Bridge Eighty-Nine - Ponte dei Santi Apostoli

It's a swift walk keeping along this busy tourist highway we're on, across two small campiellos and through a dark sotoportego and here we find ourselves at the base of the stone steps of Ponte dei Santi Apostoli.

Standing at the exit of the sotoportego and looking across the bridge we see the signature campanile of the Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli di Cristo, the Church of the Holy Apostles of Christ. The campanile's very unusual clock face has a shiny, flaring golden sunset in the centre of a set of numerals that are quite confusing at first glance. It runs from one to twelve downwards, and then from one to twelve upwards, so it's a sort of 'double clock'. It's as if it shows the time of day twice. Intriguing. A few times on the Challenge I've been sorry I didn't convince a local expert to accompany us to explain Venice's strange phenomena, such as this strange clock-face to us. Or perhaps that would have spoilt the mysterious appeal Venice holds for outsiders.

Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli di Cristo is one of eight churches started in the seventh century by St Magnus, and according to legend he was guided to this location by a vision of twelve cranes, and subsequently built the church here.

The campo that leads from the bridge to the church itself is a hub of stalls, sidewalk cafés and a few trees sprouting early spring green that makes for a friendly atmosphere in the fading daylight. A man was watching the bridge traffic from a window above the bridge, and for a moment I really, really wished to live up there, looking down onto the bridge and occasionally shouting a greeting and exchanging a few words with passers-by I recognised.

I wondered if he realised how privileged he was to wake to up the sight of the campanile every day, or whether he'd gotten used to it and mused on why countless tourists like us paused and stared in wonder.

Bridge Eighty-Eight - Ponte San Giovanni Grisostomo

Dusk was now fast approaching, and more shop window lights were coming on, contrasting with the fading light over the canals and in the alleys. The city's breathing seemed to slow down as it readied itself for nightfall.

Ponte San Giovanni Grisostomo is almost like a sister bridge to the previous bridge we visited, Ponte de l'Ogio. It's similar in style with broad stone steps, weathered-looking railing pillars and a slightly more simple iron railing design. The general surroundings also have the same gritty appearance - lots of random scribbles on the walls, fading paint and a visual cacophony of signage and notifications, inviting passers-by to an Italian lesson and a classical music concert, among other. It's a perfect set for a gothic-inspired, post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie, yet I believe for the average tourist it is the face of romantic Venice they'll remember.

Who was the saint the bridge is named after? San Giovanni Grisostomo - Saint John Chrysostom - was an early church father whose epithet Chrysostom means 'golden-mouthed', thus gifted orator. As with the earthly remains of many other clerics of the early church, his relics have a colourful history - at least four places claim to be in possession of his skull, including the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and the Dal Pozzo chapel in Pisa.

Bridge Eighty-Seven - Ponte de l'Ogio

The Ponte de l'Ogio - bridge of oil - is a busy stone bridge en-route from the Ponte di Rialto to the station area. Quite fittingly for a bridge on one of the most popular shopping routes in the city, the one end of the bridge opens up into Coin, Venice's largest department store, housed in a grand old canal-side palace. Dimly-lit second-floor shop-windows in elegant gothic frames shine from where aristocracy once gazed down on the bridge. We must have seen this asynchronous co-existence of the ancient and the contemporary dozens of times today, but it still strikes me every time I see it.

Ponte de l'Ogio

We stood on the bridge for a few moments surrounded by end-of-the-day tourists taking photos of the cityscape. At that moment I noticed three vertical white fabric banners hanging from a row of upper floor windows a hundred metres or so along the canal. The hand-written messages on the banners scribbled in Italian in large, uneven black letters were clear in their message in any language: We want the Chinese out of Venice. We want Russians and the Mafia out of Venice. Venice is for Venetians. In a city that has through all the ages - and particularly during its heyday as a trading centre - welcomed all cultures, languages and religions from across the world, this rather crude expression of xenophobia came as a surprise. Not many passers-by were noticing it, but I'm quite sure they made an impact on those who did. Back home in South Africa racism and xenophobia is a sensitive issue, and for us such blatant, in-your-face ugliness came as a quite a shock.

Update: Since I wrote this, I had a chat with my friend Enrico, a Sicilian native living in South Africa. I showed the two photographs to him over coffee, and he gave me his interpretation. Basically the poster on the right is a response to the one on the left. The left-hand one says 'No Chinese mafia in Venice', the right-hand one says 'No Italian no Russian mafia either'. Now, there's no discernable mafia of Italian of Russian kinds in Venice, so perhaps it's a touch of sarcasm or perhaps a clever-dick answer. But obviously my take on it is wrong, as can also be seen from the comment below. Note to self: Research these kind of 'Italianisms' a bit more before writing about them, in future...

Bridge Eighty-Six - Ponte di Rialto

It was early evening now. The day-tourist crowds were thinning out and many of the workers were leaving the island to their homes in Mestre. Not that the city became dead quiet, it just means, especially for these two intrepid bridge-walkers, that one didn't have to fight against a throng of people along the main routes in the city. The bridges became a little more quiet, and the gondoliers were noticeably fewer.


We now crossed the bridge that most defined Venice as a city of bridges: Ponte di Rialto, the most photographed, most recognised, and most visible icon of the city. We walked across it three or four times, stopping at the top, briefly browsing the souvenir shops along its staircase and peeking around the bottom corners at the reliefs decorating the sides.

Rialto Venice bridge detail

All that could be possibly written about the Ponte di Rialto has already been put to paper. Every self-respecting tour guide knows that the first version of the bridge was built in 1255; that a wooden version of it collapsed twice (in 1444 and 1524) under the weight of crowds watching regattas on the Grand Canal, and that the present stone bridge dates from 1591. Today, despite it being in dire need of a facelift, it remains an impressive icon with the biggest wow-factor in Venice.

I scanned the bridge with a photographer's eye, looking for new angles and new interpretations of the Ponte di Rialto. Perhaps a black and white view, or perhaps something with a wide angle? I took a few photographs, and promised myself to return in the following days. Because right now, we had fourteen bridges to complete, and light was fading fast.

Bridge Eighty-Five - Ponte de la Pescaria

We now followed a walkway that took us, once again, to the bank of the Grand Canal. We went along the Fondamenta del’Ogio for a while, passing open courtyards with sidewalk cafes where people were sitting outside enjoying sundowners, as the day was by now fading into dusk. A few more steps further we reached Ponte de la Pescaria, gateway to probably the most colourful and vibrant spot in Venice - you guessed it - the fish and fresh produce market.

Ponte de la Pescaria

The Ponte de la Pescaria enters the fish and fresh produce market area through a short flight of stairs leading directly into a Byzantine doorway. We'd visited the market the day before to stock up on fresh greens for the week, but now the only reminder that the pillared area has been a fish market for eight hundred years was a vague maritime smell that in some corners was rather pungent. Now it was deserted, and remains so for the next ten hours. Tomorrow morning the market will once again awaken when the stall holders arrive around six to keep the city fed. But we didn't mind that it was empty right now; that made it easier to move around unhindered and examine the sculpted figurines on top of the pillars holding up the roof of the market.

Venice fresh market pillar

All them had a maritime theme; there were fishes, boats, and a bronze fisherman with a fishing net in hand. The market wasn't always housed in such a smart and artistically rich building; it's only in 1907 when the present structure housing the market was erected, based on an artwork rather than an architectural plan. It's here, more than anywhere else I realise how close the spirit of Venice is intertwined with the ocean. It's a city at one with the sea.

Bridge Eighty-Four - Ponte dei Morti o della Chiesa

In any other city the area around the Ponte dei Morti o della Chiesa will probably be declared unsafe to live in, and the buildings summarily demolished and fancy new apartment buildings erected. But what I've learnt about many of the buildings in Venice is that the almost omni-present decay one sees on the outside often hides smart, modern and too-expensive apartments on the inside. Don't be fooled by a building that looks like it hasn't been repaired since Napoleon's time and houses nothing else but squatters and rats. It may just be housing the upmarket boutique hotel you book yourself into on your next visit.

Not that the Ponte dei Morti o della Chiesa is in bad shape at all. It's one of those smart stone bridges with a broad stairway and a simple iron railing that were in vogue in the nineteenth century and have been fairly well looked after since. Bridges, I suspect, are built to last much longer than dwellings in Venice.

The name of the bridge literally means "the dead, or of the church". The church referred to is the San Cassiano church and the 'dead' are those who lay in its graveyard, which existed before the graveyards in Venice were moved to the island of San Michele. It started life as a stone bridge in 1488, replaced by a wooden one in 1502, and rebuilt once again in stone in 1615. And that's the one we're looking at now.

Bridge Eighty-Three - Ponte del Ravano

Ponte del Ravano is a functional stone bridge connecting two long, narrow calli.

Ponte del Ravano

Looking around while standing on its crest, I didn't see much distinctive about it but then something caught my eye: a stencilled piece of street art painted in fading black just below the top of the parapet with the wording 'Wake up Italy'. Obviously a passing artist had the opinion that Italy was asleep.

Street art in Venice

I know lots of people – many of them Italian – who'd laugh and agree, what with three-hour siestas and spritzers before ten in the morning being part of life in Venice. But other than that I don't think Italy has much waking up to do – they are who they are, and Venice is simply the stamp of the character of a people whose intense love of the goodness in life is infectious and wonderful.

The Bridges of Venice: Renovating the renovations

The bridges in Venice today is, of course, hardly exactly the same bridges from a few hundred years ago, when they were first constructed.
The majority of them have been reconstructed, or at least renovated, at least two or three time since then. Most of the early bridges of Venice were made from wood and therefore prone to fires that were quite prevalent in the early days. Natural decay also caused the bridges to simple rot away after some time. So the next phase of bridge renovation was the replacement of the first generation of bridges – which were sometimes no more than narrow walkways – with longer lasting Istrian stone bridges. Many bridges became stone structures during the mid-nineteenth century, as the dates on them attest.

With industrialisation came the art of cast iron, resulting in some bridges becoming iron structures with ornate railings.
Today there are very few wooden bridges left in Venice, of which the Accademia bridge is the most famous example, even if its construction is a mix of wood and steel. Since wooden bridges need more regular maintenance than other bridges, these are also the bridges that, ironically, look the most brand spanking new of all.

The different states the bridges are in, and the plaques on bridges indicating when they were last renovated – many of them in the mid-to late 1800's and the beginning of the 21st century – tells a story of renovations that are barely keeping up with the rate of decay. Foliage growing from cracks in stone bridges and an almost translucent green layer of moss and algae covering their bases may be pretty to look at but is a sure sign of a bridge that will need renovation in the next few years.

In some cases iron bridges we’ve seen are starting to show rust damage due to a lack of painting. Others we’ve passed over are clearly newly renovated, or in the process thereof. A few years ago Venice appointed a company to look after the bridges, and the fact that most bridges are sturdy and safe means there’s no doubt that well-looked after bridges, especially those on major tourism routes, are a priority. In a harsh environment like in Venice, which is constantly battling the onslaught of the natural elements, there is inevitably a never-ending cycle of upkeep and renewal. There's a delicate balance that has to be struck between heritage and historic value on the one hand, and practicality, safety and economics on the other.

Bridge Eighty-Two - Ponte del Forner

The neat-looking Ponte del Forner leads right up to the relief-adorned doorway of the Palazzo Agnus Dio, an ancient family home now used as an exhibition space.

Ponte del Forner

Above the entrance is a stone relief of two angels holding up a shield that once depicted the coat of arms of the original owners.

Next to the doorway is a water-level door with a small patera with a relief depicting a lamb and a staff with a cross at one end, that probably once served as the family's good luck charm but is now used as the venue's logo. Isn't that a wonderful example of the changing meaning of cultural artefacts?

Bridge Eighty and Eighty-One - Ponte de Ca'Giovanelli and Ponte Pesaro

From Ponte del Megio we made our way in the direction of the Grand Canal. A few minutes later we found ourselves in front of one of the proudest churches facing the Canal: San Stae. The church has a nice little campo in front of it, perfect for sitting down at the water's edge and watching the Grand Canal's never-ending stream of vaporettos, transport boats, taxis and vessels of all types.

The vessel that stood out among the dozens that passed during the half an hour or so we took a break here was the blood red firefighters' boat. It cruised past at a leisurely pace so its four-man was most likely just spending a quiet afternoon making sure the boat was in good running order. Judging by their casual behaviour and lack of equipment, they didn't look like they were ready to climb through a smoking building and rescue a trapped old lady from the fourth floor window.

The Ponte de Ca' Giovanelli is a cute, small iron bridge by the side of the campo. It was renovated relatively recently in 2004.

It leads from the campo where we paused, across the Rio San Stae into an alley that went to our next bridge nearby, the Ponte Pesaro. If you're familiar with Venice you'll know that's also the name of one of the most-visited museums in Venice, the Ca' Pesaro. We paused only briefly at the closed, pillar-framed gate of the museum - it was now almost seven in the evening - and walked briskly on, followed a bend in the alley away from the canal and moments later we were at the Ponte del Forner. Such are the bridges of Venice - mostly three minutes away from each other, and never more than a ten-minute walk apart.

Bridge Seventy-Nine - Ponte del Megio

We found our next bridge, Ponte del Megio, across the Campo San Zan Degolá and down a narrow, squiggly alley. As soon as we reached the canal the bridge crosses, we knew we were close to the Grand Canal again. Floating beneath the bridge were a number of shiny black gondolas adorned with their trademark gaudy gold and red velvet trimmings. On the bridge a number of gondoliers were lounging around, awaiting customers.

Ponte del Megio

Ponte del Megio is in a picturesque setting complete with a 'bridge' trattoria at its base adding to its romanticism. I mean, what girl would refuse an invitation to 'meet me at the pizza place on the del Megio'?

Ponte del Megio

Bridge Seventy-Eight - Ponte Bembo

Though the next bridge, the Ponte Bembo, is also on the Rio San Zan Degola canal which we crossed a moment ago, walking to it took a good ten minutes, snaking through a maze of alleys. There simply wasn't a shortcut to take; we had to take the scenic route, as it were.

Ponte Bembo has a not-often-seen honeycomb-shaped iron railing. According to the keystone, this version of the bridge dates from 1871.

It leads onto the Campo San Zan Degola, which features an accompanying church of the same name. It's one of those churches with a colourful history - from early beginnings as a place of God to a downfall during the Napoleonic time when it was used as a warehouse, to recent restoration and taking its rightful place on the Venetian landscape again.

While the white wall name board reads 'Ponte Bembo' other sources name it 'Ponte San Zan Degolá', Degolá is a dialect version of San Giovanni Decollato, which translates into 'Saint John the Beheaded', or as he is more commonly known, Saint John the Baptist.

Bridge Seventy- Seven - Ponte de l'Anatomia

We walked across the Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio to reach Ponte de l'Anatomia, a stone bridge leading into a short, 'double-barrelled' sotoportego, something not often seen in Venice.

Bridge Seventy-Five - Ponte de l'Anatomia

The bridge name comes from a nearby 'anatomy theatre' that was proposed by Alessandro Benedetti, Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at the well-known University in Padua in the 1400s, but only opened in 1671, and existed until it was destroyed by fire in 1800. It seems this theatre wasn't an operating theatre in the contemporary sense of the word, but rather used for education, in other words, for dissecting cadavers.

Bridge Seventy-Five - Ponte de l'Anatomia

Bridge Seventy-Six - Ponte del Parucheta

You may say the name of our next bridge, the Ponte del Parucheta, has something to do with a piece of fabric dropping from very high up with a person attached to it, but it doesn't. 'Parucheta' refers to the habit of merchants in the area of wearing wigs.

We didn't notice any wig-wearers in the vicinity, but were drawn to walk on when we heard the strains of a violin and guitar being played up ahead. We turned a corner and yes, there they were: two musicians playing an upbeat, Latin-inspired song in front of a backdrop of colourful posters advertising art exhibitions. We stood and listened for a minute or two, dropped a Euro or three in their open instrument cases and left them behind to search for our next bridge, their pretty music softly fading away behind us.

Bridge Seventy-Five - Ponte de Ca'Bernardo

A short while further we crossed the Rio San Polo via the Ponte de Ca' Bernardo. It's named after a very old Venetian family - we’re talking vintage Roman-era stock here - who lived in a large house adjoining the canal.

Ponte de Ca'Bernardo
A hug on a bridge.

A small plaque on a wall near the bridge pointing out that the Venetian-born thirties-era film director Francesco Pasinetti lived nearby, reminding me how popular Venice has been as a backdrop in films. Venice has featured in numerous movies and multiple genres from James Bond thrillers to love stories, a horror movie or two and even a few slapstick comedies. Bridges have often featured prominently as well in more than one or two movies. In the highly regarded 1973 ghost story Don't Look Now characters skulk and dash across bridges in a gloomy, gothic Venice that makes it impossible to believe that they weren't a deliberate motif used by director Nicolas Roeg.

This bridge was also one of very few that contained an indication of which islet it was part of. 'Islet' here refers to one of the many little patches of dry land separated by the canals and connected by the bridges, that collectively becamethe city of Venice in ancient times. I'm referring to a small, blue sign on the side of the bridge told us the Ponte de Ca' Bernardo is in the sestiere of San Polo on the islet of San Boldo.

Bridge Seventy-Four - Ponte de le Tette

Once out the other end of the sotoportego we reached one of Venice's most facetiously named bridges that invariably finds itself listed in guidebooks: the Ponte de le Tette, or bridge of the tits.

It lies in an area which was once a red-light district in times gone by. But nowadays it's a quiet residential neighbourhood, and if there is indeed a brothel nearby, it is hidden quite well. I cast a wary eye around the mostly closed apartment windows on both sides of the canal from where, according to the much told tale, ladies of the night displayed their… well, the bridge name explains it all.

There's a tapestry of legends, tales and stories woven into the names of Venice's bridges, with the story of the Ponte de le Tette simply being one of the juicier and therefore oft-retold ones. While there may be no visible signs left of what this bridge, and all the others we've seen so far today are allegories for, it's still significant that so much of the city's history has endured, embedded in iron and stone for a thousand years and longer.

Bridge Seventy-Three - Ponte Storto

Instead of continuing along the busy street we were on that leads to the Rialto, we swung left at the small Campo San Aponal and continued until we came to another one of those odd-angles Ponte Storto bridges.

The building the Ponte Storto connected on its opposite end had two romanesque busts and several reliefs, all adornments typical of the city, built into its facade. The facade didn't have the elegantly decayed look so prominent all over Venice, and therefore it's doubtful that its adornments were priceless leftover remnants from eras gone by. It look more like the types of faux Greek and Roman ornaments you buy at your local gardening and outoor decoration shop. But combined with the steel railing of the bridge and a neat first floor verandah overlooking the postcard scene, it was worth taking in for a few moments.

A sotoportego, translated literally into English, means "under porch" and refers to a covered walkway that in one of its manifestations forms part of a building running alongside a canal. We encountered one or two of them earlier in the day where they formed broad, airy thoroughfares between two buildings. Here, however, the Sotoportego del Banco Salviati which swallowed us after crossing the Ponte Storto looked completely different. Its entrance is a dark, gaping hole and inside it's quite damp and foreboding, which means it fits in rather well with most of the ancient, crumbling urban landscape we're exploring.

Bridges Seventy-Two and Seventy-Two-And-A-Half - Ponte de la Madoneta and Ponte dei Meloni

Ponte de la Madoneta is a broad, flattish stone bridge with a simple, love-lock-sprinkled steel railing over a narrow canal, and the presence on the bridge of two bored-looking gondoliers half-heartedly calling out to passing tourists (it was getting late in the afternoon) pointed to the fact that it's on a major throughway connecting this popular sightseeing area with the hub of the Rialto bridge.

After crossing it and walking on, we almost went right over bridge number seventy, the Ponte dei Meloni - bridge of the melon traders - without noticing it's a bridge, because it's completely flat, featureless and forms part of the street. We didn't think it deserves a full bridge count, so therefore it became bridge Seventy-two and a half. The melon traders have been replaced by a postcard and souvenir stand placed right on top of the bridge. Personally I would have been more happy with a trader handing out sweet-tasting samples of fresh melons, I think.

Bridge Seventy-One - Ponte San Polo

It was a four-minute walk to the next bridge, Ponte San Polo, named for the nearby Chiesa San Paolo Apostolo, the church of St. Paul the Apostle. (For the linguists, 'San Polo' is the Venetian dialect version of San Paolo.)
Note the blue 'no boat parking' sign, to the right above the eater line.

We saw the church after crossing the bridge. The five o'clock mass was underway and a prominent, rather curt sign barred tourists and casual passers-by from entering.
I have a deeply rooted respect for spiritual places and from experience believe that many of the churches in Venice aren't treated with enough reverence by visitors. So we stood still for a moment listening to the singing voices coming from inside the church before moving on across the Campo San Polo, the largest campo in Venice. The bridge on its other side, the Ponte de la Madoneta, was our next stop.

Bridge Seventy - Ponte Dei Frari

It was now a long, but scenic walk through a rather popular area in central Venice leading up to our next bridge. Near the famous Scuola Grande de San Rocco building we caught up with a young man walking - like us,  at a brisk pace - but wearing a strange robot-like contraption on his back.

It took me a minute or so to recognise the guy.  It was the logo on his cap that confirmed my suspicions - he was busy taking photos of Venice for Google Street View! The photos these robot-walkers take supplement Google’s online street maps, often in the form of 360 degree panorama views. We were surprised to see him using a paper map to guide himself around Venice, and not a GPS device, smartphone or tablet. It didn't quite make sense for such a high-tech project to be making use of such an old school way of staying on-course.

We paused for a moment on the Campo San Rocco flanked by the Scuola Grande de San Rocco on one side and the twin-like Chiesa San Rocco ('chiesa' meaning 'church' in English) on the other. Every time today when we passed one of these beautiful facades that promised an even more impressive inside, I made a mental note of returning to browse the museums and galleries they housed. But I also started realising that in order to do so would require weeks, if not months. Is it time to start planning an extended stay in Venice?

The Ponte dei Frari - Bridge of the Friars - leading onto the Campo dei Frari is a rather modest bridge for the illustrious buildings in the area it provides access to.  That’s perhaps because the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, commonly referred to as the 'Frari church' on the opposite side of the square, has a rather simple façade hiding the treasure trove of history on the inside that makes it one of the most important churches in Venice. It’s an ongoing refrain in Venice - where you see a white-stoned, much-decorated façade on a building, rest assured there was a monied family or two involved in its founding and construction. But when you see a simple red-brick construction such as the Frari church, it's most likely that it was built on a shoestring by a handful of austere monks, which is indeed the case here. A group of Franciscan monks arrived in Venice not long after the death of Saint Francis around 1250 and started construction on what turned out, two hundred years later, to be the church we see now.

Bridge Sixty-Nine - Ponte degli Scalzi

We now walked past Venice's busy Santa Lucia rail station with its broad steps and stark, grey facade. After braving the hordes milling around the Ferrovia vaporetto station, we crossed our third Grand Canal bridge, the Ponte degli Scalzi, or, more simply, the Scalzi Bridge.

'Scalzi' means 'barefoot', and refers to an order of barefoot monks who were based at the nearby Church of Santa Maria de Nazareth, sometimes referred to as the Chiesa degli Scalzi. However, the bridge was built when the monks were no longer around.
The Scalzi's architecture is quite unique, taking the form of a thin, stretched bow of white stone that was completed in 1934, making it one of the more recent bridge additions in Venice, although an iron structure did exist in the vicinity before then. It's a great bridge from which to watch the hustle and bustle of boat traffic on the Grand Canal.

Bridge Sixty-Eight - Ponte dei Tre Archi

We didn't pause too long at the Ponte delle Guglie as I knew from previous research that the next bridge on the list, the Ponte dei Tre Archi is a special one. We spotted it from a distance while walking past the sidewalk cafés along the Cannaregio Canal, its distinctive Tuscan-red arches leapfrogging across the broad canal.

Ponte Tre Archi

The Tre Archi is a relative latecomer to the world of Venetian bridges, as the age of bridges in Venice goes, having been first constructed in 1688. Apart from the oft-seen "stemmi" (broadly, coats-of arms that belonged to prominent Venetian families during days gone by) on the sides and keystones, the bridge has two niches that stand empty, as if the statues that were possibly once proudly stood there had run off, or gone for a walk. There's no record of what once were in these cavities, and old paintings of the bridge show nothing, but the mind's eye keeps wanting to complete the picture with a classical Roman statue.

Ponte Tre Archi

There, we'd completed our detour to see one of the most picturesque bridges in Venice. We can now make our way back to our main route on the Grand Canal.