Art and Culture Cities Italy The Italian Job

St Marks Square in Venice: Celebrity Square

Dawn in Venice
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Family Italy Cycle Tour- Arriving in Venice

We finally find ourselves reaching water after seven weeks on our Italian Job Family Cycling Tour. For most of the family it’s their first time in Venice. And we discover two sides to this alluring city; the earl morning quiet, and the afternoon cruise madness where St Mark’s turns into Celebrity Square//.. 

Venice awakes

Exploring Venice alone

Water laps onto stone. The haze of dawn and the morning mist combine on the lagoon, casting blue light over the skyline as it wakes. I fall in love with the city, with its early morning waterways, intense alleys and deserted passages. I have one hour to explore it alone. The tourists, and my children have yet to start the day.

I wander along a wide canal, a slight wind against my face, brushing away beads of sweat. A ferry chugs by, pressing commuters against each other like the London Underground in a heatwave. A baggage boat follows, carrying a range of international luggage bound for who knows where? I walk over a bridge, feeling the muscles in my legs, as a water taxi driver polishes the walnut veneer of his prized vehicle with a leather cloth. To the Basilica Santa Maria, where last night we watched as a ballroom dancing club claimed the sacred space by tangoing on the steps. This morning two American women spread out yoga mats and bitch about absent Venetian husbands.

It may have been an unusual choice to finish a cycle tour in a place where bikes are banned, but what more iconic place is there than Venice? Right now, on a wide stone step, with a take away latte macchiato, and the view of St Mark’s forming a the backdrop, this is my celebration.


There’s plenty of quieter parts away from the tourist spots

A stressful beginning

Our arrival was less clear cut, and rather less celebratory. We disembarked from the ferry into rush hour hell. A giant car park, leading to an enormous bus terminal. A dead end, flooded with tourists, street cleaners, coach drivers, police. Gay men parading like peacocks at the start of their night out. Stripy gondoliers hanging out in the sunshine waiting for the next set of honeymooners to step onto their curved black vehicles and take a ride to paradise for a fistful of euros. Our bikes looked strange, as though we’d stumbled onto a film set with the wrong props.

The bridge was not really designed to accomodate cyclists

So we rode, four kilometres down a narrow cycle path on an endless bridge into Venetian suburbia, where we had booked a hotel for the night. As lorries thundered past along with the night train to Paris, we kept our eyes on the cranes at the end of the lagoon, to our destination; the town of Mestrae. But as the bridge dumped its cars and coaches onto new carriageways, the cycle path ended abruptly, leaving us stranded on the wrong side of the road, with a motorway in between us and our hotel. There was only one thing for it. To cycle back in to Venice, in the dusk, turn around at the bus station, and cycle back out again, in the dark.

The bridge across the Lagoon linking Venice with Mestrae

We had made it to Venice. But not really. We were here, then not here, then here again, then not. It would be a good few hours before we would get onto the water, and celebrate our arrival.

What a magical place to end a journey

St Mark’s Square is a little different

My bare arms get me banned from the eclectic marble mayhem of the Basilica San Marcos in St Mark’s Square. It reminds me of our arrival in Santiago de Compostela, when after a month spent cycling the Camino de Santiago we couldn’t complete the traditional pilgrimage rituals because of maintenance work in some areas of the cathedral. Back then the cathedral was the point and pinnacle of our journey, while today I just want to get out of the heat.  Still, it is annoying.  It doesn’t matter whether or not I’m a believer, whether or not I’ve crossed the Alps on a tandem to get here, or that we’ve been round most churches in Europe in little more than swimming costumes; in Venice bingo wings cannot be seen in a sacred space. I’m not sure whether to stamp my feet or congratulate them on their fashion policing.

St Mark's Square, Venice

Outside the Basicila de San Marcos, Venice

Aubergine napkin madam?

A man in dark glasses tries to sell me a large aubergine coloured paper napkin to wrap around my shoulders. I decline, send the family on into the Basilica and retreat back out to the square, against the flow of the tide. At three in the afternoon it is still forty degrees, and the queue for the cathedral is showing as much sign of abating as the queue of pigeons looking for sweet-corn from the tourists. I step over both, looking for shade to sit in. There is none. Anyway, I’m not allowed to sit down, as sitting is prohibited on the grounds that the square is a living work of art. If I sit down I risk a fine. Art is not all about self expression here. Although if I wanted to sit in a bar selling a bellini for an overinflated price then that would be fine; in fact the throng of hovering white jacketed waiters would be almost pleased to see me.

St Marks Cathedral Venice

The details of the Basilica are interesting to look at, but not as interesting as the Celebrity

Suddenly the sky goes dark

I am looking at the nuns. A group of them are milling around taking pictures of themselves against the backdrop of the church. They aren’t involved in the queue for the basilica; perhaps their vocation entitles them to a fast-track pass of the worlds’ churches, a kind of ecumenical Disneyland scheme. The pigeons sense there’ll be no snacks forthcoming from ladies in white dresses and steer clear of them. Then it happens.

The only thing I can compare it to is an eclipse. The sky goes dark, and the birds calm down. The Italian lap dogs are stiller than ever. For a moment, probably a rare moment, there is a silence across the square. And then people begin to surge forward, towards the far end, where the vaporettas dock every few minutes to disgorge their tourist cargo, lifting the water to very edge of this historic and internationally celebrated bit of mud swamp.

Nuns in Venice St Mark's Square

Nuns in Venice St Mark’s Square

All eyes on the arriving celebrity

People are shouting, “Look, Look” in every language; even the nuns are sprinting forward with their cameras. I turn back to see what is going on and the landscape has changed. A Celebrity has arrived. A Celebrity so massive it dwarfs everything on the horizon; even a cathedral that has been dazzling people for hundreds of years, with its ornate columns, Italian masterpieces and golden mosaics. Stuart has our camera; it seems I am the only person in the vicinity to see this vision with my own eyes rather than through a lens.

The queue for the cathedral has dispersed. More people surge forward with cameras poised to fill in the darkness left by a disenfranchised sun. There’s a flash of silver in the sky above. For a moment I think it’s the Lord Almighty’s flashbulb.  But no, it’s tourists in the sky; even the flights to Venice with Monarch are watching this. All around tourists snap and flash at the Celebrity. And the visitor snaps and flashes back at this historic monument. This ‘living work of art’; those who’ve come to worship, to appreciate great Venetian architecture, or just enjoy an ice cream with a pigeon on their head; all are captured in stillness forever.

Shadows on the Palace in St Marks Square Venice

There are natural shadows and then there’s the shadow of Celebrity

The Celebrity casts a shadow over Venice

The Celebrity X cruise ship is five or six stories high, and from this far away its passengers look like the animated pin people in the movie Titanic. There are thousands of them; standing outside their bedrooms, on the upper decks. I imagine them clutching champagne, confetti and Cavalli handbags and congratulating themselves. They are, after all, on the cruise ship of cruise ships; so rich and commercially successful that it can dock near the square and sail right past; as close as you can get, at the peak spot of three o’ clock in the afternoon. No question of gondoliers arguing with something this big.

St Mark's Square Venice

St Mark’s Square Venice. But today the Basilica is not the main attraction

A touch of modernity, glamour, darkness

Celebrity X Cruises strives to give St Mark’s Square what it lacks; some modern glamour; some topical interest, some of that must have X factor. In one of the most famous squares in the world, celebrity still counts and money can buy you the best view. And how can a painting or a fusty old church compete with a cruise liner that can outshine the sun? Just as the thronging August tourists themselves eat into the beauty of the square and its buildings, this steel hulk, travelling in the name of culture and glamour, overshadows the sculptures, masterpieces and buildings. For a moment it’s just them, watching us, watching them. Giotto is risotto. The cruiser moves on, so slowly you have to pinch yourself that it is moving at all. But it is. It has other cities to brighten, other photo calls to attend.

And then she’s gone

It’s all over and people begin to form orderly queues once more. The sun takes its place back in the sky and people begin to sweat again. On the Grand Canal the gondoliers get back to work in the wake of the behemoth. My kids run out of the church to tell me that anything good to see in Venice comes with an extra charge.

Not quite everything, I reply. Everyone in this square has just taken home a picture, a living work of art, containing a real life celebrity, for free.

Dawn in Venice

Dawn breaks and Venice awakes, looking like a city of dreams


About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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