By Victor Block
In the fifth century Attila the Hun and other invaders descended upon the northeastern area of what today is Italy. A number of people who were living in the region fled to a group of nearby islands for safety and, over time, established small villages. The towns they founded eventually joined together, and that was the birth of Venice.
From that humble beginning grew one of the wealthiest, most refined cities in the then-known world, and those who travel to Venice today see it much as it has looked over centuries. The city's physical layout, occupying nearly 120 small islands, is its most famous attraction. Those dots of land are separated by about 150 canals that are crossed by more than 400 bridges.
The largest and most famous waterway, the Grand Canal, serves as the main "street" of Venice. It's lined by splendid palaces and brightly colored mansions that were built by aristocratic families between the 12th and 17th centuries. They contrast with the more modest homes that overlook the maze of narrow, twisting side canals.
One focus of visitors is what Venice does not have: cars or trucks. It does have boats — lots of them and of various kinds. What elsewhere would be buses, taxis, fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and every other kind of vehicle that make a city function in Venice is a boat.
At the same time Venice is a perfect walking city. It's flat, and there are no vehicles with which to contend. Instead, the challenge is finding your way in the complicated network of pedestrian streets, and visitors often find themselves temporarily lost.
That's fine because some of the best discoveries are made by people searching for a specific site. You might wander into a city square with an outdoor cafe and stop for a snack. You're likely to see a street artist drawing on the sidewalk and musicians playing for tips. You may enter a church which contains precious paintings and other works of art.
The other mode of transportation is boats, and here there's a choice. The famous gondolas are the classic Venetian boat, having originated there centuries ago. Because gondola rides are relatively expensive, they're used mostly by visitors seeking the experience and for weddings and other special occasions. Those who wish to experience a less costly gondola ride may take a traghetto (ferry). They're convenient for people who wish to cross the Grand Canal between the four bridges that span it. Boat buses called vaporetto follow a prescribed route and are the mode of transportation for many Venetians.
Two islands reachable by boat rank high on the list of attractions that many visitors wish to see. Murano has been a famous center for making decorative glass since the 12th century. Several furnace buildings where glass is fashioned into all manner of items are open to the public, and it's fascinating to watch skilled artisans at work, then see the finished products in the gift shops.
The nearby island of Burano makes two claims to fame. It has a long history as a fishing village, and the lovely lace made and sold there evolved long ago from weaving fishing nets. The other attraction is the houses, many of which are painted in a rainbow of dazzling colors.
The most popular destination in Venice is Piazza San Marco (San Marco Square), an immense plaza surrounded by magnificent buildings that often is jammed with tourists and always with pigeons. Work on the San Marco Church began in 1063, and it was expanded and decorated over centuries.
The pink-and-white marble Doges' Palace next door served as residence for the chief magistrates of Venice; the lofty Campanile (bell tower) was built in the 10th century and then reconstructed after it collapsed; and the 16th-century structure which occupies the west side of the square has been described as the most sumptuous palace ever built.
People who enjoy museums find a wealth of alternatives from which to choose. Collections range from ancient Etruscan, Greek and Roman artifacts (at the Archaeological Museum) to modern art by Picasso, Jackson Pollock and other masters (Guggenheim Museum), from gondolas (Correr Museum) to palaces (Palazzo Grassi).
A personal favorite is the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, which tells the fascinating story of that 15th- and 16th-century genius who is best known for painting the "Mona Lisa." The collections also introduce viewers to da Vinci's many accomplishments in architecture, engineering, science, music, anatomy, astronomy and other fields.
In addition to Venice's history, art and architecture, a welcome surprise is the resort town of Lido. It fronts the Adriatic Sea and has a broad, inviting beach, elegant hotels along tree-laden boulevards and outstanding restaurants.
Augmenting its permanent appeals, Venice also offers visitors an abundance of festivals throughout the year. One major celebration is the Carnevale, which is held each winter. Venetians don spectacular masks and costumes and take part in days of street celebrations.
Other events include an 11-day film festival in Lido, boat races in which rowers wear 16th-century costumes and the oldest festival in Venice, which was first held in 1576 to give thanks that a plague epidemic had ended.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about Venice, visit www. en.turismovenezia.it.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.