For many hundreds of years Venice has been a city state of great wealth and influence, originally being a hiding place in the marshes for ancient tribes who gradually hammered wood pilings into the soft ground until literally millions of them formed the foundations of a city, and magnificant palaces and other buildings were constructed.
Today Venice (Venezia) is a dying city, away from the centres of influence and power with a population that has halved in the last generation as its residents fled the floods, lack of jobs and high prices. Still, it is invaded daily by the world's tourists. You can arrive by sea, and there are always giant ocean liners at dock, or by train, car or bus across a 3 mile causeway from the mainland at the industrial city of Venice Mestre. The world's largest and most expensive car park is available in Venice, but its best to park on the mainland, where the hotel are cheaper, and spend 1 Euro on the 10 minute bus or train ride.
There are very few bridges across the Grand Canal, which forms an S shape through the heart of Venice, and you can walk from the Stazione to Piazza San Marco (St. Marks Square) in about 30-40 minutes, crossing the Rialto Bridge half way along and wandering through lots of alleyways and across small canals and bridges with churches, museums, galleries and shops.
For the very first time in about a dozen visits I was treated to a Gondola ride, starting outside the Doges Palace next to San Marco. The Doge was the elected leader of the Venezian Republic. For 100 Euros ($134.00) you get a 50 minute ride, with up to 6 passengers allowed, and a personal talking and singing Gondlier tour guide. Ours was called Ricardo, and his gondola was named Roberta after his wife. You must be born in Venice to enter the profession and Ricardo is 4th generation and his sons are also gondoliers. Each boat costs about 20,000 Euros and you can go and see where they are made by catching the No. 82 Vaporetto to The Squero, or boatyard, run by the Tramontin Family since 1884. There is also a one week gondola building course available elsewhere. The craft lasts about 20 years and is made of 280 pieces of wood and eight different types, including fir, cherry, oak, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime. The long oar, Remo, is made of beech wood. It's not a pole, since some of the canals are too deep, and the gondolier pushes rather than pulls the boat along. The interesting shaped oar lock is called a Forcola. The left side is longer than the right side to balance the weight of the gondolier. At the prow is the distinctive iron Ferro, which protects the delicate wood structure against accidental bumps and is also decorative and a counterweight.
Ricardo was the fastest gondolier on the water as we overtook other such craft on the narrow canals and he pointed out interesting buildings, including the former home of Marco Polo, the famous medieval explorer. The less expensive way to ride the canals is the municipal water buses, called vaporetti. A one way ticket along the Grand Canal costs 6 Euros but you can purchase a 12 hour ticket or a 2 or 3 day pass. The cheapest ride is the Traghetti, which is a water taxi that takes you across the Grand Canal for only 50 cents, and as tradition dictates, passengers always stand up for the short crossing.