from the ruling aristocrats and to make himself king.  The words on the black shroud are Latin for "This is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes."

Prior to building the New Prison and connecting bridge in the 1600s, groups of over 10 prisoners were crammed into "the Wells", which were tiny, disease-ridden cells on the ground floor of the palace with no toilet or water source.  Lead-covered cells under the roof were used to house upper-class inmates awaiting trial.  The legendary lover Giacomo Casanova was the only prisoner to ever successfully escape from the prison, which he accomplished by making a hole through the ceiling and lowering himself into the open courtyard.

One of the highlights of the Doge's Palace tour was the visit to the New Prison, which we accessed by actually crossing through the Bridge of Sighs, re-enacting the passage taken by prisoners as they were led to their cells.   Having admired the bridge from the outside, it was quite the experience to see it from the inside, and be able to look out the windows to see the Venetian lagoon.  You could imagine the prisoners sighing at the thought of never viewing this beauty again.

While it was fun to visit the Doge's Palace without having to compete with large crowds, the truly memorable experience of seeing the San Marco Basilica after hours was still to come.  The Basilica was once the private "chapel" of the Doge and did not become the city's Cathedral until 1807.  We started our tour in front of the sculpture of the "Four Tetrarchs" which stands at the corner of the Basilica closest to the Doge's Palace.  The four figures represent four Roman emperors dating from around 300A.D and was among the treasures (including four bronze horses) that were looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.  One of the figures is missing a foot, part of which was discovered in the 1960s by archaeologists in Istanbul.  The pretty mosaics found under each of the arches in front of the Basilica were just teasers for what was to come.

We were told stories about the bones of Saint Mark, for which the Basilica and Square are named after.  After his death in Alexandria, Egypt, his bones were stolen by two Venetian merchants in 828AD and smuggled out of Egypt while packed in a crate covered with pork and cabbage leaves.  These relics are believed to now lie within San Marco Basilica.  In fact, another legend tells that Saint Mark's bones were once lost in a fire, but he raised his hand out of the ashes to indicate where he was.



Since the Basilica was now closed to the general public, we had to wait for the security guard to reopen the gates in order to let us in.  Asked to sit in the pews and look up, we watched in awe as the lights were slowly turned on to illuminate the gorgeous mosaics, made of glass covered with 24-carot-gold leaf, that covered the walls and ceilings of the cathedral.  Carefully examining the images created by the mosaics, we were able to see allegorical depictions of various biblical stories including the Story of Christ, the Story of Creation, Adam & Eve, the 12 Disciples, Cain and Able, Noah's Ark, and the Tower of Babel. 





The guide told us to compare the original mosaics created in the Byzantium times (around 11th Century) with the newer mosaics created in the 16th Century.  The originals were flat, no perspective, but used dark lines surrounding the figures to highlight their actions and emphasize the point of the allegory.  By contrast, the newer mosaics looked more realistic in terms of perspective, but in the opinion of the guide, they did not convey the message of the stories as effectively.

After leisurely admiring the beautiful mosaics, we were led up to the altar, past the relics of San Marco, so that we could get a closer look at the stunning altarpiece.  The Pala d'Oro is a revolving, Byzantine altarpiece made of enamels depicting various saints.  These images are surrounded by gold leaf and over 1900  precious stones including emeralds, rubies, sapphires, pearls, garnets, amethysts and topaz.  It was amazing to be able to stand so close to this masterpiece without fighting hordes of other people to get a good look.

Finally we were taken down to the Crypt where the tomb of a past Bishop of Venice can be found.  The crypt with its marble altar can be rented by Venetians to celebrate occasions like weddings and baptisms.  Because San Marco Square is situated at the lowest point in Venice, it is often subject to flooding.  To protect the crypt, its floor is "tanked" or surrounded by a protective wall to keep the water out.  Back up to the main floor, we were told to take a closer look at the beautiful designs on the marble flooring.  Then we were shown one final secret anomoly–the distinct image of a demon figure found embedded in one of the marble walls.

At the end of the tour, we all agreed that this was indeed a memorable experience and well worth the money.

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