All through my elementary school education I was fascinated by the Roman Empire and its history, culture, and politics. In college I wanted to study abroad so bad, but due to a demanding pre-med course load with several research projects in the process, studying abroad was not possible. It’s my biggest regret in college. However, my college offered several two-week Winter or May term international courses. When Italy was offered I knew I had to go. I begged my parents to let me go and after kindly reminding them that they paid for my sister to go to England and Scotland in middle school to play soccer, they owed me a trip to Europe. Between a combination of student loans, my own savings, my parents and my grandmother, I was able to piece together the money I needed to go.
My two-week trip to Italy was my first time outside of the country! And it was just the beginning of a lifetime of travel. I didn’t know what to really expect on this trip. I was with a group of about 35 other students of varying ages and college degrees. The course was offered as either general credits (2 credits) or as an English class. I know, I know. English in Italy you ask? I signed up for the two English credits as I needed a few more for some pre-med coursework. The English portion of the trip was taught by one of the English Literature professors and we focused on literature written about Italy or by Italian authors. Think Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Dante’s Inferno.
Getting off the plane in Venice was a whirlwind of jet lag, excitement, and uncertainty. For the first time in my life I was in a land where I didn’t speak the language or understand the customs. After checking into our guesthouses, we ventured out and explored the cobblestone streets and canals of the infamous Venice. It was everything I thought it would be despite it being a freezing cold December day. We planned to spend four days in Venice before taking the train south to Florence. That meant we would be spending New Year’s Eve in Venice!
Over the four days we were in Venice, I was able to hit all the major highlights plus some off-the-beaten path places. Venice is a magical little city on the sea. Even in the cold and foggy winter months, the city lit up with colorful homes and people. Venice is located in northeast Italy and consists on about 117 small islands linked together by narrow canals and stone bridges. Venice, known by many names such as “City of Bridges,” “City of Water,” or “The Floating City,” dates back to the early 5th century during the height of the Roman Empire. The city flourished and grew during the Byzantine Empire of the 9th to 12th century where it became a large trade post and city state. Venice continued to flourish until the first Black Death that hit the city in 1348 where in three years it killed over 50,000 people. The plague hit again later in the 1500s. Today, Venice is a thriving tourist spot for history, food, art, and travel lovers alike. Every year millions of tourists flock to the island to take a gondola ride through one of its many canals, see the famous glass blowers in Murano, and sample all the glorious Italian food and wine (I think I gained several pounds there!).
Piazza San Marco
You can’t go to Venice without strolling through the famous and only piazza in Venice. Just follow all the pigeons as it is their favorite hang out too! Despite the flocks of pigeons and tourists, Piazza San Marco is quite beautiful. The square is home to the Basilica of San Marco, Doge’s Palace, and the bell tower. Over the centuries, some of the most important religious and civil ceremonies occurred in the Piazza. The Basilica of San Marco was completed in about 1094 and continued to be embellished over the centuries, creating its unique blend of Islamic, Byzantine, and European art and architecture. The outside of the Basilica is extremely ornate with Romanesque carvings and stunning statues on the roof. The inside of the Basilica is just as ornate as the outside and the climb up the stairs to the Loggia dei Cavall to take in the views of the Piazza from above is worth it. Admission into the Basilica is free and the Treasury, Pala d’Oro and Loggia dei Cavall will set you back a few Euros. It’s totally worth it in my opinion.
Venice is full of amazing museums. My favorite was the Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Palace. The Doge’s Palace was home to the most powerful family in Venice for over 1,000 years. And his home is a testament to his wealth and power. An admission ticket to the Palazzo Ducale will allow you to walk through the famous Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) that links the Palazzo to its prisons. The bridge is supposedly called the Bridge of Sighs because as prisoners walked across the bridge, they would sigh as they got their last look at Venice. Tickets to the museum will set you back 18 Euros.
The Jewish Ghetto of Venice
Venice, Italy is home to the oldest remaining Jewish ghetto. Up until the 14th century, Jews were allowed to come to Venice to do business, but were never allowed to live in the city. The first Jews were only permitted to live in the city in 1385 when Venice waged war against a nearby town and city officials needed loans from the Jewish money-lenders. Due to racism, Venice city officials decided to confine all the Jews in the world’s first ghetto. The neighborhood gates were locked at night and there were economic restrictions on the families that lived in the ghetto. The men had to wear yellow circles stitched on the left shoulder of their jackets and the women had wore yellow scarves to indicate that they were Jewish. The Jewish population reached a height of 4,000 around 1650. Many of the 1300 Jews living in the ghetto prior to WWII were deported by the Nazi’s and only a handful returned after the war. Today about 500 Jews call Venice home, but very few live in the old ghetto. The ghetto is home to several wonderful museums and a great place to explore the often forgotten people of Venice.
New Year’s Eve in Venice
Everyone talks about spending New Year’s Eve in Times Square in NYC, but you really ought to add Venice, Italy to your NYE list because it’s insane! As we were walking to Piazza San Marco for the countdown, young boys were setting off firecrackers in narrow alleyways causing me to jump out of my skin. When we finally arrived to the Piazza, we were met with tens of thousands of locals and tourists alike ready to ring in the New Year. Most people were rather drunk swinging their wine bottles around for all to share. As the countdown neared, a troupe of Chinese acrobats put on an amazing show of jumps, flips, and tightrope walking. Then the countdown began. Cinque. Quattro. Tre. Due. Uno. BUON ANNO! Immediately music started blaring from the loud speakers. I was expecting something more Italian, but no. Happy Days and My Heart Will Go On were playing as the night sky lit up with colorful displays of fireworks. It was a very surprising choice of music, but at least they could light off some good fireworks!
The real fun part of the night was leaving the Piazza after the show was over. Imagine 40,000 people trying to leave a big square through four narrow openings because that was pretty much what happened. The crowds were thick and my friends and I all linked hands so we wouldn’t lose each other. At one point a very drunk Italian man was chewing on the tassel of my hat and my friend had to karate chop his mouth off my tassel. After about an hour we were able to make it back to our guesthouse. The experience was absolutely crazy and is still one of my favorite NYE stories.
Venice is a beautiful city to just wander around and explore its nooks and crannies. It is super easy to intentionally and unintentionally get lost. Even in the dead of winter Venice is beautiful. I loved its small markets and charming hole-in-the-wall places to eat. I especially loves its hot chocolate!