Navigating Venice
Russell Degnan

In a city that's tourists are as often as not English speaking, overheard snatches of conversation are a fascinating source of amusing anecdotes for travellers who speak more discreetly. Loud comments of wonder at the beauty or silence of the canals are common, though my favourite was this:

"If it is like this on a disgusting day, what is it like on a nice day?"

No doubt they are very gratifying for the locals, who take an enviable pride in their city - particularly in comparison to other Italian citizens.

But there is a common complaint as well. Everybody apparently gets hopelessly lost, and not all tourists have the time, energy or spirit for walking around lost until they stumble across something they might recognise.

And yet the city is organised in a particularly straight-forward manner. It just happens to be different to every other city in the world - as you'd expect for a place with its unique origins.

There are two important points that have to be remembered. First, like many Italian cities, they are organised around the churches. In particular, a church, a Piazza of sorts outside it, and a small, packed, residential area around it. Second, the canals are designed as the main navigation routes in Venice, which is the big difference with other cities.

The bridges are very important for this reason. Between any two adjacent piazzas, there are only one or two routes where you can get across a canal. And in the case of the Grand Canal, only three bridges in the whole city: the Rialto, the stazione at Ferrova and the Academia.

Getting between places is easy. Trace a route between piazzas taking into account the main bridges you need to cross on the way, and then head in a rough direction you need to, keeping in mind the three important signifiers for avoiding dead-ends. One, the quality of lighting and paving stones, the existence of shops that are on main routes, not (normally) residential alleys, and most important, the flow of people between places.

Once you are familiar with the main routes, you need only find a rough direction from the points - the three bridges, Piazza San Marco and Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo - and try not to get turned completely around; on a cloudy day there is no way to find north as such.

To summarise, Venice seems difficult to navigate because it is organised as a heirachical network with low permeability between adjacent points. Once you realise that though, it is not so bad. The first step is losing the map.

Days Spent Away 5th December, 2004 02:33:59   [#]