Anyone who's been to Venice, Italy, knows that it's one of the most magical places on earth. Sitting in the Adriatic Sea like a vision (especially if one first approaches it from the mainland by boat), the city is emblematic of art, culture, and the power of imagination. It seems to float on the sea as if by magic.
Of course, the city wasn't built by magic. Venice is a testament to the ingenuity of the human spirit of invention. Stone buildings of great beauty sit on the water; boats of varying sizes traverse the canals the way cars, trucks, and busses crowd the streets of more conventional cities; crowds throng the bridges and narrow pedestrian streets.
If one wants to understand the history of Venice, the best starting point is to understand the canals themselves, and how their construction and history reflects and explains the city itself.
Venice contains over 150 canals, spanned by over 400 bridges. The largest canal in the city, the Grand Canal ("Canalasso"), is approximately 2 miles (3 km) long and wends its way in a giant "S" curve through the city from the train station to the Piazzo San Marco and the stunning church of Santa Maria de Salute, at which point it is over 350 feet wide. More than 170 buildings line the Canalasso.
Three bridges span the Grand Canal -- the Ponte dei Scalzi, the Ponte d'Accademia, and the famous covered Ponte Rialto, which teems with shops and retailed stalls. A fourth bridge near the train station that connects Venice to the mainland is currently under construction.
Other bridges throughout the city cross the narrower canals. Some of these are quite famous in their own right, such as the "Bridge of Sighs" at the Piazza San Marco. The steps that lead up to many of the bridges make bicycle traffic nearly impossible, so the majority of day-to-day traffic in the city takes the form of foot traffic.
This doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of traffic on the canals themselves. The canals are the main transportation route in the city, and workboats, garbage and freight barges, ambulances, and busses (called "vaporettos" by the locals; there are also smaller boats called "motoscafi" that serve as taxis) pass each other through the narrow waterways at all hours.
Of course, the most well known watercrafts in Venice are the gondolas – the narrow, curiously shaped black boats that are poled through the shallow canals by gondoliers in striped shirts and wide brimmed hats. The locals, who once used the gondolas as a primary mode of transportation, leave them to the tourists these days, and anyone passing the canals becomes used to the cries of the gondoliers trying to attract business.
When Venice was originally settled by villagers from the mainland in the 5th century, the canals were essentially the naturally occurring inlets and channels between the marshy islands of the Lagoon of Venice (Laguna Venezia). Buildings were constructed on pilings made from closely spaced tree trunks set into the layers of sand and clay that made up the islands. As the buildings became more and more elaborately built of stone and brick, more and larger trees had to be brought from father and farther away – many of the pilings still in use today came from Slovenia hundreds of years ago. The canals had to be deepened and widened and lined with stone in order to accommodate the construction traffic and the commercial traffic that came with the exploding population; more canals were created as fill was added into the lagoon to create more islands for building, leading to the present maze that makes up the city.
Since the canals are the main circulatory routes of the city, a great deal of maintenance is constantly being done on them. Canals are shallow – no more than 10-15 ft deep in many places – and are defined by spaces between the buildings that crowd their banks. They must be dredged regularly to remove the silt and sand that is deposited in the canals by the frequent high tides that can flood the city (also known as "acqua alta, or "high water").
The water that fills the canals is, to say the least, not clean. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the combination of industrial waste from the mainland and human waste has caused the canals to be, in a word, filthy – the natural rhythms of the ocean can no longer handle the overflow, and microbes and pollution fill the water and the sediment at the bottom. Many plans have been created over the years to try and remedy the situation, but at the present time, the memories of children swimming in the canals remain only memories. In recent years, the level of industrial pollution has eased, but the situation still remains difficult.
Human activity and the rerouting of rivers and streams into the lagoon have in recent years caused the city to begin sinking. The dredging of canals to maintain a useful depth is constant; many residents who could once step from their homes into a private boat to traverse the city have moved into the upper floors of their houses to avoid the frequent flooding of the canals. In 2011, a system of inflatable gates was put into place to control the water that floods the city.
Despite the continued threat to the health of Venice's canals, they remain one of the most distinctive and compelling architectural features in the world. The canals of Venice are one of Europe's top tourist attractions. A ride through the canals, whether by gondola or in a powered boat, exposes the magic of this unique city in a way that's unequalled by any other method. Travel the Canalasso at night, or explore the maze of smaller waterways during the day; the traveler is sure to come away with memories never to be erased.