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City and sights

Venice may be history's most compelling evidence for the belief that humans can improve upon nature. The city occupies more than 100 soggy islands in a shallow lagoon, and the area might be a wasteland today if enterprising refugees from the Italian mainland hadn't been blessed with more vision than common sense.

CityThe palazzi, churches, and pizzerias of Venice are built on millions of closely spaced poles, or pilings, that penetrate to alternating layers of clay and sand beneath some 25 feet of waterlogged subsoil. Most of these pilings are still intact after centuries of submersion. Marble foundations rest on the pilings, and buildings of brick or stone sit high and dry above these footings--except during the acque alta, or flood tides, that push in from the Adriatic between late fall and early spring.

Thanks to limited real estate, Venice is an extremely compact city. You can walk from one end to the other in less than an hour (or even faster, if you don't get lost). Because of this, even a two- or three-day stay can be a rewarding experience--although Venice has so many tourist treasures that a proper visit easily requires a week or more.

Things to see:

Piazza San Marco. Napoleon called it "the finest drawing room in Europe," but how many living rooms have pigeons and outdoor caffè tables?

Basilica di San Marco, a cathedral unlike any other that you're likely to encounter in Europe. Its Byzantine architecture, acres of gilded mosaics, and stolen relics from a far-flung empire make it the Taj Mahal of basilicas.

Palazzo Ducale, or Doge's Palace. More historic than beautiful, but worth the steep ticket price (which includes admission to the Museo Civico Correr in the Piazza San Marco.) Be sure to cross the Bridge of Sighs and view the cells where Casanova was a well-fed prisoner until his escape in 1756.

Churches. Remember when busy American intersections had gas stations on every corner? Substitute "church" for "gas station," and you'll get an idea of how many churches there are in Venice. A few of the dozens worth visiting, besides the Basilica di San Marco, are Santa Maria della Salute, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Madonna dell' Orto, and Santo Giovanni e Paolo.

Museums. Big names include the Accademia (paintings by famous dead Venetian artists), and the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim (modern art). In odd-numbered years, the Biennale di Venezia exhibits modern art from dozens of countries. One of my own favorite museums is the Museo Navale, which is jammed with some 25,000 ship models, weapons, dioramas, and other relics from the Venetian and Italian navies.

Islands. Avoid the "free boat ride" hawkers at the Piazza San Marco and take the public vaporetto to Murano if you want to tour a Venetian glass factory without being hustled. Burano, farther across the lagoon, is famed for lacemakers and a village atmosphere. San Lazzaro degli Armegni is a small island where you can tour a monastery and library run by Armenian monks. And don't miss San Michele, the island cemetery of Venice, which is just a couple of minutes from the Fondamente Nuove by vaporetto.

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