The winged lion in golden yellow at the center of the red flag is resting its paw on an open book. Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus – Peace to you, Mark, my evangelist – says the inscription on the book.
St. Mark is everywhere in Venice, including on the Consiglio di San Marco, the flag of Venice. There is another version of the flag, I find out. Rumor has it that this one was used in times of war, starting at the Battle of Lepanto (444 years ago, to this very month) when the Ottoman Empire was defeated by a collation led by Pope Pius V. In this variation, the book is closed and the lion is holding a sword.
The Venice I saw was more of an open book, a warm inviting city with serpentine streets, legendary waterways, picturesque facades, canal-front homes and the legendary San Marco Plaza.
My own fascination with the city however began decades ago, watching legendary Indian superstar actor Amitabh Bachchan on the silver screen in a suspenseful twist to the plot of “The Great Gambler” in a lilting love song, wafting on a gondola ride through the narrow, undulating canals of Venice. “Do lafzon ki hai dil ki kahani – ya hai mohabbat, ya hai jawani”. My heart, so goes the song, is a simple story of two syllables: love and youth. When you are young (like I certainly was at the time) it seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation of life, but more than the heart-tugging lyrics, it was the unusual location and mesmerizing picturization that stayed with me. It was only many (many) years later that I finally got a chance to visit and absorb this amazing city, and it seemed to me like it was ok that I took my time. Nothing seem to have changed much from what I remembered in the song, except perhaps for the number of tourists that throng the city daily. Tourists, that even in the relatively unwelcoming winter time, numbered in the thousands, all of them like me trying to click, eat, walk and sail their way to their own slice of a Venetian adventure. (Official estimates put the number of annual visitors to Venice at a staggering 22 million – compared to the city’s population of just 60,000!)
With good reason, though: the well-known, picture-postcard city landmarks live up to their hype. The omnipresent gondolas lend Venice its signature calling card. The gondoliers’ loud melodies ricochet majestically off the echo chambers created by the tall walls of the silent (and sometimes decrepit) houses that line the narrow canals they navigate. The Rialto bridge is a beautiful sight, to look at, look from and particularly when lit up at night. And as you walk down the bridge, the serpentine streets magically unfold and unravel the labyrinthine complexity. So you follow their siren call and wander from one cobblestone pathway to another, until you are completely swallowed by the city, hopelessly lost. Not that it matters though, because you just have to keep walking and will soon stumble upon San Marco, a magnificent, historical public square. Napolean supposedly referred to the Piazza San Marco as the “drawing room of Europe” but whether that attribution is validated by historians or not (“unproven” is the current verdict) I can easily say that Picadilly Circus in London or Plaza Mayor in Madrid hold no candle to the stunning expanse and magnificence of San Marco square. Dominated by the Church of St.Mark’s, the impressive Basilica, the landmark clock tower and dotted with too-many-to-count Romanesque carvings, facades, arches and marble decorations, you can simply keep walking in a trance until you find yourself at the edge of the water and gifted with some of the most stunning views of the Adriatic Sea, particularly if (like I did) you end up there when dusk starts rolling in.
Sometimes clichés are true; when it comes to Venice I would aver that a picture is worth a thousand words, and with that here are some glimpses into the wonder and beauty that is Venice.